A bird unbound


Credit: M. Jakubowski

A translator reached out to me last week after my short story, “New Names for the Dead,” appeared online asking if I’d allow him to publish a translation in Tamil. I gladly said yes. It’s the first time my work has been translated and it feels kind of miraculous to have a story of mine exist now in a language as gorgeous as Tamil.

The translator, who prefers to retain some anonymity (his Twitter handle is @thackli), also gave me permission to post some of his notes on the translation.

For reference, here is my story “New Names for the Dead” as it originally appeared at (b)OINKzine. (The story is summarized in the notes that follow in case you’d rather not leave this page.) And here is இறந்தவர்களுக்கான புதிய பெயர்கள், the Tamil translation.

Translator’s notes

I’ve been reading the book, “Tamil — A Biography,” by David Shulman. He draws attention to Tamil grammar: vowels are termed uyir (breath or life), consonants mey (body), and together, they generate iyakkam (movement). Based on this, it could be said that truth is not inherent in the world, but we give it breath and voice through language.

Shulman writes, “The breath of any single individual is the medium of his or her connectivity to another person, intimately known, but also to all other persons and to the profoundly interconnected cosmos as a whole. Again, it is this awareness of connectivity—always a matter of deeper self-knowledge and awareness—that sets in motion the need to speak or sing. Movement is continuous: thus in phonology uyir is the technical term for a vowel, unbroken, unblocked, as opposed to mey, ‘body,’ ‘consonant,’ which momentarily stops the flow of breath and sound.”

“All of the above meanings are appropriate to āvi or uyir, a fragile, delicate inner being that in its natural mode tends to the liquid, to states of flowing movement, to welling up as tears, to feeling and perceiving in a continuously shifting and evolving way, also to shaking and quaking and feeling pain, and perhaps to moaning or beating like a drum struck, or a string plucked, by a musician,” writes Shulman. “In general, āvi, the rhythmic breath of life, quivers and sings. But it can also, it seems, be slowed down to the freezing point, where the person can no longer feel his or her own breath.”

The short story, “New Names for the Dead,” has enough correspondences to pique the interest. In this story, the protagonist, Karen, has lost her husband, and grief-stricken and guilt-ridden, she keeps his memory alive and, through memory, his presence, by naming and re-naming her home, which they had shared for more than twenty years. Naming is to her a way of breathing life into an absence which feels to her very similar to a presence in reverse. Her home itself is like a body that belongs to both and, as she herself envisions, she is a bird in plight, a fleeting presence belonging neither to the outside nor the inner world. 

In another passage, Shulman describes such a feeling wonderfully: “When Rama comes back to his empty hut in the forest after Ravana has kidnapped Sita, he, Rama, is like ‘the uyir that has been separated from its containing body (kootu) and has come in search of it, but cannot find it’ (3.8.158). Sita once held the god’s uyir inside her; now this uyir has nowhere to go. It is lost in the world and, a little paradoxically, itself empty in the absence of the singular being that should claim it and contain it. Without Sita, Rama can no longer breathe; breath itself has dispersed in uncontainable sorrow.” I don’t know whether these two words have a common etymology: kootu is body, and the hut to which Rama returns and finds it empty of his love, is kutil. Kootu also means nest.

Choices while translating “New Names for the Dead”

“Quiet place, empty sex palace, hoarder’s delight, messy goat barn, happy crypt” — being names, I don’t know why the first letters of these words aren’t in capitals: Quiet Place, Empty Sex Palace, Hoarder’s Delight, Messy Goat Barn, Happy Crypt. Probably, the choice suggests some interiority. These are not names in the conventional sense, they might be more allied with meaning. Anyway, translating the names was difficult because these are not names in Tamil. They sound foreign, even when translated into Tamil. But on the other hand, Quiet place has a parallel in Shanti Nilayam, people actually name their houses so, but it is too specific. Karen would have to be Tamil to name her house Shanti Nilayam.

“Watching her through the tightening lens of what she remembered” — here “lens” suggests an aperture (Merriam has “something that facilitates and influences perception, comprehension, or evaluation.”) Her memory shrinks with time, but brings its object into greater focus. Because this is a translation, I chose to go with Aadi, a technical name in Tamil for the word “lens.” It definitely diminishes the meaning, but any other choice would leave out the suggestion of lens and focus.

“Her expression would come alive like she’d crossed through a waterfall” — how does one cross “through” a waterfall? Because this is a story about grief, I associate this with tears. (No effect on translation. Through tears was translated as aruviyin oodae.)

“plight” — unfortunate situation, married/ engaged to, solemn promise/ pledge. I couldn’t find a word that has all these associations. Pinai, with its sense of bondage and pledge was chosen. pinaippu is “bound as one”; thoonil pinaikkappattaal would mean she was bound to a pillar; pinai vaikkappattaal would mean she was pledged (as in a gamble, or taken as a hostage: pinai kollappattaal). So “plightless bird,” translates to pinaiyatra paravai — a bird unbound.

2 thoughts on “A bird unbound

    • Thanks, Joe! Naturally, I’m a big fan of the work translators do and can’t imagine life without translated literature, so to be translated and get to see how it was done is a real honor.

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