Source : Times of India
Renowned translator A J Thomas on Dostoevsky, Oru Sankeertanam Pole and what liberties to take in English without compromising on fidelity to the original Malayalam
It’s been 25 years since the publication of Perumpadavam Sreedharan’s Oru Sankeertanam Pole, a novel based on the events of a crucial month in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s life. The publisher Stellovsky tricks Dostoevsky into signing a contract that would compel him to forfeit the royalty of all his works if he doesn’t complete a novel and hand it over in a month’s time. As Dostoevsky finds it impossible to meet the deadline for this novel, The Gambler, he appoints 20-yearold Anna as his stenographer. Dostoevsky, a hard-drinking gambler and epileptic, is quite a handful for young Anna. But eventually, she learns to love the writer unconditionally, to the point of deciding to marry him. It’s her presence of mind that saves the situation.
…Pole has sold more than 3,00,000 copies, a record in Malayalam literature, even as it has won critical acclaim. Only Ramanan by Changampuzha Krishnapillai, published in 1936, which sold 1,00,000 copies in the first few editions, is in the same league.
Interestingly, A J Thomas’s English translation of the novel titled Like a Psalm… too has been critically acclaimed, though less well-known. Thomas reminds me of a candle in the arena of Indian literature, with a quiet glow. The dexterity with which he handles languages and the calm dignity with which he works, without ever attempting to promote himself, are exemplary.
Excerpts from an interview:
Oru Sankeerthanam Pole made publishing history in Malayalam. What could be the cause of this unusual combination of unprecedented popularity and critical acceptance?
The author himself has described his work in these simple words: “It carries God’s signature.” It is a work soaring towards sublimity. Dostoevsky has said somewhere that God and Satan swayed him in equal measure. I think Perumpadavam brought out the God element of Dostoevsky in his work as triumphing over the Satan element. The affirmative quality of the novel and the felicitous style of Perumpadavam have clearly captivated readers.
In spite of the phenomenal success of the Malayalam original, why do you think your English translation Like A Psalm… wasn’t picked up by any major publisher? Is there a bias at work?
Books have particularly interesting destinies. Instances of supremely recognized books being steadily rejected by major publishing houses in the earlier stages of their journey are too numerous to quote. I had submitted the manuscript of this novel to several publishers, many of them personal friends, over a decade from 2005 to 2015. Somehow none of them picked it up. Finally, when a colleague who retired from Sahitya Akademi took up a senior executive’s job in LiFi, he began reaching out to me to help him gather manuscripts while I was teaching English in Libya in 2013. I gave him Like A Psalm…, and here we are.
Perumpadavam tried to explore the psyche and life of Dostoevsky who was far removed from him in terms of culture, geography and time. How did the author bridge this huge chasm?
Human imagination is capable of reaching even unnamed galaxies. So, culture, geography and time merely turned into tools for Perumpadavam’s powerful imagination. He has said on several occasions that reading Dostoevsky’s works, which he did in his boyhood and youth, was like an actual journey into the aforementioned three elements.
Are there elements of magical realism in this novel?
Magical realism is a very tricky term and has close associations with the dark political scenarios in South American countries. More often than not, dictators held the populace to ransom. To recreate those experiences in the minds of the people during the sway of oppressive regimes, treatment of actual events as fantastic, surreal happenings which caught the primordial tribal imagination, like in the novels and novellas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others, had to be resorted to. Perumpadavam didn’t need to resort to that technique. He has been employing psychological realism like his idol, Dostoevsky, did.
English is a language with tremendous descriptive power, but is said to be poor in perception, while Malayalam is considered more powerful in perception.
It’s not like that. English, with its plethora of shades of meaning for words, can be very rich in perception, as they can delve deep into the hidden world of meanings. Malayalam has its own characteristics, while English has its own too. Translation from the former to the latter becomes successful when equivalences for words and expressions are satisfactorily found in the target language.
Do you see patriarchal equations in the depiction of Dostoevsky’s affair with his stenographer Anna Snitkina, more so in the context of the MeToo movement, which has alleged that charismatic male cultural figures are prone to sexually harassing women?
That would be a strange analysis, particularly seen against the deep chasm of historical time between the two. Secondly, it was not an ‘affair’ as we understand the term now. Dostoevsky and Anna are portrayed as strictly ‘moral’ in their dealings (in our parlance in these times of moral policing). Moreover, Dostoevsky is not depicted as victimizing or terrorizing Anna; for whatever outburst he makes during his drunken, or epileptic fits, he craves Anna’s pardon immediately. It is the 20-year-old Anna who becomes a mother to him ultimately, rather than a fiancée or wife. It has been Anna’s choice throughout.
The writer is a poet, columnist and translator