“Translations play a pivotal role in the literary and non-literary world”

Says Siddharthan Sundaram, a well-known translator of books from English to Tamil language.


Siddharthan Sundaram has been translating books from English into Tamil since 2010. In the last 11 years, he has translated 12 books and were published by well-known Tamil publishers. “Out of these 12 books, four books were authored by Malcolm Gladwell, viz Tipping Point, Outliers, Blink and David & Goliath. I am a great fan of Malcolm for his storytelling and the way he weaves the research findings of various fields to the core theme of the book. He also makes it easy to understand,” he shares.

“Besides Malcolm, I translated other bestsellers authored by Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), J D Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich (Voices from Chernobyl), Subroto Bagchi (The Elephant Catcher), Vithal Venkatesh Kamath’s auto biography (Idly, Orchid, Willpower) and Ravi Subramanian’s financial thriller (God is a Gamer),” he adds.

On translation rights…

“I presume that as a norm in the publishing industry, the translation rights are not directly given to the translators. So, as a translator, if I think a book in English is good and has to reach the wider audience (in my case Tamil readers), then I recommend that book to the publishers. If they also feel that it is worthwhile, then they approach the respective writers, publishers (in most of the cases) and/or writers’ agents to complete the formalities. After getting rights, they commission the translation work with a stipulated time-frame. So, I think it is a very straight forward method in getting rights for the translation,” he says.

Keeping the essence of the book intact…

“In most of the cases, the original author may not able to read the target language. But, as a translator, I always think and keep in my mind that I have to be loyal to the author and friendly to the readers’ without distorting the tone of the content and at the same time make it easy for the readers to understand. I never apply my own creativity when I do the translation, if I do then it becomes a `trans-creation’ and it is a crime committed against the original author,” he shares.

Things to do before translating…

According to Siddharthan, before starting any translation work, he follow certain things viz, “Read through the book (that is going to be translated) once or twice and gather information about author’s other work and read the review about those work because it may not be possible to go through all his work from cover to cover, so to get a brief idea I go through the reviews, articles etc. To cite an example, before starting the translation of To kill a mocking bird, I watched the movie to understand the story line, culture of USA in 1930s etc. and that helped me. The same goes with `Voices from Chernobyl’ also. I also refer to a few sources to understand the context and what the author really meant.”

“If really fortunate, I get in touch with the authors and get it clarified. (e.g. it happened when I was translating Ravi Subramanian’s God is a Gamer and Kamath’s Idly, Orchid and Will Power),” he adds.

Importance of translations…

“As Italo Calvino said, “Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” I wholeheartedly agree with him. So, I feel that it is a real opportunity for the translators to introduce a book and the author to various languages that will expand the horizon of the author. The books are written in the backdrop of various cultures. Thus, the translator is not just translating the content into another language but the culture. In a way, the translators act as ambassadors to the authors beyond their own country, language, culture etc,” tells Siddharthan.

“We cannot expect that all readers should be polyglots. The translation helps to bridge that gap by taking a book from one language, culture, place to another so that the readers who read the translated books are aware of what is happening beyond a state and/or the country w.r.t socio-political and economic arena. Also it helps to enrich their knowledge on various aspects. Sitting in one corner of the room, the readers can visualize what is happening across the globe by reading translated works. Thus, the translations play a pivotal role in the literary and non-literary world,” he adds.

Challenges of a translator…

“As said earlier, to bring the essence of the content from the source language to the target language is one of the prime and foremost challenges followed by identifying the equivalent terms/words, relevant phrase and/or idioms etc pose a challenge and time consuming too. Sometimes I get stuck with that for hours then I have to look out for the sources (if the translator is fortunate enough, directly can contact the author! to understand the context and the meaning of some specific terms that he or she used in his work),” tells Siddharthan.

“Another critical challenge is that the Tamil publishers are lacking in marketing whether it is original work or the translated work. And quite a few of the publishers do not have professional proofreaders or editors to add value to the translated work by suggesting changes or correcting the mistakes. In that sense, they have to have a panel of experts pertaining to the subject as well as the language to produce really a brilliant work or near perfect to the original work,” he adds. “The translators also have to get due recognition, like the original authors, for helping in reaching out to the wider audience.”

Best works…

“As far as my works are concerned, the Tipping point, Outliers, Blink and Idly, Orchid and Will Power did well. The Outliers was translated by me and serialized in one of the leading personal finance magazine, Nanayam Vikatan, in Tamil for 50 weeks before it was published as a book. Still readers talk about the book,” tells Siddharth.

“In the recent years to name a few, I liked the books translated by Sahitya awardee Pavannan and Nallathambi (from Kannada to Tamil), late Arshya (English to Tamil), K V Shailaja and K V Jayashree (Malayalam to Tamil). Of late, there a quite a few translators who are directly translating from French, German and Mandarin into Tamil as well,” he adds.

Being a translator…

“When the book is getting translated I feel excited in a way that I am introducing the author or author’s work to the newer audience. Once the job gets completed I feel that I delivered a ‘baby’ and have a ‘motherly satisfaction’ as well as get a great relief. The responsibility to nurture that baby lies with the translator as well as publisher by marketing it and take it to the right audience. Thus translation is a great work that the translators do to the mankind even if it is not lucrative!. The passion of the translators drive their work rather the monetary benefits offered by the publishers,” concludes Siddharthan.

Siddharthan Sundaram is an MBA grad and worked with Nielsen, the market research agency for almost 2 decades, who resigned in 2014 to pursue his passion viz writing, translating and reading! Simultaneously, he runs a small business, Qualiprime Beverage Services LLP, in Chennai. He regularly contributes to the personal finance magazine, Nanayam Vikatan and Startup and Business News (e-magazine). He received `Kalaingar Porkizhi Award for Translations’ in 2018.

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