Although an author herself, Veena Muthuraman had not worked on any translations until Kumari Devi, Malayalam writer Benyamin’s terrific story about a maid in Kerala. Here, she writes about how she approached the translation, keeping in mind the nuances of the original, and why translating the work felt like a personal catharsis:
At a neighbourhood party towards the end of last year, I was introduced to a couple who lived three doors away, who somehow I had not managed to run into until then. As I watched their teenage son converse in rapid French with his mother, in Norwegian with his father, and in fluent English with the rest of us, I went through the gamut of conflicting emotions and guilt about ‘language’ that I go through at regular intervals. My (then) five-year old spoke only English despite the fact that her parents, between them, spoke and read four other languages – Tamil, Malayalam, Bengali and Hindi. Her younger sister had not started speaking yet, but it was difficult to see why she would not follow in her sister’s footsteps. “But our common language is English” was the excuse we dished out to ourselves, but every time we ran into yet another cross-national European couple whose kids spoke so effortlessly in three different languages, we were forced to admit that was exactly what it was – an excuse.
I, not unlike many others, have a complicated relationship with language, or rather, with languages that are not English. It is an open relationship – now on, now off; a marriage of convenience, ignored most of the time but taken out and showcased when useful, such as at a festival gathering involving food, though even that is not true of Tamil. It is a well-acknowledged fact that Tamilians above a certain class, wherever they meet, will almost always speak to each other in English. But I digress.
Malayalam is the language of my childhood, though not my mother tongue. I spoke it, wrote it, and parodied it; I wrote my first doggerel in it; I studied it and struggled with it; it was the stuff of Board exam nightmares and yet, it shaped my sensibilities to a large extent. It was the cause of one of my first real run-ins with authority, a repetitive trait: I was in eighth grade when the well-intentioned nuns who ran the school decided all students had to speak to each other only in English. Anyone who did not comply had to wear a shaming badge that said in block capitals – “I spoke Malayalam”. I distinctly remember the pride with which I paraded around the school with that badge around my neck. The rule died quietly after a few weeks as the sisters seemed to have got the point.
Yet, this language I grew up with vanished from my life over the years, as English took primacy over all else. It wasn’t so much that it was the main mode of communication; it was more that it was the language of ideas. Once you learn to think in a language, it becomes your primary tongue. So much so that once I was sufficiently done with the Russians and the Latin Americans and decided that regional Indian literature was worth a go, it didn’t strike me that I could (and should) read Basheer and Thakazhi in the original. By then, Malayalam was lost to me as a language.
The book that changed this was Aadujeevitham (Goat Days in English), Benyamin’s defining work to date. I was midway into a year of reading more translations which until that point was primarily an excuse to read everything ever written by Elena Ferrante. In an effort to wean myself off post-war Naples, I picked up Goat Days. It proved to be just the thing, a wonderful read, and yet, every conversation left me wanting. I needed to know what it said in Malayalam and I ended up reverse-translating a translated book back into the original in my head, which after a point made no sense. I finally got hold of the Malayalam version, promised myself I’d read it and promptly forgot all about it until one day a few weeks ago, Sivapriya asked me if I’d consider translating a Benyamin story.
It was the perfect opportunity, but also a scary prospect, considering that I hadn’t read proper Malayalam in years. But the story – ‘Kumari Devi‘ – caught my attention. It was a simple story about an unusual character, told sparsely and beautifully in true Benyamin fashion; a tradition brought to life in a matter-of-fact everyday situation. How could I not agree to it?
The translation process was an eye-opening experience. There were so many choices to make with every sentence, and to some extent, the original was constraining. I wanted to do more with Chanku and Geetha aunty, but it wasn’t my story. So many of the edits had to do with the clunky phrasing that sounded perfect in Malayalam, but made no sense in English. I must admit here that I had vaguely viewed the translation controversies with some amusement for I, as a reader with no knowledge of say, Russian, could not comprehend what all the fuss was about the different versions of The Brothers Karamazov. It took translating a relatively straightforward 8,000 words to appreciate that these people actually may have a point.
Above all, translating ‘Kumari Devi‘ was about something more personal – it brought me back in touch with a language that I thought was lost to me. Or perhaps, some things are lost only so that one could feel the pleasure of rediscovering it all over again.