Malayalam books Authors

Malayalam literature translates into success stories


During a trip to her parents’ home in Thiruvananthapuram, Ministhy S read VJ James’ debut novel Purappadinte Pusthakam and was bowled over by its gentle and insightful narrative. Noticing the author’s email address in the book, Ministhy, an IAS officer in Uttar Pradesh, reached out to him to seek permission to translate it into English.

“That was his first book I translated in 2018. But it stayed on my computer. In 2019, I picked up more of his books in Kerala and ended up translating Dathapaharam, Nireeshwaran and Anti-Clock,” she says.

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Now, her translation of Anti-Clock, as well as Fathima EV’s and Nandakumar K’s translation of M Mukundan’s Delhi: A Soliloquy are on the shortlist of the JCB Prize for Literature 2021.

In the case of Delhi: A Soliloquy, Mukundan had suggested that Fathima translate his novel into English. Explaining why, he says: “We write in isolation; we are not part of mainstream Indian literature. Although I have been writing since the seventies, readers who don’t read Malayalam would have never heard of me.”

Brilliant writers in regional languages are often circumscribed by the language they chose to write in. But leading publishers’ interest in translations might change that, asserts Mukundan. “It will give many writers wide exposure and readership,” he says.

Instituted in 2018, the annual JCB literary award celebrates distinguished works of fiction or translated fiction by an Indian writer. In 2019, Malayalam authors Benyamin won it for Jasmine Days, and in 2020 S Hareesh for Moustache. This, says Benyamin, gave him access to an international readership and invitations to prestigious literary festivals in India and abroad.

Jayasree Kalathil, who translated Moustache, feels that a major push for writing in Indian languages was given by the Crossword Book Award and several Malayalam writers, including Mukundan and Benyamin, had won for their translated works.

When translators get their due

She explains: “Malayalam writers like Anand, Sarah Joseph and Subash Chandran won for their translated works. Over the years, publishers have begun to give translators their due. Recently, award-winning translator Jenny Croft wrote an open letter insisting that translators be given credit on the cover of the book itself.”

Historian, academic and translator J Devika says there is a huge readership for translations of Malayalam books as there is a large expatriate crowd who may not be able to read Malayalam but are eager to read books by Malayali authors.

“As a historian and translator, I want to capture that literary moment in history for my readers. I became a translator because I believe works in Malayalam needed to be read and appreciated by a large audience. Many authors today write about regional stories in Kerala in a dialect that is unique to that place. A good translator has to identify that place and dialect for a reader. The translator should not flatten the language into standard English, she should let the author’s voice be heard,” says Devika, who has translated novels of KR Meera and Unni R.

Ministhy says that translating a dialect or a nuanced word is not easy. She elaborates: “For instance, there are different kinds of sadness and when an author means despondent or distraught the translator has to find the precise word to do justice to the original work. Then there are certain words in Malayalam that do not have an equivalent in English. To ensure that I have communicated what the writer intended, I have a constant conversation with the writer.”

Taking cognisance of the translators’ work, Mukundan explains that what is done now is transcreation and not mere translation. “Many years ago, there was a lot of attention on the language, grammar and syntax. In the process, the mood and structure of the novel often got lost. But now, translators are able to recreate the ambience, narrative and architecture of a novel,” he says.

There is an active and symbiotic interaction between author and translator that ensures that the novel is not lost in translation.

Readers beyond borders

Celebrity authors like Meera, Benyamin, Mukundan, James, Hareesh and Unni have gone on to win readers beyond Malayalam with fine translations of their works. “Malayalam books have a pan-India appeal as a result of such translations. My stories and characters are rooted in Kerala but their predicaments, emotions and challenges are universal,” says Hareesh, many of whose works are already being translated.

Calling it a welcome trend, James says there is a give-and-take when translations gain acceptance from readers speaking different languages. He says: “We get an opportunity to learn about different cultures and there is a feeling of oneness. For instance, Lindsay Pereira’s Gods and Ends is a picturesque window to Goan culture and life while Daribha Lyndem’s Name Place Animal Thing is about Assam and its culture.”

With several publishers actively looking out for good writers in Malayalam, new works in Malayalam are reaching English readers soon after the book gets published in Malayalam, says Benyamin.

Mini Krishnan, who has worked as Translations Editor with Oxford University Press, had given a boost to translations from Malayalam like never before. Looking at the trend from the angle of a publisher, she explains, “With great inventiveness and energy, Malayalam writers have seen patterns in linking the personal, political and the universal in their stories. That has caught the imagination of the readers. The writers are articulate and able to connect with the reading public at literary festivals, YouTube talks and discussions. They have more visibility and the subjects they take up strike a chord with readers. They have highly individualised styles. It is also true that the translators are now bolder and willing to take risks.”

Fathima maintains that present-day writers are aware of the politics of translation. “We stand on the shoulders of translators like Gita Krishnankutty, Prema Jayakumar and Catherine Thankamma. They have shown us the path,” she says.

The art of translation

Instead of sticking to the text faithfully, the effort is to convey the author’s narrative. “Every word and idea, especially, when I have to find an alternative to a Malayalam word, is discussed with the author and then used. That is because we are aware that we are working with another person’s creative effort and there are constraints,” says Fathima.

In fact, before the manuscript is sent to the publisher, every word, punctuation and idea is discussed with the author to ensure that the translation is faithful to the novel, says Ministhy.

“The translations, nominations and prizes have brought recognition for Malayalam literature. At present, several good translators have shown that they can connect with a global readership,” says Benyamin.

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