A Big Leg of Mutton, or: How to Consume and Translate Tamil Pulp Fiction

Posted by lapata on January 18, 2011 · 27 mins read

My review of a whole raft of Blaft publications comes out in the February issue of Bookslut. In the meantime, I'll be posting some interviews with prominent Blaft personages. Here is the first: an interview with Rakesh Khanna, co-founder and editor of Blaft, and Pritham K. Chakravarthy, translator for The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, volumes I and II, and the experimental novel Zero Degree, by Charu Nivedita. Khanna, who grew up in Berkeley and later moved to Chennai, has a day job as an editor of an online math website and has worked on math textbooks for middle school and high school students. Chakravarthy is a performance artist, author and assistant professor of dramaturgy and film history at the Ramanaidu Film Institute, Hyderabad.

While I was reading both volumes of Tamil pulp fiction, I invented a fantasy about how the project came about. It went like this: Pritham and Rakesh are a couple. They met in Berkeley and shared a taste for camp and pop culture. On a trip to India, Pritham picked up a bunch of pulp fiction novels on a whim at a train station. As they traveled about she would read them and laugh hysterically. Rakesh, who did not know Tamil, would ask her to translate the good parts. Thus was born the dream. They moved to Chennai, leaving behind bright futures in Silicon Valley, and started Blaft. After reading a number of interviews and articles online, I now know that this is not true. I know that Rakesh moved to Chennai, didn't know what these books were all about and wanted to know more. He somehow found Pritham to translate them and the rest is history. My fantasy destroyed, I asked them the following questions:

Lapata: Rakesh, do you know Tamil now? And if so, how did you learn it? Can you speak but not read, or read but not speak very well? If you can read, do you read pulp fiction, or don't you bother because you have a pulp translating goddess working with you?

RK: My ability to speak/understand Tamil is sadly limited to getting around town, buying things, and talking about animals and music. I can read the script, but to read even very simple stuff takes me ridiculously long, and I need a dictionary. I've just about given up learning the language properly while living in Chennai, because everybody here knows enough English that I'm never really forced to improve. Sometimes my wife and I talk about moving to Madurai for a few months and learning to speak properly.

Lapata: Can you share what techniques you've used to learn the language? Do you have a tutor, or have you just worked on your own with a book? What books were useful? You could always go to the AIIS program in Madurai!

RK: I have to admit to being kind of lazy about it. I tried a few books and tutors but never found an explanation of verb conjugation that made any sense to me. I try and read a weekly tabloid called Kumudham sometimes, and once in a while I'll take a crack at a Rajesh Kumar novel... about 50% of his vocabulary is English so he's a little easier than the others. Oh, and I try to learn film song lyrics.

Lapata: Pritham, before Rakesh hatched this plot, did you ever read pulp fiction? In one interview I read, you said that in your community, reading Tamil pulp fiction was 'infra dig'-- and expression someone explains in the comments as an abbreviation of the Latin 'infra dignitatem' meaning 'beneath one's dignity.' Do you think your translations have made the reading of pulp fiction more dignified on the Subcontinent?

PKC: Well, there were few at home; with some censored. I think the first love story that came recommended by my mother when I was in my Standard 9 was Anitha, by Indumathi-- adapted from Harold Robbins' Never Leave Me--the only one of his without graphic sex. We were already heavy into Mills & Boons. In my Translator's Note in the first volume, I have also spoken about those Tamil books that were available to me thanks to Natraj, my school bus driver. I said they were infra dig in my Brahmin community... that only constitutes about 3% of a population that is 1 billion large.

Lapata: I'll admit I partly asked that question because I liked the expression 'infra dig.' But I am curious to know if, anecdotally, the kinds of people you know that would never have read such fiction now view it differently since the Blaft collections.

PKC: One of the quotes that most authors said was this, "Oh good you are doing this. Now my children will be able to read what I have been doing for so many years."

RK: I think a lot of people just didn't know it existed. Mukul Kesavan gave us a nice early review where he wrote about how Indian English readers haven't had any indigenous popular fiction to read until recently.

Lapata: The translations in both volumes are extremely smooth. I don't think I have ever read any translations from South Asian languages into English that have gone down so easy, including my own. So this is my question: what's in the secret sauce? Since one way of viewing the job of the translator is that of fidelity to the tone and intent of the author, does it follow that in the case of pulp, where the intent of the author is to cater to a wide audience and to entertain, one need not worry so much about interesting turns of phrase, etc.? But even if this were true, how then would we explain the extreme smoothness that one also finds in your translation of Charu Nivedita's experimental novel Zero Degree?

Guess the secret sauce is a translator to whom Tamil is the first language, whose English is driven in by Wren & Martin and who is pigheaded, and an editor whose first language is English & American; equally adamant. If Rakesh and I had done Tamil Pulp Fiction or Zero Degree in the US, don't know how many times we would have shot at each other. Knowing Rakesh, he'll edit my obit.

