Translating Kafka into Tamil is no mean achievement, even more so if it involves a complex father-son relationship
He's a lover of languages, fluent in German, French, and English and, of course, his mother tongue, Tamil. Teaching German at the Goethe-Institut (Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai) up to seven days a week, and heading the long distance learning program in cooperation with IGNOU, keep him very busy. As if his life wasn't hectic enough, P. Seralathan has translated Franz Kafka's Letter to the Father from the original German text (Brief an den Vater) into Tamil. The Tamil translation is entitled Thandaiku.
Seralathan says he was inspired to translate Letter to the Father for the potential of “Kafka's words [to] make us look at the power wielded by Indian parents over their children”.
In a rare departure for contemporary Indian or Tamil literature, this book explores the son's pent up remorse towards his father. It is not to say that a son in India cannot feel this for his father, but according to Seralathan, “it's something that is not really discussed openly in our patriarchal society.” To write explicitly about this experience is very uncommon to say the least. For some readers it may perhaps be considered even disrespectful.
Kafka, born into a middle class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, wrote the missive for his father Hermann in a bid to bridge the growing gap between them. Penned in November 1919, it is a 45-page indictment of the father's emotionally abusive and hypocritical behaviour towards his son.
Kafka admits in this letter that he's not sure what effect it will have: “Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more details than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking. And if I now try to give you an answer in writing, it will still be incomplete…”
Kafka gave the letter to his mother asking her to hand it to his father. We know Kafka's mother never delivered the letter; whether this was to shield her husband or her son we cannot be certain. What we do know is that Hermann never read the original letter.
Translator Seralathan prudently mentions that he actually has a great relationship with his own father. His interest in translating Letter to the Father was not only its theme, but also his general admiration of Kafka (1883-1924), one of the major fiction writers of the 20th century and whose works are amongst the most influential in Western literature.
“Difficult relationships between children and parents are not new; it's a theme well known in Indian traditions, but the problem is dealt with very differently here,” says Seralathan, who suggests that here the son having a tough time with his father will have a better relationship with his mother, who will be at pains to keep peace in the household.
“People silently suffer here under oppression, so I think they might appreciate reading Kafka's works in Tamil,” Seralathan says during his book reading in Chennai recently. “Those interested in world literature do not necessarily read English. They are introduced to these European authors through various small Tamil literature magazines, but then they are unable to read the English translations.” Seralathan feels that it's important to translate literature into Indian languages so “people can understand what others think in the world; so they can go on a mental journey abroad.”
Taking on challenges
As for the intricacies of translating such a text, Seralathan says, “It's not really a translation; it's more a ‘transcreation.' I had to transport Kafka's words into our native language conventions.” And Kafka is known for his intentional use of ambiguous terms or words, making it difficult for translators of all languages. He also utilised the trait special to the German language – creating sentences that could be an entire page long. These are considered very difficult to translate into English, particularly as in German language construction, the verb is positioned at the end of the sentence. Seralathan has to a great extent succeeded in finding Tamil equivalents for many idiomatic expressions employed by Kafka.
Seralathan is not the first one to translate Kafka into Tamil. A.V.Dhanushkodi has translated Kafka´s The Trial (1925) from German to Tamil and S. Devadass has translated other Kafka stories and letters from English to Tamil. In fact, Kafka has been translated into several other South Indian languages including Marathi by Neeti Badwe (Collection of Stories) and into Malayalam by V. Ravi Kumar (“Roopantharam”) The Metamorphosis (1912), The Judgment and In the Penal Colony (1914).
Nevertheless, thanks to P. Seralathan, avid readers in Tamil Nadu have the chance now to read Kafka’s most personal piece in their native language.
Seralathan's Tamil translation of Letter to the Father, Thandaiku, will be published by Kalachuvadu Pathipagam, Nagercoil.
Keywords: SEEMA SANGHI