(Published in i-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 25 July, 2010)
When I myself am in want, it seems my sister-in-law is asking me for a floral palanquin!
It’s the sort of sentence that makes you go “huh?”, rack your brain for the corresponding Tamil proverb, and burst out laughing. Translation is tricky. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan, the author of Hundred Tamil Folk and Tribal Tales, a translation of selected stories from Naattuppura Kadhai Kalanjiyam, says she was keen to retain the original flavour of the language, and speaks of ‘deliberate interlingual transfer’. But there is a fine line between charming linguistic exchange and jarring misusage, and when one writes in a language while thinking in another, figures of speech are bound to transgress this boundary.
Hundred Tamil Folk and Tribal Tales is a well-intentioned book. It attempts to bridge the gap between the inhabitants of the villages that dot this state and the city-bred elite. The author’s note is lyrical in its empathy with the people who make their living from temple festivals (Thiruvizha), which have been whittled down from lasting forty-eight days to eleven days over the years. Unfortunately, the flow of language doesn’t carry over to the actual translation.
The stories themselves make for interesting reading, and the manner in which ghosts, animals, humans and Gods interact with each other allows the reader an insight into the myths that have forged the identities, aspirations, fears and beliefs of the Peoples who are part of Tamil Nadu. For instance, the story Look Before and Behind You has a monkey bribing Lord Ganesha (who plays the Judge of the Forest) and is chillingly practical even while being humorous. The tales of wit are engaging, and some transcend cultural barriers. The story of a washerman and potter trying to get each other executed finds echoes in a Birbal tale. The story of a boy who kills flies and brands himself ‘He Who Killed Nine in One Stroke’ has a parallel in the Jataka Tales, and was retold by the Brothers Grimm way before the world shrank into a web village. There are pleasant surprises in the collection too – like a story-teller who claims Chekaspiyar (Shakespeare) was given stories by Shiva and Parvathi.
But one does feel the selection could have been better. Sujatha Vijayaraghavan had seven hundred and eight stories to choose from in the fifteen-volume Tamil version. Some stories, such as How Did You Get Here Before Me? strike one as pointless. The translator speaks of the difficulties of putting into print the dynamics of an impromptu performance, but doesn’t avoid the pitfalls she warns of. Humour that depends on timing loses its appeal in print. The same goes for the story Kuttiaandavar, which rambles on about magic ‘ponds’ (temple tanks), rather like an extended footnote. There is no element of fiction or interest that keeps the reader’s attention, and the story ends even while one is searching for its peg.
Sujatha Vijayaraghavan’s preface does acknowledge that the stories have only been translated, and not refined. But this is rather self-defeating. The book sets out to be an ambassador for Tamil folklore, but could scare people into thinking these tales belong to a bloodthirsty, barbaric culture. I wonder what feminists would have to say about a Goddess who only needs to be prayed to and appeased with food to forgive a man who has beaten his wife to death. Or about the story Upbringing, in which a man ‘tames’ his spirited wife by killing harmless animals that happen to cross their path, as if that were an act of supreme intelligence. He converts her into someone who is scared to open the door to her own father without her husband’s permission, and Daddy Dear is actually grateful to his son-in-law for this feat. Then, there’s the story of a woman who carries her sadistic, leprosy-afflicted husband to the brothel, and waits in the rain while he...umm...spreads his seed. Interspersed with stories of daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law who’re waiting for each other to die and wives who push their husbands into chasms so they can run away with lovers, the perception of women sticks to the Goddess-or-Whore stereotype.
Without temporal and social context, sayings like ‘A thousand lies can be told to conduct a marriage’and ‘If women laugh, it is the beginning of woe’ are potentially dangerous. Many of the stories are anti-rich, anti-Brahmin and anti-modern. While these earmark crucial points in the collective conscious, they need annotations to be interpreted correctly.
The literal translation of names is another area that could do with annotation. Names like ‘A Thousand Measures of Wealth’, ‘Two Thousand Measures of Wealth’, ‘Catch the Tuft’ and ‘Old Wood Hulk’ make the Tamil culture seem like an offshoot of the Native American one. While Anandavalli seems a perfectly ordinary name, ‘Happy Creeper’ doesn’t quite have the same connotations, does it?!
The original Tamil work, for which researchers travelled to various parts of the state, is certainly a laudable effort. The translation is a necessary piece of work too. But while it’s useful for Tamil speakers who want to know more about their folk-culture, it needs footnotes to be understood clearly by those who are not familiar with Tamil. The stories need to be explained, even if that means ‘refining’, to be acceptable to an audience that can’t relate to the people who own these stories.