Dr K. Chellappan: ‘A good translation is a creative transformation’

Print edition : November 19, 2021

Dr K. Chellappan. Photo: By special arrangement

Tagore’s ‘Gora’ translated into English by Sujit Mukherjee (Sahitya Akademi, 1998)

‘Gora’ translated into Tamil by K. Chellappan (Sahitya Akademi, 2015)

Interview with Dr K. Chellappan, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation 2020.

Dr K. Chellappan, known as Dr KC in academic circles, found himself in the limelight once again when the Sahitya Akademi Awards were announced on March 12. Chellappan was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation 2020 for his Tamil translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gora, a classic Bengali novel that raises a number of questions which are valid and relevant even today.

It would not be amiss to assume that the Sahitya Akademi Award for Chellappan is not just for his most recent work but a comprehensive accolade earned for his many accomplishments in the field of translation and comparative literature. His books—The World as a Stage: Shakespearean Transformations; R.K. Narayan: The Ironic Mythmaker; Shakespeare and Ilango as Tragedians: A Comparative Study; Literature within/across the walls: Comparative studies in classical and modern Tamil Literature; and Tagore, Bharathi, and T.S. Eliot: Towards Creative Unity (Tagore lectures)—occupy an important place in Indian academics and continue to be subjects of discussion amongst scholars of literature.

Chellappan, who began his career teaching at Rajah’s College, Pudukkottai, has worked in many colleges in Tamil Nadu and taught hundreds of students for over four decades. Many of his students are heads of departments and senior professors of literature in colleges throughout the State.

A documentary on Chellappan’s career and innovative teaching methods titled “An Inspiring Teacher”, funded and released by his students, and a book titled One Humanity, One Literature, which celebrates his contributions to English literature, showcase the love and respect he enjoys even now among his students and literary scholars.

Chellappan’s greatness as an eminent scholar and a devoted and compassionate teacher is because of the principle, “I slept, and dreamed that life was beauty. I woke, and found that life was duty”, which he followed right from the beginning of his career and continues to date.

Tagore’s poetry and short stories have been translated into many languages, but there are not many takers for his novels. Gora, the longest of Tagore’s novels, brims with complex and philosophical ideas and demands dexterity from the translator. Chellappan the translator has not disappointed us. He deserves appreciation for his complete and unabridged translation of Gora in Tamil, which is sure to elicit literary and critical attention.

Chellappan was kind enough to answer some of our questions about his work and success as a writer. Excerpts:

What drew you to writing, and particularly to translation?

I believe, with [Francis] Bacon, that writing maketh a perfect man. As a teacher and student of literature, I enjoyed reading and teaching good writings, and I thought that through writing I can express my deepest self and share it with others.

More particularly, translation brought me into contact with great minds, past and present; and translation is a way of possessing a work. As translation is a bridge between minds and languages, I felt that by translating good works from Tamil into English and vice versa, I might introduce new vistas to readers in both the languages.

What are your other works? Which one did you find difficult to translate?

I have translated selected poems of Bharathi and Bharathidasan, and Kove. Manisekaran’s Kutrala Kurinji into English. I have translated Kalaignar’s Kuraloviyam as “Kural Portraits”, his novel Thenpandi Singam, and his prose poem “Meesai Mulaitha Vayathil” as “Budding Moustache, Blooming Poetry”. I have also translated Ma.Po. Sivagnanam’s works that deal with the freedom movement.

I found Kalaignar’s works more difficult because of their poetic dimension.

Is there a difference in reading a book for pleasure and reading for the purpose of translation?

Reading for translation can also be a pleasure, but our purpose in reading for translation is to decode the original by delving deep into the secrets. One has to coax the text to come out of its silence. [The literary critic] Northrop Frye said that poetry is silent, only criticism speaks. That is true of translation because translation also involves interpretation and criticism.

Is it possible for a translator to be faithful to the source text and be original/natural at the same time?

