Says former professor of linguistics, Ronald Asher, who has translated several of the author’s novels into English
By Shevlin Sebastian
Professor Ronald E. Asher, 81, looked a bit harried in the guest room at the 4th DC International Book Fair at Kochi. He had to go to Kuttipuram in a hour’s time, but before that, he had to attend a function where he would be releasing author Shashi Tharoor’s book of essays, Bookless in Baghdad, published in Malayalam by DC Books. But in the meantime, a group of academics wanted to do an interview with him, while a visitor was keen to take photographs. But, despite the press of time, all was completed on schedule and Asher looked pleased and happy.
A former professor of linguistics at Edinburgh University, Asher is well known for translating several of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s novels into English.
Here are excerpts from an interview:
Who introduced you to the works of Basheer?
An acquaintance, the late C.K. Nalina Babu recommended that I read Paaththummaayude Aadu and he kindly took me through it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
What is it that you like about Basheer’s writing?
His style, his skilful use of what is superficially very simple language, his humour, his variety, his versatility and the poetic quality of his language that is frequently found in his best work.
When did you first meet Basheer? What sort of a man was he?
I met him in 1963. He was likeable, warm-hearted, fascinating, enthralling and amusing. He was a wonderful person to talk to. His oral anecdotes were of the same quality as his published stories.
Do you have any interesting memories of Basheer?
I remember my first visit to see Basheer. After telling him the day on which I would arrive, I took a bus from Kochi to Calicut, and then another one to Beypore. When I got off the bus, he was waiting at the bus stop. I was amazed. How did he know the exact time I would arrive?!!
You had said that Basheer is one of the great writers of world literature. But he is hardly known abroad.Anyone who has read him knows he is a great writer. The problem is that too few people outside Kerala have read him. Those of us who are his enthusiasts must continue to work towards remedying this regrettable situation.
Why are Basheer’s books still popular?
His writings have a timeless quality; they do not date. He is, without question, one of the truly great writers of the 20th century.
How did you get interested in Malayalam literature?
My interest developed from reading translations of Chandu Menon's Indulekha and Thakazhi's Chemmeen.
Where did you learn to speak and write Malayalam?
An academic friend in London, Dr. Joseph Minattoor, taught me the script from a first-grade reader. In 1963, I learned the spoken language in Kochi, with the help of Nalina Babu and his friend, N. Unnikrishnan Nair.
When did you decide to translate Basheer’s works into English? After I met him, I decided, with his enthusiastic approval, to attempt a translation into English. Eventually, I translated Ntuppooppaakkoraanaendaarnnu, Balyakalasakhi, Paaththummaayude Aadu and Anal Haq.
How long did you take to translate a book?
At a summer school at the University of Illinois in 1967, I went through the text of Ntuppooppaa and Balyakalasakhi with Achamma Coilparampil Chandrasekaran (my teaching assistant for a course in Malayalam), sorting out some of the parts, especially the dialect forms, which caused me difficulties. By the end of the summer school, we had completed a draft translation of these two novels. I then worked on my own for several years, consulting Basheer about one problem or another, whenever I went to see him in Beypore.
How often would you meet him?
For a few years, the meetings were annual. Inevitably, as I got older, my visits to India decreased in frequency.
Did you show the manuscripts to any expert in Malayalam?
No, I never showed the manuscript to any expert (doubtless a mistake!), so, any faults in the translations are my responsibility alone! Paaththummaayude Aadu was published by Edinburgh University Press in 1979. In 1980, Ntuppooppaa, Balyakalasakhi and Paaththummaayude Aadu were published in a single volume by Edinburgh University Press under the title, Me grandad 'ad an elephant!
It is said that the peculiarity of Basheer's language makes it difficult to get the nuances right in English. Do you agree?
I would hesitate to use the word 'peculiarity'. However, his use of language (which superficially looks very simple) is very subtle, and the translator does indeed have difficulty in conveying the same meaning in another language.
What are the qualities of a good translator?
He should be sensitive to shades of meaning in the source language and the language of translation. He should also have a love for the work being translated.
What was the critical and popular response?
The reviews were positive. The popular response was less widespread than I had hoped, because of the difficulty of marketing translations in the UK and the US. However, individuals said they enjoyed reading it.
(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)