Challenges of translating
I had admired KR Meera-'s extraordinary talent as a writer – the mesmerising wordplay and magical imagination – long before I became her translator....
I had admired KR Meera's extraordinary talent as a writer – the mesmerising wordplay and magical imagination – long before I became her translator. In my wordpress blog, I often translate Malayalam poetry and post articles about literature.
By a serendipitous turn of events, Meera left a comment on my blog article which was based on her novel ‘Aarachar’. I was thrilled. I also found that we had mutual friends at Lucknow where I worked. Meanwhile I wrote a review of Meera Sadhu entitled ‘Meera Sadhu, Medea and Asia Weevil: K.R. Meera's novel and an analysis’ in October 2015.
In November that year, I met Meera for the first time in a Lucknow restaurant. Meera and my younger daughter decided to enjoy a paneer dish. The rest of us avoided it for some reason. That night both fell sick. The milk, the critical ingredient in the paneer, was apparently bad.
If you have read ‘Meera Sadhu’ or ‘The Poison of Love’, you will remember that milk plays a very poignant role in the novel. "Love is like milk. With the passage of time, it sours, splits and becomes poison." That is how the book begins.
Ironically, it all began with that dinner where the milk played truant. While talking to Meera, I had expressed interest in translating her writing, and she in turn had asked me to try it out. I chose to translate a few pages of ‘Meera Sadhu: a novella’, which had made me cry as a reader. When Meera responded, she was very positive and highly encouraging. Dr Dhanya Lakshmy and Dr Piyush Antony – our mutual friends, and extremely well read in multiple languages – gave me their warm support. I transformed from a staid bureaucrat to a confident translator.
When the first draft reached Meera, she told me something in her inimitable style. "Sit down and polish it as hard as you can. Burn with the script. Consider the effort as a prayer. Writing is a never ending process...". I was a novice who actually thought that with the first draft, the "file" was closed. The real work, I realised, was only beginning.
When you translate, you become a medium through which the writer narrates her tale in another language. Indeed it is akin to a prayer. You have to be faithful to the original word play, the rhymes, the puns, the subtle humour, and the sharp sliver of slyness hidden amidst words or sentences.
For example, in the original Malayalam, the words "Pulikkum" and "Piriyum" have deep undertones contrasting with their innocuous placement in a sentence. Apart from the fact that both start with the same letter, the former word means "turning sour", while the latter has two meanings: "curdling of milk and separation from a partner." My challenge was to find two words which also started with the same letter and caught all the nuances. 'Sour' was easy but 'Split' took a while! I had to crosscheck if milk "splits". It did, thankfully.
I remember crying while translating the atrocious revenge of Tulsi. I sat there, numb and sick, not believing what my fingers were typing out. I then recollected Meera telling me that she underwent intense exhaustion after writing some of her stories. It was a visceral experience; shaking me to the very core. I had to train my mind to detach itself from the story which I was translating.
When Ambar Chatterjee (of Penguin India) stepped in as Commissioning editor from Penguin Random House, all my fears fell away. His incredible talent for his job, kindness and understanding gave me wings as a translator. Meera's clarity as a writer helped to fine tune the translation. She said once, "I need a stronger word than dislike in this sentence." And then it was created... "I loathe every love story except my own..."
I also remember when she gave me the confidence of experimenting with the structure of a sentence. "Imagine you are me, narrating the story in English...think like me..." I had been too loyal to the original script in the first few drafts, and had consequently committed many clumsy mistakes. When I started thinking anew, as she suggested, it became easier to correct the errors.
Every sentence in the translated novel underwent excruciating scrutiny: for both meaning and lyrical quality. I felt that Meera Sadhu was actually a poem, and Robert Frost would have been happy to taunt me about what was lost in translation. One has to humbly acknowledge the sharp editing skills of Shatarupa Ghoshal and the immensely talented design team. When the ‘The Poison of Love’ became a reality, I could only marvel at the miraculous and serendipitous journey.
A translator resembles a bureaucrat in many ways. One has to remain faceless, anonymous, and behind the curtains. But there is great joy and satisfaction in being part of a brilliant creative project. A translator cannot afford to have any selfish agenda or unnecessary ego. Truly, translation is like a prayer. When 'Grace' flows through you, the words emerge. One forgets oneself, and translates.
The writer is an IAS officer and a writer and translator.