I say Tomato and you say potato

Moti Nandy’s Striker, Stopper, K R Meera’s Hangwoman and
M T Vasudevan Nair’s Bhima were translated into English in 2014

A friend of mine who is from Kanjirapally in Kerala calls me and asks in Malayalam, “Endu edukkuva?”

I come from a region in the southern tip of Malabar and speak in a dialect referred to as Valluvadan Malayalam. In my dialect, it would translate to what are you picking up?

My friend of course meant wassup?

Dialects have their own quirks and rhythm. An egg is a muduga in old fashioned Valluvadan Malayalam; mutta in Kozhikode and Thrissur; motta in south Kerala; and most Malayalis would recognize which part of Kerala the person belongs to from the dialect he or she speaks in.

Countless books and films have capitalized on precisely this. The cadence of a dialect. A Texan drawl compared to a New York accent to the Southern accent from Missippi, we are drawn to a character by the intonation they appropriate for themselves. However, when it comes to translations, dialects hit a brick wall.

Take this line from Toni Morrison’s Paradise: “She eats sunglasses.” Or from Anne Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain: “Alma,” he said. “Jack and me is goin out and get a drink. Might not get back tonight, we get drinkin and talkin.”

We know even as we read that one is an Afro-American character while the other is the cadence of a white Wyoming ranch hand. Images of the landscape, the homes and clothes, the food they eat, the churches they worship in, everything about a character’s lifestyle swims into the mind naturally. But how on earth would a Tamil or Marathi translator working on these texts deal with this inflection or regional idiom?

And in India where we have more than 2,000 dialects, what is perhaps being lost in translation to English is precisely this: the flavour of a dialect.

Three of the finest translations I read last year were M T Vasudevan Nair’s Bhima: Lone Warrior, K R Meera’s Hangwoman and Moti Nandy’s Striker, Stopper. All three translators Gita Krishnankutty, J Devika and Arunava Sinha are inspired translators and their translation of the original text is both seamless and vibrant. Very often, it is here translations fail to excite the reader. They are clunky, stodgy and clinical.

Interestingly, both the Malayalam books had an almost dialect-free setting. Bhima is the story of the Kuru prince and here the language Malayalam was merely a medium to tell a story. K R Meera’s story is set in Kolkata and her characters are Bengali. They are not Malayalam speakers and hence dialect had no bearing here either. I do not read Bengali and I am not sure what Arunava Sinha had to grapple with. However, it does make me wonder if translations of novels where dialect has a predominant role to play would ever translate that easily into another language.

- The Literary Citizen The New Indian Express February 2015








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