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Promoting Tamil literature, one book at a time

In Tamil Nadu, writers have teamed up with bureaucrats to translate literary works into English and Indian languages

Kalki’s historical fiction series, 'Ponniyin Selvan'—the first part of a two-part film by Mani Ratnam is in theatres—will soon be available in Malayalam.

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Within the sprawling colonial-era building in Chennai that houses the Tamil Nadu school education department and the quaint, independent Madras Literary Society, is a tiny, bustling corner of creativity. This is where well-known Tamil authors and translators discuss poetry, Sangam literature and contemporary writing with the small team at the Tamil Nadu Text Books and Educational Services Corporation (TNTB).

It may sound like just another stuffy government department but the team here is dedicated to translating some of Tamil literature’s best works into English and other Indian languages—arguably the only government-backed effort of its kind in the country right now.

Since 2018, this group of writers, government officials, retired publishers, schoolteachers and university professors has been building a list of Tamil writers—some stars within the state, others barely known beyond their districts, yet all telling stories about the life, society and culture of a particular milieu—with the stated purpose of “promoting the literature and culture of Tamil Nadu”. In 2021, the first six translated titles were launched under the “Taking Tamil to the World” initiative; earlier this year, six more joined the list. Over the next year, 22 books are to be finished.

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At last weekend’s Bangalore Literature Festival, at which writing in Indian languages as well as translations were in focus, this initiative came up for discussion at a number of sessions, with writers as well as publishers referring to the variety and richness of stories that are slowly being made available to larger audiences. Sankara Saravanan, joint director of the TNTB, describes it as “a collaborative project”. The department works with publishers, including Penguin, HarperCollins, Oxford University Press, Niyogi Books, Rupa, Bloomsbury and Hachette, to co-publish the translations. “The trigger came from Kerala’s DC Books,” he explains. “They would translate all the best books from any language into Malayalam immediately. We wanted to translate books into Tamil but then we thought reverse translations are important—people should get to know our writers too.”

The past year has put translations in the spotlight, with Geetanjali Shree’s Ret Samadhi, translated as Tomb Of Sand in English by Daisy Rockwell, winning the Man International Booker for translation. For the first time in its five-year history, the JCB Prize for Literature, an Indian award not earmarked for translated work, shortlisted only translations into English. Translations are especially important in a country where an increasing number of people speak multiple languages but may not always be able to read in them.

In India, the ecosystem for translation is yet to develop fully, though, and most Indian language publishers still struggle to cross the boundaries of their language.

Though the Tamil Nadu government’s efforts may be part of a plan to promote the region, the literary world welcomes it as more than political strategy. “It is only when governments take on this kind of role and promote translations that our literature will go around the world,” author and translator Gita Ramaswamy noted at the Bangalore Literature Festival.

Mini Krishnan the well-known editor of literary translations who joined the project as coordinating editor in 2019, says “the idea is to promote Tamil’s rich literary history and culture”. For Krishnan, the project has been a revelation. “It has been a voyage of intensity. For three years, I have been looking at traditional approaches giving way to modern styles, all in just one language. Tamil is both old and yet new. It is thousands of years old, and yet so relevant and contemporary. To facilitate great strength and vitality appearing in other languages is an enriching experience,” she says.

Writer T. Parameshwari, a government school headmistress who is on deputation to the TNTB project, notes, “A very new Malayalam writer is readily available in English, and other languages but writers in Tamil have not been translated into English, no matter how acclaimed they are.”

She is particularly proud of being part of the effort to translate Hephzibah Jesudasan’s Putham Veedu, considered a pioneering work among Tamil women writers. First published in 1964, Putham Veedu is set in the 19th century and explores the lives of palm tree climbers in Kanyakumari, influenced by the advent of Christianity. For more than 50 years, till Putham Veedu was republished, Jesudasan remained largely unnoticed. Even now, her other work is not widely known.