Lapata: Is there any wisdom from your translating successes that could be turned into usable guidelines for other people translating from Indian languages? Is there a theory or technique here that could be deployed?

PKC: As a translator, get yourself an editor.

Lapata: This is a great point. A lot of people working on translation have to do it all alone as a labor of love, and chase down friends and family to take a look at it. The strongest translations seem to come out of such teamwork, such as the Russian translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Lapata: What do you think about the trend in translation in which a very large number of Indian words are retained in the translation? You have used a fair number of kinship terms, and also, of course, the wonderful bits of onomatopoeia, which work very well with the campy aesthetic of the collections, but not so much that a non-Indian would be hard-pressed to understand what's going on.

PKC: When talking about Sri Sri,a great Telugu poet , his comentator says the words linger in your ears, humming rrrrrrrrr... I guess onomatopoeia is something every Indian language has. I have seen it otherwise only in comics... phatchaak... No comments about any other translation attempts.

Lapata: Rakesh, what is your role in editing the translations? Do you play the role of the non-Tamil speaker? And if you now know Tamil, has it become harder for you to play that role?

RK: Yes, when Pritham's sentences sound strange to me I try to tweak them so they sound smooth. Then sometimes they sound strange to her, so we try something else. As I said, my Tamil is quite lousy. My spoken English has surely changed a little bit after a decade of living in India, but I read and watch enough movies that I think I'm still in touch with American standard.

Lapata: Pritham, looking at your resume-- performance artist, academic, activist, writer, etc.-- I must ask: how do you find the time? Translation can be time-consuming slog. You've translated quite a lot for Blaft. How do you balance translation with all your other work?

PKC: I let whatever I am doing in the present manage me, never try to manage what I do.

Lapata: Great advice! Since many of our readers on this blog are academically inclined, can you share with us briefly what your academic work is about?

PKC: Presently, I am the deputy director of an acting studio, a wing of Ramanaidu Film School, in Hyderabad. This of course means teaching from 9-6, Monday-Friday. Besides this I teach a course on applied theater from next semester at the Central University, and I am directing a play for them... Waiting for Godot, in Telugu, which I don't speak. This is apart from working on four books and my own production.

Lapata: Let's talk about camp: Though never disrespectful, Blaft's packaging and presentation of Tamil Pulp Fiction is very campy. What does it mean to take writing that's meant to be consumed rapidly and then pulped, carefully select the very best of it, translate it beautifully and package it with a wink and a nod, presumably for an audience that is much more well-heeled than the original consumers? How did this idea come about, and how do the authors feel about it? Does the campy aesthetic resonate with them, or does it not concern them?

PKC: This is 'reception theory'. You should be asking this to the readers.

Lapata: Ah, too true. But being ill-equipped, both by training and circumstance, to undertake such a study, I was hoping for anecdotal evidence.

RK: I think the Tamil authors are very much aware of the camp factor, and we're not really winking and nodding so much as staying true to that. Westerners sometimes act weirdly superior about the campiness of Indian popular entertainment, like they think the Indian audiences don't realize the silliness. In my opinion, though, Indians--and especially South Indians--have a much more developed understanding of camp than the west. Rajnikanth films being a good example of how far you can go with it. Sure there are differences in price & production standards between the English and Tamil book industries... there are straightforward economic reasons for that... but I don't think there's a huge qualitative difference in the way this stuff gets read in English and the way it gets read in Tamil. Except of course that for a reader who hasn't spent much time in Tamil Nadu, it's also a window on the culture. The authors I think are mostly just amused by our anthology. These guys are used to print runs of 40,000 copies of a new novel every week or two. So to have some small indie press publish them in English... it's just a fun novelty.

Lapata: I like the point that the authors are used to huge print runs, and the numbers must be quite mind-boggling to an independent publisher. I guess part of my point was lost in the question, which I didn't mean to suggest a sneer at the original consumers or writers: it seems to me a regular reader of pulp (in any language) is willing to take the good with the bad and consume fairly large quantities. As with popular movies, there are certain storylines and productions that end up really working beautifully, and many that are totally unmemorable. So I guess I was wondering (partly to myself) what it means to get beautifully bound and translated selections that one assumes have been chosen because they are the very best? You don't have to answer that.

RK: I was inspired by the American pulp anthologies, like the ones Otto Penzler does. Of course it's important to choose good stories but we're also trying to show you the breadth and history of the genre. So alongside the "very best" you get some silly stories too, which are nevertheless fun in small doses.

Lapata: Speaking of the authors, I am very curious about the research you have clearly undertaken to put together their bios. There must be some good stories about your journeys to find these writers, especially the one that was anonymous. Can you share some anecdotes?

