We Remember Professor Lani Guinier
To Rectify Racial Injustice, We Must Connect Our Protests with Demands

How I Embarked on a Literary Translation of The Kural, the Classical Tamil Masterpiece

By Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma
Author photo: David Mielke

Drawing on the poetic tradition of W. S. Merwin, Wendell Berry, and William Carlos Williams, and nurtured by two decades of study under Tamil scholar Dr. K. V. Ramakoti, Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s new translation of The Kural brings English readers closer than ever to the brilliant inner and outer music of Tiruvalluvar’s work and ideas. This selection from his preface tells of his discovery of the text and the intricacies of translating from the original Tamil to a poetically intensity English.

***

Twenty-two years ago, when I first lived in Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu, I went to visit the home of a student at the college where I was teaching. Meenakshi Sundram lived on a narrow lane not far from the Meenakshi Temple in this venerable and beautiful South Indian city. His home was only a few rooms, but they filled with family, friends, and neighbors, all eager to greet the teacher from abroad who could somehow speak a little Tamil. Meenakshi’s parents fed me a sumptuous feast, and at the end of the lovely and leisurely evening, they surprised me with a gift: two books of Tamil poetry. One was a collection by a contemporary poet; the other, a special edition of Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural. Meenakshi’s father pointed to the cover of the second, dust-jacketed book. “Everything you need to know is in here,” he said. “There are chapters on every aspect of life. When you have learned Tamil fully, you must read this book well.”

I had no idea at the time how my interest in the language was going to blossom. It would be years before I could delve fully into any kind of Tamil literature, let alone an ancient classic. But I did know something of the importance of the Tirukkural, one of the most celebrated books in Tamil’s two millennia of literary history. I’d seen quotes from it posted overhead in the city buses and had heard my Tamil teacher, Dr. K.V. Ramakoti, refer to several of the book’s memorable verses. And so, in 2003 and 2004, when I returned to India on a Fulbright grant, I spent the second half of my stay studying the Tirukkural with Dr. Ramakoti as a guest in his home, tying the work to what I’d learned from him about the literature that precedes it and how different poets understand and express the relationship between people and place. Each day we read another chapter from the book, exploring not only the poetry itself but all the major commentaries that have grown up around it. As part of the process, I also memorized a selection of more than half of its verses, a far cry from the tradition of learning the entire volume by heart but enough at least to start getting some of its rhythms into my body.

The Tirukkural, or more simply, the Kural, is indeed an extraordinary work. Scholars often date it between the third and fifth centuries CE, at the end of what is known as the Sangam period, a time of literary flourishing in Tamil Nadu. The name of the book combines the honorific prefix tiru—“eminent,” “beautiful,” “holy”—with the name of the Tamil verse form that Tiruvalluvar employs, the kural venpā. More than one translator has referred to the kural form as a couplet, but doing so risks a misunderstanding. While a kural does consist of two lines of poetry, they are not matched metrically, as a couplet by Shakespeare or Pope might be. The first line of a kural contains four feet (cīr, in Tamil), while the second contains a mere two and a half. In addition, a kural is not end-rhymed but rather follows a sophisticated and nuanced pattern of assonance and consonance that has characterized Tamil poetry from its beginnings. Within the rhythm of each line, key vowel sounds are expected to correspond with each other (assonance), and key consonants, at the beginnings of words as well as within them, are expected to match exactly (consonance). It is an exceedingly compact and demanding form. (During my Fulbright year, I learned to write Tamil kurals myself, composing a handful of verses each morning before breakfast and showing them to Dr. Ramakoti for correction and emendation. They were not great poetry, but writing them deepened my understanding of Tamil prosody considerably.)

