Tamil-English translator Priyamvada Ramkumar's translation of Jeyamohan’s Aram (Stories of the True) is on the shortlist of American Literary Translators Association’s award

Chennai-based Priyamvada Ramkumar is a private equity investor by day and a Tamil-English translator by night. Her first book-length translation of popular Tamil writer B Jeyamohan’s collection of stories, Aram (Stories of the True, Juggernaut Books, 2022) is on the shortlist of the 2023 American Literary Translators Association’s National Translation Awards (NTA), which was announced on Wednesday (October 11).

In its 25th year (separate prizes in poetry and prose started nine years ago), the other five books on the shortlist include: Chinatown by Thuân, translated from Vietnamese by Nguyễn An Lý (New Directions/Tilted Axis); I’d Like to Say Sorry, but There’s No One to Say Sorry To by Mikołaj Grynberg, translated from Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (The New Press); So Distant From My Life by Monique Ilboudo, translated from French by Yarri Kamara (Tilted Axis Press); Spadework for a Palace by László Krasznahorkai, translated from Hungarian by John Batki (New Directions); and Valli: A Novel by Sheela Tomy, translated from Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil (HarperCollins India).

The jury said that all 12 stories in the collection Stories of the True areraw and deeply moving” that “capture the tales of real people wrestling to find and hold on to innate goodness, desperately seeking light in the depths of darkness and striving for a higher sense of purpose and state of being.”

“From tending to animals in a forest to begging a publisher for payment that is rightfully due, scenes are electric in nature and cinematic in feel, engraving a lasting impression on the reader. In this intimate collection — as a whole and vividly rehashed in each part — Priyamvada Ramkumar deploys a playful turn of phrase; a masterful stretching of the English language; and an incisive awareness of the barriers imposed by the politics of caste, class and gender to lay bare disconcerting truths about human nature,” it added.

Ramkumar’s translation of Jeyamohan’s Vellai Yaanai/White Elephant, a work-in-progress, has been awarded the 2023 PEN/Heim Translation Grants. In this in-depth interview to The Federal, she talks about the subtle nuances of translation, why it’s important to be a good reader of the original work, and a good listener, to be a translator, and much more. Excerpts from the interview.

Before translating B. Jeyamohan’s short story collection Aram, you translated one of the short stories by A. Muttulingam, ‘Ennai Thirupi Edu’ (Take Me Back). What drew you to A. Muttulingam’s writing?

I translated this short story as a part of my application for the South Asia Speaks mentorship programme. At the time, I was already working on translating Aram, which as you’d know now, is an intense, emotionally charged collection of stories. So, I wanted to try my hand at something altogether different in tone and style. The levity in A Muttulingam’s writing attracted me instantly. He is a master of the short story form. The way he braids humour and profundity leaves you feeling weightless, yet fulfilled. Take Me Back is a cheeky but thought-provoking story about a second-generation immigrant who tries to return himself at the hospital where he was born. Later, I shared the translation with Muttulingam aiyya. He liked it, and encouraged me to publish it.

Translating the works of Jeyamohan must involve a deep understanding of his cultural and linguistic nuances. Could you elaborate on the complexities and rewards of translating his novel and stories into English?

Jeyamohan is a rare writer who has truly pushed the boundaries of his chosen language; he has written in a variety of forms and registers, and coined new words, even. He is also a writer you turn to if you look to literature to seek answers to the ‘big questions’ in life, in the same way that, in world literature, one turns to Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s because he’s a remarkable intellectual with a very deep interest in and appreciation of history, culture, and philosophy, all of which find their way into his creations.

So yes, translating him is no mean task. To be able to recreate his work in another language, one needs to unearth not only the “inner language” of that particular work, but the specific context in which it is placed. It may often mean spending more time reading than translating, as I’m discovering with the novel I’m currently translating. In a way, it feels like retracing the steps the author has taken, perhaps, over many years of conscious or unconscious study and absorption.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t think of all this when I started working on Stories of the True. I was primarily answering a creative urge I felt at that time. If I had stopped to ponder the gravity of the task at hand, I don’t think I would’ve been able to proceed. To be able to travel with some of the finest works in modern Tamil literature, and inhabit them in a manner that’s perhaps second only to the author, is a real privilege.

You mention that the characters in the stories in Aram represent a wide spectrum — while some adhere to collective ethics (podhu-aram), others discover their individual path of righteousness (thannaram). Could you discuss the process of translating moments of internal dilemmas and self-discovery in these characters? Were there any linguistic or cultural subtleties that posed difficulties?

A number of the stories in this collection are told in first person. Some take place entirely over the course of a conversation between two people. So, there was one set of stories where the dilemma and the catharsis were both expressed in an everyday language. The primary challenge here was to get the voice right. Otherwise, I ran the risk of the characters sounding maudlin and annoying! And where there’s dialogue, dialect can’t be far behind, especially in a starkly diglossic language such as Tamil. So there was that to deal with. In other stories, the search and catharsis is delivered through atmosphere — take ‘Peacock Blue’ or ‘The Palm-Leaf Cross’, for instance. In ‘Peacock Blue’, the protagonists lose themselves in music, and go through a transcendental experience. I had to find creative ways of delivering the mood to the reader in English.

