Translation as Interpretation

Abstract: The attempt here is to highlight how the process of translation is at every step an interpretation of the source text much beyond the limits of language. The translation activity is influenced and directed by the reader-translator’s interpretation of the source text, which in turn determines the tone and texture of the target text. The linguistic choices made by the translator pertaining to words and sounds to be used in the target language depend on the translator’s critical interpretation of the source text. A correct interpretation would leave the desired impact on the reader. Another significant aspect is that translation is not an activity conducted in isolation, it is given shape and structure even by texts behind and beyond the ST, and that the activity of translation sets us thinking on the subject of the text and helps us clarify our own position with regard to the issues in question. This paper includes reflections on certain translations I have attempted from Malayalam Literature into English. I list below a few that I have taken time to reflect upon here. If for the first three discussed in Part A, I supply something akin to a ‘Translator’s Note’, the last piece is discussed in more detail in Part B by drawing in texts and contexts of the translation which eventually resulted in clarifying my own theoretical position on the question of identity.

Keywords: translation, translation linguistics employed, Malayalam literary scene, translator’s interpretations, tones/textures of translation, Adiyar community, mainstream society, female sexuality, tribal community, autobiographical narratives


Karoor’s Stories and their Translation

The volume of stories was brought out by the Sahitya Akademi to mark the birth centenary of ‘one of the greatest short-story writers in Malayalam’, and the stories were chosen by the editor and sent to me for translation. Hence it may not be required of the translator to explain the reasons that motivated either the translation or the choice of stories. But every translation activity, I believe, is influenced and directed by the reader-translator’s interpretation of the source text.

This interpretation in turn determines the tone and texture of the target text. I feel even linguistic choices made by the translator pertaining to words and sounds to be used in the target language – even these, depend on the translator’s critical interpretation of the source text.

I may discuss this norm in relation to two of Karoor’s stories which I translated into English – ‘Marappavakal’ (Wooden Dolls) and Toovanpazhamt. My reading of ‘Wooden Dolls`was along feministic lines, and about ‘Poovanpazham’, what struck me as relevant was the way in which it problematised the issue of female sexuality. Accordingly, the overall orientation of my rendering in English followed the trail of these interpretations. Karoor, most appreciated as a writer who pioneered a renaissance in Malayalam language through ‘the simplicity of his language and style’ (as observed by the Malayalam critic, Dr. M. Leelavathy) has not been studied much with regard to his sensitive recordings of man-woman relationships, and the social critique he offers on the means and measures of control imposed on the female by a patriarchal society. These became self-evident to me while reading towards translating the text.

The young woman-protagonist of ‘Wooden Dolls’ who leaves her husband because of his drunken, wife-beating, beastly ways and lives by making dolls and selling the dolls, is a powerful female character. She has wit, courage, beauty, and talent. That her wooden dolls turn out to be self-portraits of which even other women ridicule her for selling herself, I read as society’s way of curbing female talent and expression. In the story, the only respite she derives is some chance encounter with a kindred soul who seems to understand her ways, who even responds positively to her ways of expressing herself. But that is just a passing moment in her life.

It is with the above interpretation of the story that I approached the text for translation, and my linguistic choices were governed and defined by this reading. Hence, what I tried to retain in the translation were those elements in the source text (ST) which showed up her wit, her courage, her sure yet non-self-conscious ways of expression, and above all, her immense zest for life despite heavy odds. Once these features were attended to and the woman was presented effectively, the translated story, I thought, would leave the desired impact on the reader.

Similarly, in my reading of ‘Poovanpazham’, what emerged as significant was the theme of female sexuality, which through its very unstatedness, gets forcefully inscribed in the story. Patriarchal ways of ignoring its expression and presence, and societal ways of curbing and destroying it, it seemed to me, were poignantly dealt with. The central character, a widow in her thirties whose only son is no more, tries to escape the loneliness inflicted by the Namboothiri community on such women, by seeking the companionship of her dependent’s son, her deceased son’s friend (who is also the narrator of the story). The way he spurns these attempts at friendship by ignoring her all-too-pervading presence, his bad treatment of her despite his obvious attraction to her physicality, and his ultimate realization of the role he too may have played in destroying her completely, keep the texture of the story, complex and multi layered.

