• Work of a Translator: Making of the Possible

    Johny ML

    October 15, 2019

    Image courtesy: New Scientist

    Ask me what the most rigorous disciplining practice is for a writer to follow in their career. My answer would be this: get into translating a good piece of literature. Translating, primarily, needs focus and meditation on the lived experiences of the author in translation as well as the various experiential nuances of the characters in the work. While reading a literary work, at times highly recommended and other times a chance buying from an airport book stall, you already do the aforementioned things; focusing and meditating on the experiences. But reliving them for translation is another experiential exercise in itself.

    My foray into translation was by sheer chance and it was in the year 2005. Before going into it, I have to say that even during my pre-degree, I would try my hand at translation. Born in Trivandrum, I was brought up in a village called Vakkom, where it was difficult to get English books, though a couple of local libraries encouraged the people to read. However, their collections involved a heady mix of populist pulp fiction and some good Malayalam literature. One day, I got a book of poems by Lu Xun (1881-1936) and my first instinct was to translate them into Malayalam. English books started trickling in, but the scarcity turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because instead of going by the normal route of reading light fiction and detective novels in English, I was introduced to Franz Kafka’s Castle, Trial and Metamorphosis, along with books like Cabinet of Caligari, some old copies of the Illustrated Weekly and Screen, a cinema tabloid from the Indian Express Group. Every time I read these, there was an immense urge to translate them into Malayalam.

    Malayalam, a language that evolved out of Tamil, got its modern form with the Bhakti Movement in the 14th and 15th centuries and since then Malayalam has been open to various linguistic influences including those of Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, French and English, besides being a good lender to various languages spoken and written in India. Of late, Malayalam has begun to shed its standardised form to make space for its multiple dialects, which are now used not only by young writers and poets but also by popular cinema. Malayalam literature, by the 19th century, started enriching itself through imitation and translation of Russian, French, English and Bengali literature. Initially, Malayalam novels were modelled after ‘English novels that entertained the gentry.’ Sooner than later, translations of literary work from Russia, Britain and Bengal started populating the Malayalam publishing field, which had to do with both political propaganda and genuine interest. The staple was so effective that people in Kerala developed some kind of imaginary kinship with the languages that were being translated.

    Before India’s doors were thrown open to global capital flow, a fair amount of intellectual transactions were underway in Kerala – not only between the lucrative first world but also from the less favored and much condemned countries in the African continent, Caribbean countries, rebellious parts of Europe, South America and Cuba – mainly through translations. Late Prof. M Krishnan Nair’s popular column of literary criticism, “Sahityavarafalam” (first appeared in Malayala Nadu, then in Kala Kaumudi and finally in Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika) used to introduce interesting literary works from non-English speaking regions and with information from the English translations of these works, The Times Literary Supplement, the British Council Library and a vast network of students all over the world. Thanks to Nair’s columns, Spanish, Latin American as well as the Egyptian, African, Japanese and Chinese writers became familiar household names in Kerala. However, with less publishing houses, limited income levels though a highly literate population, led to non-availability of translated works making it difficult to get them ‘home’. However, in the intellectual space, alternative publishing was attempted provincially at various levels. Poets like Satchidanandan, Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan, Attoor Ravi Varma, K G Sankara Pillai were translating poems into Malayalam and getting them published in magazines that were both mainstream and not-so-mainstream.

    It was with the arrival of publisher Shelvi and his Mulberry Books that middle class intellectuals got a taste of international literature translated into Malayalam. Mulberry Books made Vincent van Gogh and Theo van Gogh all time favorites of Malayali intellectuals through Malayalam translations of Van Gogh’s Letters to Theo. The scene changed with the arrival of DTP Publishing and a new crop of publishers, for the monopoly of the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham, DC Books and Current Books was challenged. Most of them, with no mainstream writers in their catalogues, depended largely on translated books with expired copyrights. This changed situation facilitated new writers to knock on the doors of new publishers. In fact, this should be why mainstream publishing houses majorly shifted their publishing activities to translation, though they were not averse to the idea even before. Today, the situation is such that internationally acclaimed authors often get the Malayalam translation of their work released simultaneously with the release of the original.