Jeyamohan is a rare writer who has truly pushed the boundaries of his chosen language; he has written in a variety of forms and registers: Priyamvada Ramkumar

The other, more common, element across these stories was the emotional roller coaster one goes through, along with the characters. Emotion is what sets this collection apart. Since Aram was really close to my heart as a reader, first, it was relatively easy to hit the right note here. But there is this sense that the Anglophone world is somewhat averse to displays of emotion. While I was mindful of not having the prose sound odd in English, I didn’t want to sandpaper the emotion either. It may be seen as a different or new aesthetic, perhaps, but isn’t that also what translations should do? Expand the boundaries of taste?

Some stories in the collection are nearly as long as novellas. Can you share your experience in handling the pacing and transitions within these longer narratives during the translation process? Were there specific strategies you employed to maintain the reader’s engagement?

I must admit that encountering long narratives in my debut work really tested my discipline. From what I have seen so far, the mortality rate of newbies in translation is rather high. It’s not so much the lack of skill as the stamina to keep at it that does it, I think, particularly when there’s so little external reward for the work. I was not commissioned to translate this work, no one was going to hold me responsible if I did not finish it, not even Jeyamohan. So the most elementary strategy was simply to stay on course! The pace and the quality of my translation improved considerably when I started working with a daily discipline. I think it’s crucial, especially for novels, or long narratives of any kind. When I accumulate a few no-translation days, it gets that much harder to get back into the skin of the narrative, the voice, the tone, all of that.

The other technique that really helped me polish my work was to read it aloud. In one of our South Asia Speaks sessions, Arunava Sinha encouraged me to do this as a way to preserve the distinctiveness of the various voices in the text. I found that it did wonders while editing the work, in general. I read the Tamil original and my English translation out loud, para by para, to convince myself that the evocations were all there.

You also write in the Introduction that Jeyamohan’s writing is characterised by a deep faith in humanity, even in dark subjects. Can you talk about a specific passage or character from the translated work that exemplifies this theme? How was the process of maintaining that positivity in the English version?

When I wrote that line I was envisioning Jeyamohan’s oeuvre as a whole. His novel, Ezham Ulagam (The Abyss), translated by my friend and colleague Suchitra Ramachandran exemplifies it, too. It takes the idea of “life is suffering” to the extreme, and goes on to turn it on its head as if to say, so what, there is great nobility in there, too.

If the suffering in the Abyss is externally wrought, in Stories of the True, the “darkness and rot” is both external and internal. Take the story, ‘A Hundred Armchairs’, for instance. There is an outward darkness Dharmapalan has to contend with, in the guise of caste oppression and caste prejudice. But there is a far more exhausting internal darkness he has to grapple with in the form of his relationship with his mother. It’s a gut-wrenching story. How does one make peace with abandoning one’s mother? It’s an impossibility. But every time I read the passage [excerpt below] where Dharmapalan’s guru acknowledges this truth, my eyes well up. It’s not sentiment or pity, it’s the nobility of truth that evokes such a response from us. In the admission of an inexorable injustice, if ever there is such a thing, light breaks through the darkness. That is what I meant. There’s always, always, balance in Jeyamohan’s writing — both at the level of story and spiritual outlook.

I can’t claim to have had a specific strategy for it, though, other than to follow the text closely.

The strain caused by speaking made his hands shake even more. He placed them beneath his thighs. Now, his forearms trembled. ‘Write the civil services examination. It won’t do to just clear it. You must secure a rank. No one should look down upon your answer sheet.’

‘It shall be so, gurudeva,’ I said.

‘I have informed James. You will receive money from the trust for four more years.’

In a firm voice, I said, ‘I will not need four years. Two are enough.’

When he understood what I’d just said, a gentle smile bloomed on his face. He nodded, as if to say yes, and gestured, bidding me closer. Once I neared him, he touched me on my shoulder, slowly wrapped his arms around my neck and embraced me. His hands reverberated on my skin like the featherless wings of an old bird. I kneeled and rested my head on his lap. He ran his soft fingers over my head and said, ‘Be brave. For a hundred generations, you’ve been running. It’s time to sit down.’ I broke into sobs.

My tears fell on his saffron vaetti.

His fingers stroked my ears tenderly. They caressed my cheeks. ‘Do not forsake your mother. Keep her with you. What we have done to her thus far is a huge sin. A pure and innocent animal is what she is. It is impossible to alleviate an animal’s grief. And so, it has an unimaginable depth. Do all that you can for her as absolution . . .’ he said. I sighed and wiped my eyes.

How’s the translation of White Elephant coming along? When is it going to be out? Could you also talk a bit about what makes it an important work to translate for a broader audience?

