Translation

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.

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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.

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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.