On Translation: Why Breaking Free is indeed pathbreaking, and two main challenges of translating from an Indian language
Writer: N KALYAN RAMAN
[Translator’s Note excerpted with permission from Breaking Free by Vaasanthi; translated by N Kalyan Raman. Copyright © 2022 N Kalyan Raman.]
Vittu Viduthalaiyagi (2012), the Tamil original of this text, was the first novel I read that deals with the complex history of the devadasi community through the device of fiction. The novel form allows the author to explore not just the subjectivities of these hereditary dancers in relation to their art practice and life, but also the web of social relations in which they are entangled, often in a context of unequal power. Lakshmi’s mission to actualize a life of freedom and dignity for members of her community brings about a transformed social reality that disrupts and destroys many lives. The novel portrays the turn of events at this particular juncture in history as a labyrinth where the way out is blocked by both external and internal barriers.
Although several attempts have been made to address this complex history, it remains a polarized and polarizing discourse. On the one hand, the effort is to justify what happened—the ‘appropriation’, as it were, of the devadasi art form of sadir and its modification into Bharatanatyam that was practised exclusively by women from Brahmin and other upper-caste communities. On the other, it is to valorize sadir as the true art, which gives full expression to an erotic culture that is our proud legacy, and denigrate Bharatanatyam as the manifestation of a repressed, moralizing nationalism. The discourse has predictably stagnated because neither side is willing to take cognizance of realities that do not suit their purpose, more so the realities of the hereditary dancers themselves. When I read the novel in 2014, I found it path-breaking in its ability to actually come to grips with the diverse subjectivities and precarious social locations of devadasis during that period of upheaval and change. I wanted to translate it into English.
Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory and Modernity in South India, a landmark study of the community by Davesh Soneji, an academic based in the United States, was published in 2012. A few years later, two novels in English that dealt with the same milieu and history—The Undoing Dance by Srividya Natarajan and Girl Made of Gold by Gitanjali Kolanad—came out respectively in 2018 and 2020. I am hopeful that Breaking Free, an imaginative, feminist retelling of the same history as told by an accomplished writer and veteran journalist, will be a worthy addition to these ongoing narratives and discourses.
Translating another work by an author one has translated before is always a pleasure. There is a greater ease and depth to one’s engagement with the work. A Cusp of Ages, my first translation of a novel by Vaasanthi, was published in 2008. Like Breaking Free, that too was about the lives of three generations of women, and traversed the distance from a Brahmin agraharam in a village to a completely metropolitan setting at the turn of this millennium. Working on it made me familiar with the author’s language and narrative styles and gave me insights into the nature of her concerns as a writer engaged with society, especially the condition of women.
By the time I started working on Breaking Free, I was used to dealing with texts populated almost entirely by women. And that helped me capture the author’s nuanced portrayals of Kasturi, Lakshmi, Sengamalam, Kanagu Paati, Thilakam, Yogu and others with a measure of empathy and understanding. Having been born in the first decade after Independence, I am quite familiar with the culture of Tamil country, with its music, dance and temples, the freedom movement and the rousing poetry of Subramania Bharathi, important ingredients in the narrative.
Translation from an Indian language to English involves two main challenges: modifying sentence structures to suit the narrative flow in the target language and observing certain rules of brevity that are simply not an aesthetic requirement in the source language. Given the emphasis on description and drama in the Tamil literary tradition, one of the oldest in the country, prose fiction tends to rely even today on an accretion of qualifiers, phrasal nouns and supplementary clauses to convey substance and depth of meaning. Modern narratives in English are less than hospitable to such ‘quirks’ and hence the challenge of writing the sentence anew while keeping the many strands of meaning intact. Brevity involves no more than an alert ear for the unrhythmic or superfluous, but the skill is in choosing the words to excise without betraying the spirit of the original text.
There are many Tamil terms, unique to the culture, that have been left untranslated in the text. Usually, the meaning is clear from the context, but for certain arcane-sounding terms, especially related to music and dance, the reader can refer to the glossary provided at the end of the text.
I am grateful to Vaasanthi for the opportunity to translate this remarkable novel and for her forbearance in putting up with delays in the execution of this project. I would also like to thank Shatarupa Ghoshal for her sharp and splendid contributions as my editor at HarperCollins India, and Rahul Soni for his patience and wisdom in guiding the publication of this book in its present form.
N. Kalyan Raman
26 March 2022
N. Kalyan Raman is a translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry into English. Over the past twenty-five years, he has published thirteen volumes of Tamil fiction in translation, by important writers such as Ashokamitran, Devibharati, Poomani, Perumal Murugan, Vaasanthi, and Salma. His translations of contemporary Tamil poets have been published widely in journals and anthologies in India and abroad. His translation of Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi was shortlisted for the inaugural JCB Prize in 2019 and nominated for the National Book Foundation Award in the US in 2020. In 2017, he received the prestigious Pudumaipithan award for his contribution to the cause of Tamil literature through his translations. He lives and works in Chennai.
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