I still remember my first attempts to translate from English to Malayalam. It was sometime in 1986. I had a very old writing table with two drawers. In a home where three people lived (my mother, elder sister and myself) in close proximity there was nothing to hide from each other. My mother knew that I wrote a lot that included love letters, love poems and stories showing the physical and emotional angst of a young man. She was discrete in acknowledging my writings. Whenever I showed her a poem that expressed more universal ideas than the broken feelings of an immature heart, she recited them in tune. Some of the poems she learnt by heart and recited aloud when she worked in kitchen. I knew the subtexts of certain lines which my mother either did not see or even after understanding it pretended that she did not. Those lines, when I heard them sung by my mother embarrassed me. Yes, I was telling you that there was nothing to hide between us. My sister did not take much interest in my poems or literary pursuits but I think she has always admired me silently. During my childhood, women generally hid two things; their undergarments and their sanitary napkins. Public display of undergarments was considered to be a taboo hence most of them, even the educated ones preferred to dry their washed undergarments away from public notice. Men generally did not have much to hide. Especially the men in Kerala actually did not hide anything from anybody. Ironically, public display of undergarments was a thing of pride for most of the men. Often they moved around in folded lungis and bare chests.
I have digressed enough. The drawers of my writing table were always empty or it was a haven for discarded things. But the surface of the table was always full, with books, notebooks, pens, periodicals and newspapers. The presiding deity of the table was a blue table lamp. Even today I do not know why people use table lamps especially when everyone knows that using table lamps would cause damage to eyes. I think, table lamp is a nostalgic import. It came from the old times when there was no electricity. Oil lamps or lanterns were used by people who had something to do at night. Writing table enveloped by darkness, and a person reading or writing something with his face, chest and an opened book before him lit up by a lamp is a great picture that emanates the idea of concentration, scholarship and a philosophic way of life. When electricity came, lamps and lanterns were rendered useless. But the nostalgic picture of a scholar sitting at a table at night, as if it were an etching by Durer, prevailed all over the world. From the pre-electricity days these oil lamps crossed over to the post-electricity life in the form of table lamps. It exuded some kind of romanticism. But table lamps were a must for those people who lived in small rooms where other people slept. Also bedside lamps helped people to read books or letters or even write something without disturbing others. These are called reading lamps. However, they lack the charm of the good old table lamps. I had one and I loved it.
This blue lamp was the first witness of my attempts in translation. When I read John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which I had obtained from the collection of my uncle, I felt too close to a character named ‘Rosashan’ who suckled a dying old man. In a poem I tried to translate that scene from the novel. I was not translating the novel but I was translating that scene in a poetic form. Translation, in a conventional sense is all about creating a work of literature from one language to another without losing the verve and beauty of the original. There are different ways of translating. Some of them are word by word translations. Some are trans-creations, where without losing the quality of the text you re-write in a different way. Whatever may be the style and manner of translation, a translator cannot move far away from the original. One has to stick to the original and one has to make certain explanations when culturally alien concepts are translated into a different language. There was a time when people used to think that they could even translate the names of people and places in the original to a culturally familiar context. But that is a wrong way. You cannot translate Bhibhooti Bhushan of Bengali into Gopalakrishnan in Malayalam, though they sound similar. I was not too serious about translating literature or articles when I was in my late teens though I made such ambitious attempts once in a while. One of them was a poem by Lu Zhun, a Chinese poet. Those were Haikus, a poem in three or four lines. I found the form very interesting as I found its resonances in the small little Malayalam poems called ‘Muktakangal’ (literally meaning ‘pearls’).
