Thursday, February 19, 2009


My Limited Experience as a Translator

(An article by LATHA RAMAKRISHNAN appeared in MUSE INDIA e-magazine)

Translators are of two kinds - those who read, pick and choose the texts or materials to be translated and so proceed, and those who translate the texts or materials chosen by others. While writers (who are only a handful) like poet Brammarajan, belong to the first category I mostly belong to the second one.

This does not mean that I would translate anything and everything that is offered to me. I can always exercise the choice of saying ‘no’ if I feel that the text in question doesn’t deserve my time and energy. If I believe in the integrity of the little magazine in question and its purpose in translating the text I don’t usually refuse. Of course there is the element of time-constraint and also one’s mood.

Though I can to some extent translate mechanically, nevertheless, I can’t afford to be a little less awake for, even a damn simple word like ‘our’ could and would topple us and make a laughing stock in the eyes of others. So, one has to be always on the vigil while translating.

What is the difference between translating a literary text and a non-literary text? While translating a text if we come across a stumbling block, how are we to cross it? Are we to seek the assistance of others? If so, who should be those others? Or, without making the essence of the text suffer, can we bypass the particular word or expression and move on? Is it essential on the part of the translator to be well acquainted with the text / author of the text which / whom he is translating? Is it possible at all for a translation to be 100% sincere to the source text? How can the translator be at once attached to and detached from the text which he / she is to translate? What are the liberties a translator can take with the source–text or that a translator should not? What do we call ‘the politics of translation’? What are the explicit objectives as well as the hidden agendas of translation? These and more queries and doubts keep afflicting the translator, but what makes him pursue the course notwithstanding all these queries and doubts is the fact that by translating a text he shares the aesthetic feelings reflected or contemplated in the text with his fellow-beings who would have otherwise been denied access to it.

Also, he passes on vital and enriching information. The very act of translation has the undercurrent of the zeal of a reformist, so to say. A person can write a poem, a short-story or a novel for his own satisfaction, that is, for the reader in him and there is nothing wrong in it. But, a translator primarily works for the readers in others. Hence, the very act of translation is a social activity. The intent can be destructive; subversive as much as it can be positive and constructive. For some, translation is also a tool to wield power over poor readers and gullible persons. As suits their whims and fancies some alter and modify the source text, leave out several passages or expressions, add something unwarranted and so on. But, at times such alterations and modifications, omissions and additions are also done with the best of intentions, with the purpose of making the source text, rather its salient features, crystal-clear to the readers.

The term ‘target-readers’ is a very important component of any analysis on Translation. For whom do we translate? We can create a poem for our own pleasure but when we do translate we invariably have ‘target readers or at least a notion of it in our mind. And, for what purpose we undertake a translation-assignment is another important question, for, accordingly the style of our translation does change; so also, the alterations and modifications, leaving out, summing up, search for apt substitutes etc. Then, there is the time factor.

In Tamil, translators can be broadly classified into two main divisions - those who are professional translators and those who are voluntary translators. Voluntary translators can have an attachment towards the text they undertake to translate but the same cannot be said of the professional translator, though he may be more skilled than the former. And, it is the voluntary translators who have brought many fictional and non-fictional works from other languages, mostly via English, to Tamil. This lot, more often than not, spends money from their own pockets to publish a work of Translation which they consider a worthwhile initiative. These days the demand is more and ever growing for translated works in Tamil but even now a translator is not properly paid and not paid in time by many publishing houses. As for the professional translators there are two sub-sects, those who translate for a fee and given the credit of the translator of the given text and those who get the fee and sort of ghost-translate, not being given the credit of the translator of the text. The credit goes to someone else or remains anonymous. As regards the fee or remuneration, there is no standard or unanimity in this. It is more a case of demand and supply. If the translator is a budding one or not so well-known the fee is then reduced to the maximum possible extent. If the translator is self-assured and reputed, having sufficient financial resources to bargain, then he determines his fee. For an A4 page text having single-spaced lines there are those who coolly offer a meagre sum of 30 to 50 rupees. For translating a book comprising some 160 pages even reputed and established publishing houses pay not more than 3000 to 5000 rupees and no remuneration is paid to the translator for subsequent editions by most of the publishers. Copyright for individual poems is held by the poets. Copyright of the English and Tamil Translation is often in the hands of the publishing house, thereby leaving the translator in the lurch. In some cases this is done with the consent of the translator and in many cases this is done as a matter of fact, without the knowledge of the translator.