Basing the translation on the above interpretation, what I tried to evoke in the target text (TT) were those rich overtones of female sexuality in the ST. In English too, I let the language play at two levels — simple and sensuous — at the same time, especially in the dialogues between the narrator-boy and the woman. That he was all too conscious of her physical charm even when he tried to escape her was once again conveyed through the language he uses to register his observations of her. (in him, we see not only instances of social conditioning that prompt his adolescence to escape and evade such dangerous proximities (such as a lonely Namboothiri widow), but also instances of sensitivity towards the sad plight of a woman who is denied life by a system that devours her.) It is this atmosphere of intensity and deep tension masked in simple everyday language that I tried to recreate in my narration of the same in English.

I don’t include the other three translated stories in the collection for detailed discussion here because there also the general norm that I adhered to was the same – choosing a method of translation that suited my critical reading of the story.

Ayyappa Paniker’s Gotrayanam

Paniker’s long poem conceived in twelve sections describes a south bound journey. It is a call to ‘draw strength from grief, unbind the spell, and sound the drums, to tell the tale of man.’ Every step by man made in the direction of progress seems to have been along the lines of a journey. On the eve of every such journey there has been a moment of exhortation urging man to change the course hitherto pursued so as to explore new terrains and achieve new goals. Paniker seems to be evoking a similar moment of exhortation rooting his poetic self in the present.

The first section announces the goal of the new journey — the promised land. Motivated by the desire to come by this elusive land of happiness, human civilisation drove itself forth at every critical juncture of stasis.

Though Paniker has borrowed his images from a characteristically Hindu Sanskritic past, often enough he seems to be defying this past while exhorting his co-travellers to leave beaten tracks to bravely tread the unknown and the new. There are pointers to this in almost every section:

‘Such counsels of the past

are dinned into our ears,

but the future that beckons,

can we resist that?’

‘Wayside hurdles, let’s

kick them off our tracks.’

‘Only the movement matters

thus the endless exodus’


‘The patriarchs may resent

this southbound mission;

let’s leave them here

and move away.’

‘Man is creation’s process

not the product;

not a point, but a line,

the move is perennial.’


‘Born to create history

or to correct destiny— in man

memory is not the created,

but creator himself.’

(‘Man’s Fate’)

‘Spurred on by the star

that shines in fiery eyes,

…we cancel and recast

the calendar of wisdom;

together we’ll build

a new edifice of culture,

… and seek a foothold

along unfamiliar tracks.’


‘As we wait to see

the coming of dawn,

each day the sun will rise

to get a glimpse of us.’

‘unless the many clans merge

the race of man cannot grow

nor can culture flourish

without interbreeding’

‘let the routes we take

suit us as we suit them’

‘Once loyalty to caste

may be rigid, inviolable

soon, caste itself

will turn into outcaste’

(The Chant’)

‘seeing and not seeing these

we have to take the way unseen’

‘avoid the routine path

And carve out a new path’

(The Song’)

The second section, ‘Exodus’ clearly states the direction of the


‘And friends, who have decided

to go south,

look, the dawn is at hand:

step forth, well-poised’.

The southward course seems to be against what the patriarchs would support, and that’s where Paniker seems to question accepted norms again. For the southbound traveler, though the idea of South spells death and danger, it looks like

“…for us

there is no return

to recall time past;

time is glued to one track’.

Paniker’s Gotrayanam is also a call to man to question the very notion of Destiny and Fate. The narrator’s voice spells out the great ironies that constitute human fate in the section, ‘Man’s Fate’, only to conclude:

‘But the one who can change

this sorry plight and

tread a different path,

we know, is the complete man’.

Another way in which Paniker brings out the complexity of human existence is through the recording of paradoxes:

‘Foes stand in our way

those born with us

by facing them alone

we attain fullness’

‘Deprived of enemies

we are destitutes

and our goals of life

are what we are not!


‘Profit that’s utter loss

success that’s failure

makes me your equal:

such is the fate of man’

‘Sweet are your tears

but salty are mine alien to another’s grief:

such is the fate of man.’

