Language never ceases to be the subject of debate and controversy. Will literary discourse through translations of great works from one Indian language to another help? Yes, says Dr. N. Sundaram, retired Professor of Hindi, Presidency College, Chennai. After all, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan said, “Indian literature is one, although written in many languages.” Sundaram’s mother tongue is Kannada, but he has, through his Hindi translations of Tamil literary works, taken Tamil to the Hindi heartland.

Childhood in Periakulam was a difficult time for Sundaram, for his father was a purohit with a meagre income. When he was 15, his father died, and his mother took up a job in Coimbatore as a mill worker. But Sundaram stayed back in Periakulam to finish his schooling. He was allowed to stay at the Hindi Prachar Sabha, where he attended Hindi classes.

“The Hindi Prachar Sabha ran a circulating library. Tamil magazines such as Ananda Vikatan and Kalki would be circulated to about 100 families. I was the one who had to deliver the magazines to these families. I was paid 10 rupees a month. That helped me take care of my school fees. The bonus was that I got to read all of Devan’s and Kalki’s stories, even before the subscribers did,” laughs Sundaram, whose favourite fictional character is Devan’s Thuppariyum Sambu.

“Film actor Major Sundarrajan was my classmate in school. We both acted in Hindi plays put up by the Hindi Prachar Sabha. I once played the role of Noorjahan, and Major was Shah Jahan!” Sundaram toyed with the idea of taking up acting as a profession, but his orthodox family didn’t approve.

After graduating and post graduating in Hindi, Sundaram took up the post of lecturer in Raja’s College, Pudukkottai. This proved to be a turning point in Sundaram’s life, for it was here that he met Sanskrit scholar Pudukottai A. Srinivasa Raghavan. “Srinivasa Raghavan asked me to study the Divya Prabandham, and later suggested that I do my Ph.D in Hindi, making a comparative study of Andal and Meera.”

Translating Andal’s works into Hindi was not easy. Sundaram came up with Sanskrit equivalents for Tamil terms, but it was important to find the Hindi equivalents. “My guide at Jabalpur University, Dr. Udaynarayan Tiwari, helped me.”

For 10 years, Sundaram attended summer schools on linguistics, organised by the Ford Foundation. Translations of Thirukkural and Bharatiar’s works followed. Translating Bharatiar’s patriotic poems posed a new challenge to Sundaram, for he wanted his translations to be in verse form. Till then his translations had all been in prose. He took the help of Dr. Viswanath, a professor in Jabalapur University, for the translations of Bharatiar’s poems. “Illustrated Weekly of India ran a Hindi journal called Dharm Yug, in which they carried our translations, with suitable illustrations.”

While Sundaram’s mentor, Srinivasa Raghavan, had already translated Divya Prabandham into Hindi, Tamil Saivite literature remained untouched. When Sundaram was asked by Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, to do it, he welcomed the opportunity. While his translations of Tiruvachagam, Appar’s and Sundarar’s verses have been published, the translation of Gnanasambandar’s work is yet to be published, although the manuscript is ready.

How faithful is a translator to the original? “He must be faithful. That is his dharma,” says Sundaram. In this context, he points to his translation of Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s ‘Ore Ratham.’ “The book contains anti-Hindi statements, but there was no dilution in my translation, just to please the Hindi audiences. And yet, the translation had a very good reception!”

Sundaram assisted Linguistics professor, Dr. Charles White, in translating ‘Hita Chaurasi’ a collection of 84 verses about Radha. Sundaram ‘hand-lettered the Hindi text’ for the book. His copper plate handwriting can put print to shame. “I don’t have such a neat hand any more, after I had a stroke,” he says. He has interesting observations to make about what he calls the ‘Radha concept.’ Radha, a concept? “Yes, Radha is a purely imaginary character. There is no mention of Radha in early literature. In the Bhagavatam, we find the words ‘anayaa radhito.’ This just means a loving one. The name Radha is never used.” Sundaram has done a comparative study of ‘Nappinnai’ spoken of by the Azhvars and Radha of later Hindi literature.

Sundaram has written 40 books, of which 25 are translations. A translation cannot be patchy. And yet the translator cannot ramble, looking for the right words to capture the original meaning. A translator, as much as an author, must come up with lapidary lines of prose. Despite these difficulties, Sundaram loves the challenging job of translation. Would not years of translation blunt one’s originality? No, says Sundaram, who even has a plot for a novel in Tamil!

Sundaram is at a loss to understand why language should be a bone of contention. There’s been so much give and take between languages, that there is no need to fight over languages, he feels. “In Karnataka, there is a sect of Brahmins in areas like Subrahmanya, Ramanaathapura and Rudrapatnam, who speak a very old language called Sankethi. It is a combination of Tamil and Kannada. These people are great Sanskrit and Kannada scholars, but at home they speak Sankethi. Their contribution to Kannada matches that of the Mandayam Iyengars, whose love for Tamil Vaishnavite literature is well known,” he observes.

To omit bhakti literature, while talking of Tamil literature is unacceptable to him. “Let’s keep politics out of literature,” he says. He writes a column for a Hindi daily, called ‘Learning Tamil through Hindi.’ “There’s been an excellent response to the column.”

His ambition? To translate Sangam works like Ettuthogai, Pathupaattu and Padinenkeezhkanakku.

From the conversation with Sundaram

‘Vaippu nidhi,’ the term we now use for a savings bank account, is one that was used frequently in Saivite bhakti literature.

Tamil scholar Dr. Mu. Raghava Iyengar took his cue from Andal’s words ‘Velli ezhundu vyaazhan urangitru’ to establish the date of the Thiruppavai.

Andal uses the word ‘vaduvai’ for wedding. The Kannada word for wedding is ‘maduvai.’

Footnotes -

The Bhasha Sangam was established in 1960, with a view to popularising Indian literature. Dr. Sundaram is the President of the Sangam.

The Hindi translations of Tha.Na. Kumaraswamy’s stories by his daughter-in-law Dr. Bhawaani, have been published by the Sangam.

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