The Tiruvaymoli is finally available

My translation of the Tiruvaymoli is finally out. It has a physical form, and I suppose that means it is real and it exists.
It can be purchased in the US via Amazon
It can be purchased in India via Penguin’s page
I do not know if it is physically in any bookstore in India or across the pond. It would be lovely if it is.
It’s only taken 12 years to get this done. In the midst of it, the project seemed interminable. Now that it is done, it is rather unbelievable that it took only 12 years.

The Tiruvaymoli Cover!

Olivia Fraser. Breathe II

The cover of the Tiruvaymoli translation arrived this morning in my Inbox. My breath seized in delight and joy. I am honored that one of Olivia Dalrymple‘s haunting, evocative paintings once again graces the cover of one of my books. What fortune this is, that the yellow-gold lotuses that bloomed on the cover of the Tiruviruttam, glow this time, against an ink-dark body, blossoming and closing, on the cover of the Tiruvaymoli. If ever there was a painting to capture the mood, spirit and feel of the Tiruvaymoli, a garland of lotuses, an ornament to a jewel, this is surely it. Thank you, Richa, for making this happen, and thank you Olivia, for granting Penguin the necessary permissions.

A body of lotuses
from your navel, a lotus, emerged three vast worlds
your feet, lotuses, measured the three worlds
your eyes are lotuses, your hands too
Padmanābha, my ruler, I am alone
when will I reach you?

Tiruvaymoli VII.6.1

Trial and Error: Version 30

version 30 of the same damn verse. I just can’t get past it. There are 1500 verses in this book, and I am still on verse 1. Aiy.

A garland a serpent a creature
of illusion, of the five fickle elements
gluttonous and swollen.
Who dissolves it?
The archer, vanquisher of Laṅkā
The sole goal of the Veda

Translating a single verse

So, that opening verse in Kampan, none of them worked for various reasons. Back to the drawing board, when I though almost incessantly about it. I came up with several more versions (now we are well into the 20-s), and have come up with the most recent version, which emerges from all the earlier experiments.
I am not thrilled with it, as I feel it gives away too much, makes it too easy for the reader. But it is very close to the original Tamil, and I think I’ve almost got an equivalent for every Tamil word in the original.

Thoughts/suggestions/ideas are welcome

A garland a serpent a creature
of illusion, of the five elements
shimmering swaying altering swelling
Who dissolves it?
The archer, vanquisher of Lankā
The sole goal of the Veda

How many versions does it take to make a translation?

As I prep are for our day long Kampan translation workshop at Madison, I remember why I love translating so much. An intoxication of sound and sense, of all the ways to inhabit two bodies at once, to live in a skin that is not your own, but that you will make your own. I’ve spent most of today on a single perfect verse. I’ve tried out multiple versions–sometimes the changes are so slight that I barely notice–a comma removed or added, a syllable added, a syllable deleted. Sometimes, I engage in a whole-scale re-thinking. Anyway, here are three versions of this one verse–the opening verse of Sundara Kandam.

The five elements
a serpent of illusion in the evening
a fickle bond. Who can cut it?
He wields a bow, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the sole end of the Veda. Him.

A rope a serpent a trick of the evening,
of the five elements, a fickle bond
Who severs it?
The archer, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the Veda’s sole end.
See Him.

A serpent of illusion in the evening
creature of the five elements, a bond
Who cuts it? See
the archer, vanquisher of Laṅkā
the Veda’s sole end

A fourth version that just came to me h/t Rhony Bhopla

A rope a serpent a trick of the evening,
of the five elements, a fickle bond
Who severs it? The archer
vanquisher of Laṅkā, the Veda’s sole end.

A Taste of Tirumankai

I am done with the Tiruvaymoli translation. Feeling at loose ends, I revisited by beloved Tirumankai. Here’s a lovely verse in the female voice.

Heavy with the fragrance of full-blown jasmine
the gentle breeze arrives as the cool moon rises
It wanders everywhere, feeds on me
not sparing me a single night’s rest.
Stupid girls say stupid things—let them.
His woman fragrant with all her flowers
he keeps her close, nestled into his chest
He’s in Kuṟuṅkuṭi
Take me there.