(‘Man’s Fate’)

‘No success is greater

I know, than defeat;’


‘Never forget to bless and pray

for the hunter who shot us down.

as the wound becomes deeper,

it begins to emit compassion.’

(‘The Vision’)

Having rendered the present — chaotic, complex, and fate-ridden — the poem envisions a life of simple beauty in the deep south for the travelers in the future if they could only hold on to this ‘momentous moment’ of the grand embarkation and make a foray into the unknown future to witness that lovely dawn tomorrow.

This journey is hence nothing short of a revolution where change and the concept of change are welcome and inevitable, and therefore the use of ‘Comrades’ in the translation. (Note that the poem in Malayal uses only terms such as ‘co-travellers’ and ‘friends’). Hence in translation, what is foregrounded is the progressive thrust and import the poem. (According to me, this lies latent in the ST).

Ayyappa Paniker’s Malamakkal

Sometimes, the text along with its many contexts makes the translation endeavour meaningful to the translator. The translation of Paniker’s ‘Malamakkal’ can be used as a model to explain this phenomenon. Here, I place the source text and its translation in a larger socio-literary context, and show how texts and their translations are often born out of contexts and how they in turn contribute to debates and’ deliberations on particular issues.

Paniker’s `Malamakkal`may be better appreciated if placed in the context of the Adivasis’ struggle in Kerala to reclaim the forest-land acquired from them by people in power. The protest against land-grabbing has never before been as voluble and vehement as under the leadership of C.K.Janu. She used the print media and the electronic media effectively and succeeded in communicating to the people the unjust treatment meted out to tribals by the Government and other structures of power. And the protest marches and demonstrations staged by the Adiyar community caught the attention of the media, and the imagination of the sensitive.

Though the protests from tribal communities were on for some time, it gained a desired visibility only during the 2002 struggle. If may be noted that the first novel by a tribal writer was published in Malayalam around 2000 — Narayanan’s Kocharethi. Narayanan who belongs to the Malaya raya tribe (People of the Hills) waited fifteen long years to see his creation in print. In the Preface to his novel, Narayanan speaks as a representative of his community, and talks about the sufferings undergone by the Malayarayas over a long period of time. In the novel, he tells the story of his tribe. When Narayanan’s novel came out, there was a. tendency to compare it with K.J.Baby’s Mavelimanram, also a story of the Giriraja tribe, another hill-tribe, but written by a non-tribal. Both the novels highlight the land-grabbing tendencies of feudals and the Government that deprive the tribals of both land and life. If Mavelimanram imagines and envisions an ideal home for the Giriraja tribe where the members are left to live their life among their own customs and traditions, Kocharethi forwards the community’s (malayarayans’) need to be made part of modernity. Though composed from different perspectives, both the novels pushed the intelligentia into recognising the miseries of the hill-people. And on top of it were the Adivasi protests that shook Kerala’s complacence. The illiterate tribal-woman, C.K.Janu, narrated her life-story to her scribe, artist Bhaskaran, and it was first released in the journal, Bhashaposhini. Its popularity and relevance caused it to be translated by Usha Menon into English and this was published in an earlier issue of Samyukta, helping the story reach a wider audience.

These many texts and contexts, I think, are relevant in an understanding of Paniker’s ‘Malamakkaras also its English translation, ‘Children of the Hills’. What demanded its urgent translation into English were the topical contexts that framed it. According to me, whether Paniker was directly influenced by any of these texts or contexts is not as important as the fact that the poem, `Malamakkal’ came at a time when the cultural atmosphere was teeming with such influences.

‘Malamakkal’ tells the story of land-grabbing, portrays the helpless plight of the hill people, spells out the cruelty and violence inherent in the powerful feudal lords, narrates a sad love-story in the context of murder and a rape, and suggests why the flame-of-the-forest had to burst forth in red fury on mountain-tops. `Malamakkal’ is written in the form of a ballad, and if meaning is indeed style, the style through its unique simplicity, evokes the strong identity of a people.