RK: Ah, you have a 1st printing. After that came out the "anonymous author", Prajanand (as he prefers his name to be spelled in English) contacted us and we met him... he turned out to be a college student from Coimbatore, 18 at the time he wrote those two stories. I heard he's been writing some science fiction recently. We changed the bio and the spelling of his name for the 2nd printing.

Here's an anecdote... The first author we got to sign a contract was Indra Soundar Rajan, who lives in Madurai and is a devotee of the goddess Meenakshi Amman. He suggested that we go to the Meenakshi temple and do a pooja and sign the contract on the Sangam Paligai, which is this slab of rock that according to legend was the site of a 2500-year-old assembly of Tamil poets.

PKC: It's where the epic poet Nakeeran dared to challenge Lord Shiva's grammar. Nakeeran was the Poet Laureate in Pandiya court during the Sangam era. The Pandiya king wants to know if a woman's hair has a natural fragrance. He addresses this to all the poets of Madurai and promises a huge reward to the one that comes up with a satisfactory answer. Dharumi, a poor poet, badly needs the money promised. So he goes to Meenakshi Amman Temple and cries to Somasundereswarar. Suddenly Siva appears before him, in the guise of a stranger, and offers to write him a poem. When Dharumi goes to the Pandiya court and submits the poem, the king is greatly impressed. But when he is offering Dharumi his reward, Nakeeran challenges the poem, saying it is grammatically wrong. Dharumi takes this back to the incognito Siva. Siva becomes angry at being called a bad poet and curses that Nakeeran will have a terrible body itch, for which he will have to bathe in the Porthamarai Kulam in the temple for cure. Nakeeran does this. Then Siva appears before him in his true form and challenges his poem again. Nakeeran is sorry for insulting Siva, but stands by his complaint. Impressed with his confidence, and his love for Tamil, Siva chooses to forgive Nakeeran at the pond bank, where we signed the first contract.

Lapata: Are your anthologies now available at train stations? Any plans for a cheaply printed version to bring the stories full circle?

PKC: The originals are still available at the train stations, yes. Blaft plans to go recycled paper... I don't know

RK: Our translations are available in the Higgenbotham's store at Chennai Central. So far not at the little newsstand-type bookshops on the platforms, though. Recycled paper is sadly really hard to get in India, so no plans yet, but we'll see!

Lapata: I didn't mean literally recycled paper, though that would be great. I just meant cheap editions (of the Blaft collections) in the traditional sense of pulp. But then that wide distribution is probably difficult to effect with an independent press.

RK: Tell me about it. Grrr.

Lapata: Let's talk about your translation of Zero Degree. In an email, Rakesh described the novel as a work that lent itself to being translated into English because it was practically 'jumping out of its Tamil skin.' Please elaborate.

PKC: It was 1998 that I made my first attempt to translate Charu.... then I left it and came back to it in 2007. No, he doesn't jump out of the Tamil skin... in fact he kind of reminds you of all that was Tamil skin, but is now hidden away, because it's too dirty, ugly, or whatever.

RK: What I meant was that the book seems to be screaming to be translated. It is full of mentions of translation and translators, name-checks of European and Latin American writers, jibes about Tamil language politics, musings on the limitations of a writer who writes in Tamil as opposed to English. In an early chapter there is a character named Kottikuppan who responds to any question with a string of rhyming definitions, playing between Tamil and Hindi and English:

"Dey Kottikuppan, what's your age?"

"Age means vayasu, page means pakkam, cage means koondu, tej means light, mez means table, roz means anger, wage means income."

The narrator calls him "perhaps the world's last great translator".

There's another scene where a prostitute pisses all over the narrator's bag. "You bitch!" he says. "What have you done? In that bag is my handwritten manuscript for a novel that will someday be translated into French and appreciated by the most intellectual minds of the world! You have destroyed that unique creation by pissing on it! Are you a paid coolie for the Marxists?"

Stuff like that: Charu is not being shy about the fact that he wants his book translated. Also, it's fairly common for Tamil writers to use Roman characters to write a scientific or technical loan word, but in Zero Degree Charu switches to English for whole sentences or even for whole short chapters.

Lapata: In a somewhat confusingly snobbish review in Caravan, Vijay Nambisan suggests that Blaft is a Peter Pan-ish enterprise, and with the second volume of Tamil Pulp Fiction, does not appear to have figured out how to grow up enough to suit the tastes of its 'Anglo' readership, which wants something more sophisticated than the original Tamil readership. He writes,"The Anglo readers want logic. They want suspense. When you start out with the premise that a Chennai college student is the reincarnation of a village heroine murdered 18 years earlier, you know she's going to win. And you have to believe in stuff like that to read it. Even if you're keen on pop culture, once is quite enough. " Your reactions, please.

