The Art of Revival: Get to know how the magic of Translation works

K.R. Meera is an award-winning writer and bestselling author in Malayalam literature, who has published more than a dozen books including short stories, novels, and essays, winning some of the most prestigious literary prizes.

Ministhy S. is an IAS officer who is also a writer and translator. Her translation of K.R. Meera’s The Poison of Love has been widely lauded as a masterpiece. 

Here we have the esteemed author K.R Meera in conversation with Ministhy S. talking about what really goes into translating a great story from Malayalam into English without losing out on it’s original essence.

The Unseeing Idol of Light by K.R. Meera, is a haunting tale that explores love and loss, blindness and sight, obsession and suffering-and the poignant interconnections between them.


Meera: Mini, when I first wrote Netronmeelanam (now published in English as The Unseen Idol of Light), I never imagined in my wildest dreams that it would ever be translated into English. I was always aware that this was a difficult novel to translate—with its many idioms and phrases along with certain cultural elements very specific to Malayalam and Kerala. To add to that, there were so many complex sentences with layered meanings too. The words I had used in Malayalam were carefully chosen to denote gloom and darkness, many of which do not have equivalents in English.

Ministhy: ‘Jalapisachu’ is one such term that is not easy to translate. It evokes a fairy-creature associated with water, but this is not a benign angel. It is an evil infestation. Women who are caught in its tentacles  succumb to an obsessive compulsive disorder: having to bathe again and again, ceaselessly cleaning themselves of an imagined impurity. Now we have got a June afternoon infected by this malevolent water spirit. How do we capture the essence?

Meera: You are right. And unless one has seen the kind of fierce monsoon that Kerala has in June, one might not be able to fully enjoy the imagery this evokes. Isn’t it the same with the imagery of the night wearing jasmine flowers in its tresses?

Ministhy : Absolutely! The monsoon in Kerala wails wildly as it falls! And jasmines in a girl’s hair and the night with its stars—the imagery of your words and metaphors are so full of the essence of Kerala. And the nuances in the way you express certain things—the way Prakash ‘sees’ although he cannot see. For example, he reads Chekhov totally from his memory! You intended that the reader remembers Borges in this context. I hope they do!

Meera: It’s true that I had Borges in mind when I wrote this. I had read that he used to see things in yellow—and that fascinated me.

Ministhy: Rajani was difficult to capture. Though her way of love is familiar to most of us women. We are possessive, are we not? Deepti often seems too good to be true. The quintessential perfect woman.  A metaphor like ‘a finger knocking softly against a bronze pitcher’ is so much part of Kerala milieu, just like snacks such as Mambhazhapulissery and Chakkaerissery. My computer keeps autocorrecting these dishes to ‘emissary’!

Meera: On the contrary, Rajani is the real woman. Deepti is the woman that Prakash and the patriarchal world wants to see. Even Rajani thinks Deepti is the ideal woman and that is why she keeps on searching for her. The real woman always commits suicide to gift the unreal woman to the man she loves.

Ministhy:  Shyam’s presence is recognised by his special smell of crushed Mazhithandu. That inconspicuous plant thrives in our homes and as kids  we used that  stem to rub our slates clean in school! Pepper elder is the technical name of our Mazhitandu. Crushed pepper elder plant emanates a mustard odour. One will have to have experienced that to know.

Meera: The plant is Peperomia Pellucida. It is also called silver bush, pepper weed, and so on, in the West.  Shyam can have any other odour, as there is no other plant which can represent one’s childhood in Kerala. I think it is the plant of friendship too—one which helps to rub our slates clean with its own stem.

Ministhy: You have used so many local idioms related to sight, even lines from Jnanapana, to emphasise that main theme. ‘What you see in your mind, I can see on that tree’ is a very colloquial saying used by Shyam when he guesses Prakash’s thoughts. It is pretty well known to a Keralite but unknown elsewhere.  But in the original  novel, you use that phrase deliberately—because soon after comes the reference to the mango tree which plays a major role in Prakash’s life. So one cannot change the words just to capture the essence of guessing. One needs to be careful and judicious in the act of translation. ‘Prakash turned…wondering if what he saw in his mind could also be seen on the tree.’

Meera: That is true. I understand some of the paragraphs in the original were quite inflexible for translation. For example, chakshusravanagalasthamam darduram... Now chakshusravanan is a Sanskrit word. Its meaning is one who hears with his eyes—that is, a snake. And darduram is frog. The line is very layered, and expresses that human life is nothing but a frog which is crying for its own food while already trapped in the jaws of a snake.  This imagery is important when it comes to the discourse in the novel regarding  justice and  gender. I am so sorry about all the untranslatable phrases and words. But at the same time, thank you for retaining most of the similes I have used connecting nature and sight and justice.

Ministhy: Bengali, Telugu, Sanskrit , Malayalam—so many languages play a part in this novel. All these nuances in the translated novel have to flow seamlessly, just like in the original. But then, the reader should be able to understand without needing to constantly flick over to the glossary page.

Meera: The reviews we get prove that readers are happy with the translation. Hope you have noticed that my obsession—with Kolkata , the media, the death sentence and the noose, although here it is to hang one self—has already commenced, about five years before writing Hangwoman?

Ministhy:  That is clear to anyone who has loved your Hangwoman!

One critical sentence, appearing twice in the original,  which threw me into a deep translator’s conundrum was this one: ‘ When some women leave, they also take with them the sight of those men who had loved them…’ In Malayalam, ‘ snehicha purushan’ can mean  ‘the man who loved the woman’ as well as the ‘the man whom the woman loved’. You left it so mysteriously for the reader to interpret!