While translating ‘Malamakkal’ into English as ‘Children of the Hills’, I was simultaneously reading Janu’s autobiography in Malayalam along with its English translation. Even before that, I had read Kocharethi by Narayanan and all these together spurred me to work on identity, the result of which is given in the form of a more complete study in the next section.



Articulating an Identity: The Autobiographical We

This part of the study looks into one of the ways in which cultural difference gets articulated, i.e. through the mode of self-referencing narratives. This study argues that stating this difference amounts to appropriating an identity which helps a strategic questioning of dominant perceptions as also the filling in of absences. Consequently, the study posits the articulation of self-identity as a necessary and inevitable step in the process of collective organisation by any community which strives to gain social or political visibility. At some initial juncture of the struggle, from a position of marginality and resistance, a ‘making’ of culture seems possible only via the method of identity-assertion through self-representation. The argument uses the Kerala tribal woman-leader, C.K. Janu’s oral narrative, ‘When the Lost Soil Beckoned’, for substantiating this stand. In connection, it tries to identify the autobiographical genre as having been a site of the articulation of women’s community identities where personal and collective histories merge in deliberately synchronised forms to disturb and disrupt centric notions of cultural identity.

Writing on cultural identity, Stuart Hall says: ‘Practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write — the positions of enunciation. What recent theories of enunciation suggest is that, though we speak, “in our own name”, of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless, who speaks, and the subject who is spoken of are never identical, never exactly in the same place.’ Hall is evidently cautioning us against any hasty intellectual move which may grant identity a transparent, unproblematic status on account of it being grounded in experience.

The counter to this view can be read in Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement of 1977 (quoted by Alcoff) which seems to say: ‘We do not assume that identities are always perfectly homogenous or that identity groups are unproblematic. But we assume that identities matter, and are in some sense, “real”. ‘

Though agreeing with the overall ‘critics of identity’ – view that identity categories are cultural negotiations and that group-identities through their essentialising tendencies obscure internal heterogeneity, I wish to argue here that identities still do matter and that experience as Satya Mohanty would say, ‘provides both an epistemic and a political basis for understanding.’ I go with Linda Martin Alcoff’s observation that ‘identities are needed in the political arena so that movements can make demands ‘in the name of’, and ‘on behalf of women, Latinos, gays, and so on.’ Personal narratives that strive to articulate identity, it seems to me, has hence epistemic significance precisely because of their direct correlation with lived experience, since experience itself though critiqued as theoretically mediated, is many a time the sole basis of knowledge. The question however is not recognising the existence of yet another identity thus adding on to ‘cultural diversity’, the question is why the highlighting of this particular identity at a given point in time is crucial to social positionings. One deploys identity in the public domain as a way ‘to displace hegemonic knowledges and structures of oppression,’ and at that point, whether this identity is real, or whether situated within existing discourses of history and culture and therefore specious, doesn’t really matter. My point is that the marginalised activist who articulates an identity, believes in it, counts on it as emerging from the reality of experience, and releases the personal account of this into the public domain as a means of resisting social and political marginalisation. C.K. Janu’s orally narrated life-sketch, ‘When the Lost Soil Beckoned’, is some such document which may validate my point further. I choose this autobiographical sketch as the central narrative of this paper to forward the idea that identity politics may be seen, in June Jordan’s words, as ‘something enough to get started on’, though ‘not enough to get anything finished .’

Identity assertions are part of the process of political struggle and may have to be necessarily positioned within larger narratives of the struggle itself. Janu’s life-sketch which effectively foregrounds the identity of the Adiyar tribal community of Wyanad, Kerala has therefore to be situated within the Adiyar people’s struggle to reclaim the land that has been unjustly snatched away from them by other dominant groups; it has to be read in the context of a community’s struggle towards the right to forest-land, their land.

Why is Janu’s story especially relevant to the right-to-land claims of the Adiyar community? Janu’s meteoric rise from the status of an anonymous illiterate adivasi girl to the position of an intelligent, vocal community-leader can serve as a symbol of the latent strength of a crushed identity; it can work wonders in the popular imagination of society which then sees Janu as representing that community, as representing the women in that community.