There are those who believe that Translation is a collective effort and those who believe it is not so. There are those who believe that there should be effective screening as regards what should be translated and there are others who counter it by arguing that such screening would only prove a veritable block, leaving the selection in the hands of a few.

I want to concentrate more on translating good works from Tamil to English as I strongly feel that many poignant Tamil writers are not known beyond the boundaries of Tamil Nadu because they are not translated into English. There are many poets whom I would want to translate though in translating a poem we may fail to bring forth the several layers of meaning and have to be satisfied with just one level of interpretation.

Though so far four collections of my poems have been published and the fifth is in the offing, I don’t like to translate my own poems into English for the pain and strain of recreating the ‘lost-forever’ moment is not that rewarding! I have come to realize that creative writing and translation are complementary to each other.

Just because translations are on the increase in Tamil it is not correct to say that there are no original works of merit in Tamil. Both are flourishing side by side, we can say. And, both should flourish side by side for any language, literature or society to grow and develop.

I sincerely feel that it is incorrect to build hatred in the minds of readers, writers and other citizens against English, making them or forcing them to shun its learning. True, one should love and respect one’s own language but that does not mean that one should hate other languages or restrain themselves from getting familiar with their healthy aspects. For, today, in the ‘global village’ scenario English does have a constructive role to play in bringing people together. Also, hating a language may soon develop into hating those who speak that language, which again could divide people.

In the case of Tamil, it is absolutely correct to say that Tamil should not be treated as a secondary language in educational institutions and other public spaces. At the same time the way some vested interests insist that the cadres shun English but educate their children in English Schools, within India and abroad, and thus give a wide space for their children to function, interact and perform while limiting the space and scope of their cadres is not at all fair, I feel.

Especially, the translators should learn to love and respect the languages they deal with and try to make themselves well-acquainted with the shades and nuances, linguistic, cultural and political aspects and under-currents of the languages concerned to produce fruitful translations.

Translating a poem can at best be by giving a reader-friendly text of the translator. *(And, when translating from English we invariably transfer the short-comings or misinterpretations of the English translation also into our translation). Even in the case of the two quality translations of Akhmatova’s poems there were subtle differences in the perceptions and interpretations of the two translators. The same poem under the title ‘Now, Nobody will want to listen to songs” Stanley Kunitz has translated as ‘Now you must wander as a hungry beggar/ desperately knocking at the doors of strangers’ whereas D.M. Thomas has translated as ‘Now that you’re a hungry beggar woman, don’t go knocking at the stranger’s gate”. And, I feel that it is these subtle differences in interpretation without the central theme getting distorted that establish a translator’s sensitivity and creativity.

When I attempt to translate the same poem twice, each time the translation is structured differently and I sincerely feel that a poem can be translated in different ways.

Some are of the opinions that while translating a text via English, the losses may be more and that translating straight from the source language to the target language does more justice to the source text. This may be true, but it is impossible for us to learn all the languages in our lifetime and so we have to rely on an intermediary via-language. Also, just because one is proficient in a language we cannot take it for granted that he could be an effective translator. In the same way, we can learn other languages but that doesn’t mean that we can be proficient enough to translate from it or into it. Instead, we can rely on quality translations in the ‘via’ language to translate effectively and comprehensively.

People say that if we undertake translation work, that would improve our creative-writing. But, in my case, it doesn’t hold good, for when I write a short-story or poem, those I have translated never come to my memory to influence me. Also, translating has dried up my creativity, I feel. Nevertheless, in translating such esteemed writers like Primo Levi, Pablo Neruda, James Joyce, and several others, I could perceive certain common traits in them. They never blow their own trumpets or write to show-off; they never preach from a pedestal; they underplay their pains and emotions; and they contemplate on life in all seriousness; they never resort to melodrama. And, observing these traits can have a positive influence on me as a writer, I am sure.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

MANIMEKALAI ON THE MOVE… A Play by Latha Ramakrishnan


A Play
by Latha Ramakrishnan


Venue _ a dim-lit Theatre with rows of seats. Soft Music floats.

Characters : Manimekalai, Anaamikaa and a bunch of viewers.

