The art of translation

Translations have the ability to ruin or enrich a piece of literature. In this review, I look at two books that were translated to English. Chemmeen, written in Malayalam by T. S. Pillai, was translated by Anita Nair, and One Part Woman, written in Tamil by Perumal Murugan, was translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.

The problems of translation are many, and I don’t pretend to know all of them. But, even to a novice, many of those problems become evident when it’s a translation of a nuanced story. Likewise, the beauty of a good translation is evident when a reader is moved by the literature, an artwork by itself, despite the translation. To be able to accomplish the latter requires responsible and dedicated translation, which, I’m afraid, is rare to find.

One Part Woman was written in Tamil under the title Maathorubagan. The book kicked up a storm when it was published. A section of the society demanded that it be banned. But fortunately, in an unfortunately flawed judgment, the courts allowed the book to be published.

The book, One Part Woman, is about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love with each other. The tenderness in their relationship is touchingly written; allowing me to forget that this is a translation! Their attempts at conceiving a child go in vain, and they are hounded by the social sanction of being childless. But then there comes relief – a chariot festival, where consensual sex between any man and woman, married or unmarried, is allowed; all for the benefit of the barren women. According to this tradition, the acts committed on the occasion of the festival are sacred and fully sanctioned by God. But will it push Kali and Ponna’s relationship too far if she participates in it?

The tale is harrowing because of how human it is. It examines, with nuance and lyricism, the ways in which society manipulates our choices, emotions, relationships. By the end of the thin book, I was exhausted and moved. The story is exceptional, goosebumps-worthy. It made me wonder how exquisite the Tamil version would be. But thankfully, the translation is excellent in that simple English is used to tell the tale without any jarring pitstops.


The Tamil book, Maathorubagan

And then there is Chemmeen, an epic story, and a regrettable translation. Chemmeen is more famous as one of the best Malayalam movies, than it is as a Malayalam book. The story is gold! However, the intricately woven themes and the strong characters have to be rescued by the reader against the tide of the grammatical errors that steal the treasure – the story. The flat tone used, with a mechanical translation, was highly off putting.

“It was bone-chillingly damp. Then one morning the sun rose in a clear sky. The boats were launched. There was a good catch. The boats came back to shore and brisk trade happened.”

“A few days later a huge quarrel erupted on the shore. All the fisherwomen who sold their fish in the east ganged up against Karuthamma and abused her.”

Lines that may have sounded poetic in Malayalam lay diminished in this translation.

Apart from my grievance about the translation, the story is beautiful. It’s a classic. It examines the lives of a community of fisherfolk in Kerala, their interpersonal relationships based on status, class and religion. It is essentially a love story, though. All the characters are built expertly, except Pareekutty, who remains slightly mysterious and romantic till the end. The protagonists of the love story, Karuthamma, Pareekutty and Palani, are honorable, loving, flawed, passionate people. Even though Karuthamma loves Pareekutty, she marries Palani. She does so because, among other myriad reasons, Pareekutty is not from her religion, because her father asks her to do so, because that’s her duty to the community, as a fisherwoman. As you can see, from this very short snippet of the story, multiple themes are intertwined in the story. And the story itself has many twists and turns. What happens to Palani, Karuthamma and Pareekutty? Do Palani and Karuthamma live as a happily married couple? Or do Karuthamma and Pareekutty get together? The richness of the story merits every high praise. But, as for the translation, the lesser said the better.


A still from the 1965 Malayalam movie, Chemmeen

Chemmeen and One Part Woman share some similar themes, but Chemmeen, I’d say, is more layered and complex, and is a better drama; a classic! One Part Woman, though, has won me over with its simple, yet nuanced, story.

TS Pillai’s Chemmeen deserves a 4.5/5 for being such an epic story, but I’d rate it at 3/5 due to (despite) the disappointing translation by Anita Nair. Don’t read it if you cannot stand a beautiful story being lost due to the ineptitude of the literature.

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman fully deserves a 4/5, for its story and the translation that does it justice. Read it if you enjoy heartwarming lyrical love stories.

Metaphors & Murder

White Oleander- Janet Fitch

This isn’t the kind of book I usually like, or even read. But strangely enough, I found myself getting involved with the characters and appreciating the not so subtle subtleties of the prose and plot.

Astrid Magnussen lives in Los Angeles with her mother, Ingrid. Ingrid is beautiful and arrogant, and teaches Astrid to be strong and ruthless. Daughter looks on with joy as mother meets and falls in love with Barry Kolker, a rich admirer, and then with horror as she murders him in cold blood when he ‘moves on’ to a younger woman.

She is thrown into jail, leaving Astrid to navigate the California foster care system with only the guidance of her mother’s letters. Her experiences are almost comically horrible. At her first home, she sleeps with the father and is shot by the emotionally unstable mother when the affair is discovered. When Astrid is mauled by dogs on her 15th birthday, I began to wonder if the book was meant to be a dark comedy!

The story redeems itself with brilliant character development though. With the kind of mistreatment and general scumbag-ness that Astrid is exposed to at a young age, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d turned out to be a mad-axe-murderer later in life. But the only mark that’s left on her is a tendency to get attached to anyone who’s nice to her, which is sad but understandable. Most of the time, she’s optimistic and forgiving.

The evolving relationship between Astrid and Ingrid is also very interesting. In the beginning of the story, Astrid idolizes her mother. She doesn’t truly understand the extent of the crime that she has committed. Ingrid gives her daughter advice, and tries to guide her by giving her lists of books to read. Later though, Astrid recognizes that her mother is a narcissist and begins to disregard her opinions.

There’s a dramatic faceoff at the end- Ingrid wants Astrid to testify in her favor in a retrial that she’s wangled for herself, but Astrid isn’t helping until she gets some answers about her childhood. Funnily enough she’s guilty about being manipulative despite the fact that her mother has pulled off similar tricks many times before. Made me respect the character even more.

Throughout the novel there are references to white oleander and poison. Barry is murdered with an extract of oleander, and Ingrid is fair, beautiful and poisonous in a less literal way.

All in all, a subtle psychological novel with beautiful prose. Recommended. If you like it, you should probably try We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It’s scary and thought provoking. But that’s a review for another day.


Seeking a great perhaps: Looking for Alaska

When my friend suggested that I read Looking for Alaska, I did not go tearing into a book store to buy one, as he expected me to do; instead I downloaded the e-book that this maniacal reader suggested, like the equally voracious book reader that I am, after reading which I vowed to buy a copy. Alaska is a girl who seems to live as though she were perpetually preparing for something life changing. She studies in Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama where Miles Halter, the protagonist, joins to attend junior year – “…to seek a great perhaps.” 

He has a fetish for people’s last words. Endearing in a morbid way, really, even to the other characters in the book.

Miles Halter makes friends, one of them being Alaska. As a fivesome, his friends and he pull off pranks- an annual tradition- at the school. The fun and frolic, with the smuggled alcohol and cigarettes, and the smart conversations they have around their ‘coffee table’, funnily enough, will resonate with teenagers and adults.

The Coffee Table

The Coffee Table

With extensive quotes from beautiful poems by great poets, in typical John Green fashion, the book keeps your curiosity alive, while it taps at your witty bone, with it not-so-parliamentary jokes and subtle humour. Looking for Alaska certainly shows you how and why John Green, the world historian and the charming writer can steal many a heart away with mere words.

Alaska steals your heart away. @John Green: Well done, with the character building.

I will leave you with what my friend said when I asked him for more such book recommendations “I just read it, I want it to sink in, it’ll take a while before I think about a next…

Three and a half.