Tiruvalluvar uses this form to elucidate what it means to live a good life. Each chapter of the Kural consists of ten kurals on a single theme, such as friendship, hospitality, or rain. These verses are both complete in themselves and part of a larger whole in which all the different verses complement, augment, and amplify each other. The book’s 133 chapters, in turn, are arranged into sections that cover three of the four aims prescribed by Hindu tradition—virtue, wealth, and love. Most commentators claim, and I’m inclined to agree, that Tiruvalluvar leaves out the fourth aim—liberation from the cycle of birth and death—because if a person pursues the first three wholeheartedly, the fourth is a natural result.

The book thus covers a vast array of human knowledge, experience, and wisdom, offering an intricate interweaving of ethics and poetry, full of wordplay, sharp imagery, and rhythmic sophistication. Its scope is so sweeping that some scholars have argued that Tiruvalluvar isn’t actually a person but rather an emblem for a collective persona whose poems have been gathered into one volume. Either way, however, it is the work itself that matters. In the years since my first entry into its pages, Dr. Ramakoti would sometimes remark to me, “Wouldn’t it be good if someone did a proper literary translation of the Tirukkural, drawing on all the commentaries that we studied together?” I would always agree, but it never crossed my mind that this hypothetical someone might be me. Until unexpectedly, five years ago, it suddenly occurred to me to try.

When I told Dr. Ramakoti that I was starting to make a translation, he exclaimed, “Oh good, you finally got it.” It may have been obvious to him all along, but I don’t think I could have even entertained the thought until I felt my knowledge of Tamil was clear enough and my practice as a poet solid enough to do some kind of justice to the task. Which is perhaps why he never suggested it to me directly. He knew it had to occur to me in its own time.

~~~

One may well ask why a new translation is even needed. The Kural is by far the most translated book from Tamil literature, with over eighty translations into different world languages, some made directly and many more made by way of English, since English serves as a common language in both India and beyond. Many of these translations, however, are neither literary nor in print, and several are entirely unreadable. The best of them, that of P. S. Sundaram, captures Tiruvalluvar’s brevity and playfulness but does little to suggest his patterns of consonance and assonance. Here, for instance, is how Sundaram renders a verse from chapter 11, “Gratitude”:

103 Help given regardless of return

        Is wider than the sea*

And here is a transliteration of this verse, with several elements of its patterns in bold:

103 payan tūkkār seyta utavi nayan tūkkin

       nanmai katalir peritu

Very little of these patterns has made it into Sundaram’s translation. My experience, however, suggests that more is possible. Even if one can’t achieve exactly the same effect with the same means—the same exact sounds in the same exact order—one can try to achieve a similar effect with similar means. That, in any case, is what I’ve tried to do, while also trying to honor root meanings. In this verse, for instance, tūkkār means literally “those not weighing”:

103 The weight of good done without weighing results—grace

       Greater than oceans

Two other aspects of Tiruvalluvar’s poetry have eluded previous translations: the dissimilar lengths of the lines in a kural and the absence of punctuation. (Tamil didn’t have or need punctuation as we know it until the language encountered English.) Accordingly, I’ve tried to honor this dissymmetry in each verse and have also drawn on the example of the North American poet W. S. Merwin, who relinquished punctuation while writing his fifth book, The Moving Target. He felt, and I feel, that punctuation staples a poem to a page, pinning it within the rational protocol of written language and literal-minded prose. I want instead to evoke the oral and aural qualities of Tiruvalluvar’s intelligence, which cannot be fully captured by mere rationality. He speaks to all of our senses with all of his. So although at times I use a dash to make the meaning clearer, as well as initial capitals to suggest the formality of the verse, I have strenuously avoided any other kind of punctuation. This is meant to encourage readers to read the poems out loud and to allow their breath and their ears to participate in the discovery of the verses’ many patterns and meanings.

In some cases, the dashes are also meant to suggest a form of expression in Tamil that doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English. Many of Tiruvalluvar’s statements equate one thing to another, as we might do in English with a form of the verb “to be.” I might say, for instance, “My name is Thomas,” and we’d understand that the verb “is” equates “my name” and “Thomas.” In Tamil, however, one doesn’t need a verb to make such a statement. One can simply place the two elements beside each other and their connection will be clearly understood. What looks literally like “My name Thomas” means in fact “My name is Thomas.” But in English, if we write “My name Thomas,” we’re not really writing in English. Unless, that is, we say the statement out loud and add a pause of some significance between “name” and the name itself: “My name—Thomas.” Now we have something that brings the two forms of expression a bit closer. And notice that this not only returns us to language as it’s spoken but to the drama that such a pause out loud can convey.

I have thus used dashes to indicate places where a pause may help to bring the poem off the page. Here’s an example from chapter 2, “The Glory of Rain”:

15 That which ruins and raises up

     The ruined—rain

One could, of course, translate the dash here as “is,” but I feel that it’s closer to the spirit and energy of the original to convey that meaning with a more meaningful silence. Doing so also keeps the poem more open to possibility and to different interpretations, as all good poems tend to do. Throughout this translation, if a verse does not seem at first to make sense to you, speak it out loud and you may find it revealing its patterns of meaning to your ear. Poetry begins in the ear of the heart, which we can learn to hear through the ear of our body.

