Modiano in Malayalam

P Anima | Updated on September 11, 2020


It’s a market with a voracious appetite for translated works. Publishers race to outbid each other and translate prize-winning works into Malayalam, and translators continually introduce readers to fresh and unconventional voices. In the run-up to International Translation Day on September 30, a peek into Kerala’s ambitious translation industry, which brings a Mourid Barghouti to Malayalam with the same verve as it does a Paulo Coelho

* A hawk’s eye is kept on books that bag the top literary awards across the globe — the Nobel and Booker prizes are particular favourites

* Malayalam has a strong history of translation

* The internet and social media, writers’ workshops and residencies, and a new crop of translators have now widened the ambit of the industry

“To those who search for greener pastures — only to find them parched.”

Hassan Kollimala’s cryptic dedication in his Malayalam translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations doesn’t tell the whole story. It is, in fact, more a homage to the dejected than a critique of the ambitious. Translator and columnist Sachu Thomas stumbled upon this unassuming work — a slim volume easily mistaken for a self-help book — on one of his regular trips to second-hand book shops in Kozhikode in Kerala. It intrigued him that Kollimala had zeroed in on a work written originally in the 2nd century in Greek — and translated it into Malayalam.

Kollimala is not known in Malayalam translation circles. A note in the book sums up the life of struggle of this largely self-taught translator who worked his way up doing menial jobs in West Asia before winding up as a hostel warden in Chennai. There is no word on why he took a stab at the Roman emperor’s musings, spread over a dozen volumes, and turned it into a vastly abridged compilation. There is nothing either on the English translation of Meditations that he relied on to bring out the book a decade ago.

Yet, Kollimala’s obscure little book attests in no uncertain terms to the ambition of the Malayalam translation industry. The southernmost Indian state, with a population of 35 million and 96.2 per cent literacy, has also one of the busiest translation hubs in the country. Around 100-plus works, estimate industry insiders, are translated into Malayalam every year. About 4,000-5,000 books are published in Malayalam each year and the industry has an estimated annual turnover of ₹100 crore. With just a handful of publishers, most of them independent, the industry is small compared to other regional languages. Yet, its dynamic translation segment bursts at the seams with the sheer range of works it brings into Malayalam. Regional Indian authors have always been translated into Malayalam, but more and more international writers of repute are now being read in the language.

The industry works nimbly, with little resource but never wanting in effort. A hawk’s eye is kept on books that bag the top literary awards across the globe — the Nobel and Booker prizes are particular favourites — and the announcement of an award is followed by a spirited pitch for copyright by the regional publishers. More often than not, prize-winning works are translated into Malayalam within weeks after they have been awarded.

“An exception was Alice Munro, the Nobel Prize winner of 2013,” recalls Thomas. Publisher DC Books, one of the biggest names in the Kerala publishing circuit, took over a year to bring out the translation. Thomas attributes the delay to Munro’s complexity as a writer and the challenge she poses to a translator. But, he stresses, this was an exception.

French novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014; his novel In the Cafe of Lost Youth was translated into Malayalam at least six months before the English version hit the market. Green Books, another Kerala publishing house, had it translated directly from French into Malayalam, Thomas adds.

“Award-winning works get the top billing, but other titles, too, have garnered attention. Translation is a segment that does consistently well,” says AV Sreekumar, chief editor, DC Books. Translated works comprise about 30 per cent of its publications, he adds.

Most books are translated from English into Malayalam, though — as in the case of Modiano — occasionally a work is translated from the original language.

A key to the world

For the Malayali, translations have long been the key to a wider world, one which unlocked faraway cultures and built comradeship beyond oceans. The book vendor peddling his wares on the footpath or on trains has always carried a staple stack of translated works. Latin American writers Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda are widely read in Malayalam, as are Milan Kundera, Rumi and, of course, Karl Marx. Popular Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho recently tweeted a picture of a book rack — presumably from a shop in Kerala — packed with the Malayalam translation of his books.

Alchemy at work: Popular Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho recently tweeted a picture of a book rack — presumably from a shop in Kerala — packed with the Malayalam translations of his books   -  IMAGE COURTESY: TWITTER


Hemmed in by the sea, give-and-take with the world beyond has been a way of life for millennia in Kerala, and reading literature in translation is just another way of making a connect.

“Malayalam has a strong history of translation,” observes poet and translator Anitha Thampi, pointing out that Adhyathmaramayanam, the seminal 17th-century work by Thunchaththu Ramanujan Ezhuthachan — the father of Malayalam language — is in itself a work translated from Sanskrit.

