Translating Literature: A Sacred Task

Dr. Prema Nandakumar

from On Translation (International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai, 1999) first published in Comparative Indian Literature, volume I, 1984, pp. 247-8)

Tamil gained a literal translation of the Ramayana by C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar and the 18 Parvas of the Mbh were published by M. Rangachariar with the help of a team of translators.

The work of MR was truly a superhuman achievement. He says that it was when he worked as a Tamil Pandit at the native school, Kumbakonam, that he used to listen often to U.V. Swaminatha Iyer who had some Sanskrit scholars translate passages from the epics orally for helping his research work. Iyer used to tell him: Villipputturar is a peerless epic poet. It would have been wonderful if he had translated the entire Mbh without leaving anything. The immediate provocation for him to take up the task of translating the Mbh was the lecture series of Mahavidwan Bharatham Ramachar, a scholar of the Madhwa Sampradaya. When he wrote to Iyer for advice, that noble soul encouraged him in the project and sent as a first instalment Rs.30 my money order. Soon there were monetary offers and if inadequate still, it was enough for MR to take up the task, especially because he came to know that both Prof. K. Sundararama Iyer and U.V. Swaminatha Iyer were actually offering prayers during their sandhyavandana for the success of this grand design.

It was now that he learnt that during 1874-75 many Sanskrit scholars had approached a rich man in Chengalput for monetary help during the famine. He helped them and in return they translated the Mbh into Tamil for him. However, this manuscript in palm leaves was not simple and clear enough, so R got together a team for the work. There were constant difficulties in procuring funds (and R himself used up most of his wealth for the task) and even more daunting was the discouragement proffered by well-meaning friends. In these days of project reports and abundant state funding and funding by private agencies as well as advanced technology, such a task as the one undertaken by Rangachariar could have been done only as a yoga. And that is what it was. Such Mbh Yoga is the need of every translator. We become translators not because it pays us but because we love the privilege of acting as a bridge to unite two languages, two cultures, two peoples. Today, the Mbh translation published by R that follows the T.R. Krishnamacharya edition of Madhava Vilasa Sabha, Kumbakonam, remains an unrivalled work, a word-for-word translation which has helped generations of scholars doing research in the fields of Indian literature and culture. And if R failed financially and ruined his health, it did not matter. Adequate recompense he found in the letters and gestures of eminent and sincere sahridayas. One such was the Rt.Hon. V.S. Srinivasa Sastri who wrote to him on 14th April 1929:

Your enterprise is great. In the literary world it would be hard to beat. If, being so near completion, it did not actually reach it, the Tamil speaking community would incur great censure. Nor would it escape blame wholly if you found yourself at the end a broken man, dependent on chance for your livelihood. In a world where desert and recompense were justly proportioned, service like yours would be rewarded by an adequate pension and the plaudits of a grateful and admiring public. Your expectations, however, are modest; and I would fain persuade myself they would be fully realized. Believe me, in genuine appreciation of your courage, piety and self-sacrifice, V.S. Srinivasan.

Fortunately for us, the project was completed though R ended up with a considerable loss. He did have another project to prepare an abhidana chintamani of cross-reference for reading help, but could not do it as no one, no university or government or private institution was prepared to help him.