Ponniyin Selvan: The First Floods [ 0/5 ]

You don't get good Tamil books in Bangalore, and I've always picked some whenever I go to Tambiland. Last time, unusually, I picked up something in English - a translated version of Kalki's Ponniyin Selvan (a 5-part novel in Tamil about the Chola dynasty, set in 10th Century Tamil Nadu - arguably, the popularest Tamil novel ever). Gulti had asked me to pick it up for one of his friends. Girish, did you tell me you'd read a bit of a pathetic translation of Ponniyin Selvan? Was it by one Karthik Narayan by any chance? It must be, because it's the only one I found on the stands. And because it fits your description well.

I've been leafing through it while waiting for it to get picked up by Gulti (hope he doesn't read this before he does), and (... I meant, before he picks it up), and (... picks the book up, that is, ... from me), and (finally) I think it's pretty awful (the translation, that is). After five chapters of it, before having read the equivalent original, I found it unpickuppable (is that the correct opposite of unputdownable?). And then, I started on the original in Tamil, and I was hooked.

A translator has to know both the languages well, and must be able to retell the story in his own words to a different audience. These, to me, are basic qualities one must have to even attempt to translate. Well, strictly speaking, anyone can attempt to translate. Well, apparently, that's what's happened here, in the curious case of Ponniyin Selvan: The First Floods.

I was startled to read this passage on King Rajadhittha Cholar:
"Who could be compared with him in valour? Seated on an elephant, had he not lead his army in the Battle of Thakkolam? Did he not die and attain immortality clutching his enemy's spear, for which he was given the prestigious title, 'The Lord Who Slept on the Elephant'?"
I mean, all the build up is passable, but this talk of sleeping on the elephant, come on guys. The title given to Rajaditthan, as per Kalki and history is: "Aanai mel thunjiya thevan" (Kalki's original passage in Tamil here). [aanai - ஆனை - elephant; mel - மேல் - on top of; thevan - தேவன் - Lord]. Now thunjuthal - துஞ்சுதல் - is to sleep, but can also mean to die, especially when one says thunjinaar, and has been used in litreature in that sense. Let alone intricate knowledge of Tamil, you (:)) can figure how awkward the title of respect sounds here. One look at the appalling appellation - it's supposed to be in praise of the king - and you know this translation of the title amounts to either blasphemy or utter lack of common sense.

Otherwise, the translation is exact. Line by line, to be precise. It leaves you with an odd feeling, like watching a Chiranjeevi movie dubbed into Tamil. Actually worse - imagine watching a Chiranjeevi movie dubbed into English. In the pretext of retaining the regional flavour, the translation tells a perfectly good story in a style that is an absolute misfit. The narration feels contrived and deliberately rigmarolish (while the style perfectly fits in in 10th Century Tamil). It's a bit like attempting to translate: "Stay, strangers unknown! Who are ye, friends or foes, that have come thus strangely clad riding to the gates of this town? Now, ye comers from afar, declare to us in haste: what are ye called?" (Thanks: JRR Tolkien) - and keeping the odd clause order and addressals in that passage in another language, in an attempt to keep the Old English style.

Allow me to illustrate. Here is a passage from The First Floods:
Furious, Vandiyathevan shouted, "Is this the practice in your town, to stop your guests at the gate?"

"Who are you, thambi, to talk so impudently, and where do you come from?"

"You want to know? I am from Thiruvallam in Vanagapadi. At one time your ancestors used to tattoo my ancestor's names on their chests and indeed felt proud to do so. My name is Vallavarayan Vandiyathevan. Understand?"
If you agree with me that this has an odd feel about it, and if you happen to be able to read Tamil, you should see what Kalki had penned this as in புது வெள்ளம்:
வல்லவரையன் முகத்தில் கோபம் கொதிக்க, "இதுதான் உங்கள் ஊர் வழக்கமா? வந்த விருந்தாளிகளை வாசலிலேயே தடுத்து நிறுத்துவது....?" என்றான்.

"நீ யார் தம்பி இவ்வளவு துடுக்காகப் பேசுகிறாய்? எந்த ஊர்?" என்றான் வாசற்காவலன்.

"என் ஊரும் பேருமா கேட்கிறாய்? வாணகப்பாடி நாட்டுத் திருவல்லம் என் ஊர். என்னுடைய குலத்து முன்னோர்களின் பெயர்களை ஒரு காலத்தில் உங்கள் நாட்டு வீரர்கள் தங்கள் மார்பில் எழுதிக் கொண்டு பெருமையடைந்தார்கள்! என் பெயர் வல்லவரையன் வந்தியத்தேவன்! தெரிந்ததா?" என்றான்.
The English version reminds me of an old Tamil serial called பிடிவாதம். The one in which everyone speaks with all the clauses mixed up, something like "Like this why are you, today? You yesterday, were fine, is not it?" (illustrative only; not actual). It spawned a whole new dialect (?!) of Tamil, called Junoon Tamil, after the Hindi serial it was dubbed from. And one poor guy in my college who sometimes talked like that was actually nicknamed Junoon.

I believe it is perfectly possible to narrate this story naturally in English. I haven't read any Indian historical novels in English to make a fair comparison, but mythological, yes. Both Rajaji's Mahabharata and R K Narayan's Gods, Demons and Others are proofs that you can retell an inherently Indian plot, with kings, palaces and stuff, in perfectly simple and natural English. The key is to retell the story and not translate it line by line as if it were a 10 mark translation question in an 8th grade Tamil-II question paper.

A bad translation is not just a bad book. It's a bad name for the original. I'm actually concerned that people will read the translation, and wonder how such a seemingly bad novel can have a cult following, and might possibly conclude that all Tamilians are litreatively challenged, for all you know. So don't read Karthik's translation, and advice people against the idea. Yes, even if they paid for it. Even if you paid for it. Read this instead - I've leafed through a couple of chapters, and I think it's a lot better (tell me if I'm wrong, okay?).

And, please don't tell Gulti. I have to claim the price of the book from him.


  1. I can't resist quoting the oft-quoted "Translation is like a woman; it can either be beautiful or faithful, not both" :-)

    The good writers step out a bit daringly. Take for instance, AK Ramanujan's translation of probably the most famous kurunthokai paadal in the line "What kin is my father to yours anyway?". It brings out the non-chalant tone so beautifully, that makes Sempula Peyaneerar sound almost urban.

    'Translation' can either be 'Mozhipeyarpu' or 'Tamizhaakam'. The first kind uproots and the second recreates. That's the gist and trust tamil vocabulary to sum it all up :-)

  2. The kurunthokai translation is awesome. The whole deal is anyway to make available to the reader the emotions that the original author wanted to convey, na.

    Nice comment, da - if I pretend to be an independent third party :), I'll probably like the comment more than the post.

  3. I am also searched books many times in Bangalore but I didn't get. After a long time, I am reading Tamil in your post. Thank you for providing this wonderful opportunity.

  4. I am also searched books many times in Bangalore but I didn't get. After a long time, I am reading Tamil in your post. Thank you for providing this wonderful opportunity.

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