‘Ponniyin Selvan’: Author Nandini Krishnan on translating Kalki’s epic, and Mani Ratnam’s two-part film

A lot goes into translating one of Tamil language’s most popular epics. Nandini Krishnan takes us through the process of bringing Kalki’s ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ alive in English, while retaining his lyrical language and flowery descriptions

Updated - May 11, 2023 02:51 pm IST

Published - May 10, 2023 05:24 pm IST

Author Nandini Krishnan

Author Nandini Krishnan

Author Nandini Krishnan’s tryst with the Ponniyin Selvan (PS) series began at birth. “I was named after Nandini from the books, you know,” she remarks.

With the first of her 10-part translation of author Kalki’s serialised magnum opus — First Flood (Eka by Westland)— making its way into bookstores across India, Nandini says that she has enjoyed every moment of translating this piece of fiction.

“When it was serialised, every chapter needed to make the reader want more. How does one sustain that thriller pace while also including flowery description, encompassing history and accommodating travelogs,” she says while speaking about Kalki’s work.

Nandini has translated two other Tamil writers — Perumal Murugan and Charu Nivedita — in the past, before taking on the daunting task of translating PS. The two primed her in different ways to understand the language better.

When the author began translating PS, she says that it was an exercise in self indulgence. “I had worked on the first 27 chapters of the book and was ready to put it up on my website or in the form of an audiobook,” she says, adding that the book came about incidentally while she was discussing other translations of the epic with her publisher.

According to Nandini, Kalki takes a masterclass in character building because every person in his books elicits empathy. Taking the example of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, Nandini says that one ends up feeling sorry for this once-valorous hero and head of the Chola coffers. “Nandini [the character] has him wound around her little finger,” she says.

She adds that Vandiyathevan, through whom the story travels, dismisses Azhwarkadiyan Nambi — a Vaishnavite spy and another central character in the book — during their first interaction. “The English language does not have a polite or rude ‘You’ unlike the Nee and Neenga in Tamil. To show that Vandiyathevan’s attitude towards Nambi changes after seeing his devotion at a local temple, I write that he switches to the respectful plural to address Nambi in the book. These are important parts that require translation,” she says.

Ponniyin Selvan Book 1: First Flood by Kalki; translated by Nandini Krishnan

Ponniyin Selvan Book 1: First Flood by Kalki; translated by Nandini Krishnan

Nandini, who first read the books 10 years ago in Tamil, says that she was fascinated by the lyrical quality of Kalki’s language. “The sound of a sentence is very important to me. The translation hence has a lot of importance to the ‘aural’,” she says. It took her several days to ensure that the first sentence of the book could provide the same alliterations as the original Tamil version. This was among her only few impediments while translating, she says.

Her second, more temporal contemplation was about finding ways to bring the author’s voice without having the book stuck in the past. “There are two streams of thought — one which Kalki thinks and another which the character thinks. The challenge is to find the right way to translate lines which follow the ‘women are like this and that’ arc without making the author sound like a chauvinist,” she says.

Nandini is clear. “A translator must be the ambassador for the language,” she says. She adds that she has retained several elements that inform Tamil cultural habits in her translated book. They speak about the demeanor and influences of the author, she says.

Karthi and Trisha in a still from ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’

Karthi and Trisha in a still from ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’ | Photo Credit: Tips Tamil/YouTube

Referring to director Mani Ratnam’s two-part film on PS, the translator adds that she is tired of the idea of people worshiping the original as it is a purist notion. “Mani Ratnam’s film is commercial cinema with artistic aesthetics. Kalki’s book is the same. It is commercial fiction with beautiful language. We must get over the notion that the original is pure and has been ‘tampered with’. That way, you will not grow with the story and the story will not grow with you. Ponniyin Selvan will forever be stuck in the 20th century,” she says.

The other nine parts of Ponniyin Selvan will subsequently be released through the year. The book is currently available at westlandbooks.in and in bookstores.

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