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I don’t know Tamil myself, at least I have never studied the language formally. The Tamil I speak is the language I picked up by ear on the streets of Madras (as Chennai was then called) during my childhood and college days decades ago. A regret I always had consequently was that I never could read some of the classics for which the ancient Tamil language is famous for.

I was therefore quite excited when I heard that the English translation of a well-known Tamil classic would be presented at a book reading at the Easy Library in Bangalore. The directions given by the courteous and efficient Harish were so precise that I reached there with no difficulty whatsoever, which in itself is a huge achievement these days if you drive in Bangalore.

Here’s where I had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Nandini Vijayaraghavan, the author of the book in question. From the way she assembled her material and checked the audio-visual and so on, I sensed this lady was more professional in such matters than most authors tend to be.

I wasn’t too surprised to hear soon after that she was not only someone passionate about bringing the Tamil classics to a wider “non-Tamil knowing” audience, if I may use the expression, but also the Director, Asia Pacific Corporates of Fitch Ratings. She had worked earlier in Citigroup, Bank of Nova Scotia and Standard & Poor’s before joining Fitch Ratings, which is dual-headquartered in New York and London with over 50 offices worldwide. Fitch Ratings is a global rating agency dedicated to providing value beyond the rating through independent and prospective credit opinions, research and data. Nandini is an alumna of the prestigious London Business School and a CFA charter holder.

Nandini has published three volumes of translations of Kalki  Krishnamurthy’s (September 9, 1899–December 5, 1954) historical novel, “Sivakamiyin Sabadham” (Sivakami’s Oath), a Tamil classic first published in the 1940s; set in 7th century South India, the book revolves around the power struggle between the Pallava king Mahendra Varman and the Chalukya king Pulikesi set against the backdrop of the love story of the Pallava Crown Prince Narasimha Varman and the danseuse Sivakami.

She plans to publish the fourth and final volume by early February-2013. To get a feel for the book, enjoy this beautiful book trailer video.

Here are excerpts of our conversation:-

1.    I understand that though Tamil is your mother tongue, you learnt it fairly late in your life. You then chose to do something which not too many people have done: to translate to English some of the best of literature in Tamil. What brought about this? How did you decide that this was something you had to do? What do you aim to gain from this?

Though I can read, write and speak in Tamil, my formal training in Tamil is limited to what my mother has taught me. Tamil was not my second language in school or college. So, while I have read English, Hindi and French fiction, I took to reading Tamil literature only after I started working. The issues addressed by Tamil authors amazed me. The fiction in this language has not just kept up with the times but has also been a precursor of things to come.

Sensitive issues such as a relationship between a younger man  with a woman much elder than him, the challenges faced by a devadasi (courtesan) in the context of “social acceptance” and how the system treats a rape victim as a criminal herself have been addressed very early.

Another fascinating aspect about Tamil literature is that the language has been blessed with versatile authors and creative teams backing the authors, who together have integrated poetry, music and illustrations with their works.

As I read more fiction, I realized that this body of literature has interesting and novel stories to tell and that we need to take it to a wider audience. The only way this can be done is through translations. I do have a pipeline of works I intend translating. Through a combination of translations and interactive reading sessions, I hope to increase the awareness and readership of Tamil literature.

2.    How long did it take you to translate the 207 chapters?  This must be the most often asked question, but how did you manage to successfully complete this project while being concurrently a corporate executive,  mother and so on?

It took me almost four years to translate all four volumes aggregating 207 chapters. I translated one chapter every weekend. ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’ was so gripping that I used to wake up earlier than usual on Saturdays and complete translating a chapter.

3.    What were the challenges you faced in this project? What would you advice those who wish to emulate you and carry out similar works?

Getting the spirit of the book right while simultaneously ensuring that this was a good English novel was the greatest challenge.

The Government of Tamil Nadu has nationalised the works of several Tamil authors including (Late) Kalki Krishnamurthy. So, several publishers publish the nationalised novels including ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’. This has led to differences in proper nouns and certain chapter titles among the different editions. For example, Paranjyothi’s native village is spelt as Thirusengattukudi, Thirchengattukudi and Thirusengattankudi in various editions. While translating this work, I visited this village, which is located in Tiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu. It is now known as Thirusengattukudi. The first chapter in Volume 1 is titled “Travellers” in certain editions and “Temple” in others. Reconciling the differences amongst editions was another challenge.

I think it’s a little early for me to advise aspiring authors/translators. But being passionate about the subject, getting the novel reviewed by those familiar with the subject prior to publication and not micromanaging the editorial process helps.

4.    What are your other projects in hand? Which are some of the Tamil classics you would love to translate in the years ahead? Why would you choose these?

Prior to ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’ I completed translating a short Tamil novel, which is known both for its entertainment value and illustrations. I am looking for a publisher to get this work published. I hope to work on a novel set in rural Tamil Nadu after this. I would like to give readers a flavour of the various genres of Tamil literature. Like it or not, when one thinks of Tamil literature it most likely conjures images of temples, music and dance. This stereotype needs to change.

5.    If you were to summarize what you have gained from this writing experience, what would you say? What would you do differently in your future projects and why?

Prior to publishing ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’, I used to post two chapters per week on my blog. This attracted both Indian and non-Indian readers. Based on their feedback, I learnt to write for readers who were unfamiliar with our history and culture.

I also hope to release the book and kindle version of my future translations simultaneously as I get a lot of enquiries for the kindle version of ‘Sivakamiyin Sabadham’.

6.    Where are your books available? Are they available as ebooks on Kindle etc? What would you suggest to people from say the US who wish to delve into your translations?

My book may be purchased from The BookPoint in Chennai. Indian readers may purchase the book online from Flipkart, Indiaplaza, Infibeam, Dial a Book and Pothi. Overseas readers may purchase the book from Vannam,  Amazon, CreateSpace. The kindle version will be published during the course of 2013 after completing the book version.

I believe that translated Indian literature is no way different from (say) translated Spanish literature non-Indian readers are used to reading. It’s an easy way to understand India and its people. The language is simple and footnotes and glossary are available to explain the Tamil words that appear in the novel.

Thanks for your time, Nandini.  You are very modest. I can imagine the amount of work you out in to complete this demanding translation while managing your career and home. This speaks of your passion for the subject.

I have no doubt many from different parts of India, if not the world, will thank you for exposing them to Tamil literature. This otherwise would have remained, both literally and figuratively, a closed book, simply because they don’t know the language. If you like Nandini’s work and her efforts, you might like to leave a comment on the Facebook Page.