In Cho Dharman’s story “Woebegone Forest” translated from the Tamil by Padma Narayanan, a pair of parrots face a slow but dramatic loss of habitat. “We were born on a big ilava tree with many hollows; near the nilavahai tree… its canopy of branches kept the sun out; with open arms, it welcomed all the birds into its cool comfort, as if they were inside water… where did the fragrance of the sandal go? And the dense matti, kongu and pillai marudhu? Where was the teak with its thousand arms spread out? In that nest, there had been a threshold-like stub beneath, where the mother could sit and feed her little ones. Their noses could no longer smell the scent of ripe jackfruits. Had the land swallowed all its bounty and digested it all?” they wonder. The translator carries into the English both the lyricism of the original as well as its emotive appeal. Reading it is an immersion in place, the tragedy of its gradual disappearance.
In “The Task of the Translator”, Walter Benjamin argues that translations are part of the ‘afterlife’ of texts, a text in its own right that recreates the value given to the text throughout the ages. He also makes the point that they do not have to be perfect copies of the original. “Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another,” he explains. And indeed, the best translations transform and play with the original so that it can match its spirit. R. Rukmani’s translation of R Vatsala’s poem “What I Know” does precisely this. Addressing the unborn child in her womb who wants to know what an atom is, the speaker of the poem says:
Ask me, instead,
about jasmine flowers
or dew drops dancing on the tips of grass,
the hanging nests of weaver birds
or the cuckoo’s song.
These things I can tell you about, my love.
The poem does a full turn towards the end and we watch this safe and beautiful world fall apart.
What does the human world look like from the point of view of an elderly monkey who has made it his habit to observe people in a particular Dhaka neighbourhood? How does this particular monkey’s perspective destabilize the anthropocentric world? V Ramasawamy’s skilful translation of Bangladeshi writer Shahaduz Zaman’s unusual story “The Thoughtful, Elderly Monkey” gets us thinking about precisely this:
“A ledge on the roof of the massive fifty-apartment mansion, “Pathan Manzil”, in Narinda, in Old Dhaka, was the address of a few families of monkeys. A special elderly monkey used to sit there with a thoughtful air, it’s brown-coloured tail dangling from the ledge. It wasn’t as capricious as the other monkeys. It observed life and the world as it sat on the ledge.”
Deftly co-translated by the eco-critics Swarnalatha Rangarajan and Sreejith Varma, Mayilamma: The Life of a Tribal Eco-Warrior introduces to the English-speaking world a landmark Malayalam text (authored by Jothibai Pariyadath) from the point of view of environmental justice. Their translation allows for the eco-warrior Mayilamma’s story to travel beyond confines of geography and details the protest in Plachimada against Coco-Cola’s anti-environment policies.
“We decided to begin the protest on 22 April 2002. I learnt it was a special day—Earth Day! For poor people like us, could there be a more appropriate day than this to fight for our soil, air and water?” asks Mayilamma.
We offer you these four texts in the spirit of interbeing and kinship among languages.