Let us note that till she is seventeen years, Janu is an unknown tribal girl, living in the forests of Wyanad, an illiterate, untutored in any other form of life. Years later, in the year 2001, in Thiruvananthapuram, when the tribals agitate for their right to forest-land, she comes to be noticed as their impressive leader. Her story, as narrated by her, is written down by Artist Bhaskaran, and this life-sketch appears in the local Malayalam journal, Bhashaposhini of Dec. 2001, at a time when Janu symbolising grit, verve, and tribal vigour becomes a name to reckon with, in social and political Kerala. Six months from then, in July 2002, even while the tribal struggle for land is still on, the English translation of Janu’s narrative appears in Samyukta: A journal of Women’s Studies, opening up the horizons of an identity’s visibility.

An awareness of ‘positionality’ can be useful while reviewing Janu’s personal narrative. The in Janu’s narrative often slips into a ‘we’ that encompasses the people that she represents, and the Adiyar community she hails from. All along, her life seems to be alluded to, as an instance of how ‘they’ (people in her community, especially women-folk in the community) have lived their lives, and how they still live it.

In spite of its seemingly rambling disconnectedness, there are two pet-themes around which Janu’s narrative is woven: (1) the Adiyar community’s strong linkages with land, especially Adiyar women’s dependence on land for life and survival; (2) the Adiyar community’s separateness and distinctiveness from other communities and groups surrounding it or interacting with it. Each of these points gets exemplified in the details of Janu’s own life. In effect, what is accomplished through this self-representation is the construction of a tribal identity whose present demands for land stand justified because of the inextricable life-ties it has always had with land, in the absence of which survival itself is impossible.

However, the main thrust of the narrative, centered on the above themes, follows a certain method of non-linear structuration. It is possible to conceive of this structure in terms of identifiable sub-themes that punctuate Janu’s text.

I. The Construction of the Adiyar Community as Children of the Forest: – Born and bred in the forest-environment, to them, forest-land becomes more than a mother.

Textual Instances:-

1. ‘We’, as children of the forest – ‘eating wild berries from the forest, searching for honey-comb in the big trees, making out the elephant’s footsteps among bamboo-groves, collecting cane, catching fish from watering canals, catching water-snakes and wild-fowl by planting traps, making loops in wild grass stems to catch crabs.’

2. as smart forest-dwellers – `to keep away hogs and wild monkeys, we built bamboo platforms on the trees.’ If the elephants come in front of us, we should not run up the hill. We should run down hill; the elephant cannot run downhill.’

3. the forest as mother – ‘when anyone comes from the outside, we all hide in the forest. No one knows the forest like our people. The forest is like a mother to us. Because the forest does not go anywhere, it’s more than a mother.’

II. Othering: – There is a tendency to imagine people outside the community, as the other. This ‘other’ comprises landlords; the Landlord-Party alliance carried on the covert which works against the interest of their community, the Warrier-girl, that literacy-instructor, who comes to the place to collect the ‘Saksharata’ allowance; mainstream women and problems exclusive to them and their lifestyles; other tribal communities around; the Adiyar men themselves. The ‘self’ that is consequently posited against this melee of ‘others’ is that of Adiyar women which then merges with the narrating self.

Textual Instances:-

1. Landlords – ‘Fieldwork meant doing everything the landlord’s men wanted Since only landlords could give work, our people we always frightened… When my forefathers cleared the forest and burnt the stumps and made clear fields, they would come and take it as their own…Our women and girls are for the pleasures of mainstream society. In Tirunelli, the landlords use their wealth and power to give work to exploit the women.’

2. The Literacy Instructor – ‘When I was 16 or 17, the Saksharata people came to Chekot. It was a Warner girl who came to teach. It was as if she came to tick in the register and get her allowance, not because she wanted our people to read and write. The Warrier girl would go and get her allowance. Then she would come at some time and conduct some programmes — races, jumping competitions, and things like that. After that, nothing.’

3. The Party -’I joined the Karshakathozhilali Union. Farmland, better living conditions, none of this was part of the Party agenda. When I was a farm labourer, I used to attend Party classes. I had felt that there was something different about the way of talking there. If we tried to present any of our problems, it was usually avoided with the excuse that it had to be considered by the higher committee…To deal with problems of our existence and to work for it became impossible for the party. The Party needed us only to shout slogans, partake in strikes, and at times of voting. The party workers behaved very badly towards women in our community.’

