Co-publishing venture opens up new vistas for Tamil literature in translation

Print edition : February 12, 2021

“Kural” by Tiruvalluvar. Translated by P.S. Sundaram (Penguin Classics)

Arena/Vaadivaasal by C.S. Chellappa. Translated by N. Kalyan Raman (Oxford University Press)

“Generations” by Neela Padmanabhan. Translated by Kaa.Naa. Subramaniam (Niyogi Books)

“Along with the Sun: Stories from Tamil Nadu’s Black Soil Region”. Edited by Ki. Rajanarayanan. Translated by Padma Narayanan (HarperCollins)

The literature-in-translation programme supported by the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation in collaboration with some of India’s leading publishers seeks to open up new vistas for Tamil literature and culture through English.

Addressing a long-felt need, the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation (TNTESC) recently launched the first phase of its programme to promote award-winning Tamil fiction and non-fiction in translation.

In what is arguably the first public-private partnership of its kind, the TNTESC has collaborated with publishers such as HarperCollins India, Niyogi Books, Oxford University Press, Penguin Random House, Ratna Books and Vitasta Publishing to develop a strong list of literary translations from Tamil.

Dr T. Sankara Saravanan, deputy director, Translations, TNTESC, said: “This is a co-publishing deal, where we enter into an agreement with publishers and buy 500 copies of each book. The logos of the publisher and the TNTESC and the mission statement will be displayed on the books. It is a mix of classical and modern literature, as well as previously published and freshly commissioned titles.”

Six books have already been published as part of the first phase. The titles were shortlisted by a committee of experts which chose them as much for their social relevance and literary excellence as for their potential to reflect the Tamil ethos and yet reach out to readers beyond language and cultural barriers.


Taught in schools and sworn in courts, the Kural or Tirukkural, also known as the ulaga podhumarai or universal common book, is intrinsic to the Tamil way of life. It comprises 1,330 couplets divided into three paals or books—of ethics, politics and love—that seek to illumine the reader about “life, love and the ways of the world”. Along with the Bible and the Quran, the Kural is among the most widely translated texts in the world. This translation, published by Penguin Random House, has been edited with an introduction by P.S. Sundaram.


First published in 1948, this famed work of short fiction by C.S. Chellappa is perhaps the first fictional account of Tamil Nadu’s hoary bull-taming tradition of jallikattu. Vaadivaasal (literally, the gate through which bulls are released), translated as Arena by N. Kalyan Raman and published by Oxford University Press, captures in rich detail the riveting life-and-death struggle between animal and man.

The crimson hibiscus/‘Semparuthi’

Set in the decade preceding the Second World War, T. Janakiraman’s Semparuthi (1968) is a novel of nuance, contradiction and ethical dilemma. It follows the trajectory of the petty shopkeeper Sattanathan, who is forced to give up his studies at a young age after his brother’s death, and who is witness to the heady idealism of the freedom struggle, the decadence that has seeped into public life post-Independence, and the emerging communist movement in India. Semparuthi, translated as The crimson hibiscus by Periyaswamy Balaswamy and published by Ratna Books, was hailed in its time as an intimate portrait of inner lives which dared to pose that vexed question: can a man allow two women to rule his heart?


Celebrated as one of the “ten great novels of India”, Talaimuraikal (1968) by Neela Padmanabhan is a story of “generational change and conflict, and of how a boy grows up to take charge of a family which has loved its traditions not wisely but too well.” A book of powerful vignettes rooted in the life of the Chetti community of Eraniel in Kanyakumari district, it tells the harrowing tale of a bride who is ill-treated and her brother’s attempt to avenge her. Translated by the Tamil literary critic Ka.Na. Subramaniam (Ka.Na.Su.), Generations has been reprinted by Niyogi Books.

Along with the sun/ ‘Karisal kathaikal’

Karisal kathaikal (1984) gathers stories steeped in the scorched, parched landscape of the Kovilpatti region in Thoothukudi district known as karisal kaadu (literally, black soil forest). Edited by nonagenarian writer Ki. Rajanarayanan (Ki.Ra), himself a trailblazer of karisal literature which he chose to write in the vattaara vazhakku (spoken dialect) of Tirunelveli, these stories are translated by Padma Narayanan and published by HarperCollins India.

Lamps in the whirlpool/‘Suzhalil mithakkum deepangal’

While writer and social activist Rajam Krishnan never identified herself as a feminist, her fiction problematised the notion of family and addressed issues such as domestic violence that were rarely spoken of in her time. Translated by Uma Narayanan and Prema Seetharam, and reprinted by Vitasta Publishing, Lamps in the whirlpool traces the emotional arc of Girija, the housewife strung traumatically between patriarchy and modernity, whose escape from the yoke of Brahminical orthodoxy comes with its own pound of flesh.

While The crimson hibiscus and Along with the sun were freshly commissioned, Kural, Arena, Generations and Lamps in the whirlpool are reprints. In fact, one of the aims of the TNTESC project is to revive more such books in the backlist that were published to critical acclaim but are no longer in circulation. The next phase of the project proposes to focus on the translation and restoration of travelogues, literary discourse, memoirs and essays. The writer S. Ramakrishnan, who is a member of the advisory committee that shortlists texts, made special mention of A. Ramasamy’s Tamizhnaatil Gandhi (Gandhi’s Travels in Tamil Nadu), and the eminent folklorist and anthropologist Tho. Paramasivan’s Ariyapedatha Tamizhagam (The Unknown Tamil Nadu) as titles to look out for in the second phase.

Also on the anvil are the reprinting of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War, which was classical Tamil poetry’s passport to world fame, and R. Parthasarathy’s translation of The Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet.

Mini Krishnan, one of the coordinating editors of the project, added: “Many works not yet available have been commissioned and placed with different publishers. Many books and writers the collaborating publishers had not heard of have also been commissioned. Thus, it is a bringing together of different kinds of strengths which are at the moment scattered.”

TNTESC, which is the nodal agency mandated to publish and promote books across subjects and languages in all educational institutions in Tamil Nadu, plans to make these books available to high school and college students all over Tamil Nadu. In this way, the captive young adult population (not all of whom read and write Tamil even if they may be native Tamil speakers) will be acquainted with Tamil literature, alongside its history, culture and traditions, through English. Also scheduled are webinars in collaboration with Departments of English in Women’s Christian College and Stella Maris College, Chennai, in February.

By collaborating with publishers from across India and supporting them as they invest more in translations of Tamil writers, TNTESC also serves as a vital link between publishers and academia. As Dr R. Balakrishnan, chief adviser to the Chief Minister of Odisha, author of Journey of a Civilisation: Indus to Vaigai (2019) and a member of the advisory committee, quipped: “There is no point in talking about our [Tamils’] greatness among ourselves. At the end of the day, you have to reach out to a wider readership.” Such an interface, it is hoped, will not only help both stakeholders include more writing from Tamil in their lists and syllabi, but foster the much-needed dialogue and critical discourse on contemporary trends in Tamil literature as well.