Thursday, July 16, 2009

For the love of the language

Prema Jayakumar, one of India’s top translators, loves her job of rendering Malayalam works into English

By Shevlin Sebastian

‘Vaidehi has gone quiet and I am drowning in a well of loneliness.’ So wrote the late author Malayatoor Ramakrishnan to his English translator Prema Jayakumar.

His children had come with their families to spend the vacation at Malayatoor’s home, ‘Vaidehi’ in Thiruvananthapuram and now they had gone back.

“Malayatoor and I used to exchange letters often,” says Prema. “He would draw tiny sketches of leaves and flowers all over the sheets and write about the people he met and the happenings in his life. I looked forward to receiving them.”

Prema has translated two of Malayatoor’s books, ‘Yakshi’ and ‘Doorways to Death’, both published by Penguin Books. So far she has adapted 12 books, which includes the work of well-known authors like M. Mukundan, Matampu Kunhukuttan, and Sethu.

In fact, for the Sethu novel, ‘Niyogam’ (The Wind from the Hills), she has been short-listed in the Indian language fiction translation category of the prestigious Vodafone-Crossword Award of 2008. The translation of ‘Yakshi’ was picked by up by the BBC for their ‘Off the Bookshelf’ radio programme.

So how did she become a translator? “By sheer accident,” says Prema. In 1975, she read a book which she liked very much – ‘Aswathama’ by Matampu Kunhukuttan. “I spoke about it to friends who were not able to read Malayalam,” she says. “They told me they would like to read it in English.”

During her spare time, she translated the novel. Soon, it was passed around. A family friend, the writer, N.N. Kakkad, saw it and told Kunhukuttan. “We met and made a few changes to the manuscript,” says Prema. Eventually, Vikas published it.

Prema selects the books she wants to translate, based on one criterion. “I have to like it,” she says, “There has to be an emotional involvement.”

Once Prema takes the plunge she reads and re-reads the book, till she has understood it completely “When I start working, I do it para by para,” she says. “I don’t have a fixed time to finish a page. It comes naturally. Sometimes, things move fast. Sometimes, it is slow, depending on the language.”

She remembers she had a hard time translating ‘Rama Raja Bahadur’ by C.V. Raman Pillai. “The language was very difficult and I had to take the help of a lot of people,” she says. “It took me two years to finish the work.”

Incidentally, she does not make major changes to the narrative. “I try to stick as closely as possible to what the writer has done,” she says. But despite all the pains that she takes, translation is not a paying profession.

“In fact, those who do translations in offices are better paid,” says Prema, who worked in the State Bank of India for 20 years. “It would be foolish for anybody to take this up as a full-time profession. I am doing it because I love the work.”

Also, Prema feels, Malayalam literature can hold its own against the best in the world. “It is through English that the worth of Malayalam literature can be widely known.”

She gives an example: Sethu’s ‘Pandavapuram’ used magical realism in the early 1970s, long before Latin Nobel Prize laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez made it popular in India, but nobody knew about it.

Thanks to her job, she has to interact closely with authors. But they have all been supportive and have rarely suggested any major changes in her work.

However, once, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan rewrote the translation of the first chapter of ‘Yakshi’ and sent it to Prema. Very soon a letter followed asking her to ignore the rewrite. “Whenever I read my work again, I don’t like it and want to make changes,” he said.

Author Sethu says that Prema has a flair to translate different types of fiction. “It is difficult to translate my work, which has elements of realism and fantasy,” he says. “For example, ‘Pandavapuram’ is not a straight narration, but she did it well.”

M. Mukundan admires Prema’s creativity as a translator. “That is why when you read her work in English it seems like the original,” he says. “She has a smooth and spontaneous style, and pays a lot of attention to the language and the syntax.”

Meanwhile, even as she is busy at work on ‘Oru Desathinte Katha’ by S.K. Pottekkat, which is to be published by the Sahitya Akademi, she waits, with crossed fingers, for July 23 when the Crossword awards will be announced.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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