a house, not a home

A Review of Gopalla Gramam’s English Translation

English Translation Available: Here

An author puts pieces of themselves into the stories they write. Even when writing characters that are completely unlike them, the author is drawing from something inside themselves, an indefinable core that is composed of all the experiences they have had, all the observations that have trickled into them. I like to think that authors tap into their soul and the souls of others to do it, and every author does it differently. This nuance is what makes translation so difficult.

The translator needs to translate, not just the words in the text, but also what it evokes. They need to tap into the author’s core through the text and try to render it in another language. This goes beyond the initial barrier of intimately knowing all the languages involved in the translation. It requires an understanding of the story’s spirit and ensuring it survives the process of being translated. Think of it like a blueprint for a home. As long as the blueprint is followed precisely,  two architects using entirely different materials can produce a home that is similar at the core.

My experience with reading translated work lies in reading Haruki Murakami’s novels, the ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’ trilogy by Chinese author Liu Cixin, and a wide variety of Japanese manga that have been translated to English by fans and official publications. Whether the translation is done by an amateur or a professional, the works I enjoy and appreciate are the ones that keep the author’s spirit. They are proof that a work’s value goes far beyond the boundaries of language and can be breached by an individual or team that have the necessary tools. Different architects. Different materials. Same home.

I recently read the English translation of Gopalla Gramam. It was originally written in Tamil by the late Ki. Rajanarayanan (henceforth referred to as Ki. Raa) and translated by M. Vijayalakshmi. In Gopalla Gramam, Ki. Raa tells us the story of the titular village. How it came to be, the stories of its villagers, and the trials it faces in the form of internal disputes and the arrival of the British. I got the general gist of the story, but I believe this translation is far from perfect.

While I grew up in the United States of America and would tell anyone that I am an American, there is no denying that I grew up with a lot more cultural context than the average English speaker due to the stories my dad told me while I grew up. I bring this up to point out that I have enough background for even an amateur translation to reach its mark. Most of the time the story fell short, I was able to draw upon my own experience with the culture to pull it through. I am left wondering if a reader who does not have my awareness of this specific culture would still be able to experience this novel’s soul. I wonder if an English speaker who grew up in that culture – like my dad – would read this translation and feel that the original has been done justice. 

One issue is that the initial requirement for translating a story has not been met: An intimate knowledge of all the languages involved in the translation process. For Gopalla Gramam, the languages would be Tamil and English. M. Vijayalakshmi has given us a translation that is comprehensible. To continue with the architect analogy, M. Vijaylakshmi’s translation of Gopalla Gramam is akin to a house that has been half built with its rooms deviating from the blueprint or missing entirely.

Here are the first four paragraphs of the translation:

“The village was in deep slumber. The moon cast a cool silky glow all around. 

The western breeze had just subsided. This was the hour when fruit bats returned to their homes having feasted on the tigs from trees that grew around the pond. The sounds of nocturnal creatures grew less and less. Cats were returning to human habitations having done with their nightly hunt. Owls and their cousins were reaching for their hollows. Bandicoots were back in their lairs. Crickets had tired themselves out after their night long droning and had begun to sleep. Dogs curled up having finished their nightly vigil. Night was ready to sleep off and the day about to wake up. The cock, staff-bearer of diurnal creatures flapped its wings and crowed urging the village to wake up. The tittle black sparrow and the ‘tell-tale’ sparrow had already sounded off as had the crows. 

From the temple floated the sound of the conch and the drum. 

The village woke up, stretching, warding off the last vestiges of sleep. A number of sounds blended, with elders waking up younger ones in kind but firm tones, against loving protests. 

Doors screeched. Some coughed some cleared their throats. One heard the brisk splatter of cowdung water, in front of houses. 

The calves were hungry and cried for milk. Mother cows echoed their cries with loud bellowing.”

I would have chosen different words and used different phrasing, but I will say that this description of a village waking up piqued my interest in the story and got my hopes up for the quality of the translation. My hopes faltered when I got to other sections and read the dialogue. Here are some snippets of the dialogue:

“She was angry about something and left our home in a huff. She was wearing pambadams and was wearing a red kandungi sari. She was pregnant.” He sounded pitiful, “I am responsible for all this”, his voice seemed to suggest.  “My good men. did you see her? I am told that she was walking this road just a while ago.” 

