Poet and author Meena Kandasamy has translated works of E V Ramasamy Periyar, speeches of Thirumavalavan and a number of poets over the years. She is the author of two poetry collections (Touch and Ms Militancy) and three novels (The Gypsy Goddess, When I Hit You and Exquisite Cadavers).
With translations between Indian languages becoming fewer and fewer, the importance of English as a bridge language even with our neighbours is growing.
In this interview, Violet speaks to Kandasamy on the launch of her new translation—the noted Tamil writer Salma‘s novel Women, Dreaming.
Violet: Why Manaamiyangal (Women, Dreaming), and how did it become the first novel you have ever translated?
Meena Kandasamy: This was the second time someone asked me to translate a novel. I love Salma’s poetry and the chance to work on her novel appeared like something I wanted to do.
The first time was perhaps 15 years ago. Sivapriya was commissioning translations for Penguin, and she asked me if I’d be interested in translating Sivakami’s Anandayi (it was later published in English as The Taming of Women). I read the first chapter and was shattered. I wrote back to Siva and said to her that I had only about 10% of faith left in men, and that if I do this novel, even that remaining trust would evaporate. The book exposed male entitlement, arrogance and privilege in such a stark manner. I literally chickened out because of this fear.
I have nothing against novels but most of my translations have been radical political texts, whether it is the works of Thirumavalavan or Periyar. I used to feel then, and I still feel now, that a lot more people do literary translation. But there’s so much screaming urgency about political works that I seem to have a slight preference for them.
Violet: There are many footnotes in Manaamiyangal (the Tamil original). That itself felt like an act of translation, a region/community explaining itself to what is considered the mainstream Tamil. But Women, Dreaming interestingly has no footnotes! How did this come to be?
Kandasamy: I think one of the decisions to do away with too much gloss was to not otherize the reader, or make them feel as if they were here on a cultural immersion trip. However, we have retained family relations as they exist in the southern Tamil Muslim universe to refer to father, grandmother, aunt, etc. I consulted Salma on this, and she too stood her ground and wanted those to remain intact. We also retained the Arabic religious words: shirk, ibaddat, and so on. They would make sense only when they remain untranslated into English and they are universal even without being English words.
Violet: When I read your fiction, I find an assertive narrator voice. Whereas Women, Dreaming felt like a multitude of characters going through their lives, speaking, whispering and dreaming. As a reader, it felt like the difference between speaking and watching. Did you feel the contrast? And what has been the impact of your translation projects on your own writings?
Kandasamy: If there was no contrast between what I write and what I translate, I would drop doing one of the two. So, I think a style that is very different from mine is what I’d prefer. But I also think that my own style as a fiction writer is something I’ve spent years and years developing and fine-tuning. So when I embark on a fiction translation project I know that one will mistake this as me rewriting someone’s fiction in my voice.
When I write, it is an excruciatingly slow project. Translation is much faster for me, and where I do not necessarily have to exercise the same element of control. Some of it is about letting go, and trusting that the author has done the best job.
In terms of impact of translation projects on my own writing—I think it is not a question of style that gets impacted as much as a question of political alignment. I definitely think (now, with the benefit of hindsight) that translating Thirumavalavan laid the basis for my own political thoughts, whether it is the question of caste annihilation, Hindutva, state terror, or linguistic nationalism; and translating Periyar gave me the freedom to be the woman I wanted to be. So, I tend to think that translations not only work at some language/word-level, they do influence and shape the person that you become.
Violet: From Periyar to Salma, you have translated different writers over time and have worked with different forms—essays, poetry, speeches, biography and now a novel. What was hard, what was pleasurable?
Kandasamy: All of it was hard, all of it was pleasurable: One doesn’t exclude the other. I think 100% pleasure is working on the Kamathupal of the Thirukkural. Difficult yes, but delicious perfection. I think the novel was the easiest of all the stuff—when you are done with the text, you are almost there. With the political stuff, there is always additional work that must go into it—to get names, dates, and places right; to annotate further; to provide context where it is required, and so on.
Violet: How is your translation process? Do you jump between chapters or start from the beginning and work towards the end unwavering?
