"Not even the author knows a text more intimately than the translator."

A conversation with N. Kalyan Raman

The process of translation certainly becomes richer with deeper association with the writer's work. As a translator, I could acquire a far deeper sense of the writer's voice by a close reading of the writer's oeuvre than through personal acquaintance with them, which may not always be possible. It could well be because the author puts more of himself in his work than in contexts of social acquaintance. Still, association with the writer does help to an extent, but in my experience, it's not critical. I try my best to recreate the style and nuances of meaning as in the original text and in alignment with authorial intent, because I believe it is the core task of the translator.

It may sound mystical, but one translates from inside the text, from one's immersive experience of the text. As a translator, I am highly sensitive to the elements of craft and technique embedded in the text. So I translate by instinct and not conscious intent. It is often said that no one, not even the author, knows a text more intimately than the translator. It might well be true. The 'problem' of different registers and tones of voice that you cite has already been addressed by the author in the original with great literary skill. All one has to do is to read closely and stay true to one's experience during the process of translation.

The translator doesn't have to determine beforehand whether a text is a satire or an allegory. If he stays close to the text, he can reproduce the same ambiguity of form and intent that readers are said to have perceived in the original.

Murugan's prose style is very modern and free of any linguistic quirks. For me, the most difficult aspect of translating the novel was finding suitable common names for the flora and fauna of the region that occur in the narrative. While many species of trees and plants have common names in English, some are so local that they don't have common names that the reader can recognise easily. The only alternative was to retain the original Tamil names, which is somehow less than satisfactory as a solution.

The last few chapters, laden as they are with grief, were the most difficult to translate. Murugan retains an even tone even when he is writing about moments of great anguish. In retrospect, getting this right was a huge challenge.

The challenge and thrill of creating a literary text anew in a different language in a different context, with all its qualities intact.

At the request of the Tamil publisher, I had translated a couple of chapters from the novel for circulation among publishers who wished to participate in bidding for translation rights. The successful bidder chose to commission the translation from me. The relevance of the work in the wider political context of our time was a major factor in my decision to accept the commission.

None that I can think of. As I've said before, it's the original text that determines both the techniques and the style, and much of it happens by instinct.

The first work of fiction to appear in my translation was a collection of short stories by Ashokamitran called The Colours of Evil, in March 1998. As I recall, the publisher had approached Ashokamitran and expressed their wish to bring out a collection of his short stories in English translation. It was Ashokamitran who had suggested my name to them, presumably on the strength of a couple of stories I had done earlier. By then, I had also been in conversation with him as a reader for about twenty years. Neither of us had foreseen the prospect of my becoming a translator of his works. So it came to me, you might say, from the department of unexpected outcomes!