Tirumaṅkai. Periya Tirumoḻi IX.5.2

The Tiruvaymoli is done!

I began translating the Tiruvaymoli in 2007. It was supposed to be a joint project with Frank Clooney (Harvard), who has spent a lifetime on the text. We worked on some 60 verses together, but in the end, time, distance and my own slowness as a translator doomed our collaboration. Frank has been so patient, encouraging and incredibly generous to me throughout this process, and I know that I would never have conceived of such a monumental undertaking without him by my side to do it. Frank has his own complete translation, and I hope very much that someday he’ll publish it, full of his rich insights and his deep, deep reading of the commentaries.

I have been changed on a molecular level doing this work. A great poem will do that to you, and the more you live with it, the more it changes you. It was difficult and frightening to accept this truth. Eventually, I did accept this reality, the realness of the poem, its work, its affect, and I learned to understand and feel it through ritual and spectacle, as something that throbbed and thrummed in the blood-veins of people.

Many, many moons ago, at the very beginning of this project, I applied for a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and was shocked to receive it (2012). They even did a little piece about me and this translation. At that time, I had ambitiously thought I would be done with this work in a year or so. Little did I know how distant the finish line really was.  Anyway, here is that little blurb, a reminder to myself of that far away self.

The book will be out in January 2020 from Penguin Classics. It’s appropriate that it comes out then, during the month of Markali, which is given over to a sustained, profound meditation of this work.

On the terrors of non-translation

I find great comfort in translating. I do it almost every day, and when I don’t, I feel like I am missing a part of myself. Like I’ve misplaced myself. I had many exciting things happen over the past three weeks–I went to Madison, where I delivered a paper on a topic I knew nothing about, David Shulman and the Nepathya troupe were here in residence, and they rocked our worlds with incredible, life-altering performances, then my Nava Tirupati Dream Team arrived with all their marvelous ideas and their rather large brains. It was a Sukhavati. But I didn’t translate. Three weeks and not one word. The books lay open, silent and accusing, may be not accusing, maybe mournful, lonely. Like them, I felt lonely and a bit lost. So, I sat down to translate this morning, and it was a struggle. The familiar terror came over me–that I would lose all language, and nothing would ever make sense to me ever again. But of course, the terror receded, and in its place came a beautiful quiet, a delicious stillness, a silence inside me, where I could only hear words as they shaped themselves to poetry. A clicking into place of the parts of myself that are ever splintered. What bliss is this.

Seamus Heaney Beowulf Translation/Hearing Beowulf in Tamil (?)

May 22, 2017

I’ve spent the last several days reading and re-reading Beowulf, in preparation for class this week. I am utterly, completely in its thrall. The Heaney translation is masterful–the control of rhythm and rhyme is delicate yet unyielding. The Tolkien translation, so different, has its own power–he translates with an unerring linguist’s ear.

I have a seed of an idea, about finding a way to translate the alliterative structure of Beowulf as interpreted by Heaney into an English translation of Alvar poetry. And then, to have it sung. Stay tuned.

May 24, 2017

So here’s the first draft of the first experiment, trying to adapt Heaney’s translation approach of Beowulf to the Tiruvaymoli.

I am unable to get the caesura to work like I want it to, and it’s inconsistent. But I was able to replicate the alliteration in each lines’ two halves. I rather like the effect it produces, something a little closer to the bone of the Tamil, and I also like how much more miserly with words, and syllables it forced me to be. I am particularly proud of the pairing of Rama in the first line and Brahma in the last. I still think I have too many words, but all in all, not bad for a first outing; I give myself a C+.

kaṟpār irāma pirāṉai allāl maṟṟum kaṟparō
paṟ-pā mutalāp-pul eṟumpu āti oṉṟu iṉṟiyē
naṟ pāl ayōttiyil vaḻum carācaram muṟṟavum
naṟ-pālukku uyttaṉaṉ nāṉmukaṉār peṟṟa nāṭṭulē

VII.5.1 If you can learn of great Rama, why learn of anything else?
The slimmest blade of grass, the smallest ant, all things
in Ayodhya, aware and unaware, he lifted them
all who lived in the land made by Brahmā.

Nammalvar. Tiruvaymoli. VII. 5.1.