*

“Urkudumba, we do not know if he is alone or is part of a gang. First of all. he should not escape. Secondly, the Achari should not harm him, out of rage. You start, we are following you,” 

*

“Chenna was my cousin sister, daughter of my father’s elder brother. She was six years older to me. 1 was nine. Goyindappa, I am so old. Till date I have not come across a girl of such beauty and charm.”

*

“More men visited Chenna’s house. Ostensibly they were gem merchants and they did have what the family was looking for. Chenna’s father was good at appraising stones. With the help ol the goldsmith he selected the gems.”

At face value, these dialogues are fine if you ignore the typos. They get the general message across. But that is not enough to be a good translation. Simply put, the characters speaking the above dialogue would not speak that way. An uneducated, 100 year old villager would not say ‘till date’ or ‘ostensibly’. A village goldsmith wouldn’t say ‘my good men’. Bits and pieces like this, over the course of a novel, add up and subsequently detract from the quality of the translation. I am not without sympathy, however. I understand that it is a supremely difficult task to not only translate dialogue but then make sure it sounds real. Also, is it even possible to translate dialogue into a different language and then have it make sense contextually? It would be ridiculous to have a Tamil villager sound like, for example, a 1900s Texan farmhand when translated to English. The solution in this specific case would be to use simple, straightforward language but that runs the risk of draining the dialogue of life.

While I could get through the beginning of Gopalla Gramam’s translation, there are many places in the book where it is hard to follow what is going on. The reader is forced to reread sections and draw heavily upon their own inherent imagination. There is a section involving the reworking of how fields are plowed that I nearly gave up on trying to comprehend. There is a part in the middle of it where it seems that the issue is solved but the characters continue to try and fix the problem:

“They went to the nearest field to try out the new ploughshares. They tied the ploughshares, touched the handle of the plough, prayed and began the tilling. The beasts did not find it difficult to pull the two shares for they offered no resistance at all. They stopped ploughing and thought over the problem.”  

If the animals did not find it hard to pull the plows and did not resist, then why are they trying to fix the problem? The section goes on and the issue is solved with a different orientation of the plows and I was left wondering what was wrong with the first way. This mess of a section led me to get my dad to read out the original and we noticed that a key detail had been omitted! In the original, there is a sentence that said that while the animals found it easy, the farmers found the first solution to be difficult hence why they continued to brainstorm. We wondered if other parts of the translation had holes in it like this one and decided to read random parts of the original and compare it to the corresponding translation. We discovered that many sentences were either omitted entirely, mistranslated, or simply gave the general context without any of the enriching detail. This gave us the answer on why the English version is noticeably shorter than the Tamil original. Because of this butchering, Ki. Raa’s sense of humor – in the form of cheeky sarcasm – and shrewd observation of village life are reduced to a shadow of itself in the translation. Essentially, this translation is a Sparknotes version of Gopalla Gramam.

To expand upon the omissions and mistranslations, there were many portions where it felt as though it was blatant censorship. For example, a simple, but detailed, sentence about mothers breastfeeding their babies is missing in the translation. In a different part, there is a word that can be directly translated to English as ‘motherfucker’. But in the translation, the word ‘wretch’ is used. The censorship issues can possibly be attributed to the cultural norms that the translator and their team abide by. Perhaps the team was uncomfortable with using such harsh language. Or perhaps they were fine with translating it correctly but faced opposition from their higher-ups who are removed from the translation effort but still hold sway over important decisions. I understand such difficulties exist but the fact remains that censorship chips away at the author’s intent and spirit. It is not the duty of the translator to police what the author says or doesn’t say. A translator’s duty is to expand the audience of the author by resolving the issue of language. 

To do justice to Gopalla Gramam, the translator would first need to be deeply comfortable with Tamil and English. A translator like that could breach the initial language barrier and then focus on preserving Gopalla Gramam’s spirit. In its current form, I do not believe Ki. Raa’s work has been done justice. I was able to catch glimpses of Ki. Raa’s care and I can only imagine the impact Gopalla Gramam would have had on me if I read the original. After all, it’s the story of my people and how we left our homeland in search of another. That mythology is a birthright as well as something that should be shared with the world as a whole. For now, I can only dream of it. 

-R.S. Saha

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