For those involved in this project, it is more than a job; it is a calling. Saravanan recalls his meeting with popular Tamil writer Ki.Ra., or Ki. Rajanarayanan, shortly before the author died in May 2021 at the age of 98. “We had got his 1984 collection of short stories, Karisal Kaatu Kathaigal, translated into English by Padma Narayanan and co-published it with HarperCollins. We drove to Puducherry and handed him the copies—it is titled Along With The Sun in English—and he just loved it. It was hardbound and he was fond of hardbound books. He couldn’t stop talking about them,” says Saravanan. “These are the moments we live for while doing this work.”

BOOKS OF ALL KINDS

For close to 50 years, TNTB published textbooks for state government school students, and this is still its primary role. The department has its origins in the Thamizh Valarchi Kazhagam (Tamil Development Corporation) set up in 1970 and counts the former chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, among its previous chairpersons, says a senior bureaucrat who does not wish to be named. Its mandate then was to translate new titles in English into Tamil for college students. “In the 1970s and 1980s, close to 900 books were translated and published,” says the bureaucrat. “There were books on political science, history, geography…. In comparison, we are just getting started. It will take a few years for us to reach that scale again.”

The former Madras high court judge and well-known translator Prabha Sridevan, who has done two translations for TNTB, says the initiative helps “put Tamil on the global literary map”. She has translated short stories of Thoppil Mohammed Meeran into English, and worked with another translator, Pradeep Chakravarthy, to translate the essays of U. Ve Saminatha Aiyer.

Saravanan is also looking to Tamil cinema to drive demand for the books they bring out. Vaadivaasal, a novel about jallikattu by C.S. Chellappa that was translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman and published along with Oxford University Press, is set to be made into a film by director Vetrimaaran, starring Suriya, in 2023. The novel is widely used as a textbook in colleges in Tamil Nadu.

Kalki’s historical fiction series, Ponniyin Selvan—the first part of a two-part film by Mani Ratnam has hit theatres—will soon be available in Malayalam. “Our translations are aimed at youth who don’t read Tamil. Naturally, they would now be keen to read Ponniyin Selvan and Vadivaasal (after watching the films. We are giving them options and hope this will help them understand the richness of Tamil literature,” says Saravanan.

While the translations began with Tamil to English, there are efforts to translate into other Indian languages too. The work of Sahitya Akademi award winning writer Imayam, known for spotlighting the caste injustice in everyday Tamil life, is already available in Malayalam. The critically acclaimed modern masters of Tamil writing, Sundara Ramasamy and T. Janakiraman, are available in Telugu and Kannada, respectively. Forthcoming titles include Stories by C.N. Annadurai, Kalki’s Alai Osai, translated as Sound Of Waves by Gowri Ramnarayan, a translation of Meethamirukkum Sorkal (Leftover Words): An Anthology Of Tamil Women Writers, edited by A. Vennila, and Fiction By Dalit Women Writers, edited by Bama.

The TNTB has engaged more than a dozen translators and an editor in every language Tamil is being translated into—including English, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. Among the editors are the poet and former editor of the Sahitya Akademi journal, A.J. Thomas, for Malayalam and Gita Ramaswamy for Telugu. “We pay an advance to the anchor editors and remuneration to our translators,” says Saravanan. “Everything is by the book.”

There are things the department needs to pay attention to, say some. Two writers said, on condition of anonymity, that the department should find ways to distribute or sell the 500 copies it procures. “It is a huge incentive for publishers that the department buys 500 copies but those should be put to proper use,” says one. Another writer, who has done translations for the department, says merely placing the copies it procures in school libraries is not enough. “Maybe they should look at digital versions for younger readers,” says the translator.

The team, however, is confident that these are just teething problems. “There’s no dearth of effort,” says Krishnan, reiterating that this is a unique initiative. “There was a similar attempt in Malayalam some years ago which didn’t take off but Tamil has been well-received both in the country and among the diaspora.”

The department is currently focused on a three-year project to publish the 2,381 poems of 473 poets, or the entire 2,000-year-old Sangam literature tradition, as a series in Tamil. Saravanan’s next goal is to translate this series into English. “An entire team is working on it. We will get it done,” says Saravanan. It’s a promise that holds great hope for Tamil literature.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist based in Chennai.

Also Read: Imayam's shocking tales of caste and injustice in Tamil life

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