A Quick Review Of “The Kural” by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

R.S. Saha

In “The Kural”, Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma, has brought Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural to an English reading audience. There are other such translations, but after reading this one I see little need to read them. Pruiksma has simply done that good of a job. The translation shows a love and respect for the original that even I, someone who hasn’t read the original, can sense. The most obvious sign of his love of the Kural is his decision to translate it in the first place. It’s not like a translator can do something like this simply for the money. Most translators will laugh at you if you say they’re doing it for the money. However, that sign is boring and a little too cynical for a review that I would like to keep positive (since I liked the book). 

I think the true, and more inspiring, sign of Pruiksma’s love of the Kural is his adherence to the original’s form. While I have never read the original, I grew up in a Tamil household and every now and then my parents (mostly my dad) would recite one of the handfuls he had memorized. Or I would be watching a Tamil movie and a character would recite something. Each one I heard firmly danced out of the speaker’s mouth and glided through the air into my ears. Here are three transliterated examples:

“Agara mudhala ezhuththellaam aadhi

Pakavan mudhatre ulaku” (In Praise Of God, 1)

“Tuppaarkku tuppaaya tuppaakki tuppaarkku
Tuppaaya tuuum mazhai” (The Glory Of Rain, 12)

“Porulatraar pooppar orukaal arulatraar
Atraarmar raadhal aridhu” (Compassion, 248)

I am fluent in Tamil but the Kural is written in a Tamil that is beyond my knowledge. Without an explanation of them, the words were just noises to me. But the gentle confidence woven into them would settle in me like a pebble into a riverbed. The beauty of it was that the speaker had little to do with the feeling of the words. Just say the above kurals out loud. Let the words flow over your tongue and embrace their rhythm. Don’t worry about trying to understand their meaning. Tiruvalluvar’s selection and arrangement of them gave them power that could be felt regardless of the speaker’s oratory skills or the listener’s comprehension. 

Now, thanks to Pruiksma, I can have that comprehension as well. Here are Pruiksma’s translations of the three kurals I listed above:

“All speech starts from ah—as the world
Starts from God” (In Praise Of God, 1)

“Making food fit for feeding itself
Food that feeds—rain” (The Glory Of Rain, 2)

“Lacking possessions one may yet flourish—lacking compassion
One lacks for all time” (Compassion, 248)

He mastered the constraints that kural’s have, such as its pattern of assonance and consonance or lack of punctuation. Because of that, he ensured that his translation was a true one. Without fully committing to the rules of the Kural’s specific form, the translation would have just been a standard book full of philosophy and ethics. Its soul would have been completely lost. It isn’t always perfect but I don’t believe it’s for lack of trying. Pruiksma has chosen his words with care and, for sections where the reader may be confused or lack appropriate context, he has included a lengthy section of notes at the end. 

If you are someone like me that doesn’t know enough Tamil to experience the Kural in its original form, then Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s translation is the next best thing. There is no need to look for a different translation.