Speaking in tongues

I find that when I read English translations of Tamil books, I make it a point to hide what I’m reading, much like how I hid Sidney Sheldon novels from my mother when I was fifteen. This is neither a mystery nor a dilemma of great proportions, it arises from the small matter of feeling a sense of shame that I’m not proficient in Tamil, the language I call my mother-tongue. This was inevitable, and you would agree, if you had taught yourself to read and write the language with the help of a syllabus that consisted of Ananda Vikatan and lyrics to film music. I like to think I have improved over the years, but without any real effort from my part, picking up a slim book written by Sujatha every time I needed motivation. Experience taught me that all books over one hundred and fifty pages give me stress-induced nightmares, and they take so long to finish that I become one of those people who complain they have no time to read.

In his wonderful introduction to the anthology A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces, David Davidar quotes A.K. Ramanujan:

As we grew up, Sanskrit and English were our father-tongues, and Tamil and Kannada our mother-tongues. The father-tongues distanced us from our mothers, from our own childhoods, and from our villages and many of our neighbours in the cowherd colony next door. And the mother-tongues united us with them.

We may conclude that this tug of war I witness between my mother-tongue and my adopted mother-tongue has existed long enough. (Forgive me if I share these redundant discoveries with you too often.)

By means of aimless internet browsing leading to the right webpages, I happened to order a copy of Kurunthokai – Love. Loss. Landscapes (translated and illustrated by S. Ramachandran). In her introduction, she writes:

Despite my fascination with these poems, I was limited by my lack of formal education in Tamil. I still plodded on, aided by various commentaries and dictionaries, often repeating the poem to myself until the cadence of the poem grew on me. I drew the vignettes the poem suggested, an activity that brought the poem alive before my eyes.

Now this just made me feel more ashamed than before. Clearly, S. Ramachandran has reserves of dedication and concentration that I can only dream of. However, she gives me hope that some day I shall understand a Tamil poem by myself, without calling up friends or performing a Google search. There is one question that lends itself to endless debates in my mind – which words to translate, which words to leave as such? In my brief but memorable correspondence with the author, she answered me:

I don’t think I am very happy with most of the poems I have translated so far. Some words and phrases are untranslatable according to me. The kurugu for instance. It’s a heron-like bird, but it’s also a symbol of secrecy, shyness and finesse. It is a discerning bird: it rarely comes out of its nest, concentrates on its task, usually without making the slightest sound. Mentioning the name kurugu conjures up an image of placid waters and a bird with a monk’s mind staring into the waters. This is a cultural, poetic context that is known only to a connoisseur of the poetry. How does the translator convey this wealth of meaning into a poor word like heron? She may choose to ignore all that meaning – the poems are still quite nice, although impoverished in my opinion. Or she may work the context into the poem and be more verbose than necessary, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but not a great choice either. Or use footnotes to provide context. Or leave the word untranslated, and let the reader discover the meaning when he reads multiple poems. So yeah, this is particularly difficult when it comes to Sangam poetry.

The question of choosing played on my mind when reading Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Perumal Murugan’s Pookuzhi (Pyre). This is a frightening book, because it needn’t be fiction at all. A pop culture reference sets this novel in 1980 (the release of the movie Gramathu Athiyayam), but it might as well be present day Tamil Nadu with caste politics and savagery lurking just beneath the surface (and sometimes there is no cover for it to even hide behind). There is a charming exchange between the leads, who are romantically involved. They belong to different castes and therefore speak differently. She calls a matchstick vathuchippullu, while he calls it neruppukkuchi. These words are left as such in the book, but I assume this must have been an easy choice, because translating all of it to English leaves the dialogue with no significance at all.

In what I consider to be the gravest of transgressions, I ended up reading a translation of Silapathikaram. Yes, that great Tamil novel which seemingly set the standard for virtuous Tamil women, translated by a Frenchman, Alain Danielou (it’s as though the universe wants me to feel guilty). So many…um…nuggets of ‘wisdom’ – the duties of a good wife, or how a married woman’s only deity is her husband, or even how the fertility of a land is directly related to how virtuous its women are. Amusing and terrifying all at once.

P.S. Extra points if you write in discussing how many of these notions are still in circulation.

An edited version of this post can be found here.

3 thoughts on “Speaking in tongues

  1. Ha, ha. You feel shame that you are unable to read such difficult books? I have stopped reading even the easiest Tamil books but I am not able to get myself around to feel any shame whatsoever. The best thing about not being in school anymore is that you don’t have to read Tamil again. Good Luck with the classics.

    So many nuggets of wisdom – the duties of a good wife, or how a married woman’s only deity is her husband, or even how the fertility of a land is directly related to how virtuous its women are.

    Ahhh, you don’t even sound sarcastic.


    1. Wait, what??!!? *groaning*
      There was a lot I wanted to convey, especially with respect to the first two points, and how some (many) archaic notions still exist. Don’t know about the rain and fertility connection, as I have no means of finding out if a farmer might still think that (haha). I think I didn’t convey all of this, I shall edit that paragraph to make sure the sarcasm isn’t lost. I didn’t think of it this way at all, so thanks for pointing it out!!

      Liked by 1 person

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