Kandasamy: So much about the process also depends on where and who you are at a certain point of your life. I translated Talisman and Uproot Hindutva (both by Thirumavalavan) when I was in my late teens, or 20, staying up at nights in one stretch and crashing during the day. I needed those quiet, those intense working hours, and most of all, because I was young I was so afraid of failing, of getting anything wrong. Translating Periyar, I was this bored PhD student who found out soon that between the teaching I had to do and the classes I had to attend, and so much self-directed learning—there were hours and hours of emptiness. I chose to fill them with translating Periyar. I always carried one of his books and an empty diary with me. Then, after a decade I did Salma’s book—and I was a mother of one, later two children—and I had to do the translation when they were napping, when I managed to get my partner to take care of them and so on.
I did start at the beginning and worked my way through until the end.
Violet: I am still in awe of Uproot Hindutva. More than mere translation between languages, it was translation between forms. The speeches were turned to beautiful essays without losing any of their qualities, including their provocative, fiery nature.
Kandasamy: Thank you so much for saying these kind things. I think as much as his speeches are provocative and fiery, they are also deeply intellectual and have the power to radically alter our society if only people had an openness of mind to listen to what he has to say. I feel very duty-bound and committed about his work, and I think making those speeches work as stand-alone essays was part of this endeavour of trying to get a wider non-Tamil audience for his words.
Violet: What is it that makes you come back to translating again and again, between your own writing? How does your writing and translating contradict or complement each other?
Kandasamy: I think there is a certain bad rep for translation and translating in India (at least). It is seen as a really inferior form of creative expression—and worse, it is fine only if you are a college professor maami doing it, when your maami plus professor status makes you stand out and bestows some importance on what is otherwise seen as pedestrian.
Where literary works (poetry, fiction, short stories) are concerned, I’m just happy for the chance to work with Tamil. I always start looking up words and word origins and happily end down many rabbit holes. It’s fulfilling to find the right word in English, and to shape that work (whether a poem or a novel), as something that would be seamless and beautiful and charming in its own right in English. With the political work, I find it very important—and that’s the kind of thing for which I shelve any writing project of my own in order to just get it done.
Violet: What does Tamil mean to you as a writer in English? Has that changed from poetry to prose?
Kandasamy: It is everything—I wouldn’t quite know where to begin. It is also always a surprise to me because the harder I try to run away, the more I realise there is no running away.
Violet: Are there any differences in experience between translating while being in Tamil Nadu and translating while you are in the United Kingdom?
Kandasamy: Not so much. I still call up the authors when I am desperately in need of rescue from a difficult word. I do think that British English might be very, very, very slowly creeping into my own usage. Hopefully, I will move back before it takes over me.
Violet: Translation to English from Indian languages is often seen as an act of power in itself, especially considering the vast differences in their respective markets. And it is still majorly a Brahmin project. Is that changing? How do you see this as a whole?
Kandasamy: Short answer: We need Periyar.
Long answer: Awards: Brahmins. Award juries: Brahmins. Grants: Brahmins. Residencies: Brahmins. Big book deals: Brahmins. They are the ones who give them, and they are the ones who receive them. They will completely occupy every part of the ecosystem, and at the same time, they will shame you for being there—say that your presence is denominational, that you are there only because of your identity (they are there because of talent and merit, you see). Just to even exist in this space is an act of resistance, resilience and survival. I don’t fucking care anymore, and I will tell young people from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and other marginalised backgrounds to stop caring as well. Let us keep making literature, let us keep doing translations. One day, some day, these institutions will have to open their doors.
Violet: Can you tell us more about your upcoming translation projects.
Kandasamy: Years ago, I had started translating Periyar’s speeches and essays that dealt with women’s rights—and at some point I had to put that project aside because I was no longer a student who was living with her parents—I was a divorcee, staying alone, paying my own rent, living in a different city, and then I moved abroad, started a family and time became money. I just couldn’t take time off unless I was sure that in some way the bills would take care of themselves. So, I hope that in the next couple of years, inshallah I settle into something that will allow me to get a bit of time to work on that project and to stay with it to completion.
Violet is a writer and translator whose works can be found at violetree.com.