J. Devika is a teacher and researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. A writer, translator and feminist, her notable translations into English from Malayalam include short stories by Sarah Joseph and K.R. Meera, and the autobiography of Nalini Jameela. In 2014, she translated K.R. Meera’s award-winning novel Aarachaar (Hangwoman). She has recently translated “The Angel’s Beauty Spots: Three novellas” by K.R. Meera from Malayalam into English. Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her translation style, how for her the process of translation is highly collaborative, and the joys and challenges of translating K.R. Meera’s three novellas.
First off, what languages are you fluent in?
Malayalam and English. I learned them at the same time, and for a long time, was barely conscious of the boundaries between them.
How did you get started in literary translation?
Through a friend who wanted me to translate some nonsense folk songs in Malayalam. The experience revealed to me the enormously creative challenge in moving into another language — not just the meaning and logic of one, but also its feeling, rhetoric, and cadences.
Apart from your work as a translator, you are a writer first. Please introduce our readers to your work as an author and also to your translation oeuvre.
As a young person, I wrote successfully for children, and was all set on making that my life’s work, but life led me away from it, and towards the most stiflingly adult of discourses: the social sciences. I trained as a historian — my early published work in English is about the historical shaping of Malayali society — and then I joined a social science research institute where I was exposed to the social sciences and quantitative methodology. This has shaped my choices as a translator and also my methods of translation. As an investigator of contemporary socio-economic and cultural processes, I began to develop firm perspectives on which texts deserved to be translated; as a historian, I became sensitive to the fact that all texts have sedimented layers of culture in them, all of which could be of interest to the historian. So I focused on keeping all those layers in my translation, not just retaining the ones easiest to translate. In other words, I chose my texts with a social scientist’s eye and translate keeping in my mind the historian as a potential reader.
Can you take us through your translation process — are there any fixed methods you follow? How do you decide on the appropriate language style and tone?
It is the text which decides what style works best. The translator has to be the most careful reader possible, alive to every single nuance. Because ultimately, a translation can only be the translator’s reading of the text. A serious reader’s pleasure comes from her ability to savour the delicate balance of meaning and sound, logic and rhetoric, the beauty that arises from the very unique convergence and divergence of multiple layers of culture, linguistic registers, historical times, and so on, in the text. You have to recognize each of these in your reading and then re-create them in your translation, aligning them in the same or at least similar way.
In some ways, the translator’s method resembles the craft of a jeweller who creates a new necklace from stones from an old one: setting stones carefully to catch the light best. In other ways, it is like the craft of a musician setting a tune from a song from a particular culture and language to another song in another culture and language. It is also highly collaborative — I have enjoyed most the manner in which translation brings us close, intimate — the writer, the translator, and the editor.
What was it, exactly, that attracted you to translating the three novellas in “The Angel’s Beauty Spots”?
They represent a particularly strong moment in K.R. Meera’s literary career. Meera’s is a kind of middlebrow feminist modernism which has had an explosive impact on the Malayalam literary public. It broke down the huge walls that separated ‘high’ Malayalam literature from ‘low’ and brought feminism right into the heart of Malayalam literature. The idea of bringing them together was Mini Krishnan’s and I could see its merit.
What, if any, were the challenges you faced translating this work into English? Was the project a close collaboration with the author, or did you more or less work on it on your own?
All three of these works are heart-rending. They have a way of reducing the reader to tears, stripping you of the minimal distance you need to start treating them as objects to work on. I had to struggle very hard to gain this distance. As mentioned earlier, the deep intimacy I have always shared with the author and the editor does help. The author does not help directly, but I need to know if the translation brings back to her at least a whiff of what she felt when she was writing the original. The editor is the person never acknowledged enough. She is the other person who helps you assess whether the difficult task of bringing over into another language the rhetoric of another has been successfully fulfilled or not.
And a line or a passage from this book that you particularly enjoyed translating.
Meera’s sentences in these novellas are like broken pieces of glass — short, sharp, sure to draw blood. I had to keep them that way in the English. I can’t think of a particular line or passage — each had to be kept pitch-perfect in itself from beginning to end.
What is the most gratifying part of the translation process for you?
As I said, the delicate webs that the translator, editor, and author weave around each other in the process of translation form a wonderful and magical space. We leave outside it our boring everyday selves, which may contain a great deal of nastiness of many sorts, and enter it as just our creative selves. That gives for great satisfaction, pleasure, and learning. Secondly, translation is a great intellectual challenge, a really absorbing one. I have always loved puzzles of all sorts— scientific, mathematic, linguistic, cultural…
What do you think about the current state of translation from Malayalam to English, and vice versa?
I think it is a great time! The best work in Malayalam is being translated into English and Malayali authors are gaining visibility like never before. When I see K.R. Meera and Unni R. being discussed as Indian authors rather than as just Malayali, a warm feeling overcomes me! Indeed, even some of the less gifted authors in Malayalam have actually done much better in their English versions, thanks to imaginative translators.
From other languages to Malayalam, yes, there is a lot happening in that direction too, but the quality of it is often abysmally poor, and the choices of texts are too often driven by crass market considerations. For example Malayalis have a love for Latin American literature, so any trash that gets hyped as ‘Latin American’ highbrow gets (badly) translated here.
What’s exciting about Literature in translation right now?
That the best of Indian language works are finding the limelight through very competent translators.
And what are some works in translation you’ve read and loved recently — or ones you’re looking forward to reading this year?
I loved Jayashree Kalathil’s translation of N Prabhakaran’s Diary of a Malayali Madman, and was delighted when it won the Crossword Prize — well-deserved indeed. I am looking forward to reading her translation of S Harish’s Meesha, which has been published by the title Moustache in its English translation.
Are there any literary projects that you’re presently working on?
I am getting ready to publish the short stories of one of Malayalam’s finest literary authors, Shihabudheen Poythumkadavu.
This article is the first in a series of interviews featuring literary translators translating from and into different languages.