Fresh takes: The creative collaboration between Malayalam poet Anitha Thampi (left) and Welsh poet Siân Melangell Dafydd culminated in the book A Different Water   -  FILE IMAGE


The internet and social media, writers’ workshops and residencies, and a new crop of translators have now widened the ambit of the industry. Popular names and works are still the norm, but unconventional choices are also getting a toehold in the market. The industry that feverishly translates Coelho also makes space for Australian Les Murray’s poems, heavy with Aboriginal imagery.

“The work of Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness has been published in Malayalam. Though he won the Nobel in 1955, he is not widely read, even in English. Peter Handke won the Nobel last year, but his The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick was published in Malayalam years before he won the prize. Such instances are rare, but they do happen,” Thomas says.

Long history

Translated works haven’t merely influenced generations of Malayalam writers, but have moulded sensibilities and political thought, too. “Nalapat’s [Narayana Menon]Paavagal [translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables], published in 1925, was a turning point,” notes Thampi.

The tradition continued with modernist poets such as K Satchidanandan and Ayyappa Paniker, who brought world poetry into the language. Works in Tamil, Bengali and Odia, too, were frequently brought to Malayalam. The Soviet era ushered in translations of the masters — Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekov. “The Soviet writers deeply influenced the philosophy of a couple of generations,” she says.

Thampi’s repertoire of translated works includes I Saw Ramallah [Ramallah Njan Kandu], the memoir of Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, poems of Murray and those by contemporary Welsh poet Siân Melangell Dafydd. Translating is a deeply personal exercise for her, one she ventures into when an author or work piques her curiosity. “A translation is the most intimate reading of a work. When I come across a lovely line or description, as a creative person I’m curious to see how it will sound and appear in my language,” she says.

Barghouti’s memoir is political, but Thampi was drawn to the writer’s craft. “Barghouti’s language itself became a theme for me. Initially I read it in English and then took the help of an Arabic scholar. I try to do that when I translate so that I can feel the pulse of the original,” observes Thampi, who has also translated Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez’s Platero and I.

Creative workshops are often the platform where Thampi discovers writers and their works. In 2006, when the Australian High Commission chose four regional poets to take Murray’s poems into their language, Thampi realised that the poems were unlike any she had read before. The Aboriginal elements and influence touched a chord. A similar urge to connect through language, stories and culture steered Thampi’s collaboration with the Welsh poet Dafydd. Thampi met her at a translation workshop in Thiruvananthapuram almost a decade ago. The Malayalam poet instantly connected with Dafydd’s poem Folding Blankets in Summer. “It was similar to how women in Kerala dry and fold their starched saris,” Thampi recalls. She invited the Welsh poet for a creative collaboration, and it later evolved to be a part of the Literature Across Frontiers project, a European platform for literary exchange, to mark the 70th anniversary of India’s independence. A Different Water, published by Paperwallah of the UK, emerged as the two women visited each other in Kerala and Wales, translated and wrote response poems — replying to each other’s poetry.

“To my poem Muttamatikkumpol (While Sweeping the Frontyard), Daffyd wrote about her father cleaning their plot (of land),” says Thampi, adding that she also found deeper similarities between the two cultures. “The Welsh have been under the influence of the English for long and the language has a history of marginalisation,” she points out. As a Malayalam writer, she could relate to the feeling of perpetually being on the sidelines.

Ferrante fever

Elena Ferrante wasn’t a fever that merely gripped Europe. Novelist Sangeetha Srinivasan recalls being swept away by Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels when she read them in faraway Thrissur. The first of the four-book series, translated from Italian into English, was published in 2012.

“She became my favourite writer in a very short time. You get through her novels with a feverish energy,” says Srinivasan, author of the Malayalam novel Acid.

When independent Thrissur-based publisher Megha Books won the copyright to bring Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment into Malayalam, editor Abraham (he goes by only one name) approached Srinivasan. “I was excited. But frankly I had little experience apart from that I was a writer myself,” she says.

Yet Srinivsan holds the process close. Translating Ferrante opened doors that had remained firmly shut in her head. “One confronts the limitations imposed by language. In the end I decided to be truthful to the author’s voice,” Srinivasan observes. She has since translated Acid into English.

Some fear that a book, originally written in a third language, may lose its texture or tenor if it is translated into English, and from English into Malayalam. But efforts are also on to translate directly from the language of origin.

Thampi recently brought together six Malayalam poets to translate the works of Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran. They tweaked the norm and translated directly from Tamil to Malayalam. “We didn’t use the English translation at all. Sri Lankan Tamil is very similar to Malayalam. Translating a poem is an attempt to capture the poetic language in another tongue. We came up with the kind of translations we would never have if we banked on an English version. The poet’s presence was obvious, but so too of the translator.”

