The Mysterious World of Words

Words, words and words! What a fascinating world it is…

  1. Crying

A woman cries-in different circumstances, with different emotions. Is ‘crying’ sufficient to capture her tears?

She wailed, she lamented, she sniffed, she wept, she sobbed, she choked, she howled, she moaned, she hit her head….Ahhhh! Ask a translator, please!

Every word has ‘gravitas’, truly a Roman virtue and a special magic of its own. This is true of every language.

A word might be bubbling with suppressed laughter in the vernacular…literally speaking. It might bring to the mind of a natural speaker the image of a pretty woman, eyes sparkling with mischievous glee,  teasing a man she adores. Now how does one capture that beauty in a single word in another language?

So then the translator sits late into the night checking synonyms of mischief, synonyms of love, synonyms of laughter and then takes up the needle and thread to weave them all together in a sentence or a phrase …

2. Mocking

There are multiple ways in which humans mock, did you know?They snigger, they snicker, they mock and they roll their eyes, they speak roughly, they growl, they snarl, they raise eye brows….

Now when an old man burns with fury and mocks, his whole body taut like an arched bow… You paint the picture in your mind first…see some people in imagination, mix it with few life experiences here and there, add a dab of paint from a movie, an idea from a play, and then you try to capture the old man anew.

‘His nose resembled the beak of a bird of prey?’ Or talons?

3. Silence

Silence is another conundrum.

‘When faced with utter humiliation, the protagonist is silent.’

There are different types of silences in our lives, aren’t there? Forced silence, self-imposed silence, quietude,  deep silence, shallow silence, a ‘let us have a tea quietly together’ silence, ‘I know what you are thinking of’ silence, ‘You miss me, don’t you’ silence…as many silences as human beings in fact!

It is a simmering silence, the calm before the storm. And one doesn’t have the luxury of adding another sentence to describe the mood. Then what?

4. Yearning

‘Her heart thirsted for appreciation. Her hunger was for love and acceptance. Her yearning  was for understanding.’

Now this can be the starting point of every character description from Emma Bovary to Anna Karenina and Elizabeth Bennett. In fact every woman can relate to those emotions in any language.

But  one does not have the luxury of literal translation in a language where all of that can end up sounding repetitive.

5. Snowing much

P.S. Eskimo languages like Yupik and Inuit are  known to have many words to describe snow (Franz Boas, the linguistic relativity hypothesis et al..), while certain languages would have hardly one or two!

Naturally, no self respecting native speaker would agree with the translation that  ‘the lady was as pure as the driven snow’ (  because she understands different versions of  ‘snow on the ground’ which is different from ‘fallen snow’ or  ‘driven snow’!)

End Notes:

A translator has to balance her faithfulness to the text with the duty of carrying the mood through. But creating something totally new of her own is often a great risk.She has to be a good editor, ruthlessly snipping off her own words and phrases to retain just what has to be said.

But yes, there is great joy in this rather understated work. They say that a translator understands the book like a second mother. The challenge is to keep the tempestuous affection of motherhood tempered with equable detachment when creating a new life.

Truly, it is a stimulating adventure. And for someone as restless as me, it is like meditation. Yes, one can search for hours for the perfect word! Bliss!







Translator’s Note

Another Book is getting ready:

The Heaviness of the Rain ( Anthology of selected poems- Translated from Malayalam)

Author: Prof. Veeran Kutty

Prof. Veeran Kutty’s poems have a wonderful simplicity and charm about them. They remind me of Haiku and Sufi literature equally. To capture majestic ideas in a few lines- soaked with beauty-is a rare skill. The poems make us better human beings- by teaching us compassion, tolerance, kindness and love.
Translating these poems has been an enjoyable experience for me. I had started off by translating a few of his published poems on my wordpress blog. Prof. Veeran Kutty read those and encouraged me warmly. That helped me to compile this collection.

I hope and pray that the readers feel the enchanting loveliness of Kerala- the state to which both of us belong – that has inspired many of these spiritual outpourings.


Walking By The Village On A Rainy Day…P.V.Shaji Kumar’s Memoirs

This book- Itha Innu Muthal, Itha Innale Vare- was thrust into my hand by the manager of the bookstall. ‘You will enjoy it Madam. It is written very well,’ He said.  My reading habits are erratic like the monsoons of my birth land. Sometimes, it is furious in its intensity. Sometimes, it is serene as a twilight rain which will smile at one and disappear. Most times, it is just there. I encountered this book in the furious reading phase.

If the hall mark of a good writer is that he or she forces a reader to sit and read, this book is a winner. The writer P.V. Shaji Kumar is a software engineer by training and a lover of literature and movies by passion; and he  writes extremely well. In fact, I felt no wonder that he has already won a series of the most coveted awards in  Malayalam literature at this young age.

