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Monday, August 8, 2022

Speaking in Tongues: Novels in Translation From Around the World

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And though the novel was written in Italian, portions of Harris’s lively translation read as though this were the original, containing references to English books, movies and songs, as well as detailed discussions of the language itself. Claudia notes that her grandmother, who “didn’t understand Italian very well anymore” after having lived in New York for years, “spoke in a dialect that was deliberately strange: She said ‘Bruklì’ instead of Brooklyn, ‘aranò’ rather than I don’t know.” She knows how to pronounce these words, the narrator says, but their distortions are “her means of staking out a personality.”

By Perumal Murugan
Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
202 pp. Black Cat. Paper, $17.

Murugan’s “Pyre” is haunted by its title (“Pookuzhi,” in Tamil) — a word that appears nowhere in the novel, but contributes to the growing sense of dread and desperation that shadows it. The narrative begins in an unassuming manner, with the newlyweds Kumaresan and Saroja getting off a bus in the groom’s home village for the first time. They are arriving from the town of Tholur, where they met, and where Kumaresan works at a soda bottling shop; and he now instructs Saroja to speak as little as possible when interacting with his family and neighbors. It quickly becomes clear that Kumaresan fears his village will reject Saroja if they learn that she belongs to a different caste, and he has yet to come up with a way of allaying their suspicions. As these suspicions mount, the walls begin to close in on the young couple, still working to build intimacy with each other.

A professor of Tamil literature in southern India, Murugan is a prolific author of nonfiction, story collections and novels, including the 2010 novel “One Part Woman,” which sparked protests from fundamentalists in India who felt the plotline (a couple struggling with infertility) brought dishonor upon Hindu women. (The protests led Murugan to declare his own death on Facebook in 2015.)

This very readable English version by Vasudevan, the American anthropologist and writer who also translated “One Part Woman” in 2018, includes a sprinkling of transliterated terms, some (samba, a small-grained rice; and dey!, an informal way of addressing a man) defined in a short glossary at the end. In addition to drawing the reader into Murugan’s Tamil-language environment, Vasudevan also signals the subtle differences in dialect, distinguishing Saroja’s speech from Kumaresan’s. The translation succeeds in reminding the reader of the work’s non-Western, multilingual setting, without compromising the fluency of the narrative.

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