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‘And Then’: True to the land and its tongue

Translating Tamil works into English should be an easy task considering the centuries-old interaction between the two languages and the availability of translators with mastery over both the languages. But capturing the cultural milieu in an alien language continues to defy even ace translators. Professor T. Marx, who has translated Sahitya Akademi winner Poomani’s maiden novel Piragu as And Then in English admits the difficulties. Dialects, the Karisal region in particular, pose a challenge even to a native of Tamil Nadu and a regular reader of Tamil literary works.

Piragu, depicting the life of cobblers in the years following Independence, is narrated in the voice of Alagiri, the central character.

“The specific challenge was finding the linguistic equivalents for the Karisal cultural markers, and more disturbingly, the rural slang, something with which Poomani couldn’t help,” says Marx, who is Professor of English, Pondicherry University.

The very first sentence of the novel establishes that while it is easy to find a suitable English word, using Tamil and English together alone will do justice and convey effectively the spirit of the original work. Marx has adopted the style wherever it is possible and fulfilled expectations, in the light of the fact that Poomani is in the limelight after another novel of his, Vekkai, has been made into box-office hit Asuran.

“The opening sentence contains a few words which may sound vulgar. But they reflect a particular way of life and Marx has succeeded to a great extent in translating such words,” says K. Chellappan, former director, State Institute of English, in his foreword.

Prose and empathy

Poomani refuses to be a captive of ‘isms’ and clearly avoids the tone of propaganda, but his prose and empathy with his characters powerfully convey the message to the reader. “I can attest to the fact that the Chakkilikudi (community of cobblers) still feels rather forgotten/neglected in the historiography of India, but in Piragu, Poomani gives voice to the place — Karisal land and its people — the Chakkiliyars,” Marx says. There are passages that vouch for the effortless translation. For instance, “Some seven or eight more people were also snoozing on the dais with withered neem flowers sprinkled all over their bodies,” conjures up the slow-paced life in the rural areas. The death of a bull is a matter of celebration and Marx’s translation of the conversation between the characters going to skin the animal captures their mood.

“What saliva secretes at the very thought of beef-eating? Naturally so many days have gone without it.”

“Go away, you fellow. Had it just before Thai Pongal. Probably you are languishing without a little morsel in your home.”

The conversation is followed by a song.

“Poomani’s presentation of folk songs in Piragu is similar to those introduced by Chinua Achebe in his novel, Things Fall Apart. In translating the songs, T. Marx’s fidelity to the original text is visible,” says S. Armstrong, Professor and Head, Department of English, University of Madras.

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 5:37:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/and-then-true-to-the-land-and-its-tongue/article30185616.ece

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