(Written for the e-magazine, Tamizhini, where excerpts from this translation were published.)
Translating the Tamil classic, Thirukkural, is a tricky task. Many translators have attempted to outdo Thiruvalluvar in brevity, and failed to match his depth and poetic grace. Some resort to elaboration, making it more of commentary than poetry, leaving very little space for interpretation and probably adding layers that are not explicit in the original, seeing more in Kural than Valluvar knew. The two-line, seven-cir (4 + 3 metres, for a rough understanding) format offers an additional challenge. It has so far been impossible to replicate in English. Doing the translation with rhyme tends to become an amateurish exercise. Without rhyme, they are often reduced to pithy maxims. Even as maxims, deprived of the poetic devices, because of the inherent depth of content and the moral strength, they are powerful enough in the first two books – on Aram and Porul (Righteousness and Wealth). In the third book, on Kamam (Love), the emphasis is on poetry. Even the academia in Tamilnadu has, by and large, turned a blind eye to this part of Thirukkural. It is no surprise that Kamathupaal has not made a wide impact outside Tamilnadu.
The most popular translation of Thirukkural, till date, remains that of the nineteenth century British cleric, GU Pope. While GU Pope is revered enough in Tamilnadu to warrant a statue along the Marina beech, he was no Alexander Pope (to Homer). Hence, translator after translator, some renowned some unknown, have made sincere attempts, albeit with limited success, to convey to the world the exhilaration they have experienced in Tamil. Unfortunately, A.K.Ramanujan was not one of them; had he taken up Thirukkural, especially Kamathupaal, he could have brought into force, the poetic wand he wielded over Sangam poems.
I append my name to that long list of translators, hoping that I am taking one small step forward. I, too, had adhered to the two-line free verse format for the first two parts, which I have been publishing directly on my blog (www.thirukkural133.wordpress.com) over the last 7 years. But with Kamathupaal, I hit against a strong block for more than a year. I felt the two-long-line format for poems on love was too restrictive, and unappealing to the modern sensibilities, especially in English. So, I’ve chosen to experiment with a 5-line format, but altering the meter, space, rhyme and rhythm depending on the individual kural. Why five lines? It is difficult to explain; the compound phrases and pauses in most kurals seemed to seamlessly split into five lines. I haven’t shied away from using rhyme and meter, wherever they have fallen in place without having to contrive much. Though, there is a certain amount of continuity within some of the chapters in Thirukkural, I find it best to treat each kural as a separate poem than as a continuum; each, a separate poem demanding a unique structure, rhyme and language.
I owe my understanding of kural to various commentators, old and new, (especially Parimelazhagar), spanning over maybe 10 centuries. Where my personal reading was not satisfied by any commentary, I have made my own interpretation. Where I felt multiple interpretations to be equally appealing, but was impossible to leave scope for multiple interpretations in the translation, I have made multiple versions for the same kural.