Malayalam literature translates into success stories

On a trip to her parents in Thiruvananthapuram, Ministhy S read VJ James’ first novel Purappainte Pusthakam and was bowled over by her sweet and insightful narrative. Noticing the author’s email address in the book, Ministhy, an IAS officer in Uttar Pradesh, contacted him asking for permission to translate it into English.

“It was his first book which I translated in 2018. But it stayed on my computer. In 2019 I picked up more of his books in Kerala and ended up translating Dathapaharam, Nireeshwaran and Anti-clock,” she says.

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Now his translation of anti clock, as well as the translation of Fathima EV and Nandakumar K by M Mukundan Delhi: a soliloquy are shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2021.

In the case of Delhi: a soliloquy, Mukundan had suggested that Fathima translate her novel into English. Explaining why, he says, “We write in isolation; we are not part of traditional Indian literature. Although I’ve been writing since the 1970s, readers who don’t read Malayalam would never have heard of me.

Brilliant writers in regional languages ​​are often limited by the language in which they have chosen to write. But major publishers’ interest in translations could change that, says Mukundan. “It will give many writers wide exposure and readership,” he says.

Established in 2018, the annual JCB Literary Prize celebrates works of fiction or translated fiction by an Indian writer. In 2019, Malayalam authors Benyamin won it for Jasmine Days, and in 2020 S Hareesh for Mustache. This, Benyamin says, gave him access to an international readership and invitations to prestigious literary festivals in India and abroad.

Jayasree Kalathil, who translated Mustachebelieves that a major boost for writing in Indian languages ​​has been given by the Crossword Book Award and that several Malayalam writers including Mukundan and Benyamin have been awarded for their translated works.

When translators get their due

She explains, “Malayalam writers like Anand, Sarah Joseph and Subash Chandran have won for their translated works. Over the years, publishers began to give translators their due. Recently, award-winning translator Jenny Croft wrote an open letter urging that the translators be credited on the cover of the book itself.

Historian, scholar and translator J Devika says there is a huge readership for Malayalam book translations as there is a large crowd of expats who may not be able to read Malayalam but are eager to read books by Malayalam authors.

“As a historian and translator, I want to capture this literary moment in history for my readers. I became a translator because I believe that books in Malayalam should be read and enjoyed by a wide audience. Many authors today write about regional histories in Kerala in a dialect unique to this place. A good translator must identify this place and this dialect for a reader. The translator should not flatten the language into standard English, she should let the author’s voice be heard,” says Devika, who has translated novels by KR Meera and Unni R.

Ministhy says translating a dialect or a nuanced word is not easy. She explains: “For example, there are different types of sadness and when an author means discouraged or upset, the translator must find the precise word to do justice to the original work. Then there are certain words in Malayalam that have no equivalent in English. To make sure I’ve communicated what the writer intended, I have a constant conversation with the writer.

Taking note of the work of the translators, Mukundan explains that what is being done now is transcreation and not simple translation. “Many years ago, a lot of attention was paid to language, grammar and syntax. In the process, the mood and structure of the novel often got lost. But now translators are able to recreate the mood, narrative and architecture of a novel,” he says.

There is an active and symbiotic interaction between the author and the translator which ensures that the novel does not get lost in translation.

Readers beyond borders

Famous authors like Meera, Benyamin, Mukundan, James, Hareesh and Unni have continued to win readers beyond Malayalam with beautiful translations of their works. “Malayalam books have pan-Indian appeal as a result of such translations. My stories and characters are rooted in Kerala, but their difficulties, emotions and challenges are universal,” says Hareesh, many of whose works are already being translated.

Calling it a welcome trend, James says there is a trade-off when translations are accepted by readers speaking different languages. He says, “We have the opportunity to learn more about different cultures and there is a feeling of unity. For example, Lindsay Pereira gods and ends is a picturesque window into the culture and life of Goa while that of Daribha Lyndem Name Place Animal Thing talks about Assam and its culture.

While several publishers actively seek out good Malayalam writers, new Malayalam works reach English readers soon after the Malayalam book is published, says Benyamin.

Mini Krishnan, who worked as a translations editor at Oxford University Press, has given Malayalam translations a boost like never before. Looking at the trend from an editor’s perspective, she explains, “With great inventiveness and energy, Malayalam writers have seen patterns in linking the personal, the political and the universal in their stories. It captured the imagination of readers. Writers are articulate and able to connect with reading audiences at literary festivals, conferences and YouTube discussions. They have more visibility and the topics they cover touch readers. They have very individualized styles. It is also true that translators are now more daring and willing to take risks.

Fathima argues that writers today are aware of the politics of translation. “We rely on the shoulders of translators like Gita Krishnankutty, Prema Jayakumar and Catherine Thankamma. They showed us the way,” she says.

The art of translation

Instead of sticking faithfully to the text, the effort is to convey the author’s narrative. “Every word and every idea, especially when I have to find an alternative to a Malayalam word, is discussed with the author and then used. This is because we are aware that we are working with another person’s creative effort and that there are constraints,” explains Fathima.

In fact, before the manuscript is sent to the publisher, every word, punctuation, and idea is discussed with the author to make sure the translation is true to the novel, says Ministhy.

“Translations, nominations and awards have brought recognition to Malayalam literature. Currently, several good translators have shown they can connect with a global readership,” says Benyamin.

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