Under my byline

Tamil-English sangam

Posted in Books, Q&A by Rrishi on 25 July 2009

Q&A: K S Subramanian

Jayakanthan is a prolific and influential Tamil writer whose work spans half a century. Dissonance and other Stories (Katha, 2008) contains 10 stories from his early, highly political writing days. The book was shortlisted for the latest Vodafone Crossword Book Award. An interview with the translator, Jayakanthan’s long-time friend and literary workaholic, K S Subramanian.

Does knowing the author help or hinder your work?

I think it is a help because not only did I know Jayakanthan for 50 years, I have delved into his work with a passion. As soon as I complete translating a piece the first reader will be Jayakanthan himself. I will read and he will keep the original Tamil text and keep listening. If something is not all that right, if I have misunderstood the import of a sentence or a sentiment, he will tell me.

Why did you select these 10 stories?

I chose them so that there would be a certain variety, a representative cross-section. His creativity cuts across rural-urban, class, caste… He has an amazing grasp of different dialects.

Which story struck you the most? Which gave the most trouble?

“When Epochs Meet”, in the sense that revolution comes from unexpected quarters. A traditional Brahmin widow, when the chips are down, she says to hell with you to her only son and joins her widowed daughter who wants to remarry. [Jayakanthan] finds hope in every situation. Looking at the socially deviant, marginalised and condemned, he finds dignity and almost divinity pulsating within.

The most difficult was “By the Window”. It’s full of Brahmin idiom.

The stories are all from the 1950s and 1960s. Are they relevant today?

It is totally relevant. Take the first story [“Wedlock”]. She finds it difficult to consummate her marriage because she lives in a slum. Is the situation any different today? It may be contextually different but intrinsically the same.

Jayakanthan is a very combative writer and speaker. “Trial by Fire” became controversial in the Brahmin community. Here is a Brahmin mother who is more a mother than a Brahmin. Her daughter strays, or is made to stray. Ahalya also enjoyed it when Indra took her, but it was Rama who gave her salvation. [The mother] says if the wife of a rishi, full of maturity and wisdom, if she can err, then why cannot my poor little “she” who is an innocent child living in a milieu which is peppered with transgressions of morality? Can she not stray?

Some of my friends’ daughters, they read that in English and ask me, “Uncle, what is the big deal?”

What other translation work do you do?

I have done one novel by L S Ramamirtham, who died recently. His prose was poetry. His novel was extremely challenging to translate. I have done two selections of poetry — it’s basically new poetry, that is, modern poetry.

I am presently involved in a project, Tamil women poets from the Sangam age to the present day. It is just the courtship period, when the child will come I don’t know — people compliment the achievement, but they don’t know how many times they tried!

What do you do apart from translation?

I used to be on the board of several companies. I found that was not giving me a sense of fulfillment. I’m a trustee of the National Agro Foundation, which does rural development work in 70-80 villages. I’m also a trustee in the Mozhi Trust, a resource centre for Tamil language and culture. We are preparing dictionaries, language usage manuals, Tamil proofreader guides for non-Tamils… The present project is to review archaeological inscriptions from the 6th-13th century and prepare a thematic collection of terms.

Jayakanthan, Dissonance and other StoriesDissonance and other Stories
Trans. K S Subramanian
pp 152


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