(The end portion of the Play Manimekalai is being enacted on the Stage. The chief protagonist Manimekalalai, a young and beautiful woman,the daughter of Madhavi, the dancer for whom the hero of the great Tamil Epic Silapadhikaram fell for, is seen in the garment of a saint of sort holding the small container called ‘Atchaya Pathiram’ which Goddess Manimekala had just then given her with the instruction that she should not let her heart pine for carnal desires and material gratifications but focus her mind on serving Mankind to the best of her ability, with the help of that ‘divine container’. After offering food to a few persons on stage Manimekalai alights from the stage and moves on in the midst of the audience, offering food to some here and some there of whom Anaamikaa is also one. Thus, reaching the entrance, Manimekalai goes out and disappears. Voices are heard from among the audience expressing agiation and surprise.)

Voices: Oh, where is she? Where is she?

A Male voice: Is the taste of the food any different from the usual one..?

A Female Voice: Has she vanished into thin air?

A child : Oh, how I wish that she had given me the divine vessel.. I will play with it throughout the day!

Anaamikaa, a middle-age woman sitting in the midst of the audience looks into her palms, dumbstruck with wonder and awe.

Another voice: Hey see, there is nothing in her hands..!

Anaamikaa: But, there is everything in my hands, your hands, their hands… it is indeed sad that we are not able to see ….for, if only we can see we can use it for our own good and for the good of others…

(She murmurs to herself and slowly moves towards the exit)

(Scene 1 comes to a close)


Venue : Anaamikaa’s residence with a cot , book shelf, a chair and a table. A pot is placed in one corner. Raga of Early Morn, sounds of screeching birds, etc. ,being thinly heard form the background Music.

Characters : Manimekalai, Anaamikaa

(Early Morning. Anaamikaa, deep in sleep gets up, hearing a knock at the door. She gets up, goes to the door and calls out in a small voice, growing apprehensive)

Anaamikaa: - Who is that?

The voice from outside responds in a whisper : It is me. Manimekalai. Please open the door..

Anaamikaa: What? Manimekalai! Oh god-

(She swiftly opens the door and Manimekalai comes running inside)

Anaamikaa: (Looking at Manimekalai in sheer amazement) Oh, Thanks for coming! Thanks indeed Manimekalai…but, where did you go yesterday?

Manimekalai: I went to the seashore to pray. By the time I finished my prayer It had grown dark and there were quite a number of men standing by my side, eyeing me lusciously and viciously. Somehow I managed to get away from them and left the place…

Anaamikaa : (Looking bewildered) – But, how come you are here..!

Manimekalai : (Smiling softly) –Why, don’t you want me here..? I thought you would..

Anaamikaa : (Hurriedly) –Of course, you are welcome..! it is just that I am at a loss to know what made you come here…seeking me..

Manimekalai : The seeking in your eyes, may be.. Yesterday when I offered you food from this divine container (pointing at Atchaya Paathram) there was an overwhelming hunger in your eyes which couldn’t be for one single person… how you longed to grab the divine container from my hands….! (smiles again affectionately) So, I thought that if I take you along with me I would be able to serve the right persons… will you accompany me Anaamikaa..?

Anaamikaa : Oh, I will definitely come, my friend… but, how come you know my name!

Manimekalai : I called you Anaamikaa, the Nameless..! After all, what is there in a name…

Anaamikaa : (Shaking her head) – We can also say that everything is there in a name…! Anyway, can you be in more than one place at the same time..?

Manimekalai : Oh,no – that is not possible. Why ?

Anaamikaa : (as if speaking to her own self) – Because, there are too many have-nots all over the world… If you take our country we spend crores on cricket, missiles and rockets. But, there is no decent shelter for the poor… no clean public- toilet…the gap between the rich and the poor keeps on widening… (as if remembering suddenly) and, one more thing… your divine container can give food alone or other things also…? ( sad tune heard from afar)

Manimekalai : Food only. Why do you ask..?

Anaamikaa : Because, there are several other basic needs to be realized.. Like true love, for instance…by the way, it is good that the prince Udhayakumaran and yourself parted ways… at the budding stage of love itself…

Manimekalai : Oh, no, the pain is killing at times, you know…(looks anguished)

Anaamikaa : Exactly.. and it is because you couldn’t come together… so, each one’s expectations of the other remain intact… like the tightly closed palm which keeps the expectations and speculations of what would be inside, alive… so, there is no room for disillusionment… also, you are still young and beautiful and also rich, in possession of that divine container of yours… you have saved yourself from the pain of being cast away once your body is sucked to the core, once its secret spots have all been thoroughly scaled and you become old and bankrupt…(the lights turn grey and the Music turns into a mourn)

Manimekalai : Are you crying Anaamikaa..?