~~~

In order to interweave some of the contexts in which these verses find meaning, I have included some brief notes to explain key cultural and literary ideas. These notes, taken together, form a kind of commentary, one that corresponds to what is known in Tamil as “a commentary of notes.” I first encountered this kind of commentary reading another Tamil classic, Ilankō Atikal’s Cilappatikāram (The Tale of an Anklet), and appreciate the way it gives just enough background for readers to enter the writing more fully without taking over the process entirely. In that spirit, I’ve given notes to amplify the connotations of words and to offer further insight into the verses themselves, especially about what goes on behind the scenes of the translation. For instance, although one might wish to translate key words from the Tamil in the same way throughout the book, this isn’t always possible or even desirable, given how meanings can shift in different contexts. Hence, the notes clarify where different words in English may be translating the same word in Tamil, or where the same word in English may be rendering, at different times, different words in the original.

The notes also serve another purpose. Present-day readers of the Kural in Tamil almost never read the work without a commentary of some kind. In making this translation, I have referred to the oldest traditional commentaries available, written between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Where it has seemed helpful to do so, I have included certain observations from the last and most authoritative of these commentators, Parimēlalakar, as well as from the earliest and in some ways my favorite, Manakkutavar. In this way I mean to suggest how interpretive frameworks such as theirs are part of the experience of reading Tiruvalluvar in Tamil. If at times I offer a pair of conflicting interpretations, I don’t do so to say that these are the only ones possible but rather to suggest there may be still others.

Two last textual notes: Most of the time, in writing Tamil words in English, I have used the transliteration system of the Tamil Lexicon, published by the University of Madras. However, though such systems can be useful for scholars, the diacritical marks they include can also serve inadvertently to mystify a language and hide it behind a screen of scholarly expertise. So, in some cases, where it feels right to do so, I have transliterated words according to my ear instead, so that a reader can hear what I’m talking about without recourse to a system that requires some initiation to make sense of. I have also omitted the diacritics on Tamil (Tamil), Tirukkural (Tirukkural), and Tiruvalluvar (Tiruvalluvar), in honor of how these names have become naturalized in English.

Finally, I have followed the practice of most Tamil editions of the Kural and ordered the verses in each chapter according to Parimēlalakar’s commentary. (Other commentators, such as Manakkutavar, sometimes order the verses differently.) I have also included a number of Parimēlalakar’s insights about how various chapters form larger groupings, and how these groupings in turn help us in reading the poems. But I would encourage the reader to keep returning to the verses themselves and to remain open to one’s own discoveries. The Kural is not simply a book to read but a work to engage and converse with. That is how its verses come most alive, able to startle and illuminate.

 

About the Author 

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma is an author, poet, performer, and teacher. His books include The Safety of Edges and Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar. Pruiksma teaches writing for Cozy Grammar and has received grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4Culture, Artist Trust, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the US Fulbright Program, the American Literary Translators Association, and Oberlin Shansi.

Comments