I recently read that British colonial policies claimed more than a hundred million lives in India, in the late 1800s and early 1900s alone. That’s mind-boggling. More so, when we consider that this statistic does not include the famines that happened in India prior to this period. We may not really think much about the famines today, but language, perhaps, has a deeper memory than our consciousness. There are phrases we use in Tamil that were surely coined during famines but used more euphemistically today [such as the insult, panja paradesi!]. I’m sure that’ll be true of other Indian languages too. Yet there’s precious little written about it.

White Elephant is a novel centred on this reality. Set against the backdrop of the Great Famine of 1876-1878 in Madras Presidency, it builds on what is conjectured to be the earliest labour uprising in the country. It foregrounds the condition of the Dalits during this time, and serves as a scathing indictment of everyone whose conscience was numb to the suffering of their fellow people. As is characteristic of Jeyamohan’s works, though, it also steps above its immediate context. It elevates the discourse from specific to universal by presenting to us the anatomy of injustice, one that will, sadly, fit the making of any humanitarian crime.

Literary translation is not just about rendering words from one language to another but also about capturing the essence and emotions of the original work. How do you balance the need for linguistic accuracy with the preservation of the author’s unique style and voice when translating Tamil works?

I think the first step is to be a good reader of the original work, a good listener. Are you able to catch the nuances of meaning as well as the music of the language? Without that, any translation will fall flat, no matter how skilled we may be with the target language.

Also, when we talk of accuracy or fidelity in translation, the more important question, I feel is, fidelity to what. We are not working in service of particular words, or of the text at a sentence level. What we are trying to transport into a new medium is the impact the work had on us as a reader. So the fidelity is to that impact. As a translator then, we take as much creative liberty as is needed to create the same impact. That said, the less the embellishments and omissions in that process, the truer we will remain to the original.

If the author has many published works, I find that it helps to have read him or her widely before you translate. While it may not be the only way, for sure, I think I was able to recreate Jeyamohan’s prose with some degree of success because I had read him for years before I translated him.

Could you talk about the role of translation in fostering cultural exchange and understanding between different literary traditions, especially at a time when translations from Indian languages into English have seen a revival of sorts?

I think at a very fundamental level, translation is imperative for any form of dialogue. Even when we talk in the same language, we are constantly translating our thoughts into words in a manner where we hope to be understood easily and accurately. Without translation, no exchange of ideas is possible. As far as literary tradition goes, if we pause to consider the number of books that we wouldn’t have read, but for translation, the importance of the art form will be immediately apparent. From Tintin and Asterix to Herman Hesse and Gabriel García Márquez, to our own epics closer home, there’ll be an unimaginable trove of writing that would’ve been utterly inaccessible to us.

The foremost writers in our languages recognised this. In Tamil, Bharathi and Pudhumaipithan, for instance, also translated from other languages into Tamil. The modern short story form in Indian languages has been greatly influenced by translations, even adaptation, from world literature. I remember writer and translator Jenny Bhatt talking about Maxim Gorky’s influence on the Gujarati writer Dhumketu. There are several such examples. We have also had a long tradition of translations between Indian languages that has cross-pollinated literary landscapes within the country.

With more Indian works being available on the world stage, this can finally be a two way street, although, I think there’s still a long way to go before we can see that happen. It will certainly be pleasing to hear about writers in other countries being shaped by our literary greats. Having said that, I don’t think this cultural exchange should be prompted by chest-thumping tendencies. Personally speaking, my motivation to translate primarily stems from an excitement to share what I loved reading, or what left me changed or deeply moved in some way. Sometime back, a reader from Ohio, USA, contacted me to say how much Stories of the True moved her, and how she could see a novel-like depth in them. It’s a great feeling when the work you translate resonates with someone from across continents, despite all the naysayers asking ‘how will they understand our culture.’ That’s the power of literature. I think that connection is what we should celebrate.

In your opinion, what are some of the untapped treasures in Tamil literature that you believe deserve more attention on the global literary stage? What do you plan to translate next?

At the risk of sounding old-school, I feel a number of our ‘big’ writers, the people who have captured the imagination of many generations in Tamil, have not really been seen on the global literary stage. Ashokamitran, Jeyakanthan, Sundara Ramaswamy, Pudhumaipithan, for example. And it’s not for a lack of good translations. We’ve had some world class pairings as in the case of veteran translator N Kalyan Raman who has extensively translated Ashokamitran. More broadly speaking, while the quality of translations we were putting out may have been part of the problem, I feel the bigger problem lies in when and where they were published. I was excited to see Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliyamarathin Kadhai being retranslated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan [The Tamarind Tree, Amazon Crossing, 2022]. I hope more such works are rediscovered, republished, and read more widely.

As for my next project, I have a few novels in mind, but I haven’t settled on anything yet. Jeyamohan’s body of work is so huge, I can spend the rest of my life translating his works! But I’m also toying with the idea of translating some debut novels. Let’s see.

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