Anaamikaa : Don’t we all, at times…? not just for one particular person but for the whole lot of time lost in such a hide and seek game called Love… oh, come on, I will get you something to eat..Wonder whether you had anything all these hours…oh, hoiw stupid of me- you have your divine container and..

Manimekalai : No, I can’t get food from it.. it is to feed others…

Anaamikaa : Is it so! How nice it would be if such mechanisms are available to act as a check on our selfish and greedy rulers..!

(Both of them have a hearty laugh and disappear into the kitchen)

(The scene comes to a close)


Venue : Roadside

Characters : People, media-men, foreign tourists,Manimekalai, Anaamikaa, a child, poor woman, old man, others.

(Manimekalai and Anaamikaa are standing at a roadside, surrounded by all sorts of people. Poor people, politicians, children, foreign-tourists …Media persons vie with each other to get a word from Manimekalai… questions come from all sides.. (The tunes of various advertisements that we come across in T.V.Channels and Radio shoud form the background music)

Media Person 1 _Manimekalai Madam… what for you have come here..?

Media person 2 _ Where do you go from here…?

Reporter of a Newspaper _ What are you future plans?
(Reporters’ queries should be in the tone and manner of the T.V. News Readers)

A child _ Will you give me that beautiful toy in your hand..?

A poor woman _ ( In a pleading voice) Do you have another one of that sort…? if only I can have a bellyful everyday I need not go to that rotten work, facing all sorts of abuses, sexual and otherwise..(Manimekalai wipes away the tears that roll down the hapless woman’s cheeks)

An old man with a walking stick _ You get cooked food only in that, no? For, at this age my sons are not willing to keep me with them… and, If only I have such a container as this, half of my problem will be solved…(speaks in a trembling voice. Manimekalai takes hold of his hand compassionately).

Manimekalai is seen crushed in the midst of the suffocating crowd. Anaamikaa drags her out of it all and makes her sit in an auto. The vehicle goes off at great speed with the ocean of humanity in hot pursuit.

(Scene 3 comes to a close)


Venue : Three spot-light spots on the stage

Characters : Two or three thugs, two or three greedy political big-wigs,
a few good samaritans.

On stage three different locations are shown with the help of flash-lights in three different colours. In each spot there are two to three persons deep in discussion.

I Spot : First Person :_ So, it is decided. We are kidnapping Manimekalai.

Second Person _ And, we are to kidnap her along with the divine container. If we fail to do so, then we are demanding the vessel as ransom. Got it?

First Person : - Perfect!

(Both of them leave the spot and the spot turns dark slowly, leavingits side of the stage vacant)

II Spot : First Person _ Don’t say “I will try my best’ and that usual stuff. You are bringing Manimekalai into our fold. If we can make her our Public Relations Officer our Party would fare extremely well in the coming Elections..

Second Person _ (Irritated) You fool, I am thinking on the line of forming a new Party having her at the helm of affairs… and the symbol is that divine container.! How is that!

Third Person _(vigorously clapping) A real sixer! I will go and bring her by hook or crook , Master… and, what to do with the other lady…?

Second Person _ That good for nothing woman.. if needed we have to take her also into our fold… or, better still, intimidate her so that she would stay away from Manimekalai…

(The men leave and the place grew dark with the flash-light switched off)

III Spot :- A group of men and women are seen to be debating something all too intently.

A Woman : We should somehow save Manimekalai and that woman… After all this is what we have been fighting for, no… that one and all should get access to their basic needs…

A Man : And, this lady has come all the way, crossing centuries and the great abyss of time to feed our people ..isn’t it our duty to protect her…? We should waste no more time.. let’s go in search of her…come what may… we should support those two…

(The people leave and the spot grew dark with the flash-light switched off)

(Scene 4 comes to a close)


Venue : A hide-out kind of place.

Characters : Manimekalai, Anaamikaa, prince Udhayakumaran, News-Reader,
some people on the seashore.