    My own literary ambitions were nurtured in such an intellectual context. I was an aspiring writer during my school days. I attempted my first translation, from Malayalam to English, in my tenth year in Delhi. Nalini Jameela, a former sex worker turned social justice activist and author, had published her autobiography, ‘Oru Lymgika Thozhilaliyude Atmakatha’ (Autobiography of a Sex Worker; 2010, DC Books). Reading it, I thought Jameela’s voice ought to be heard by Non-Malayali readers as well. I began translating the work into English and in a couple of months’ time I finished the manuscript in English. Incidentally at Delhi’s Sahitya Academy, I met Ravi DC, the Managing Director of DC Books, to whom I mentioned that I had just finished translating Jameela’s book into English. Ravi gave me a strange look, held my hand tight and said, “You should have let me known a month before, at least…It is already translated by another person”. Before we parted, Ravi asked me whether I was interested in translating English books into Malayalam to which I gave an affirmative answer.

    In some days, I received a call from DC Books, Kottayam, Kerala. “Are you ready to translate Anita Nair’s ‘Mistress’?”, they asked. In no time, I started translating the book. Within a few months, I could see my translation of ‘Mistress’ in print and I was really happy. I was soon offered more books by DC Books. Today, I am twenty one books old. My latest work, Githa Hariharan’s I Have Become the Tide (Simon and Schuster, 2019).

    Before I conclude, there are a few more things that need to be mentioned. As I said at the outset, translation disciplines you tremendously. Many years back, I was translating Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) It was the peak of summer in Delhi and the fan was not helping. It was the story of a hot-headed man called Ira Ringold. Life had its ups and downs for Ira and he was like a raging bull. I could feel my language taking in all the heat, dust, rage and frustration of the man in that summer. I am sure that the heat contributed immensely to the kind of language that I used for translating the work. While translating Sándor Márai’s Embers (Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), I could feel myself waiting for wrecking revenge on an old friend whom the protagonist thinks to have cuckolded him. Translating Ben Okri’s works, especially The Famished Road (Jonathan Cape, 1991) I always had the gut-wrenching feeling of a man who makes efforts to survive in a magical land affected by poverty, deception and violence. The language of my translation was “flowering” when I was at Okri’s Astonishing the Gods (Head of Zeus, 2015).

    The translations that affected me for a long time both spiritually and politically were Orhan Pamuk’s Black Book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), New Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber, 2015), Paolo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes (Phoenix, 1999), Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) and Githa Hariharan’s I Have Become the Tide. Even today, whenever I am expected gift a Malayalam book to someone, I pick my translation of Eleven Minutes, an extremely sensitive work. Roy’s and Hariharan’s are to be read widely for their sheer political content expressed in extremely sensitive language.

    I translate early in the morning and I work for a couple of hours every day on a book. I write in longhand and use Uniball Signo 0.7 pens specially bought from Mumbai by my partner and she insists that I should write only with that. When I am short of these pens I use a Parker fountain pen and Parker ink (often black). There are many definitions about translations ranging from the oft-quoted to the notorious and unpalatable ones (especially for the translator). As a translator, what I capture is the sense of English and the socio-cultural and political meanings of that language because that is the source language that I am using to translate from. They say poetry is lost in translation, but I feel that prose is something that gains from translation and in each translation the poetry of the original is recreated in the poetry of the translated language. When I translate Orhan Pamuk or Dan Brown, my state of mind is not very different from theirs. The experiential gap cannot be bridged but there is nothing that prevents one from identifying with the experiences of the source text. I felt a bit mechanical when I translated Vandana Shiva, as the subject matter was corporate politics and driven by economic data. A translator needs to shift his gears when he is at that kind of work. But the choice is always the translator’s.


    Read more:
    A Desolation Called Peace: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere in Agha Shahid Ali’s Poetry
    City of Print
    Talking Translation : Revisiting Anis Kidwai’s Azadi Ki Chhao Mein

    Johny ML is a Trivandrum based art historian, curator, writer and translator. He has translated 21 books from English to Malayalam for major publishers in Kerala.

    Donate to the Indian Writers' Forum, a public trust that belongs to all of us.