May 18, 2021
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'A Number Of Great Indian Writers Are Not Known In The Rest Of The World'

Lakshmi Holmström, whose translation of Karukku, a novel by Tamil writer Bama, is on the Crossword Book Award shortlist, chides mainstream publishers for ignoring writers from other Indian languages

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'A Number Of Great Indian Writers Are Not Known In The Rest Of The World'

(Lakshmi Holmström was unwell when contacted for an interview over e-mail. However, she answered some of our questions, "not always in the same order, and sometimes combining more than one question.")

Tell us about yourself. How did you begin translating and why?
My first degree was in Eng Lit, my postgraduate work at Oxford University was on R.K. Narayan; my critical concerns since then have been women’s writing from India, and Tamil literature. It feels as if it has been a natural progression into translation. I have done bits and pieces of translation for many years, and (like many others from the 1960s onwards) was inspired by the work of A.K. Ramanujan. The first piece of translation that I published was Ambai’s short story, Yellow Fish which I included in my anthology, The Inner Courtyard, a collection of short stories by Indian women.

How do you go about translating a work? Does it require any direct interaction with the author of the original?
I have been fortunate in that I have never translated a piece of work simply because I was commissioned to do it, but always because I was committed to the work in question.
Of course it is invaluable to work with the author of the original text, and once again, I have been fortunate in working with authors who have been extraordinarily generous with their time in explaining their intention in respect of certain words or phrases, as well as thrust of the work as a whole.
The most difficult aspect of translation, for me, is conveying the individual voice and style of the original. This means paying attention to the way the author uses language (the ‘rhetoricity’ of the original text, in Gayatri Spivak’s language) and trying, imaginatively, to recreate it. This is what makes each book I translate a challenge.

How much time do you normally take to translate a book?
How long does it take? How long is a piece of string? In some sense, a translation is never finished, one can go on doing it better, doing it differently. The text isn’t fixed in time; the translator changes, language changes.

What has been your experience translating Karrukku considering the fact that it is a complex book with a unique narrative?
I was deeply interested in Bama’s work even before Mini Krishnan asked me to translate Karukku. This is because I had just been translating an enormously interesting novel called Koveru Kazhudaigal by Imayam just before that, and was very impressed (and moved) by what has become known as Dalit writing in Tamil. I sought out and read a good deal of this material, so it was both a challenge and a privilege to work on Karukku and to have the opportunity to meet and talk to Bama.
Yes, I think it is unique as an autobiography for its outspokenness in some ways, and its reticence in other ways. It speaks very directly from its anger and its pain - and I wanted desperately to convey something of that. I wanted to convey something of its colloquiality and the way it speaks directly to the reader. But also its dignity, its hard-won self respect.

In the introduction to the book you say: Bama does not make any connection between caste and gender oppressions. Didn’t you find that intriguing and did you discover the reason why she didn’t do so in course of your translation?
Bama chooses not to make a connection in this, her first book, between caste and gender oppressions; she is single-mindedly focussed on the caste oppression within the church, from her own individual experience. Of course I spoke to her about it. But as she points out, Karukku was followed by Sangati and Kisumbukkaaran, both of which move away from individual experience to the experience of the community: Sangati is the story of a community of women, Kisumbukkaaran is a collection of short stories about the experiences of Dalit men and women.

Tell me, is translation a mechanical act or is there a lot of creativity involved?
It has never been a mechanical exercise. In any case, translation is never a simple case of rendering a text from one language to another, is it? There is the difficult question of interpretation. And then the most interesting texts are ringed round with meanings, and an adequate translation ought to carry something like the same (or similar) range of meanings.

What is the state of translations in India? Is it true that it is not being taken all that seriously in India? I mean shouldn’t more works in other Indian languages be translated into English…
I think there is some excellent translation coming from India, but I think it would be useful to know what the readership is within the country, and who the readers are of these translations. There is more we can do about distinguishing between good and not so good translations, about the status of the source texts that are being translated, about how translated texts are read, reviewed and taught. I do believe that India is uniquely placed because of our different languages, and the absolute necessity of good translations if we are to know each other’s literatures and learn from them.

Don’t you think a number of great Indian writers have not been introduced to the world because of the unavailability of their works in translation?
Of course a number of great Indian writers are not known in the rest of the world. It is not simply a matter of the lack of good, lively, creative translations of well chosen authors, but the lack of mainstream publishers who will take them on and give them the publicity they deserve.

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