Many memories are related to  the writer’s childhood in Kasargode. The language has the vibrancy and authenticity of a true native. There are palpable memories about being a  rather ignored goalie  in his childhood  and from a light mood, a sudden turn into sobriety with an analysis of the Nazi atrocities on footballers in their concentration camps. There are reflections on phantasmagoric imageries of his childhood where he saw a dead girl enjoying a savoury dish of jackfruit curry in a dream sequence, on trains and the melancholy of journeys in those, on his story teller grand aunt who  spun the most magnificent horror stories and ended up killing herself in depression, on reading the Russian children’s classic in  Malayalam translation : When Daddy Was   A Little Boy by Alexander Raskin and on getting to know of Mayakovsky, Gulliver and Robinson Crusoe from that little gem,  and love notes on his own  land Kalichampothy…

I related best to the frustration of doing computers when the heart was elsewhere. The writer narrates a suicidal point when the worthlessness he felt on facing an examination for which he had no natural aptitude drove him to the brink of ending it all. It was a sudden rain which danced around him that inspired him to live another day.I was left wondering on the young man who came back from death multiple times. Once, after losing his friend, he  had tried to jump down from a  moving train . As if his deceased best friend stopped his death,  he found himself narrowly escaping  the train wheels.

The language, the ethos, the words,  and the memories are so original and refreshing. In my next round of greedy reading, which is  usually abetted by a visit to my own state, I will surely be picking up more of his works.


‘ He chatted with me until the darkness around  felt sleepy. There was a pathway into him, which was accessible to any human. This man will exist forever because of his love and care, I found myself thinking…’ ( Who will complete the story of a Man who failed in his life?)

‘The wind was everywhere- in the classrooms, in the canteen, on the rocks, on the paths…it never abated. Like a frustrated lover, it could not sit still and wandered around. When I reached the campus, I was like a leaf in the wind. ‘( The Wind Blows Still)

A bald head rose up from the shrubs, taking the photograph of the sun… He touched my arm. It made a bracelet of water on mine.

( The Frog)

Kalichampothy refers to the land of Kalichan trees. The leaves are huge, and it shivers around like an intoxicated person, this lonesome tree. ( Kalichampothy)

In her eyes sad clouds started camping. Her memories  pierced into a silent darkness….It was known to the villagers that when you have nothing to do, memories start hunting you like a fox  emerging out of his den.( Enaru)


The small public libraries ( called vayanasalas- literally reading rooms) that were found in every nook and corner of Kerala villages  had world classics in innumerable languages translated into Malayalam. That luscious reading culture in India’s most literate state  has created many writers and readers.  There isn’t a  vernacular writer who has not enjoyed Marquez’s Macondo and its rain in  his or her mother tongue.The return of the native- in all writing glory- is a tale worth Thomas Hardy himself.


The title is replete with puns which only a true born Malayali gets to enjoy! Now the translator stands stunned as to resolve the conundrum. Perhaps a footnote cannot do justice! It puns on a cult movie title, with wordplay on the present and past. (Perhaps it  also hints at a funny scene in yet another movie my brain snarkily comments.)

‘Here, From Today; Here, Till Yesterday’ seems too weak a translation. Yet here it is😁


Her Favourite Stories: (Translation of Vatsalaji’s Preface)

Ente Priyappetta Kathakal: Preface to her favourite stories

Translated From Malayalam


When I admit that certain stories of mine are dear to me, it is akin to admitting that I love one child much more than the others -among my  own children. Among stories, each differs from the other in terms of ‘craft’.

Every story is the preface to the life experience it holds within. That is because the space inside a story is restrictive. That which is unsaid is more than what is said. Consequently, some readers query – whether the story actually ended with the end of narrative. The truth is that every story ends in the mind of the reader.

The writer is a creator only when the story is being told. It is similar to human life. The poor fellow moves forward with certain aims: but what happens finally is beyond his control. Neither his desires nor his wishes have much role to play in it. I believe in ‘reaping what one sows.’

My beloved stories are those which were written when the mind was at its creative peak. Certain coincidences were the deciding factors of such experiences.

Let me elucidate on the process of conception of certain stories. ‘Panguru’ is a flower. It is seen at the Karnataka border of Tirunelli.I have never seen it with my eyes. Yet, I know a forest-healer, who made me feel its living presence. He is a vaidyan ( healer ) by tradition. When I met him, he used to disappear into the forests- not simply to gather medicinal herbs, but because he had nothing better to do.

He arrived at my cottage by the forest side, after such a wild sojourn. Just to see me. One cannot expect such gestures of affection in today’s city life. That is why I banish myself into the forests occasionally.

The young healer had the gift of narrating tales. Typically they were about his facing the wild tuskers. All fancies. Randomly there would be a gleam of truth. Once he narrated about climbing the Panguru creeper- while escaping from an elephant. His story would usually stretch into a series of stories. The cost would be around two hours of my time.

