Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Should Tamil authors be proficient in English?

An aspiring writer wishing to write short stories in Tamil wrote to contemporary Tamil author Jeyamohan asking if he can write good Tamil literature without ever reading anything in English. The aspirant confesses that he had studied in Tamil medium and lacks any level of proficiency in English and is completely unable to read anything in English. (This is exactly why I am not a big votary of Tamil medium education. Those students, unless they make great effort by themselves, remain frogs in a well). Jeyamohan consoles the youngster that he need not worry and that he can write good stories by studying just works published in Tamil and reading Tamil translations of English books. The aspirant had noted that some of the wonderful books that Jeyamohan cites are not available in translated form. Jeyamohan's advice is wrong. To create good literature in output in Tamil one needs very good proficiency in English and here's why.

Short story, the novel, essay, are all literary forms alien to Tamil and they arrived on the Tamil literary scene solely from western literature through English. Even modern poetry is not exempt of outside influences. One cannot appreciate Bharathi fully without reading Shelley. After all Bharathi once called himself 'Shelley Dasan" (slave of Shelley). I've a collection of Bharathi poems the blurb on the back flap says 'Bharathi is situated between Walt Whitman and the author of Gita'. Bharathi's 'Poem of me' is an echo of Walt Whitman. How can somebody understand the nuances of Bharathi without even browsing through Walt Whitman's 'Leave of Grass'. Bharathi created a genre called 'prose poems' (vasana kavithai) which he owed entirely to Whitman. Vairamuthu acknowledges that he borrows freely from Pablo Neruda. No Tamil author has been free of being influenced by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. How can one do justice to the short story without knowing O'Henry or Tolstoy or Maupassant or Balzac? How can one do justice to writing a novel without reading Naipaul and the numerous geniuses of the novel form?

English is a 'tool' to give anyone a window, an access, to the best that is in the world. English brings me Plato, Voltaire, Strindberg, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and any one who may not actually be writing in English. This is not about speaking English in lilting British cadences or whatever status symbol it can be.

What is wrong with reading a translation? USSR and their 'New Century Book House' used to publish decent translations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev etc. But, that's it. Most good books are not available in Tamil. There is no market for them. The lack of market means lack of profits which, in turn, means only sub standard translators come to do the work. A notable Tamil writer , an English literature graduate too, published a Hans Christian Andersen story in Tamil on his web site. Since the story was nice I googled to read it in English. I got the English version but the story diverged after mid section. I was stunned to see such a huge discrepancy and since I knew the writer was an English literature graduate I wrote to him asking how this happened. He replied that he was using an old Tamil translation. He later repeated the wrong version of the story at his book release function and another writer ripped him for it. Benjamin Jowett's translation of Plato is considered the best and it is possible only because of a different environment in the English publishing industry. Homer has been translated hundreds of time yet when Princeton professor Robert Fagles published a new translation it was hailed as path breaking. This is not possible with Tamil translations.

Is there anything more to English proficiency than just being able to read all those literary classics? I was lucky to hear Nanjil Nadan speak about the literary richness of Kamba Ramayanam. The only disappointment was he could only speak very narrowly about the Tamil literary value. My English professor K.G.Seshadri would have taken it to a different level by drawing in references from Aeneid, Lear etc. Imagine a literary discourse on Kamba Ramayanam with many perspectives drawn from analyzing 'Free will', 'concept of duty', 'destiny', etc from across the world of philosophy and literature. How thrilling would it be to hear a chat on the idea of 'temptation' in Ramayana and cite Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. Reading Nietzsche brings an enriching of a creators ideas that is irreplaceable. Jeyamohan made an attempt to write science fiction? How can one do that without reading Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan? How can one do that without some idea of modern physics or science in general at a level higher than what we learn at school?

It is due to these shortfalls that, as I blogged last, no writer of note in Tamil has been produced from students of Tamil literature courses in colleges. Most Tamil authors of note have more than average proficiency in English and read widely. This counsel by Jeyamohan is wrong, misleading and a sheer disservice to the aspirant.

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