4. The Landlord-Party Alliance – ‘The Landlords were all Party’s people…Whenever the Party wanted, there would be strikes…The Landlords and the party people would settle all strikes. For, if the strike prolongs, we will die of hunger. If we die, who’ll work in these fields around us? Who will go and shout the slogans? Therefore all the strikes ended through underhand compromises… We thought the great landlords must also be members of the Party. In our area the Party, landlords, and plantation owners had all grown together and joined like a huge tree…The Party and the landlords were uniting to become a huge tree threateningly resting against our little huts.’

5. Mainstream Society and its Intrusions – ‘According to need and situation, tradition and ritual should grow and die…The customs and traditions of our community should not be wrenched out and taken to their recreational life…In the name of development programmes for us, mainstream society seeks its ownbenefit. When colonies were created, huts were built almost touching each other…Our community which was once clean and tidy, now goes around without a bath, smelling of sweat, abusing each other…our people have started disliking each other. The people in the mainstream society say that the roots we ate in the forests were bad, poisonous, without nutritive value. Our lands are now kept as forest reserves. All the land available is kept fallow because they say farming is not profitable …The mainstream society has all the power and rights. They threaten by refusing to give work and thus silence all the wrongs from being voiced.’

6. Mainstream Women & their Problems -’In the mainstream, women had not worked earlier and when they started to work, women’s issues became a problem.. Our women were accustomed to digging the earth and working in the fields from the beginning itself and from this it seems they got strength…In our midst, weddings are not very great events. Since men and women both go to work, separation in marriage does not create any major difficulty. If so desired, one could form another relationship and live. In our social set up, all that are not grave issues. Getting something to keep away hunger is the most important thing.’

7. Other tribal communities around – ‘Amongst us, each community speaks differently. Languages are also different. Words are different too. Problems are different at different places. Loss of land and the several difficul ties created thereby was found as our major problem. Common solutions cannot be found for all.’

8. The Men in the Community – ‘In our midst, unity is formed through our women. Hence it’s not easy for them to join the mainstream opinions…whatever the difficulties may be, they will stand by what they think is right and will have the guts to do so…But the men are not like that. While walking through the lanes, someone can put a hand around his shoulder, whisper something in his ear, buy a tea, give a beedi, and change him.’

9. Unlike Hind us —’In our community, unlike Hindus, we do not have Gods or Goddesses. We have not heard of any fair God or Goddess. In our area, the main trees and stones are kept for worship.’

In this process of conscious or unconscious ‘othering’, there is a constant dwelling on cultural difference. The narrative makes abundant use of the words, ‘different’ and ‘difference’, as a method to mark out others. The import of the message seems to be this: ‘We are different from these others. Look, these are the many markers of difference. And even in these, amongst ourselves, we women are essentially different from the men in our community.’

Connected to this sub-theme is also the issue of power versus powerlessness which the narrative intermittently takes up. The powerless ‘we’ is juxtaposed against the powerful ‘they’ who often figure in the form of mainstream society or the government. The helplessness that characterises the ‘we’ is effectively communicated through the image of the dragonfly in the matchbox.

However, it should be noticed that this ‘othering’ is not done with regard to two characters: Sibi, the literacy worker, earnest in his commitment to teach the community how to read and write and Varghese, the Comrade, who sincerely worked for and with the Community are spared from the ‘othering’.

III. Sisterhood in the Community: – The narratives, time and again, refers to the closeness among the women in the Adiyar Community.

Textual Instances:-

1. ‘We had a friend — Ammini. Our mother and Ammini’s mother were great friends…I am very close to Ammini. The girls in our community are very close to one another.’

2. ‘In our hut, we had a friend, Devi, another one was Lekshmi. Then there was a girl, Valli. She had no one else.’ (The stories of all three are given in some detail, in the narrative, as instances of how they help out one another in trouble.)

3. ‘We women are very close, and we like it…In our hut, the four of us are like one family.’

