Translator Interview: “When I begin translating a text, I give myself over completely to the task. I translate from within the text”, says N. Kalyan Raman

Not much comes to be known about translators, the mediums charged with the uniquely herculean task of carefully locating an author’s idiolect and then transmuting, or rather recreating it in a foreign language. In a country as varied as ours, where language dramatically changes shape after every odd kilometre, reading Indian literature is largely enabled by a sharp regiment of skilled and creative translators. The labour of translation is highly critical, which we know, but it is also undeniably creative. It is a tightrope walk between writing a text without letting yourself be its author. In an attempt to further understand this process, specifically in the context of translating the deceptively plain-faced prose of Tamil literary giant Devibharathi, Kunzum caught up with translator N. Kalyan Raman regarding his latest The Solitude of a Shadow.

Raman boasts a two-decade-long career of translating Tamil fiction and poetry into English, single-handedly introducing Tamil authors and stories to an Anglophone audience. The winner of the prestigious Pudumaipithan Award, Raman’s recent translation of Perumal Murugan’s The Story of a Goat was longlisted for the 2020 National Book Awards. His career is one of industry, marked by significant literary contributions that cannot be understated. 

Sashrika: Devibharathi’s writing style is decluttered and succinct, clean of ornamental embellishment and simultaneously reliant on motifs and symbols that are distinct to rural Tamil Nadu and his life. What are the unique challenges of translating such deceptively simplistic and deeply personal writing into English? 

Kalyan: Literary translation is a holistic process, which makes it difficult for the translator to single out specific parts or aspects of a text as ‘challenging’. As with any creative effort, all translation feels like a challenge, which the translator must deal with at every moment of the translation process. It is only after the job is done can one reflect on it, identify certain parts/aspects of the text where it seems as if something difficult has been accomplished.

In The Solitude of a Shadow, I am happy that the ‘gripping’ quality of the narrative and the vivid portrayal of complex characters as they navigate difficult lives have come through for the reader. In the original, they were achieved through skillful use of language and storytelling craft. Since Devibharathi uses a secular modern perspective and language throughout the text, I faced no ‘unique’ challenges in translating it apart from that of reading the text closely and translating the text as written on the page. 

Sashrika: At what point does your creative voice and personal idiolect seep/slip into the final translation? What boundaries do you create and what amount of ‘seepage/slippage’ is necessary or even unavoidable? 

Kalyan: When I begin translating a text, I give myself over completely to the task. I translate from within the text, so to speak. So, my tendencies and inclinations as a writer, such as they are, do not get in the way.  Of course, I am aware that during the process of translation, the text is refracted through the personal qualities I bring to the process, such as intelligence, knowledge, language skills, sensibility, empathetic imagination, ear for different registers, and so on, that the translated text will be uniquely ‘mine’ (but in a good way!). This is true of any creative act. It’s the best any translator can do. 

Sashrika: In speaking of the critical task of translation, what varieties of critical labour are involved in the act of translating a text and the responsibility of launching an author into a language that is not their own? 

Kalyan: It begins with choosing the text for translation, and the choice varies with the translator. I tend to choose texts that I know will be of enduring literary value, and I have reason to believe that they will be read, in the original version and in translation, for many years to come. The translation should be a worthy addition to the literary corpus in the host language, in that it brings new and crucial knowledge of other worlds, communities and cultures, and new narratives in form, style and substance to readers in that language. Finally, it’s important that you have deep admiration and respect for the text. 

Some texts are too long in the original version and may require what is known in the trade as structural editing to make them ‘presentable’ in the target markets. It often consists of excising certain passages, re-ordering others, and even getting new ones written to align with the new structure. This is a crucial part of what you call ‘critical labour’.  It is something I haven’t attempted so far.

During the act of translating a text, I have never had to edit the original text even in small ways. Of course,  one changes words, expressions and sentence structures to align them with the aesthetics  and conventions of narrative prose fiction in English, to make local landscapes, flora and fauna, and culture-specific terms intelligible to the reader in English. This is ‘critical labour’ at the micro-level performed by every translator.

As for launching a new author’s work in a language not their own, the translator can play an important role. They can pitch the work to publishers, stressing the importance of the work in its original milieu and its potential relevance in the milieu of the target language. After the translation is published, the translator is best placed to be its spokesperson, communicating to the public about the special qualities of both the author and the work.  More often than not, they also play simultaneous interpreter for the author at the book launch and other public events!  

Sashrika: In translating a book you must also be its reader, an active, participant and empathetic reader who must also extend themselves to imagine the writer’s position. What is the place of empathy in the task of translation? 

Kalyan: First, while translating, my primary relationship is with the text; I don’t imagine anything like ‘the writer’s position’ at all. I find it both unnecessary and avoidable to bring the author into the process of translation, except to provide the occasional clarification on terms and their meanings.

That said, empathy is central to a translator’s craft. It is through empathy that we sense, in our reading, aspects like mood, tone, inflection, feeling, etc, and match them to the prose. Empathy for the characters is also important for replicating the flow of the narrative while retaining all the nuances intact. 

Sashrika: Can you speak of Devibharathi’s The Solitude of a Shadow and your own opinion on the author, his narrative and its significance? And what are your opinions on the state of regional language literature in contemporary bookselling marketplaces?

Kalyan: The Solitude of a Shadow, whose Tamil original was published in 2012, is a novel set in rural and semi-urban Tamil Nadu about a man obsessed with revenge. It looks at individuals and their struggles from a modernist perspective, without recourse to conventional tropes of Indian society. Besides being a path-breaking narrative in the Dostoyevskian mould, it is also a gripping read, crafted by an outstanding exponent of literary fiction in Tamil.

Devibharathi writes with deep empathy for his characters, however flawed and broken they might be.  A student of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, he is engaged in a profound scrutiny of the struggle for ethical living in a world riven by hierarchies of caste, wealth and power. Through his efforts to describe and understand the sorrows and predicaments of his subaltern characters, he strives to discover the possibilities for renewal of the human spirit. Author of four novels and two short-story collections, Devibharathi is bold and experimental in his choice of themes, settings, form and style, never traversing the same territory or telling the same story twice. In harmony with his modernist perspective, the language of his fiction is also precise and modern, free of cliches and ornamentation. Devibharathi is widely considered as among the most important writers active in Tamil today. 

Over the past thirty years, through the untiring efforts of the community of translators, translated literature from ‘regional’ languages in India has established itself as a vital and important genre for readers across the country and, to a limited extent, in overseas markets. The institutional infrastructure for the development and training of translators, and for the publication and distribution of translated literature, is beginning to grow. Response from critics, readers and booksellers has been enthusiastic. I feel optimistic about the future. 

Pick up Raman’s translation of Devibharathi’s novel, “The Solitude of a Shadow” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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