The T.V is on. News Time

News Reader : It is unanimously decided that Manimekalai should not be allowed to go on her own and feed the people. As it is bound to create a Law and Order problem, the Government has decided to take up the matter. Political parties vie with one another to get Manimekalai into their fold. As she looks beautiful and as she is a very good dancer the movie-makers are marching towards her place to book her. Historians and Archeologists also are hurrying to meet her to collect information pertaining to the period in which she lived.

Manimekalai : (Looking up sadly) Now, what are we going to do Anamikaa..? I don’t want to give you any trouble.. Let me go…it is just that I don’t want to waste this divine container… I want to put it to good use here…but, it seems that I will not be allowed to do so…(looks above, thoughtfully)

Anaamikaa : Don’t lose heart Manimekalai… let’s find out some way…But, we have many free meals scheme today… true, that despite all those there are still a sizeable number of people who die without food.. also, for the sake of getting at least one square meal a day there are a lot who have to toil hard all the thirty days of a month… to relieve them of their burden and to give them a chance to enjoy life, your divine container is very much needed here… but…(looks at Manimekalai with real concern)

Manimekalai : I know I cannot remain here for long… They wont allow me to get along with my work.. and they won’t spare you too…Further, the traffic and pollution here prove too much for me… in my place, during the period in which I lived, it was not this bad… let me pray to Goddess Manimekala .. she will show me some way… ( closes her eyes and sits erect )

After a few moments Manimekalai opens her eyes and smiles at Anaamikaa. The latter looks at her questioningly.

Manimekalai : She is such a good soul Anaamikaa, who is always there when I am in need of help…you know what! she has asked me to leave the divine container here itself and leave the earth at once.. if someone comes to you , just give this letter of mine where I have made it clear that it should be in your custody.

Anaamikaa : (Looking apprehensive) But.. if someone takes it away by force.. if someone smashes it…?

Manimekalai : you need not worry on that score. No one can break this divine container. And, thousands of hands can feel it or hold it, but only those hands that are genuinely concerned about the hunger of others can get food out of it. Whoever wants to feel it, let them do so. If they come with some hidden motives, the container would remain empty. And, if someone takes it away by force, or, if the State orders you to surrender it to the Government Exchequer, it will come back to you, wherever you are..One more thing, I have also appealed to Goddess Manimekala to modify it suitably so that you can relieve people of their hunger and also fulfil their numerous other unsatiated but fair needs. You are the deciding authority in this… Happy..?

Anaamikaa - (with tears welling up in her eyes, going towards Manimekalai and holding her hands) My dear girl..

Manimekalai : (giving her an affectionate hug) – Do you want to test it for your self..? Try it. For, I have to leave in a short while..

Anaamikaa : What !

Manimekalai : Yes, Please try for yourself whether it works..

Anaamikaa : Please, you must also close your eyes!

(Manimekalai obeys. Then Anamikaa closes her eyes and prays. After a moment she raises her head towards the sky and does a gesture with her hands, as if calling somebody to get down)

The stage turns completely dark for a moment and the next instant amidst the flash of bright colours prince Udhayakumaran stands in front of Manimekalai!

Manimekalai : ( Looking shocked but at the same time extremely happy, she exclaims) –Udhay!

(Then, she turns towards Anaamikaa. Anaamikaa nods her head with a smile full of affection and empathy)

Anaamikaa : (Walking here and there slowly, utters these words softly) True, Love has its dark side, but, it is not all dark Manimekalai. And, don’t you know those golden words.. IT IS BETTER TO HAVE LOVED AND LOST THAN TO HAVE NEVER LOVED AT ALL.. Go on, Love him, give him your all and have him lock, stock and barrel..! This is the only befitting way of conveying my thanks to you for your immense trust in me.. Such an affectionate person you are, and why should you remain hungry, depriving yourself of the love that you long for..? I will help as many as possible, in all possible ways, I promise. My best-wishes to both of you,my friend..!

Like a child so full of joy Manimekalai hugs and kisses Anaamikaa on the cheeks .

Then , the lovers whirl and swirl in an ecstatic dance , accompanied by romantic tunes, on the vast stretch of the sand-bed of the beach before getting into the Sea and as they wave happily to the people on the shore, there Anaamikaa is seen standing amidst them, allowing the children to touch the divine container in her hand and slowly taking out all kinds of toys and distributing them to the kids, all the while casting a sad, affectionate look on the sea and its ceaseless waves.

(The Play comes to an end)