4. ‘In our community, women take on more responsibility. They go for coolie work. They do all kinds of farm work. Digging, planting, preparing the ground fur planting — all the work on land. They also look after the little ones in the hut.’

IV. Attachment to Land/Strategic Essentialism? The Adiyar Community’s attachment to land and to a particular ‘natural’ environment is stressed throughout the narrative. The many textual instances of this reiteration can be consolidated into a statement

This environment has sustained our lives; our lives and this environment are one and the same. Plucked out of this land which is ours and which has made us, we are a nobody. Deprived of this land, we lose all sense of belonging, we lose home, we lose ourselves, we lose our identity. The identity of our community, especially that of women, is linked to this land.

V. The Demand for Right-to-Land:- Janu’s life-story of land-life ties seems to lead to the inevitable demand:

Therefore, return us the land that’s rightfully ours — on which we, as a community, spanning generations, spent our toil and efforts. We are not any longer the mute erasable minority of yesteryears. We rise to assert our land-bound identity to reclaim the soil that’s justly ours.

The above demand which lies latent in the narrative would have found a voluble voice during the agitation staged by the community in Kerala.

The voice that seeks social and political recognition here is the voice of the Adiyar female self, in the forefront of a political struggle against land-grabbing. The forceful articulation of this identity, in the guise of Janu’s voice, is crucial at this point.

Here, the autobiographical narrative is a means to an end. The final picture that emerges is not of the wronged Adiyar woman, Janu, but a whole community of Adiyar women like Janu, wronged by the powers that surround them and devour them.

At crucial moments of struggle within the women’s movement, whenever community-identities therein faced the threat of dissolution, such assertions have come up — in the form of autobiographical narratives, speaking out as representative voices of the said community. This stands true of the black feminist collective speaking to the white feminists, third-world feminists dissociating themselves from first-world feminist initiatives forwarding their postcolonial female identity, as also dalit women seeking to cast their identity as different from upper-caste women. Through Janu’s life, what seeks an acknowledgement is the Adiyar tribal female self, a voice so far not heard or accommodated within a larger collective. If in Janu’s account, ‘public identity’ and ‘subjectivity’ stay conflated, that conflation has a political relevance.

Somewhere, Janu herself seems to be conscious of this conflation which may theoretically be rated as ‘strategic; ‘simplistic’ or ‘essentialist’. The narrative closes with a reference to the mirror — the mirror as an object, not as a conventional symbol of identity-search. But Janu’s mirror-object transforms into a potent identity symbol in her reader’s mind. She says:

When we were young, there was no mirror in our huts…I saw the mirror first when I went to work at Vellamunde to look after the child. It was one with a wooden handle. Some part of it looked fungus-covered. In that part, I could not see my reflection. On returning from. Vellamunde, in our hut, on the back-wall, a piece of mirror was stuck with dung. A small piece of mirror. We stick seeds for future use like that on the wall of the hut. I do not know who had kept those mirror-pieces like seeds on the wall. Because the mirror was a small piece, I could not see myself completely in it, some parts alone were reflected. Must buy a whole mirror.

(All the quotations from Janu’s autobiographical sketch are taken from Usha Menon’s translation of the same into English which appeared in Samyukta)

By including this study here, what I seek to establish is that translation is not an activity conducted in isolation, and that it is given shape and structure by even texts behind and beyond the ST, and that the activity of translation sets us thinking on the subject of the text and helps us clarify our own position with regard to issues in question.

In the case stated here, it so happened that the issue was identity.


Janu, C. K. ‘When the Lost Soil beckoned: Life Sketch Narrated by C.K.Janu.’ Trans. Usha Menon. Samyukta—A Journal of Women’s Studies 2.2 (2002): 127- 143.

Paniker, Ayyappa. ‘Southbound.’ Trans. Chitra Panikkar. Indian Literature 39.4 July-Aug 1996: 127-156.

‘Children of the Hills.’ Trans. Chitra Panikkar. Indian Literature 46.5 Sept – Oct 2002: 15-20.

Pillai, Karoor Neelakanta. Selected Short Stories: Karoor Neelakanta Pillai. Trans. P. Radhika & Chitra Panikkar. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1998.

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