Writers in Kerala are only now waking up to what translation demands
When Arundhati Roy published her Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, in which the main characters occasionally spoke Malayalam to a global audience, it was a sensation. But when it was translated, almost a decade-and-a-half later, into the mother tongue of these characters, it was almost a non-event. The Malayalis, who celebrated Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Paulo Coelho, were not that enthusiastic towards Estha and Rahel speaking Malayalam.
Much before this, when O V Vijayan translated his own novel Khasakkinte Ithihasam into English, The Legends of Khasak, it too got a cold reception. Later, umpteen works of many other writers, ranging from Sethu, N S Madhavan and T D Ramakrishnan to Ambikasuthan Mangad, K R Meera and Subhash Chandran got translated into English. But how many of them caught the attention of readers outside Kerala?
Is it that our language not ‘translation ready’? Or is it that our literature revolves around a ‘Malayali space’ not palatable to others? The basic issue in translating Malayalam literature is that translators lack skill and they are not professionally trained, according to novelist M Mukundan. “You cannot do word-by-word translation of a cultural context and hence at times it requires a kind of rewriting, as was the case of the French translation of Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil (On the Banks of the Mayyazhi), but that requires high level of skill and professional training,” he says.
Mukundan feels that while our language is highly receptive when it comes to translation from other languages, translations of our works are not celebrated in the same manner. “We have a strong literature but we have not developed the skill to render it into other languages, and even our writers are not much aware of the ‘architecture’ of a novel, which is crucial for acceptance when translated into foreign languages,” Mukundan explains. Incidentally, the French translation of Mayyazhippuzhayude Theerangalil was appreciated more in erstwhile French colonies in Africa than in France, as they could easily identify with life in Mahe, a former French colony itself, narrated in this novel.
Our language, like any other Dravidian language, has certain syntax limitations, and also the dearth of professional translators, which adversely affects translations and its market, according to writer Sethu, who was the head of National Book Trust between 2012 and 2015. “How will you translate expressions like ‘eda’ and ‘mone’? It is very tough and this is the challenge we face,” he points out. Unlike the works of the masters like M T Vasudevan Nair and Kamala Das, the works of contemporary writers do not have much acceptance in translation. “Barring a few like K R Meera’s ‘Aarachar’ (Hangwoman) or Benyamin’s ‘Aadujeevitham’ (Goat Days), most English translations in recent times were not well received, and also the scenario is the same when our works are translated into other Indian languages,” says Sethu.
But, the reason for the acceptance of Aadujeevitham and Aarachar is that they handled the subjects of universal appeal, according to Benyamin. “The problem with fiction in Malayalam, and many other languages, is that they remain in a cultural space accessible to speakers of that language only, but if we break that mould it would be accepted in other languages as well,” says Benyamin. “Aadujeevitham was a hit in all the languages because it deals with solitude, slavery and hope which are the same in any culture,” he adds. Agreeing that the cultural space of a novel is an issue in translation, the challenge, according to translator Prema Jayakumar who has translated many major Malayalam novels into English, is to retain the intensity of the narrative in the source language in the target language as well. “When I translated Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s Yakshi into English, it got more critical acclaim and acceptance than the original got in Malayalam, but this cannot be taken as a general phenomenon,” she says.
Apart from linguistic and cultural barriers, the lack of an editor who knows the source as well as the target language is also a problem today, says E V Fathima, who won this year’s V Abdulla Memorial Prize for her translation of Subhash Chandran’s Manushyanu Oru Aamugham (A Preface to Man). “The reading of the translation should give the reflection of the original but when an author uses his own phrases and idioms, it becomes a challenge to translate by retaining the depth of the original expression,” she says.
Now the scenario is such that professional translators hesitate to do translations, says literary critic, translator and columnist S Gopalakrishnan, who translated Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan into Malayalam. “Translation is a creative process, not a mechanical activity, and a work is translated after entering its soul,” he says.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.