Couplets for modern times

Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s translation helps the Sangam-era Tamil classic Tirukkural to easily leapfrog into the 21st century

Updated - December 12, 2015 06:28 pm IST

Published - December 12, 2015 04:05 pm IST

The Tirukkural; tr. by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph Classics, Rs. 399

The Tirukkural; tr. by Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Aleph Classics, Rs. 399

A good translation of a great classic, said to have been written 2,000 years ago, is a challenging and formidable task, as the translator needs to be well-versed in the intricacies and nuances of both the matrix and the languages. It is true that a faithful rendering of a renowned book may not extend its life beyond the period of its translation if it is much too faithful and literal, whereas the classic remains forever modern, as in the case of the 17th century novel Don Quixote , which has several translations starting from the one by the author’s contemporary Thomas Shelton to the recent one by Edith Grossman. There is a need for these repeated translations. As Gopalkrishna Gandhi says in the preface to his translation of the Tirukkural , the earliest translator G.U. Pope rendered it in Victorian English whereas he has done it ‘in the English of our globalised times… interpreting each couplet at second or third remove’.

Indira Parthasarathy

This is precisely the greatness of any classical work; that it can lend itself for any interpretation at any given era, far removed from its own time, because of its eternal appeal. Although Gandhi was commissioned to do the translation, the Tirukkural was in his genes, inherited from his maternal grandfather who had translated it 1930. He was so ‘smitten’ by this celebrated work, having read and re-read it several times over, that it became a part of his intrinsic cultural psyche. This total assimilation is reflected in his translation.

Gandhi poetically visualises the great Tamil thinker and poet, traditionally known as Tiruvalluvar, as forever in conversation with anyone from any era who cares to listen to him attentively.

Valluvar does not assume the role of a preacher who sermonises but simply shares his thoughts on a variety of subjects like personal ethics, social conduct, stagecraft and love, in a calm and assured manner. Gandhi’s style of translation is intimate, free-flowing and conversational. In a way, it also sums up what Tiruvalluvar might have thought and left unsaid.

In his brilliant in-depth introduction, Gandhi gives a historical account of the various commentaries on this celebrated classic and how it caught the attention of global scholars. The very first Latin translation was by Italian Jesuit Constanzo Beschi (1680-1742) just as the first Persian translation in 1637 of 50 of the Upanishads happened under Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jehan. The Persian translation was soon rendered into Latin as Oupnekhat and Schopenhauer was so moved by it that he was said to have kept a copy of it always by his side.

Though Valluvar talks about God, personal and social ethics, and war between kings, he does not give a clue anywhere in this well-crafted book about the period or religion to which he belonged by simply avoiding references to the names of kings or deities. As Gandhi says, his is a universal voice that transcends time, religion, caste, creed or colour. In this context, therefore, it is funny that we have a popular portrait of him with matted hair and a flowing beard that he himself dismisses with scorn.

He says in one of his couplets:

‘The gleaming pate and flowing beard in saints we applaud

Are fraudulent if their conduct with our codes doesn’t accord’

One cannot be far wrong in assuming that this is a reference to the hypocritical Jain and Buddhist monks and Hindu godmen of his times. Though ‘the abstraction of the discourse… is a Valluvar signature and strength’, as Gandhi says, one can agree with him when he says later that ‘some historical facets emerging from the Kural cannot be ignored’. The couplet, quoted above, illustrates that when Valluvar wrote it, he had his contemporary society in view.

Valluvar could have lived in a period when value systems had flexibility depending upon the context, as in the case of defining ‘truth’. The Tamil word for ‘truth’ is ‘vaaimai’ , which Valluvar has used as the chapter head and Gandhi has appropriately translated it as ‘veracity’, taking into view Valluvar’s contextual interpretation of the word.

‘A lie may lie and be the lie that liars lie about and yet it could

Be classed with truth if it blesses someone with good’.

Now that we know what the great poet thought of his contemporary godmen, what was his view of various gods?

In a chapter on ‘ Kayamai ’, which Gopal translates as ‘Base’, there is a couplet that says:

‘The base are like — who else — the gods

They do as they please and when, and face no odds’

It reads like a biting yet subtle satire on the minor deities of his time. The translator beautifully captures the spirit of this statement by adding ‘who else?’

The third section of the book ‘ Kamaththuppal’ (‘Being in Love’) helps date the Tirukkural , as it describes the hero as a one-woman man and concubines are absent. This is in conformity with Valluvar’s views on personal morality.

Gandhi succeeds in convincing us by his elegant translation that Valluvar is a contemporary, talking to us in modern diction.

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