Book Review: Translation Initiative Brings Tamil Literature to the World


Sfrom 2017, the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation (TNTB&ESC) has established itself as a catalyst in the Indian publishing landscape with the express aim of “promoting Tamil Nadu literature and culture”. Its co-publishing initiative, “Taking Tamil to the World”, was launched in 2021 with the publication of six award-winning Tamil texts in English translation. Recently, six more titles have been released as part of this collaboration between TNTB&ESC and some of India’s leading publishers.

The titles are: In Defiance, Our Stories: Short Fiction by Dalit Writers translated by Malini Seshadri and V. Ramakrishnan (Vitasta Publishing, 2022); Hephzibah Jesudasan’s Novel Putham Veedu translated by G. Gita as Putham House (Rupa, 2021); Thoppil Mohamed Meeran’s short fiction translated by Prabha Sridevan as Meeran’s stories (Ratna Books, 2022); Popular Literary Criticism Column by S. Ramakrishnan for Tamil Magazine Ananda Vikatantranslated by PC Ramakrishna and Malini Seshadri as Katha Vilasam: The Inside Story (Routledge, 2022); select writings of Tamil scholar U. Ve. At Saminatha Iyer’s Kandathum Kettathumtranslated by Prabha Sridevan and Pradeep Chakravarthy as Essays by U.Ve.Sa: The Man Who Revived Ancient Tamil Literature (Niyogi Books, 2022); and a Penguin Classics reprint of R. Parthasarathy’s verse translation of the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram, subtitled The story of an ankle.

TNTB&ESC’s mission statement states that its purpose in presenting fiction and non-fiction from “one of the world’s oldest literary traditions, comprising one of the most sophisticated pre-modern poetic theories” is not only to make the Tamil script accessible in translation to a world of readers, but also to introduce to a generation of Tamils, who perhaps do not read or write the language, “the antiquity, the tradition and Tamil contemporaneity”.

As a government organization, the TNTB&ESC has the advantage of actively promoting these titles at public libraries, book fairs and other government events. He also hopes that these translations will find their way into university curricula and scholarly research in comparative literature and cultural studies.

Stories of sweat, courage and struggle

Strikelightly titled In Defiance, our stories is an anthology of 14 short stories, the majority of which were first published in Tamil as Dalit Sirukathai Thoguppu by the Sahitya Akademi. In her introduction, writer and activist P. Sivakami, who curated the Tamil original, writes, “Until recently, Tamil writers had mostly portrayed Dalits as servants, minions or ignorant fools mired in poverty. poverty. Even in Marxist writings, the Dalits were subsumed under the general umbrella of the “poor”. In this scenario, it was Dalit writings that first portrayed Dalits as respectable protagonists in their stories, men and women with their own valid opinions and viewpoints. It gave them an identity as those who had been unfairly relegated to a backward status in society and united them as a community of like-minded people.

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Indeed, the characters who populate these stories – single mothers, factory workers, koothu artists – are refreshingly smooth and resolutely upright. Each of these perfectly crafted and expertly translated stories demands the reader’s admiration, not mere empathy, as they confront caste pride and prejudice head-on in everyday life.

Sivakami also acknowledges that while “Dalit writing” has itself seen exponential growth and visibility in Indian publishing in recent times, “the number of women [writers] among them is still small. This reflects the reality that literacy levels among Dalit women remain low.” Contempt features the distinct voices of Theynmozhi and Pratibha Jeyachandran, apart from Sivakami herself and Bama, as well as Cho Dharuman, Imayam, Abimani, Ravikumar, Azhagiya Periyavan and Gowthama Sannah, among others.

Chronicles of Palmyra

Hephzibah Jesudasan (1925-2012) put the Christian Nadars of Nanjil Nadu, located at the tip of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, on the Tamil literary map. His novel Putham Veedu (literally, ‘new home’) is both the bildungsroman of young Lizzy, who clashes with the patriarchy at every turn in a household clinging to past glory, and a chronicle of the toddy tapper community “whose life is as precarious as their perching on tall swaying palms”. Hephzibah Jesudasan was one of the first Tamil novels of literary realism, and it shines a light on lives on the fringes in their own distinctive dialect, which the translator G. Geetha, in turn, most evocatively reflected in English.