The Panguru blooms in spring. The creeper- thick as a human hand- climbs the most magnificent of the trees around. It will ascend to the very top on its quest to touch the sun. There it will burst into blossoms. It resembles the flowers of a palmyra tree. In our culture, the palmyra tree flowers are symbolic of a yakshi’s tresses. ( yakshi: a gorgeous and lethal female spirit). From this spark , my story was born. From a phantasmagoric seed sprouted a phantasmagorical story. Many years later- while reading a Kannada story- I found out that the flower in my story was actually real.

**( To be continued)

The Sardonic Plant

In  Nobel winner Grazia Deledda’s gem of a short story “The Sardinian Fox”, the reader is left entranced at the bewitching deception in a seemingly simple story- yeah, a sardonic grin on the face is more like it. Hemlock, after all is a sardonic plant which makes the person who consumes it laugh while dying. The sheer poetry of her prose, “..the  Spring sent its breath of wild voluptuousness up there,”  and the fascinating story telling style makes you yearn to read more of her works. Because, human nature remains the same everywhere.

It was indeed  about human nature  that I reflected, after reading Thomas Mann’s story, “Little Lizzie,” a story which amidst its author’s intentional and  grotesque drawing out of the innards of cruelty, hid sardonic laughter within. “..No human being could have been politer, more accommodating, more complaisant than he. But you unconsciously knew that this over- obligingness was somehow forced, that it’s true source was an inward insecurity and cowardice- the impression it gave was not very pleasant…his obsequiousness was almost crawling , it went beyond the bounds of personal decency..”

Of all perversities of human manipulation, the most penetrating observation I read as Amra – she of  the luxurious cunning glance-gets Jacoby to enact the degradation of his life- by power play : “I do not know, my dear friend, how to answer you. You behaved in a way I would not have expected from you…you disappointed everybody…it was your duty…”

One searing moment, I felt I was Jacoby! Ah, Thomas Mann, to read you in German!!! If this is the power of a translation, what would be the power of the original…

In the “Lift that went down into hell”, Par Lagerkvist weaves a stunning classic. Sardonic wit, it certainly  had aplenty- whether it was in the callousness of the adventuring couple, or the final wish of the devil himself. Masterpiece! (During certain scenes of La Dolce Vita, one had felt something similar too.) I also learnt that there existed a word called gracile.

I have Francois Mauriac to explore now..’A man of letters..’ I browse through the first part..

“Could she possibly be unaware of the fact that we authors never open a book that is one of our failures?”

Whoa! Hold on…what was this?

What was the context?Reflections  on a woman’s desperate attempts to get back her former lover, who  herself was, ‘his handiwork which he had tinkered at without respite and turned his back on..”

I grin to myself and switch the reading lamp on…this one needed a respectful reading indeed. Did it say that Mauriac was born in 1885? Damn me, I could have sworn…well, well..

The sardonic plant   blossoms in many a land across this beautiful earth ….whether the human race dies laughing after tasting it or dies fighting without realising it,  is the only question left.




Writing Boards Sweet As Honey

Great writing fills me with awe, and a sense of reverence. It can be in any language, any length, any genre- the only litmus test is that something deep within changes colours, to shine a bit more brightly.

As usual, the train chugged its way to the Northern plains, near the bounteous Ganges, from a land surrounded by ocean and sea waters. The language with which I was brought up, Malayalam- as sweet as sugar cane and honey to my starving senses, came to redeem me again; through a fabulous collection of  vernacular writers speaking on their writing destinies.

M.T.Vasudevan Nair speaks about a forgotten poem – “Toys”, which was about a father detecting a child’s toys, after he goes to bed sobbing due to a scolding.

A piece of horseshoe, a broken bangle piece, a segment of a chain,one nail..The father realises, that to the young child, all these held value, which he himself could not see. Similarly,  as an adult , whatever he considered right and wrong, the young child child could not see.

In the same way, we gather much in the life’s journey. We keep it aside. Later, when we retrieve it, it has a curiosity value. There is the smell of life in it, there is a hidden question. It is when one feels like that, that one creates a story, poem or words out of it.”

Sara Joseph speaks about her radiant mother, who was her first story teller..

I was watching how her  movement’s boundaries were getting limited with age. First, she would wait for me by the road side, then, behind the gate, then it became the verandah, then behind the front door, then within the small square of her room, then on a cot, so small in width…

Subhash Chandran draws a parallel  between mothers and writing boards.

Every writer is following his mother. The relationship need not always be cordial.There are those raging within. Yet their language and the structure of their words, follow a pattern- of their own mothers.What about a writer born to a dumb mother? He will start writing about the unheard conversations he had with his mother…

Little children cannot understand the complications of our rented lives in this earth.In many houses, in many times, using writing boards as varied as a grinding stone to one’s own mother, we try to capture those onto paper sheets, in vain. I remember the unknown writer who said that man is the only animal who dies before he reaches his full growth…”

As I stop translating, my eyes fall on two lines from another article.

The great blue sky, the only house in this world

Universal love, the eternal light within.”

In that world, language is not relevant. The language of human imagination and heart- only these matter.