Growing up in Kerala, Ministhy S. was surrounded by a culture of translation. She remembers reading Ashapurna Devi’s Bengali novels, V.S. Khandekar’s Marathi books, and Russian classics, all in Malayalam. This instilled a life-long love of literature. The IAS officer based in Uttar Pradesh first started dabbling in translation in 2014, translating American poet Daniel Ladinsky’s work into Malayalam. Since then she has translated two of K.R. Meera’s novels, The Unseeing Idol of Light and Poison of Love from Malayalam into English and has translated parts of the Ramayana, like the Sundara Kanda and Kishkindha Kanda from Awadhi into English. Her English translation of V.J. James’ Malayalam novel Nireeswaran was released in May this year.
Ministhy S. spoke to Lounge about the myth of ‘untranslatable words’, why her translation work had her going back to her old physics textbooks and how reading for pleasure serendipitously helps her find the right words. Edited excerpts.
Describe your current workspace to us.
When I'm at home I translate in my drawing room. I curl up with my books and my computer on the sofa. When I’m there, my children know that ‘Amma’s translating, so don’t disturb her’. I have a cup of coffee nearby and it is my own little heaven.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
When I started out I wrote my translation with pen and paper because I didn't know how to type in Malayalam at that time. I used to do it whenever I got free time…so it did not start off with a particular workspace or anything like that. Once I started getting book projects, it became systematic.
How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
This space makes me feel comfortable. Sometimes I come back home for lunch and if I get half an hour and I can translate just one paragraph, I try to do it here. I'm pretty consistent that way.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
I basically curl up in the same place and read as well. So I end up reading books which will be carrying quotations which are absolutely in consonance with what I’m translating. I was reading Matt Haig recently, the author of The Comfort Book and Reasons to Stay Alive. I ended up reading a paragraph which caught the entire spirit of my latest book, Nireeswaran. It is all about the individual ego merging with the universal ego, ‘I’ turning into ‘we’. You have all these magic moments of encountering books which sort of guide you and nudge you.
What are some unexpected things you learnt while translating Nireeswaran?
James is a scientist and Nireeswaran is not an easy read, you really have to invest time in it. There are chapters in the novel where this brilliant scientist is explaining the concepts of resonance and nuclear fission to an uneducated sex worker. I had to read Ashtavakra Gita and Yoga Vasishta, I had to go back to my physics textbook — I did lots of reading because you cannot afford to get science and philosophy wrong. Even after doing that, I would go back to James and ask, “Is this right?” and he would say, “Maybe we can tweak it a little bit?”. When such an erudite author writes something there are so many layers of meaning there. Nireeswaran is about dialectical materialism, rationality, science, philosophy, and the Bible, I mean, there’s nothing that it does not touch. Intellectually, it has been a wonderfully satisfying exercise, though trying to capture the simplicity of the Malayalam was a challenge.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
No, I’m pretty happy here. You open the window and there is the blue sky, the wind and coffee! If you move me to a more picturesque place, I’ll be staring around, I won’t be doing my translations.
Describe your first book memory, and what you're reading right now.
Enid Blyton probably. I can recollect any number of her books, like The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood. Nowadays, I read a lot of spiritual books. I also read a lot of literary criticism. In front of me right now is the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time.
Are there any concepts in Malayalam that you have found impossible to translate?
There is nothing in a language that cannot be translated. In Malayalam we have a word for rain, but the way the South West monsoon falls, there are so many poetic phrases about the rain ‘wailing like a woman’. That’s something that only a Malayali who grew up [in Kerala, or spent time here] when the monsoon hits will be able to understand. That is where the translator comes in, you capture that essence in the vocabulary available in the language of English so that the reader laughs, cries and pauses at the correct moment. Every language has its beauty and ultimately we converse through the heart, so really, this is an effort of translating feelings.
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