Totems of Tamil Translation

Karthikeyan Pugalendi shares his views on the importance and potential of translating regional content into foreign languages.


I used to read a lot of novels in English during my school college days. Little did I know then, that many of them were not directly written in English. Those were narratives with such deep subtexts from different landscapes and cultures which otherwise would have never reached people like us. For sure certain things are beyond the scope of translation: for example, creating the exact impact on a local issue with a foreigner. But the translated version slowly builds its realm in a reader’s mind, unique to his imagination.

That is when it struck me the potential of translating regional content into foreign languages is quite vast. Even within a state, each district village or town is rich in folklore and each dialect has its idioms and metaphors that are thought-provoking. From what I have observed over the years, Classics, Sahitya Academy winners, and critically acclaimed novels have been adapted into movies and translated into English and many other languages. But there are so many other writers whose works haven’t found the right literary agent or a translator. So I decided to reach out to scholars who have researched this extensively.

The legacy of translation…

“We have a translation legacy of over 2000 years. It was all good when there were globe trotters like merchants and travelers who made it their life’s purpose as real ambassadors of cultural exchange via translation. But at a certain point when it became an obsession to such an extent that scholars started using the tags “translated from Sanskrit, Russian, and Persian” assuming it adds authenticity to their work, it slowly paved the way to build a national theme stitching our regional narratives. In a way, it catalyzed our preparedness for the colonial era. Equipped with proprietary rights for the printing solutions and driven by propaganda, our colonial masters started to dictate what gets printed. The after pangs were felt even after independence while our popular works were predominantly loose adaptations of the European bestsellers,” quips Dr. Murugesapandian whose Ph.D. thesis was based on the politics around translation.

He marks the period between 1950- 1980 as the golden period of translation where the spirit of independence and free will took over. But again we lost the streak post-globalization and liberalization. People started subscribing to a school of thought and the treatment became preferential when a particular writer, a genre was commissioned to be translated into Indian languages.

According to his analysis, starting from Pudhumaipithan we have so many writers from different walks of life whose body of work stands testimony to our folklore and heritage. The onus is on us to get them translated into other Indian and foreign languages.

The works of Thiruvalluvar, Kamban, Barathiyar, Kalki, Jeyakanthan, Sundara Ramasamy, Asokamithran, Sujatha, Balakumaran, Si.Su.Chellappa, Ka.Na.Su, Puthumaipithan, M.V.Venkatraman, Thi. Janakiraman, G.Nagarajan, Pa. Singaram, Sa. Kandasamy, Ki. Rajanarayanan, A. Muthulingam, Indra Parthasarathy, Perumal Murugan, S.Ramakrishnan, Charu Nivedita,Gouthama Siddharthan, Cho.Dharman, Salma, Imayam, Poomani, Tamilmagan, Pattukottai Prabhakar have been translated into English and other foreign languages so far.

More best works to come…

But another researcher Dr. V. Arasu compiles the short stories of 100 twentieth-century Tamil writers into 5 phases (five decades) based on the writing style chronologically.

“N.Pichamoorthy, Ku. Pa.Ra,Thi. Ja.Ra, Mouni, Vallikkannan,La.Sa.Ra, Ku.Azhagirisamy,Vinthan,Sudamani, N.Muthusamy, Jeyanthan, Vannanilavan, Thanjai Prakash, Pa.Jeyaprakasam, Vannadasan, Nanjil Nadan, Piramil, Prabanjan, C.Mohan, Vela Ramamoorthy, Yuma Vasugi, Konangi, MT Muthukumarasamy, Damayanti, Kanmani Gunasekaran might probably be the next wave of writers whose works are being translated into other Indian languages. Their works will soon become international,” Arasu beckons.

The road ahead…

We can take the cue from there and get the best works of as many writers translated as a publishing fraternity. India being a country with the most diverse tribal population in the world, our literature will start flourishing the moment we let go of the one size fits all approach. Initiatives like the Publishers Exchange where Indian language publishers with international exposure come together in creating a framework for rights and liaison is a step in the right direction. When the time is ripe, let’s hope MHRD and the respective state government also chips in with grants and aids inviting embassies and literary agencies to explore our linguistic diversity.

Karthikeyan Pugalendi is a third-generation publisher. He is one of the founding members of the Indian Virtual Book Fair, due for a Diwali launch. As a techie and an avid reader, he writes columns in English and Tamil.

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