In the first instance we refer to Deepti, so the line is clearly  hinting at Prakash as the man who loved her. In the second instance, at the end of the novel, it refers to Rajani whom Prakash had never loved till then—but she had loved him. Even the word ‘leaving’ had changed in its nuance by the time the second sentence appears at the very end of the novel. The reader now knows who is alive and who is truly gone! So one could not just repeat the first sentence in English. The second sentence had to be tweaked to match the context. ‘When some women depart, they take along with them the sight of the men whom they loved.’

Meera: I remember the discussion we had on this. And it was fun seeing your remarks in answer to the editor’s queries: ‘The author deliberately uses this, etc.,’ especially where there were repeated sentences.

Ministhy: The bats, the bats! They are everywhere: as symbols, as metaphors, as creatures which hang upside down in cosmic darkness. I hope that these intentional recurring images are understood as part of the writer’s craft and not as an oversight in translation.

Meera: When the novel was published in Malayalam, a reader from the central jail wrote to me: ‘I liked your “novavvaal.” ‘Vavval’ in Malayalam means bat. As you said, it was deliberate—the whole “novel” is about the repeating cycle of life.

Ministhy:  Ah, the puns and the wordplay  in our mother tongue! The scenes of extra-sensory perception read like poetry. It catches the eerie sense of Rajani’s experience: as she catches sight of not only the past but also the inevitable future. That was very hard to translate—maintaining the rhythm of the prose as well as that intense sense of sadness.

Meera: I wish the poetry in the prose were also translated.

Ministhy: There are ironic usages, and subtle humour in episodes involving Shyam. His adventures with his inner wear and the Bhubaneshwar Express had to be translated very carefully. The background was really dark: corpses and morgues in the former and the loss of his life’s balance in the latter. The dark humour of the original novel deserved a very nuanced treatment. By the time Shyam tied the knot in the Bhubaneshwar temple, and slept without his inner wear for the first time willingly, the reader has to come full circle and smile with understanding.

Meera: Just imagine, Shyam has been travelling all his life in search of another man’s wife!

Ministhy: I translated the novel when I was undergoing Netronmeelanam in my own way. My eyes, too, opened to many truths and falsehoods. If The Poison of Love made me cry as a translator, this novel made me pause often and forced me to reflect about my own blind spots. I enjoyed the different rounds of meticulous editing with Ambar and Shatarupa.

Meera: Ambar and Shatarupa are great to work with. And by the way, I wish we could have also translated the word Netronmeelanam and coined a word to make clear that it is the last of the five rituals by which a statue of a Hindu god becomes fit to worship—by opening its eyes. Netra means eyes and Unmeelanam means opening.

Ministhy:  The title underwent many interesting discussions. From the literal translation ‘Opening the Eyes’ which was in the draft, to the evolution of the title ‘The Unseeing Idol of Light’  was a great journey, capturing sight, light, the refusal to see, the insight awaiting.

Meera: Yes, it was one of the  greatest challenges regarding this translation.

Ministhy: How  does one make Prakash’s ability to read, write and function normally seem plausible,  when he is totally blind ? What seemed so easy to accept in the original had to be carefully structured in the translation. Could a blind man gaze? Or does he turn his head? He ‘sees’ . . . but how?

Meera: But then a reader is supposed to understand that sight is just one of the five senses!

Ministhy : ‘ Prakash continued to look at her, impassive. Baffled by his relentless gaze, Rajani felt consumed with envy and frustration. Perhaps he was not seeing her. Perhaps he was seeing someone else in her face. Perhaps he was seeing no one at all….’

Meera: Seeing in Malayalam means understanding too! And this man could see with his mind as sight was half light and half imagination.

Ministhy: I started translating one chapter at a time in December 2015. I used to send it to you and a few friends. By March, I had completed the first round. The real hard work was yet to begin. The draft underwent multiple revisions and many rounds of intense editing. I was so proud to see the gorgeous book which was created by the great team at Penguin and I was thankful on reading the Author’s Note.

Meera: Your speed is amazing, Mini.  Be it translation or the original, I wish to work and rework till there is nothing more I can do. I like to invest all my time into the work I am doing. So I am always nervous about a published book.

Ministhy: There were so many incidents of serendipity which inspired me during the translation of this novel too. Many books with reference to ‘ insight’ and  ‘blind heroes’ sort of leapt out of bookshelves  and into my hands during the three-year period it took for the novel to be published! Prakasham Illanjappol ( When there is no light/Prakash) by Bengali writer Asha Poorna Debi in translation reached my hands in a wondrous way. It was the story of the blind Adinadh, for whom sight meant words! The blurb read that the novel captures the helplessness of people caught in the struggle between light and darkness. I recall WhatsApping you that book cover in awe!

Meera: Yes. While I was writing the original, I got the book Phantoms in the Brain by Dr V.S. Ramachandran. I got the information about ‘blind spot’ from it. I got the book very unexpectedly. One day the late Murali, one of the greatest actors  that Malayalam Cinema has ever seen and a friend of my husband,  visited us and asked me whether I had read the book. I said no and he said he would  send it. He sent it to me and I opened it casually and happened to chance upon the page which was talking about the blind spot.

Ministhy: Quotations which left me stunned, smiled at me from odd places. For example, the mobile cover I got for my phone, had a message inscribed inside: ‘Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Open your mind and design yourself.’ I was gobsmacked! Then I knew that this translation effort was destined.

Meera: Maybe we are seeing what we want to see. After all, everything we have seen and will be seeing is nothing but half light and half imagination.


 

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