#DesiCraftChat: N. Kalyan Raman on translating Vaasanthi’s Breaking Free and all that a translator brings to a text

Desi Books Ep 83 w/ N. Kalyan Raman Desi Books


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Hello and welcome to Episode 83 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

In today’s #DesiCraftChat, we have Kalyan Raman discussing his latest Tamil-to-English translation of Vaasanthi’s novel, Breaking Free. We also discuss how he chooses the works to translate, what drew him to translate this novel, how a translator brings all their learning and experiences to their translation work, how he sees literary criticism and translation work as connected, and a lot more.

#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH KALYAN RAMAN — INTRODUCTION

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.

Vaasanthi’s Breaking Free (tr. N Kalyan Raman) is set against the rising clamor for India’s independence. It is a nuanced and thought-provoking story of three generations of women and the effects that history, memory, and secrets have on their lives. Kasturi and Lakshmi are born into the devadasi clan. While Kasturi thinks of nothing other than the joy she experiences when she’s dancing before the deity in the temple, Lakshmi is troubled by the treatment dasis receive from society, the secretive manner of her father’s visits to their house, and his reluctance to acknowledge her publicly as his daughter. To the surprise of those around her, instead of learning to dance, a frustrated and angry Lakshmi insists on getting an education and becomes a doctor. As their paths diverge, the differences in their opinions cause a rift in Kasturi and Lakshmi’s relationship. But when tragedy strikes, Kasturi’s faith in tradition is shaken and she finds herself turning to Lakshmi once again. Brilliantly translated by N. Kalyan Raman, this novel brings Vaasanthi’s Tamil masterpiece to an entirely new readership. 

Vaasanthi’s Breaking Free, a novel translated from Tamil to English by @kalyanasc, is set against India’s independence and about three generations of women from the devadasi clan. #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

On a personal note, I’ve been a fan of Kalyan’s work, both his translations and his literary criticism, for years now. A disclosure: he reviewed my debut translation last year in India. But, certainly, his own works speak for themselves and we featured this particular novel in our last Desi Books Review, which was Issue #3, where we included Vaasanthi’s introduction, as translated by Kalyan, and his own afterword. Both are definitely worth your time so please do read them. They’ll be linked on the website.

Here’s Kalyan now.

#DESICRAFTCHAT WITH KALYAN RAMAN

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Jenny Bhatt: What was it about Breaking Free that made you decide it needs a wider readership?

Kalyan Raman: Let me talk a little bit about how I choose the works that I translate or why I choose them. The first thing is that I need to see them as significant—in the sense that I don’t want to do a novel that will disappear in the next six months. I would like whatever I do to endure or to have reasons to endure, you know? So I generally look for works that have something new to say or something new to reveal and which are of enduring value to a particular milieu. So this is the principle of curation, you may want to say. It has worked out fairly well for me.

And, as far as this book is concerned, I’ve been sort of exposed to the debate about devadasis. There’s a kind of ongoing debate in the Tamil milieu and perhaps also in the larger arts and culture scenario in India. There is a history of the devadasi system being abolished, or there was a movement to abolish the devadasi system before independence, and a set of people actually transformed or modified their dance to what is now known as Bharatanatyam. And the politics of it . . . there’s a lot of controversy over it. There are some people who say that the Brahmins appropriated the dance form and they sanitized it and killed the erotic sense and so on. So I’ve been following that debate closely although it’s a very stagnant debate with both sides chucking stuff at each other.

When this book came along—it was published in 2012 and Vaasanthi gave it to me in 2013—I read it and I found that it was the first time that the subjectivity of the hereditary dancers, the devadasis, was dealt with. I hadn’t seen it earlier in any work of fiction. And there is also the fact that by the time I came into the world and I was growing up the devadasi system had been, the community had been, more or less erased from the public sphere. There were some great Carnatic music exponents like M. S. Subbulakshmi M. L. Vasanthakumari and so on. They were from this community but it wasn’t known. Their identity was erased more or less. So the general public didn’t know about this community at all.

This debate came about maybe in the nineties or so in academia and then it was picked up. And so this book was like a breath of fresh air to me in the sense that it dealt very honestly with what their lives had been and what their subjectivity had been and their relationship to art. This debate came about maybe in the nineties or so in academia and then it was picked up. And so this book was like a breath of fresh air to me in the sense that it dealt very honestly with what their lives had been and what their subjectivity had been and their relationship to art. And the kind of devastating effect that the abolition or the transformations had on their lives, on succeeding generations of the community. And their mental agonies and so on.

“…works that have something new to say or something new to reveal and which are of enduring value to a particular milieu.” @kalyanasc on his selection or curation principle as a translator. #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

Jenny Bhatt: Just before, when you were talking about how you had read about the devadasi culture–do you, when you pick up a project like this one, do you tend to read around the books that you’re translating?

Kalyan Raman: I want to say this: you know, it’s not widely known but a translator actually brings all their learning and all their systems and all their experiences to the process of translation. So they bring a lot. They bring as much as a writer does actually.

Recently, I read the memoir of Gregory Rabassa, the translator. And I was astounded by his academic background, actually. He was working at Columbia and he prepared himself in so many ways. I mean, not only reading the text, reading related texts, traveling to the countries where the text was situated to understand the politics. Amazing. So I do think that you can’t be good as a translator if you don’t prepare yourself in some way.

[…]

I finished the project maybe seven years after I had signed the contract. But it was in that period that I reflected and thought about it and I developed a relationship with the text, you might say. So it does take me that long. I read the books that I mentioned in my afterword and I spoke to people and sort of turned over those questions in my mind. So there was that.

“…a translator actually brings all their learning and all their systems and all their experiences to the process of translation. […]They bring as much as a writer does actually.” #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks


You’ve been listening to episode 83 of Desi Books—news and views about desi literature from the world over. I’m your host, Jenny Bhatt. Thank you for tuning in.

Today’s #DesiCraftChat was with Kalyan Raman discussing his latest Tamil-to-English translation of Vaasanthi’s novel, Breaking Free. We discussed how he chooses the works to translate, what drew him to translate this novel, how a translator brings all their learning and experiences to their translation work, how he sees literary criticism and translation work as connected, and a lot more.

Episode 84 will be up shortly. Follow on Twitter @desibooks, Instagram @desi.books, and Facebook @desibooksfb. Tag the accounts if you have requests or suggestions. Please go to the website if you’d like to sign up for the free, weekly newsletter. That’s desibooks.co. And please share this interview via social media so we can keep raising the tide of desi literature.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

Vaasanthi’s Breaking Free, a novel translated from Tamil to English by @kalyanasc, is set against India’s independence and about three generations of women from the devadasi clan. #DesiCraftChat @DesiBooks

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