Lakshmi Holmström, whose translations introduced distinct Tamil authors to readers of English, talks about finding the ‘right pitch’ of a book.

Lakshmi Holmström is an acclaimed author who has succeeded in bringing numerous Tamil literary works to readers all over the world through English translation. Sensitivity in approach, felicity in choice of words and a felt understanding distinguish her translations. She has handled short stories, novels and poems with nuanced precision. Contemporary writers such as Ambai, Salma, Bama, Pudumaipithan, Ashokamitran, Sundara Ramaswamy, Mouni, Imayam, Na. Muthuswamy and Cheran have become accessible owing to her efforts. She is a founder trustee of SALIDAA (South Asian Diaspora Literatures and Arts Archive). She was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2011 New Year’s Honours list for Service to Literature. In this e-mail interview, she talks about the numerous aspects of her work:

What set you off on this voyage of translation?

Like most of us in India, I have always been fascinated by what is said in one language, and how that may be ‘carried over’ into another; what works and what doesn’t and why. I had translated bits and pieces from Tamil into English over many years, as I moved from my study of mainstream ‘English Lit’ to Indian writing both in English and in Indian languages, and then again, more specifically, to writing by women. Then, when I was compiling a collection of short stories by Indian women, The Inner Courtyard, I translated a short story by Ambai, ‘Yellow Fish’. After that, translation became what I do, and what I like to do.

How much has the scene changed today?

I think publishers take translation much more seriously than they did 20 or 30 years ago. A great many translations are well produced and with attractive covers. At least some publishers publicise their translation list well, and make certain that they are reviewed. But it is a fact of life, I think, that there will never be a wide readership for many — or indeed most — translations outside specialised university courses. But at least there is a readership there.

Does the creativity that goes into the process get enough recognition? Or do translators have to bear the burden of preconceived ideas and exaggerated expectations (of readers), as when a well-loved book is made into a film?

I think that most readers — and again I’m excepting the specialist reader or indeed the discriminating and sensitive reader — don’t understand what exactly is involved in a translation. They can’t quite grasp the notion that languages differ hugely in lexis as well as syntax; that one language doesn’t ‘move into’ another automatically. Nor do they realise that when you translate a work, whether it is a poem or a long work of fiction, you have to keep in mind the integrity of the whole thing. Words and sentences may be the bricks and mortar but it has a structure as a whole that you are constantly aspiring towards. But of course, I’m also aware that different translators read, interpret and work differently.

What guides you through the currents and shoals of tackling a different language, culture and the unique quality of each writer?

I can’t answer this one easily. The most difficult part of translation is, I believe, finding the ‘right’ pitch and voice of the original, and to try and match that. I won’t say ‘replicate’; that’s impossible. But there is also the hard graft of familiarising oneself with the history and cultural background of the work. A translator should never be afraid of asking questions. Meanings don’t reside in dictionaries alone, we know.

How do you perceive the changes in Tamil feminist literature compared to when you first started out?

That’s been huge. I don’t know that I would characterise all of it as ‘feminist writing’. Many women writers are feminist, and articulate their feminism very clearly. But I believe the driving force in their writing — or in the best examples of their work — is not cerebral and generalised but springs from personal, felt experience. Hence Bama’s Dalit politics; hence Salma’s insights into the restricted world of Muslim women; hence the focus of Sri Lankan poets on violence done to women during and after the war; hence the younger women poets of Tamil and their politics of sexuality.

How do you choose a work? Does the writer or work “call” to you?

I have only ever translated a work that I’m committed to. Even if it is outrageously difficult: Imayam’s Beasts of Burden comes to mind. In that sense, yes, the work does indeed ‘call’ to me. Not necessarily the author, though.

Is it different/difficult to translate a poem compared to prose?

Each genre needs a different approach, certainly. As I said before, it’s the integrity of the whole that one needs to keep in mind. In the case of poetry, it is all the more important that a poem in translation works as a poem. Otherwise, one might as well give up.

What are the aims of SALIDAA and what has it been able to achieve?

SALIDAA has now renamed itself SADAA (South Asian Diaspora Arts Archive). It exists to collect and preserve the artistic and literary output by the South Asian Diaspora (i.e. of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan descent), since 1947. A digital archive displays selected materials from the physical archive, which is housed in the Brunel University library in London. The archive has existed for about 12 years, and is growing gradually. In the past year we have done a big project surrounding one of our important collections, that of the Asian Women Writers’ Collective, which existed in the 1980s and 1990s.

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