Speaking in Tongues: Translated Novels from Around the World

And although the novel was written in Italian, parts of Harris’ animated translation read as if it were the original, containing references to English books, movies, and songs, as well as detailed discussions of the language itself. Claudia notes that her grandmother, who “didn’t understand Italian very well” after living for years in New York, “spoke a deliberately strange dialect: she would say ‘Bruklì’ instead of brooklyn‘aranò’ rather than I do not know.” She knows how to pronounce these words, says the narrator, but their distortions are “her way of making herself a personality.”

By Perumal Murugan
Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
202 p. Black cat. Paper, $17.

Murugan’s “pyre” is haunted by its title (“Pookuzhi”, in Tamil) – a word that appears nowhere in the novel, but which contributes to the growing sense of dread and despair that darkens it. The story begins modestly, with newlyweds Kumaresan and Saroja getting off a bus in the groom’s home village for the first time. They arrive from the town of Tholur, where they met, and where Kumaresan works in a soda bottling shop; and he now orders Saroja to speak as little as possible when interacting with his family and neighbors. It quickly becomes clear that Kumaresan fears that his village will reject Saroja if they learn that she is from a different caste, and he has yet to find a way to assuage their suspicions. As these suspicions mount, the walls begin to close in on the young couple, still working to build intimacy with each other.

A professor of Tamil literature in southern India, Murugan is a prolific author of non-fiction, collections of stories and novels, including the 2010 novel “One Part Woman”, which sparked protests from Indian fundamentalists who felt the plot (a couple struggling with infertility) disgraced Hindu women. (The protests led Murugan to declare his own death on Facebook in 2015.)

This very readable English version by Vasudevan, the American anthropologist and writer who also translated “One Part Woman” in 2018, includes a sprinkling of transliterated terms, some (samba, a small grain rice; and hey!, an informal way of addressing a man) defined in a short glossary at the end. Besides drawing the reader into Murugan’s Tamil-speaking environment, Vasudevan also points out the subtle differences in dialect, distinguishing Saroja’s speech from Kumaresan’s. The translation manages to remind the reader of the non-Western and multilingual setting of the work, without compromising the flow of the narration.