Mission translation

The internet and social media have aided the craft of translation in no small measure. Take the case of Kollam resident and blogger V Revikumar. His blog is not merely a testimony to his commitment to translation but a virtual archive of his work over the years. Apart from published works — an assortment of Kafka’s novels, short stories of Jorge Luis Borges and others — the retired Indian Railways employee meticulously curates a blog — Paribhasha (translation).

His translation of the selected poems of Polish Nobel-winner Wizlawa Szymborska, brought out by indie publisher Iris Books, hit the market last year. His commitment to translating works remains resolute and his blog carries a new post almost every day — a poem, a letter, an essay or a passage — by writers ranging from Charles Baudelaire, Federico Lorca to Rainer Maria Rilke and others. The blog already has over 500 entries and he has, over the last month, translated and posted 40-odd poems, predominantly of Lorca and Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, from English. And if there is a lot of Baudelaire on his blog, there is a reason for it: Revikumar says he has been working on his upcoming book. “Baudelaire’s 200th birth anniversary is up next year and a translation of his selected works is being readied for publication by Iris,” Revikumar says on the phone.

He has been translating full time for nearly a decade and his turf is the late-19th and 20th-century writers. Technology, he admits, has democratised access. “It is now possible to consult as many versions of translations available, especially for a foreign-language work, and that takes the translator as close to the original as possible,” he adds.

The Malayali reader’s affinity for translated works in Malayalam has remained even though a large number of people are proficient in English, and may well have read the original works in English or English translations. “It’s true many readers are comfortable with English. But there’s still a preference and desire to read books in Malayalam, even among authors,” Sreekumar says.

At DC, a small team meticulously keeps a watch on new releases, reviews and prizes. It is followed by a spirited bid for copyright. Abraham of Megha Books knows the copyright battle can get intense. Abraham recalls winning the rights for Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, though Megha was pitched against a mightier player. “Money is not the only criteria; reputation of the publishing house and its reach are considered, so is the translator,” Abraham explains.

An indie publisher such as Megha wins and loses the copyright battle in equal measure. “I pitched for and eventually lost the rights for Kazuo Ishiguro’s works,” he says. But translations remain the lifeline for small publishers as they’re an unlikely choice for big Malayalam writers.

However, winning does come at a cost; Marquez, Abraham notes, was always expensive, and the priciest bids have often hovered around the €800-mark. Nevertheless, concessions aren’t rare. A small, bibliophilic state and its lofty literary ambition hold a certain charm in the international market and Malayalam publishers at times do walk away with generous copyright deals. One cannot write off luck either. Abraham knows it better than most; he managed to reach out to Nikos Kazantzakis’s extended family in the nick of time — right when a legal battle for ownership was settled, and won the rights for many of the Greek author’s books.

Yet, the overzealousness tends to get the better of the industry on occasions. Books frequently are translated without copyright. “It also happens as prospective publishers do not know whom to approach for copyright. But the internet and online shopping sites have made it easier to track violations,” points out Abraham, who has also translated into Malayalam the works of Khalil Gibran among others.

Suspect quality

The industry remains one in a tearing hurry and translators agree unanimously that quality of works is the real casualty. “We tend to get caught in the number game. The quantity of works is by no means an endorsement of quality,” insists translator Thomas. This, he fears, could impact the field in the long run as mediocrity puts off serious readers. “It often happens that an author’s signature and voice are missed out,” Revikumar agrees. To top it, despite the profusion of translated works in Malayalam, the translator often remains an invisible entity. “Often the translator isn’t even credited on the cover. And the pay is minuscule,” Thampi rues.

Sreekumar of DC is aware of the criticism and acknowledges the grouses. “We rarely get an exemplary translation. But I think most of the works meet a certain standard,” he says.

The history of translation into Malayalam might well be long, but Thomas sees a predictable trajectory with omissions along the way. Translation is also a political process and works that were translated at a given point in time often reflect the era’s predominant political thought. Though many modernist writers and poets were translated into Malayalam, many, Thomas points out, were omitted as well.

“Most of the translations were of revolutionary poets such as Neruda and [Vladimir] Mayakovski. Their domination was so complete that we didn’t see much from other modernist poets of the time, for instance, writers from the US or the works of [Fernando] Pessoa,” says Thomas, referring to the 19-20th century Portuguese poet.

There are gaps, but the Malayalam translation circuit is not one to slow down. The foot soldiers — the translators — carry on, enriching Malayalam by habit. Abraham is already three years into his big project — translating James Joyce’s Ulysses. It can’t get more daunting than that.

P Anima

Published on September 10, 2020

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