PKC: You don't really have to "believe in stuff like that" to read it. Pulp is all about that disbelief.

RK: First off -- Nambisan is a good guy, and he has given us some really great reviews before (on Tamil Pulp Fiction Vol. I and on Where Are You Going, You Monkeys?), so we didn't grudge him his opinion on the second volume.

There's certainly less attention paid to intricacies of plotting and character development in these stories than in a lot of Western adventure and horror fiction; that's partly because the speed of production doesn't allow it (remember some of these authors are publishing 3 or 4 novels a month) and partly just because it's more important that new exciting things must keep happening on every page! In Volume I we had bite-size pieces, they were easier to digest. Volume II is more hardcore, it starts off with that 160-page Indra Soundar Rajan novel where the poisonous snakes and the cattle stampedes and ancient conspiracies and black magic and severed tongues and cursed skulls and fratricidal maharajas and evil lecherous colonialists and spirit possessions and leopard attacks just keep piling up... it's more like eating a big leg of mutton. Too much for dainty 'Anglo' readers, perhaps.

Lapata: What's next for Blaft? Are more volumes of Pulp Fiction in the works?

RK: What's next? Urdu pulp! Our next release, Poisoned Arrow by Ibne Safi, translated from the Urdu by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, has just gone to print. It's the first of four short novels in the series we'll be bringing out this year. Some blurbage below:

Welcome to Ibne Safi's Jasusi Duniya — a delightfully demented world of larger-than-life villains, mad genius detectives, and beautiful femmes fatales. With a huge cult following among readers in both India and Pakistan, this series spanned 125 novels published between 1952 and 1979. They remain some of the bestselling books in Urdu even today.

IBNE SAFI: One of the best-loved and quirkiest Urdu writers of the 20th century, Ibne Safi was born Asrar Ahmed in Allahabad District, Uttar Pradesh, India, in 1928. He migrated to Karachi, Pakistan shortly after the publication of the first Jasusi Duniya novel, and lived there until his death in 1980.

POISONED ARROW: In an unnamed city somewhere in Hindustan, a man is killed by a poisoned arrow outside a popular nightclub. The subsequent investigation, led by the intrepid Colonel Faridi and his assistant, Captain Hameed, opens up a shadowy underworld network of pimps, drug dealers, and foreign spies. But who is behind it all? The diminutive Goan named Finch? The beautiful yet mysterious Tara Nayadu? Or the enigmatic American arch-criminal, Doctor Dread?

Lapata: What does blaft mean, and should I be embarrassed that I don't know?

RK: Blaft was a popular parlor game in Eastern India under the Sunga dynasty, involving marbles, burping contests, and ritual scarification.


david f ford | January 18, 2011

wow! Peaver/Volokhonsky! not being a russian speaker, i cant be sure, but the pure, energetic, almost brutally truthful spirit of the language appears to shine through their work, at least in tolstoi. it also seems that the russian giant (lev) didnt even use complete sentences, making reading the translation something like reading hemingway. life changing translations, when compared to the drab versions i read in school... i have not read the Volokhonsky/Pevear war and peace yet ("Voina E Mir"), in their version, but will tackle it... perhaps its summer reading, if im lucky enough to have a clear week at some beach, somewhere... ;) *also, the J. A. L. Gerome painting that you had up for a bit... of the snake handling youth... is another favorite. my cousin, will harris, was a student of geromes at the ecole in paris in the 1890s. keep up the good work! ---dff

Venkatesh | January 18, 2011

To get to the source of Tamil fiction, you can try two authors.. Sujatha and Tamilvanan.. They are perhaps the grandfathers in this field.

Filmi Girl | January 19, 2011

I would love to read some Sujatha in English translation - if I am correct, he is the one who wrote the script for the fabulous Endhiran, yes?

Pritham K. Chakravarthy | January 19, 2011

@Filmigirl... Sujata passed over about four years back. He wrote the script for Aniyan, again Shankar's film... not for Endhiran.

Venkatesh | January 19, 2011

@Filmi Girl: Actually Sujatha passed away in 2008. But a lot of the science fiction ideas in 'Endhiran' were taken from his earlier books.

Filmi Girl | January 21, 2011

Thanks for the correction - I think I had read that Sujatha had story credit for "Endhiran" so maybe it was given because the idea were used from his books. "Anniyan" was fantastic and I hope we can experience some of his books in English translation soon.

Meera Jagannathan | May 27, 2011

For my Sujatha loving friends here, wait for my translation:) At first I was going to attempt a Tamil to French translation, but that has been done before. Now I am embarking on a Tamil to English project. I have contacted Pritham about this. Appreciate this conversation. best, Meera

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2011 | December 31, 2011

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