Why more Malayalam books need to be translated into foreign languages


In the warm sub-tropical Russian resort city of Sochi, a curious couple in their early 70s looked at pictures of my ancestral land and property at Pallod in Palakkad district.

They were mesmerized with the images of the family temple, green paddy fields, coconut trees and traditional architecture.

The couple in question were no strangers to the tropics, having lived in Vietnam and Cuba, but found the villages near Palakkad to be fascinating. Then came the questions about the matriarchal system, art forms such as Kathakali and spices grown in Kerala.

Delighted with their interest in Kerala, I tried to find a Russian translation of Childhood in Malabar by Kamala Das.

Unfortunately no e-commerce website had any translations of Malayalam books. Since the couple has a good grasp of English, I can easily send them an English translation of the book when I am back in India, but this is not a solution for many others who have a genuine interest in Kerala.

Russians do enjoy good literature and it’s not uncommon to see crowds in Moscow or St Petersburg metro reading books instead of fiddling with smartphones.

I am convinced that they would relish the works of M Mukundan, M T Vasudevan Nair and other giants of Malayalam literature.

World over, there is a renewed interest in good books. Of course a lot is lost in translation unless the author does the translation himself or herself. Case in point: O V Vijayan’s Legends of Khasak. The masterpiece, which should have gotten far more international acclaim than it did in the 1960s, was translated from Malayalam to English by the author.

Over the weekend, I managed to read a collection of the works of Anton Chekhov in Russian and could easily understand how certain nuances of the rich Russian language could not be translated into English. But a good translation is the next best thing. How many of us in India would ever be able to read the works of great Japanese or Polish writers in the original?

Why more Malayalam books need to be translated into foreign languages

Good translations provide a window to a country, region and culture. Several great works of Malayalam literature have been translated into Sinhalese by Dr W A Abeysinghe. (The octogenarian writer translated the books from their English translations into Sinhalese.) As a result of the translations, a large number of Sri Lankans, especially in rural areas, feel an even greater affinity towards Kerala.

In fact when I tell some Sri Lankan friends that Kerala may be a bit too similar to their country for their liking, they laugh it off and talk about some sort of spiritual connect they feel with the state.

I have also come across Germans and Turks who have expressed their desire to visit Palakkad after reading translations in their language of Legends of Khasak.

These people and my Sri Lankan friends are the kind of tourists that Kerala needs. Essentially, these are people with an understanding of our culture, society and customs, and with a curiosity to know more.

A well known publishing house translates several fiction and non-fiction works into Malayalam every year, but a far greater effort and will is needed to translate Malayalam books into Spanish, French, Arabic, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and other languages.

It’s the best way to share our culture with the rest of the world. After all, cultural exchanges are best when it’s a two-way street.

Why more Malayalam books need to be translated into foreign languages

It would make sense to rope in the authorities in Kerala who could set aside funds for translation and promotion of Malayalam literature. At least I am not personally aware of any such initiatives in the state. Some countries actually encourage young writers and translators to come and live with a local host family and then translate books into their native languages. I personally know of a French translator who is passionate about Armenia and is working on a translation of older texts from the country. He was invited to the country by its foreign ministry. Successful businessmen from the Kerala Diaspora could also be of help. There are several examples of Malayali businesspeople in the Gulf promoting cultural initiatives, mainly in the performing arts.

Later this week, I plan to go on a walking tour of places associated with Maxim Gorky in Sochi. The writer lived in this city in 1892 before wandering in the Caucasus. The tour is popular with fans of the author, as is a similar tour in Moscow that takes people to places featured in the novels of Mikhail Bulgakov.

How wonderful would it be to have such tours in Kerala! They would further enrich the concept of cultural tourism in a state that is already blessed with an abundance of cultural delights.

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