Literary Review

Review: A new translation of Sundara Ramaswamy’s 1981 classic JJ: Some Jottings

JJ: Some Jottings; Sundara Ramaswamy, trs A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Penguin Random House India, Rs. 299.  

Sundara Ramaswamy’s JJ: Some Jottings must be an interesting and exciting read in the original Tamil. It must represent an extraordinary feat for a Tamil writer to invent a Malayalam writer and authenticate him with footnotes and cross references. When the book was first published, it was a watershed in Tamil fiction, a parody that critiqued Tamil culture, society and literary traditions. The original book is in its twentieth edition, a significant feat in serious Tamil literature.

In Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy’s translation, however, much seems to be lost. I must confess that I do not read Tamil or Malayalam. I do not know, therefore, whether the passive voice is something that writers in Tamil love and deploy generously. In English, the passive voice comes across as stilted and works only when you do not want to say who did something. “Many files were lost...” a bureaucrat may write, not wanting to say that he lost them, or worse still, his boss lost them. JJ: Some Jottings is written in English largely in the passive voice. Perhaps it also was in Tamil.

The ultimate criticism of the translator is: you don’t know the original. Too true, I don’t. I only know what I read on the page and this is what I read: “When a hunting dog is snapped with a camera as it leaps, all we get is a motionless shot.” I don’t know whether the original demanded the passive but it seems to me that: “When you photograph a hunting dog, all you get is a motionless shot” would say it better.

I do not know whether sparrows have something to do with summers in Tamil Nadu. Where I live, sparrows seem to hop about all year round, so a line like “ JJ: Some Jottings is a single sparrow in the Tamil literary-intellectual summer” in the introduction seems hard to swallow. I do not know whether one’s ‘first literary endeavour’ is different from one’s ‘literary debut’ and one’s ‘earliest mark’. On pages viii and ix, we are told that Ramaswamy made the first with a translation into Tamil, the second with an edited volume in memory of a Tamil writer, and the third with short stories in a left-progressive literary magazine.

It is difficult to believe that Ramaswamy wrote lapidary prose, as Prof. Venkatachalapathy would have us believe, if we are to go by this translation. “If you ask how JJ managed to write under such crisis, one...” he says and “He was to look for Bawkher’s timber depot. He knew it well.” (Why would he be looking for a place he knew well?). “Readers who follow his writings closely...” What need for the clumsy ‘writings’? Why not use ‘writing’? “If such an abuse sticks...” Last time I looked, abuse was an uncountable noun. Then there is: “Man is unable to present himself naturally. The disturbing balls of perfection are rolled before him without thinking.” What does one make of this? The passive voice forces us to ask: who rolls those balls of perfection? Are they the people who should be doing the thinking and have not? What are ‘balls of perfection’ anyway? “When a tailor measures us for stitching a shirt...” he says. Was the original clumsy or would it not be easier to write: “When a tailor measures one for a shirt...”?

I found it difficult to read sentences like these: “The heart is overjoyed as it thinks of Nature veiling her face and giving sidelong glances to her true lover. Truth’s faintest spark is enough to cause raptures.” Is this the tone of the original? Is it meant to be ironic? Is it meant to mock the overblown sentiments of the Romantic? I wish I knew. I wish I knew what relatives do when they are slighting: “Seeing me a strange being, my relatives, slighting, left me to myself”. It appears that perhaps the editor was to blame. Why should s/he not have caught: “Whatever was universally venerated, he would blacken it with tar” and “He spits out three times a minute on an average” and “a copper vessel placed on the cleft of...”

I sound like a schoolmaster, I know. I apologise. This review does as little for JJ: Some Jottings by Sundara Ramawamy as Venkatachalapathy did for the original. All I know is the translation in English and that is what I can look at.

JJ: Some Jottings; Sundara Ramaswamy, trs A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Penguin Random House India, Rs. 299.

Jerry Pinto is a poet and novelist.

(A previous version of this article said 'JJ: Some Jottings' is in its sixth edition of re-print.)

Corrections and Clarifications:

>>In the above article, the last sentence of the opening paragraph said: “The original book is in its sixth edition, a significant feat in serious Tamil literature.” It should have been twentieth edition.

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