Yes, to a great extent. Fidelity to the original can coexist with creativity. Of course, one has to take some liberties with the original. Just as [T.S.] Eliot said that tradition and individual talent are not opposites, one can discover one’s creativity while submitting to the other and one can find one’s true self by losing it.

What, to you, are the most important elements of good translation?

A good translation is a creative transformation. It should recapture the dhvani [sound] and the spirit of the original, and if possible, try to find some kind of formal or stylistic equivalence with the original. It discovers a deeper third language by reconciling with the two systems.

The general belief is that translations occupy a secondary position in any literary culture. What is your view?

Yes, but [Jacques] Derrida thinks that the original is a kind of translation and all that we have are only translations of translations. Translation is also a moment of growth for the original because there are quite a few hidden texts in the original.

Why do certain texts/authors get translated more often than others?

Though some get translated because of their popularity, I feel that only works with vitality and dignity get translated again, because they can yield new meanings in every new encounter.

How do you deal with negative book reviews?

I try to see whether I can learn anything out of it. If it is too bad, I simply ignore it.

What is your advice to upcoming translators?

Translate what you enjoy; don’t attempt literal or part-by-part translations. [Translators] can have some models.

What does receiving the Sahitya Akademi Award mean to you?

An award from the national body of letters is a recognition at the national level. I value it.

What inspired you to choose Tagore’s “Gora” for translation?

It was the Akademi’s choice. But I welcomed the assignment as I like Gora very much. It is very relevant to the present day as it questions Hindu fundamentalism and even nationalism.

Though Gora, an Irish born, champions nationalism in the narrow sense, he finally realises that Indianness cannot be simply inherited, it can be acquired. The novel also shows truth is greater than the nation.

When did you first realise that you wanted to translate “Gora”?

Even on my first reading, I felt like translating it.

Was it easy to enter into the world of Tagore?

Yes, because of its modernity and universality.

Do you think your translation will have the same impact on readers as did Tagore’s “Gora”?

It may not. But my readers may not have read the original.

How do you think it will be compared to Sujit Mukherjee’s English translation of “Gora”, your source text?

The Tamil translation cannot give the exact impact like that of Mukherjee’s. But every reader will have his own perception and reaction. Such differences will only help to discover new possibilities of meaning.

In short, meaning is never a finished product but a continuous process.

There are many English translations of “Gora”. Why did you choose Sujit Mukherjee’s translation as the source?

Mukherjee, being a Bengali and a writer in English, has been able to get the nuances of the original, linguistically and culturally.

How long did it take you to finish the book?

About six months.

Were you able to get the right word/expression the first time itself or did you have to revise your work till you got it right?

I do revise my versions. All translation is only an aspiration and an approximation.

Did your views about the novel/characters change while working on the novel?

Yes, while translating, I come into closer contact with the text. Any reading involves dialogue and intimacy with the text. Interpretation is a hermeneutic process in which there is a surrender which also becomes a conquest. More so in translation because it needs reformulation in the new language.

The Sanskrit word “sahrdaya” means a reader must share the mind of the author. Sometimes, total empathy may be neither possible nor desirable. Unless I possess the original, I cannot communicate it to others.

Are you happy/satisfied with how the novel ends? Gora’s awakening seems a bit sudden and unreal.

The present ending of the novel is good enough because there is both reversal and recognition in the Aristotelian sense. Gora recognises he can become an Indian by choice if not by birth. He sees in Anandamoyi, the stepmother, the image of true India, as she has no caste or religion. The Indian mother becomes a symbol of Mother India.

What book or author is next on your list of translation?

I would like to translate T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.

Have you ever thought of or made an attempt to write a novel/short story?

Not yet. Though not a novel, I want to do something on the rivers in Tamil Nadu and the ancient Tamil culture which developed on their banks. As one belonging to the Sivaganga region, I want to do something related to its role in the freedom struggle.