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In true spirit

Sahitya Akademi Award winner Pingali Surya Sundaram's biography on Ramana Maharishi is the most authoritative and popular one till date.

IN WINNING the prestigious Central Sahitya Akademi Award for translation for this year, Pingali Surya Sundaram, the city-based translator has proved yet again that some of the best work in the field continues to be accomplished by `outsiders' to the academic profession.

Indeed, Sundaram's fascination for literary translation could not be farther away from his real life profession. A retired officer of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service (`a very prosaic occupation'), he began late his translation work, after his 60th birthday, `more by accident than by design.' Starting with a biography of Sri Satya Sai Baba, which he took up at the instance of some friends; before long, he had to his credit an impressive crop of translations of spiritual masters like Sri Ramana Maharshi, Sri Aurobindo and the Paramcharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.

The feat must have surprised Sundaram himself who lacked formal training of the craft and had `meagre acquaintance with Telugu literary works.' In fact, he had been to a European school and learned Telugu only in class seven. Such early disabilities were fortunately made up in Sundaram's career, partly because of his parentage. His father Pingali Lakshmikantham was a distinguished Telugu poet and scholar, and his mother, he recalls, was `a woman of great vision.'

A polyglot who knows four languages, Telugu, English, Hindi and Tamil, Sundaram has an MSc in Zoology from Andhra University and has had the privilege of coming in contact with spiritual personalities like J Krishnamurty.

The job in the audit and accounts department was rigorous, and as he worked hard ("I never received a reminder for any task") and raised his family, his real interest, spirituality, never abandoned him.

In 1985, when he was at Calcutta, for the first time, Sundaram came across some bound volumes of the journal The Mountain Path brought out by the Ramanashramam. Sundaram's early life seems to have given him the necessary skill in translation. At the age of 19, he had abridged Thomas Hardy's Wessex Tales into Telugu. Each tale of a formidable 120 pages was reduced to 5/6 pages in his hands. No small feat this! During 1950-51, at Visakhapatnam, he published these in the popular journal called Telugu Swatantra. Sundaram's career in translation spans a ten-year period from 1991-2001. It was while translating Ramana Maharshi that he discovered his real passion and took up works like Be As You Are by David Godman.

However, his translation of Self Realization, the biography of Ramana Maharshi originally in English by B.V Narasimha Swami, first published in 1931 has received wide acclaim. The volume remains the most authoritative biography of Maharshi till date.

Published by the Ramanashramam, every chapter of this book was seen and approved by Maharshi during his lifetime.

How does Sundaram approach his task? Well, a deep devotion to the subject is clearly the first step. "If the expression comes from the depth of the self, then it inevitably becomes poetical.'' He undertakes no revision. There is only one draft.

In the first rendering of the biography, he omitted details such as the English literary references, which he thought would be inappropriate to a predominantly Telugu audience. Later, he restored these details when the Ashram decided to bring out the complete text. This translation, Sundaram notes with satisfaction, has been extensively used.

According to Sundaram, a good translator ought to be a careful handler of the source language as much as the target language. He cites the example of the English language, which he argues, makes a preponderant use of complex sentences. Besides, it tends to employ the passive voice more often. He prefers to use `a cultivated, colloquial idiom which is not cheap orpedantic.'

His purpose is to `bring the spiritual works within the early reach of ordinary Telugu readers.' Atma Sakshatkaramu, the award winning biography is precisely such a book. Highly acclaimed, about two thousand copies of this volume have been recently brought out by an Ashram at Velpur to be distributed free of cost among interested readers.

Sundaram is unmindful of worldly success and recognition. "I have never longed for name and fame," he says in a spirit of detachment, "what is important is that one must outgrow one's ego." Atma Sahakahatakaramu can be had from Sri Ramanashramam, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu-606 603.


(The author is a Professor of English at the University of Hyderabad.)

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