The strength of this translation is its translator’s total empathy and rapport with the original, with its theme. This gives him the immense advantage of winning reprieve for the many awkwardness-es of language that strew the translation. The word “crone”, for instance, that he has used for the physically disabled, ruthlessly side-lined yet alert and censorious mother-in-law of Anandhayi, the main character. I have not read the Tamil original: I don’t, thus, have the word used by the author. The word “kizham”, meaning old hag, occurs to me. But whatever the word, it would, very likely, be one that in context, invokes and absorbs into itself the basically insider status of the mother-in-law. “Crone” never attains this absorbent and illuminative quality. Even when the translation gains a momentum of its own, and the context becomes vivid and alive, its prose suffers a dent with the incursion of this word. Its tonal harmony gets ruptured: the imagery goes shaky, and all the craft — conscious or unconscious — that has gone into the fusion of language and narrative material, gets blemished.
Then, there is the plentiful use of literalisms. Tamil speech usages and conventions have been English-ed word for word. “O shut up. Stop your singing…”, for instance (page 34). The Tamil text, quite likely, does use the Tamil equivalent of “singing”. But the context gives an aggressive/sarcastic twist to the word, making it stand for “litany” — a boring intonation. The English hardly does this. “O shut up. Stop your singing…” is the rendering. “Singing” sounds just that, singing. Not the “yapping” as the context suggests, and would most certainly echo in the Tamil. “Swaying her waist like a sliced cucumber,” “twisting yourself into sixteen folds,” are some of the other literalisms that cut into the reader’s enjoyment of the story situations.
The indiscriminate use of slang constitutes the third variety of irritants in the translation.
Full of allusions
“This is such a shame, for crying out loud,” says Anandhayi. That whole para of seven lines is packed with allusions that are pure folk-speak, are of the soil in style as well as in story specifics (page 78, last para.) Into this setting and atmosphere of unselfconscious nativity, the translator inserts the trendy English of the phrase, “for crying out loud”, preceded by the equally trendy phrase “this is such a shame.”
Usually, in a translation, language trip-ups (not the same as inherent language shortcomings) cannot be explained away as they can be to some extent in original writings. But with this translation, so strong is the translator’s empathy with the original that it leads him no less frequently to clean, fault-free renderings. These interludes put into the background his shortfalls.
Two crucial junctures feature in the novel: one is the exchange between Anandhayi and her husband’s mistress, Lakshmi, on the emotive, culture-specific issue of the equations between wife and mistress. And the second is the scene of Anandhayi lying on the porch of her home, stricken by gastric ailments, assailed by memories of the licensed sexual assaults upon her by her husband. These assaults constitute the stuff of her growth from adolescence to womanhood.
The translating prose is straight at these junctures. It is factual and non-committal at the raw physical details of Anandhayi’s recapitulations — without, at the same time, becoming crudely explicit. Similar features would certainly be present in the original. And the translation captures their artless simplicity with matching artlessness and simplicity. Lakshmi’s observations on the expectations of the paramour from her man, “not sex that desperately, but love, a relationship, a support, a comfort…” makes the reader pause. Words here seem to become more than words: they seem truths gone mimetic, communicating through tremors of the voice, dilations or contractions of the eyes.
The translation registers all these undertones, overtones and semitones. It just makes it seem petty to talk about its lapses and shortcomings. You forget about translations versus originals, about the verbal dimension. You dwell only on the experiences behind the words, on the silence behind them.
The Taming of Women ; P. Sivakami, Translated from Tamil by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, Penguin Books, Rs.299.