This is your first translation of a Tamil work into English. How was the process?
It was joyful because for over two decades my contact with Tamil after leaving Chennai was minimal. I speak some Tamil – to friends or family – and watch Tamil movies sporadically and rarely read works in Tamil today. Writing the book was a good start even though the process was quite demanding. I began by simultaneously reading and translating the first three chapters of Pasitha Manidam. Then, when I felt a momentum building in my reading and writing, I started reading the novel over and over and working on it.
Will you ever attempt to reverse the process, i.e. translate an English book into Tamil?
I did it. Almost a decade ago someone in Chennai published a non-fiction book in Tamil – a collection of essays – and I had a wonderful time translating it into English. It was tragic that the work never saw the light of day because its publication was aborted, but I still believe that the experience was special.
What is the hardest thing about Tamil to English translation?
Dialects and uses. Tamil is one of the ancient languages of the world, but it is surprisingly good at keeping up to date and adding new words to its vocabulary. We don’t say Facebook, World Wide Web or Nasdaq in Tamil. We have translated them into Tamil even though they are proper names. Likewise, when it comes to modern classics or literary works like hungry humans, dialects and anachronisms that were authentic at the start of the 20th century can pose a challenge. As in any Indian novel dealing with family and relationships, the names of the family members in relation to the characters differ. Not everyone is an aunt or uncle, maternal cousins and paternal relations have different names that require careful translation.
Did you come across anything that was untranslatable?
Certain dialectical cadences and descriptive passages and writing about sexuality and sex were difficult. They read with a different emotional weight in Tamil. English-educated Indians are often conditioned to be outraged by vernacular descriptions of sex when they are acceptable in English. Steamy expressions of sexual feelings move in tongues. It’s a bit like when some Indians swear easily in English but balk when they hear swear words in Indian languages. It is difficult to reach the high tone, the melodramatic notes and the fervor of the translation. My other issue was my reading awakening to the characters, the unapologetic male gaze, caste conceit and the treatment of women, trans men and gays and how I would translate them true to the prevailing attitudes at the time where the story is settling.
The book has extreme themes like illness, desire and spirituality which immerse the reader in the story of Ganesan. What was your first experience as a novel reader and translator?
Honestly, I felt pretty shaken up. It took me many readings to understand that the story should be read raw because it is without literary artifice. It’s a hard look at what human beings are. hungry humans rejects familiar narrative. This is not a linear narrative; the characters are numerous; no one is good or bad. Everyone is damaged in one way or another. If I am biased and asked to choose, I would choose Bhuma and Sama. Bhuma is a lucid, warm and sexually and socially generous woman. Sama’s madness, funeral jobs, and savage sadness hurt my heart.
You speak Tamil, English and Bengali. In what language do you think?
I feel like a linguistic chameleon. I like to flirt and chat in tongues; they alleviate the social fear that many have of trying a new language. I think in English, smell in Tamil and flirt in Bengali.
What does the Booker International gain from sand tomb does it mean to you as a beginner literary translator in India?
Spectacular victories in all areas are extremely inspiring. Arundhati Roy’s victory convinced Indian writers that their English was recognized by the world. Likewise, the victory of Geetajanli Shree gives hope to many translators of Indian languages. I have been at the pearly gates for a vision of AK Ramanujam after his extraordinary translations of Sangam literature ever since I read it in college. For a beginner like me, it offers the courage to dream in translations.
Arunima Mazumdar is a freelance writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.