Monday, May 15, 2017

Translation Notes of "Truly the Light is Sweet"

My story, Truly the Light is Sweet, originally published in Lowestoft Chronicle, has been translated into Tamil and published in Padhaakai Magazine.  Below are the translator's very astute notes on some of the challenges of translation. 


Early in the story, 'Truly the Light is Sweet' by Eric Maroney, in the very first paragraph, there is this sentence - "In front of me there was a little crocus." I did not know if crocuses are common. So I googled and came across this YouTube with a recording of the crocuses that had flowered along a sidewalk. The visuals of what was just a little patch of flowers among grass runs for more than three minutes.  Wondering what was so remarkable about this, I looked some more and understood that the crocus of this story could be a symbol of regeneration - a website celebrates Crocus thus, "When it seems like winter will never lose its icy grip, the dainty goblet-shaped crocus pushes through the snow to put on a show of colorful revival. If you are not planting this perennial bulb, you are missing an early season of delight." (The Old Farmer's Almanac ).

In reading fiction from other cultures, we are attracted by that which is different, novel, and exotic. But attraction turns to love only when we recognize in it something which is familiar and belongs to us. At that point, we desire to make it our own - and translation affords the closest approach to a text. Every word is weighed, and every meaning explored across words, sentences, passages, and across cultures. An ideal translation which reflects its original impulse should simultaneously feel strange and familiar. The language is one's own, but some of the references and manners of speech point outward, which when explored might resonate with some inward sense.

Crocuses might be familiar to those who people Eric Maroney's story, so ideally it should be translated into a familiar word in Tamil.  But it has a significance in the story, and that seemed to be more important - crocus is not a mere word, or flower, it stands for regeneration. Hence, I chose an unusual translation- Naṟavu. It is not a word in contemporary usage; it is found only in classic literature. A.K. Ramanajan has translated a poem by Kapilar, where the Tamil word, 'Naṟavu' is translated into English as 'Crocus'- (Kalittokai 54) . It is a remarkable translation in the context of this story- crocus finds mention in these lines of A.K. Ramanujan-

              "Not only that, he took
        my fingers
                (unfolding now
                like crocus buds,
                I suppose)"

The poem, like many of these love poems, describes the pain of separation. It ends with these lines,

       "May the sweet smells
        of my marriage in our house
        cling to no man
        but him,
        and that will be good.
        It will guarantee a lasting place for us
        in this world that doesn't last."

After this, 'Naṟavu', which also means, honey, nectar, wine, fragrance etc., became the natural choice. It provides a significantly strong parallel image to what is present in the story; even to its conclusion where "the slightest trace of breath" alone remains of the fellow traveler - he is absent and present simultaneously. He has his imperfections, but even in his absence, he leaves behind a scent, a hope, the promise of what has been and what could be. That promise of regeneration is signified by a small, ordinary flower, a crocus, noticed by a man who had come back to life as it were, and whose narration carries traces of its fragrance to the end of the tale.

The greatest challenge in translating this story was the replication of its tone. A sentence like, "Now, take it from me, this was a no-big-deal flower," employs idioms which have no equivalent in Tamil. The light, conversational tone of English runs a risk of sounding heavy and unduly pedantic.  It is necessary to negotiate these challenges as best as one can. 

The Tamil translation of, "I was right in front with the big shots…" might be taken to mean, "I am in direct contact with all the big shots". "My wind was gone…" might remind the reader of a punctured tire- "I had lost my air"! And what is worse, 'fancy hospitals' are transformed into 'modern hospitals'. But a reasonable amount of pride could be allowed for successfully dodging the booby-trap of "he has a mission…" with "he has come with a purpose..." Mission, if translated into Tamil as such, would sound so high there would be no climbing down.

Some words in English are transliterated into Tamil. Spa, Goyim, Yarmulke are unknown in Tamil. They are transliterated and the meaning is provided in footnotes. Other words, such as tea-kettle and rack, are common in conversational Tamil. They are retained. Beet is known as beetroot, 'slumlord' transformed into a owner of rented houses, since despite the widespread prevalence of slums, slumlords are scarcely a known entity in Tamil. Carpet bag has become a bag made of cloth- the unsuspecting reader in Tamil might mistake its size to be negligible, but since this bag of cloth is on a rack in the carriage of a train, I think he might bring to mind a bag with considerable heft.

Such are the many usual trails encountered in the often frustrating process of translation. But the act of translation provides the deep satisfaction of getting involved not only in the act of translating words, but translating cultural concepts and ideas. I must thank Eric Maroney who kindly allowed me to translate his story.

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