Marine landscapes and salty lives

Like Hephzibah Jesudasan, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944-2019) also wrote in a singular Tamil, the Tamil speckled with Malayalam spoken by the Muslims of the Kanyakumari district. It speaks the truth and tells it obliquely in this delightful dialect, bringing us closer to lives by the ocean, so to speak, while Prabha Sridevan’s translation brings the stories home, with all their cadences of caste and community. As summed up in Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s blurb: “Meeran’s stories suddenly gives us a glimpse of the inner life of two entities, of two identities. First, from South India. Second in Muslim South India. They concern a particular people, but even more, they concern people. It is a particular place, but even more so, a place of feeling in the desert of custom.

Also read: ‘Calendar Bawa’ by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran

The house that stories have built

When writer S. Ramakrishnan started a new series following the success of his column “Thunai ezhuthu” in Ananda Vikatan, he intended it to “introduce readers to important short story writers in Tamil”. The series, titled ‘Katha Vilasam’ (literally, ‘the abode of stories’), has turned into a great hall of mirrors, of stories nested within stories, as in the best oral traditions around the world.

To quote the blurb: “In each unit, [Ramakrishnan] describes an incident from his own experience and relates it to a short story he read by a particular prominent Tamil writer. It paraphrases/summarizes the writer’s story, embeds it in its own reminiscence, and allows both to resonate and create a musical signature in the reader’s mind.

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Translated transparently and with detailed glossaries per chapter by PC Ramakrishna and Malini Seshadri, Katha Vilasam: The Inside Story introduces to a wider readership the 50 Tamil writers whose short stories Ramakrishnan has imbued with his own brand of storytelling.

The great restaurateur

Tamil scholar Thiru.Vi. Kalyanasundaranar once said that if publishing ancient Tamil classics should be compared to building a house, it was Arumuga Navalar who laid the foundations, CW Thamotharampillai who built the walls and U.Ve. Saminatha Iyer who rethatched the roof and completed the house.

While the three scholars were instrumental in researching and restoring works of Sangam literature in the early 20th century, it was Saminatha Iyer, or U.Ve.Sa, as she was known, who s is given the task of recovering sheaves of palm leaves. manuscripts scattered and eaten by moths in temples, monasteries and puja halls of village houses in the Madras Presidency. With the exacting zeal of an evangelist, U.Ve.Sa has traced, collated and compiled three of the Loverumkappiyangal (literally, “five great epics”), Civaka Chintamani, Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai, and returned them to the world through his accurate and scholarly printed editions.

Essays by U.Ve.Sa: The Man Who Revived Ancient Tamil Literature, translated by Prabha Sridevan and Pradeep Chakravarthy, and with a foreword by Perumal Murugan, is a cross-section of U.Ve.Sa’s anecdotal writings, and includes “oral accounts, autobiographical sketches, place histories, life accounts, and the author’s encounters with music and poetry”.

To offer posterity these insights into the mind of a great old man of letters who was not only an editor but also a biographer and historian, and whom the writer Kalki baptized “Tamil thatha” (literally, patriarch/grandfather of Tamil ), is perhaps the best poetic justice for him.

Iconic Tamil Woman

Arguably, Cilappatikaramone of the sixth-century epics attributed to Prince Ilango Adigal and rescued from oblivion and printed by U.Ve.Sa in 1892, is for the secular tamil psyche what the Ramayana and the mahabharata are to the rest of India. Time and again, the story of its protagonist Kannagi has been taught to schoolchildren, performed in dance and drama, seen on the big screen, discussed and deliberated to the bitter end in public debates and study circles. in Tamil Nadu. Kannagi, immortalized in the Tamil imagination as a crusader holding an anklet and about to avenge the institutional murder of his partner Kovalan, is a symbol of strength and empowerment; Cilappatikaram is the saga of a single woman’s fight for justice.

Winner of the 1995 Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation, the 1994 PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Citation from the PEN American Center, and the 1996 Association for Asian Studies AK Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation, R. Parthasarathy’s translation titled Cilappatikaram: The story of an anklet is a pleasure to read both as a poem and as a gripping, albeit black and white, story of crime and punishment.

The second phase of the TNTB&ESC translation initiative underscores how still relevant it is to build bridges and foster connections between languages ​​and readers in today’s glocal village torn apart by ideas and languages . As Mini Krishnan, Editor, TNTB & ESC puts it, it is a reconciliation of the “creative potential and special understanding of the world that the Tamil language has, and, therefore, the distinctive way in which the Tamil carries the memories and stories of those who use it and live in this”.


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