Prema Jayakumar, one of the leading translators in Kerala, talks to ANASUYA MENON on the creative process of translation

Prema is among Kerala’s prominent translators who introduced to English some of Malayalam literature’s priceless gems. From Madampu Kunjukuttan’s Ashwathama to Sethu’s Marupiravi, which she is currently working on, Prema has translated 12 novels to English. Marupiravi will be the 13th. “I have to like the book. I do not believe I can translate something I don’t like,” she says.

It is a passion she terms serendipitous, for it was only after she translated Ashwathama (which was published in 1977 by Vikas) that Prema found she enjoyed the process. The book cast a spell on her when she read it for the first time and she wanted her friends, who could not read Malayalam, to share the joy. “I wrote it down in a notebook. Actually, I typed it out because I have poor handwriting,” she says. “And that is how it all began.”

Writer N.N. Kakkad was a family friend and he encouraged her attempt at translation. It was also in his library that Prema found a wealth of books to feed her interest in reading. “From Greek poetry to behavioural science, there was nothing he did not have,” she says.

On a low stool in the drawing room, her works have been stacked neatly, some of them covered in white plastic. “Translation is an extremely creative process. The thrill of finding the right words is inexplicable. In poetry, it is even more exciting as the language is already compressed and elusive. When you capture a phrase or the rhythm exactly, it makes the exercise worth it,” she says. Prema does not devote specific hours for work. “Sometimes it just happens. Sethu’s Pandavapuram just flowed. I wrote it during my pregnancy, when I was advised bed rest.”

But sometimes, the tussle with words can be laborious. There are plenty of words in Malayalam that have no exact equivalents in English, says Prema. “‘Niyogam’, for instance, could be loosely translated to fate, but the context in which it is used in Sethu’s book is different. We debated a lot on the title before deciding upon The Wind from the Hills.” The book was nominated for the Crossword Award in the Indian language fiction translation category in 2008. ‘Yakshi’ is another untranslatable word, she points out. “A vampire is a poor substitute. Our ‘yakshis’ are beautiful, accomplished creatures.” Her translation of Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s popular novel received much critical acclaim. Dialects, too, pose problems. “In M. Mukundan’s works, the language is typically Mahe. There are no dictionaries available to refer. You can always speak to the author, but there are times when you have to risk a guess,” she says. The most difficult task was translating C.V. Raman Pillai’s Ramaraja Bahadur. The Malayalam was archaic and the text was particularly tough. Though her strong base in Sanskrit helped, it took Prema two years of hard work to complete it. Incidentally, C.V’s legendary work Marthanda Varma was translated by her father, a banker turned poet and writer, B.K. Menon.

The main challenge in translation is to produce a readable text which is true to the original. “The translator is always there in the middle. It is an interpretation,” she says. She sends the book to the author after translation. Malayattoor, after reading Yakshi, rewrote the first chapter and sent it back to her, immediately followed by a letter requesting her to ignore his work and continue with what she had written.

A post graduate in English literature, Prema did not lose her rare knack to merge two entirely different linguistic worlds to the tangled web of numbers. Even as she worked for the State Bank of India for 20 years, she nurtured her passion for translation. “It is not a feat or anything,” she laughs. “A bank is full of misfits. P.G. Wodehouse was a banker. Only that he was chucked out for writing a story on the back page of the ledger,” she breaks off again, laughing. “What about Eliot? T.S. Eliot was a banker. Franz Kafka was a banker.... It was my job and I would never have met the kind of people I did had I not been in banking,” she says.

A lot of fine literary creations in Malayalam are read in translation, but translation still has not received the recognition it should, she feels. The recently brought out second edition of Prema’s Pandavapuram does not even bear her name.

Prema wrote her first book Karunakara Menonum East India Companyum in Malayalam in 2009, on the unusual life of her ancestor Karunakara Menon, who was an employee of the British company. She has also brought out a couple of retold epics for children for Mango books. “I have read the Mahabharatha in the original and I enjoyed writing for children,” she says. One book that she has always wanted to do is G. Aravindan’s Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum. “It has always been on my mind. I will do it sometime,” she says.

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