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Author interview

First Flood is the first instalment in the multi-volume translation of Ponniyin Selvan, by Nandini Krishnan

The Telegraph gets you the details

Farah Khatoon | Published 29.05.23, 08:45 AM
Nandini Krishnan

Nandini Krishnan

Sourced by the correspondent

Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: I captured the imagination of the entire country when it was released in 2022. It also introduced the rest of India to Kalki aka Ramaswamy Krishnamurthy who is a household name in Tamil Nadu, and is known for his distinctive style of writing which was lyrical, image-driven and historically rich. Ponniyin Selvan was first serialised in the Tamil weekly, also known as Kalki, before the master filmmaker turned it into a magnum opus and released two instalments. For English readers, First Flood is a new multi-volume translation of the historical fiction novel, translated by Nandini Krishnan, and it introduces the reader to Kalki and his grand universe. Chennai-based Nandini who translates into English from Spanish, French, Tamil and Urdu and who is the author of a number of books including Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks talks about the challenges of translating Kalki and why she will not translate any more Tamil books once she finishes all the volumes. Excerpts.

What was your reaction when you were offered to translate First Flood?


I think perhaps gratitude to Mani Ratnam. I had started translating it years before the offer came. It is thanks to the films that nationwide interest in the story has been generated, and that is why instead of putting up the chapters on my personal website or YouTube channel, I get to have it on the bookshelves with a major publisher. I was truly thrilled, because I don’t feel any of the existing translations do the book justice, and the reason for my undertaking this task was to put every ounce of my energy into recreating him in English.

First Flood is published by Westland Books. Price: Rs 399

First Flood is published by Westland Books. Price: Rs 399

Tell us about your familiarity with Kalki and his writing style.

Kalki is a household name in Tamil Nadu. His writing style surprised me. Given the scope and scale of his works, not just Ponniyin Selvan, but others such as Parthiban Kamavu and Sivakamiyin Sabadam, I expected the prose to be dense and tedious. My first Kalki novel was Parthiban Kanavu and I was taken by how simple and yet beautiful his language was, how he was able to play with words and rhythm.

How was the experience of translating First Flood?

A joy. Honestly, I don’t enjoy translating in most cases. The pressure is so much, and with a language like Tamil, which sounds so different from English, it can be awfully hard to find equivalents to idioms and puns. But in this case, I found the process exhilarating. In fact, I’m putting my publishers through hell because I’m so much keener to translate than edit that I have a tough time tearing myself away from Volumes 5-10, which I’m currently working on, to sit and finesse Volumes 2-4, which I’ve already done a first draft of.

Since the style is very distinctive, what were the challenges?

I am keen that the readers should feel the pulse of the original, and hear the lyricism of the language, perhaps learn a few words in Tamil, but without feeling that they are reading a translation. The other challenge is that Tamil is among those languages that tend to have melodramatic expressions that can sound terribly cloying in English.

You have been into translating books, how would you rate this project?

This is only my fourth translation, actually. I’m very, very selective about whom I translate because it is time away from my own writing. I see this as my personal magnum opus. I don’t think I will translate any more Tamil books once I’m done with Volume 10. I began with Kalki, even before I was commissioned my first translation (of Perumal Murugan). I’d like to end my career as a translator from Tamil with him too.

Tell us about your literary work. What are you writing next?

My first novel and my translation of Charu Nivedita’s Tamil novel Aurangzeb are being edited at the moment. There are two more non-fiction books, another novel, and yet another translation of Charu Nivedita’s work, as well as a translation of a collection of Sajjad Haider Yaldram’s Urdu short stories in the offing.

Poster of Ponniyan Selvan: I

Poster of Ponniyan Selvan: I

First Flood, the first book in the Ponniyin Selvan series in English, is unexpectedly less voluminous. What can the readers expect from the book?

Oh, it is less voluminous because it is half the book. I promise you that each chapter in English is about twice as long as its equivalent in Tamil, with all the notes and references and explanations as well as the chunks of Tamil I have chosen to retain. I have done my absolute best to rewrite Kalki in his own style in another language. I hope readers will be able to see his playfulness as well as his erudition in my rendering.

Last updated on 29.05.23, 08:45 AM

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