Literary Review

Gained in translation

Apeetha; La.Sa. Ramamirtham, trs Padma Narayanan, OUP, Rs.375.  

La.Sa.Ra (Lalgudi Saptarishi Ramamirtham) has been hailed as a writer with a difference. With a great corpus of writing to his credit, he needs no introduction to readers of Tamil. However, one cannot discount the importance of making writings in Indian languages available to readers from other states in our multi-lingual country. It is in this context that the Herculean efforts of OUP in bringing out the Oxford Novella series needs to be applauded. The need of a literary-cultural bridge does get some strength from such efforts. And when an accomplished and experienced translator like Padma Narayanan contributes to this praiseworthy venture, the result is doubly worthy of applause. That Tamil and English are linguistically poles apart and that the cultural context of Tamil Nadu is very different from that of England make the translation even more challenging and meaningful.

Apeetha deals with love of a very different kind; made even more different because of the passage of time with which the protagonist cannot come to terms. Time is dealt with in a unique manner by the writer; as Dr. Ferro-Luzzi says, “He recognises abstract time”. Plot becomes secondary with the way the tale is told being of greater significance. The reader has to go beyond the corporeal to empathise with the protagonist’s emotions. The protagonist’s inner struggles, the debate between right and wrong within him, emotions and socially acceptable behaviour form the core of the novella. Past and present merge and so do Shakuntala and Apeetha in the mind of Ambi; Apeetha as Devi-incarnate or as a mere mortal: “Apeetha, … you are the first female, then in the holy anointment…. I become the primordial man” (p.116).

As in the writer’s many earlier works, magic realism is woven into the fabric of the text very aesthetically. Going back to Karadimalai, from where he had fled, is not a well-thought-out planned decision for Ambi. In fact it is his wife Savitri who suggested it, totally unaware of the ‘tsunami’ that would be unleashed within him. Incapable of accepting Apeetha as she is — the daughter of the woman he had loved but deserted — Ambi feels a sort of imbalance: “After being blindfolded and turned around, when the cloth is removed, you feel a sort of imbalance…. That is the kind of bewilderment I am in” (p.106-7) He is not ready to share the memories buried deep down. As he says to himself, “My contention is that all bitterness and hatred are buried in your bowels, while all sweet memories get enshrined in the heart. Both are silent, hidden hurts…. It pervades your entire physical presence…” (p.23). Love and lust co-exist in the texture of the text and the reader finds it impossible to be judgemental about the protagonist’s actions, reactions or behaviour.

The novel captures the agraharam life and culture in its entirety: the near-penury in which the gurukal and his family live, the almost-stale rice that is all that can be served to the guests (and is all that even the Gods are served), the ritual oil-bath (a tradition more alive in parts of South India, than the rest of the country) —“The oil bath is an inevitable ritual guests around our villages simply have to go through. After so many years, I, a guest here, am the victim; I cannot escape it no matter what” (p.111). In spite of being deeply steeped in the culture of a region, in spite of references to customs and traditions of a particular community, the human emotions captured give it a universal flavour.

‘Lost in translation’ is often discussed in Translation Studies but here one is always struck by how much is ‘gained’ by translation. That the lyricism of Tamil can be captured in English, that words and phrases are best left unexplained within the text (with a Glossary doing the needful), that quotes from poetry are poetically translated — all these and more point to the translator’s ability to grasp the nuances of one language before attempting to meaningfully and aesthetically convey it in another language: thus highlighting the quality of the creative text to readers who can never hope to read it in the original. “May the world experience the joy I felt”, says the translator (p. xxiv) and the readers of this translation would indeed agree.

Apeetha; La.Sa. Ramamirtham, trs. Padma Narayanan, OUP, Rs.375.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 2:47:12 PM |

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