Later I found there is an aspect of translation in every walk of life though we do not do it quite consciously. We call it influence and either try to overlook it or become addicted to it. This translation is a way of life. For example we a very interesting work of art. If it is seen by an artist, he/she may tend to do something to that effect though in a different form. It happens with movies, songs, fashion, gait, speech and even food habits. There is constant translation and transcreation going on every time in our lives. But translation of a literary piece is not autonomous. It does not have an independent existence from its original even if the translator is an equally gifted writer as the original writer. The autonomy of the original cannot be claimed by the translation though most of the literature read all over the world and are deemed to be great come to us through translations as they are originally written in different languages. In a displaced sense we attribute autonomy to translations but this autonomy is partial at times and often illusionary. But in the case of other walks of life even if we translate ideas and aspects we can claim a bit of autonomy to the translated expressions as we could make them a part of our very being. While a translator cannot claim the authorship of the original, a painter could claim the authorship of a copy provided the original is not known to too many people. However, once found out, it becomes a work of plagiarism and it falls from grace. Or rather such plagiarism is known as copies. But parodying can be transcreations in the case of a work of visual art while different translators of the same work of literature could instil some sort of different energy to the translated work while faithfully following the original still escape the possibility of being parodies.
Many years later, as a way to escape from routine and as a way to escape to freedom, I embarked myself to the journey of translating literature even while writing my own original works. I was not a largely published author then (even today I doubt whether I am a ‘published’ author as I do not have a big publishing houses to back me up or give me handsome commissioning amounts) and I was not even expecting that one day someone would publish my writings or translations. But I deeply believed that I wanted to translate and write at once. As I said in the first chapter of this series, it was a way of confronting a crisis and finding a temporary solution till another crisis is posed before me by external or internal contexts. The first book that I took up for translating was ‘Oru Laingika Thozhilaaliyude Aatmakatha’ (Autobiography of a Sex Worker) by a former sex worker, Nalini Jameela, who is now an established organizer of sex workers, social worker and author. Of all literature before me why I chose to translate this book still remains a mystery even to myself. When I read it I thought the voice of this woman was to be heard by more people. Her story moved me completely. I had not been to a brothel at that time. I never knew how a sex worker behaved though I have seen stereotypical sex workers in streets. They were absolutely wretched people and having physical relationship with them looked like a bleakest possibility. Still people picked them up. I had never been to the places where organized sex work took place. The scenes I had seen in the movies were inadequate to tell me how those women lived, thought or felt. But Nalini Jameela’s story felt true and I was in pain while reading it. I thought of translating it and I did begin.
You may not believe that I finished translating that book in less than two weeks. I sat in the morning and kept on translating the lines for almost five hours a stretch. They were small sentences, as if they were an intimate conversation. There were curious anecdotes, painful escapes, romantic escapades, street fights, face to face with law enforces, exploitations, threats, quarrels, haggling, compassion, kindness and love. Amongst these layers I found how she slowly became empowered both in thoughts and deeds. How she stood up to the society and spoke her mind. It was painful for her but she did it. When I was in London, as a student I had seen a few videos of those daring women who for the heck of it had sex with hundreds of men in one go. In the world of porn industry, they became record holders and stars. But they too were human beings. At some point they had to tell their intimate people that they were sex workers and they had achieved such mad feats in their lives. One of the documentaries followed the life of a South East Asian girl who had gone to the US to become rich and became a sex worker instead. One day she decided to go back to her country and tell her parents that she was working in the porn industry. The documentary was heartbreaking for me. When I read Nalini Jameela I felt the same pain. The translation was a sort of Catharsis for me. Interestingly, J.Devika, a feminist scholar, activist and a friend of mine, translated it much better and this book was brought out by Penguin in 2005.
Surprises were waiting for me in the same year. Translation was not going to be just a medium of catharsis for me. It was going to be a part of my discipline. I have never been given any awards for translating ten internationally acclaimed literary works into Malayalam. But I think that I have not even thought about eking out a living through translations. Translating a piece of literature is a way of life for me; something keeps me glued to my seat, clams me down and give a different sort of spiritual high. I would like to talk more about my other translations. But before that in the next chapter I feel that I need to shed light on certain dark areas of my life. May be it can start with me as a person and my experiences with sex workers.