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What it was like to translate a medieval English classic into an Indian language

April 20, 2013, 6:41 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 2618

By riazhussain

Storytelling has been a source of entertainment and education for man since time immemorial. The carved symbols on the walls of ancient sites seem to signify that storytelling was in practice in almost every ancient culture of the world. In the past, when there were no radio services and TV channels, there used to be storytelling contests. People organized these challenges on special occasions or when they travelled on long journeys in the form of caravans. Such contests not only educated and entertained the listeners but also helped in preserving cultures. An example of how cultural preservation can be done through stories is Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’.  

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343--1400) was a versatile genius who had travelled far and wide in Europe. He made his name not only as an author but also as a page, soldier, courtier, bureaucrat, diplomat, member of parliament and philosopher.  However, today we know him for his time-honored poetic work ‘The Canterbury Tales’. He wrote in English at a time when poets and writers in England would flinch from writing in their mother tongue  and the literary landscape was dominated by French and Latin.  His artistic endeavors were appreciated by Edward III. On the basis of his great literary works, today, Chaucer is eulogized as the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.

‘The Canterbury Tales’ is a collection of narrations told by pilgrims on a religious pilgrimage (from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral) during a story-telling competition. Chaucer himself is a naïve character in the book.

In the prologue to the tales, he describes pilgrims who participated in the contest: the Knight, the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner , the Miller, The Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Host, the Parson, the Squire, the Clerk, the Man of law, the Manciple, The Merchant, the Shipman, the Physician, the Franklin, the Reeve, the Plowman, the Guildsmen, the Cook, the Yeoman, the Second Nun and the Nun’s Priest. Chaucer’s art lies in painting this rich variety of characters in realistic, interesting and ironic ways. In fact, the work reflects the rich experiences of this versatile genius. His diverse jobs had exposed him to an assortment of real-life identities. He has painted these real-life identities in this book. Thus, it opens a window to the life and culture of English society during the medieval times. But, the greatness of his art does not stop here.

In addition to being a mirror to life, traditions, customs, practices and corruptions of the medieval times,  the book also delineates universal traits of human nature. This is why his characters appear to be found in the modern world as well. This universal element in his art of characterization is what compels writers of other languages to translate 'the Canterbury Tales' into their own native languages.  Ramesh  Iyengar is one such writers.

Ramesh has been teaching English in India and the UAE [United Arab Emirates].  He is very popular among his students.

Our well-respected teacher is now 44-year-old. These days, he is doing his Ph.D  in the field of ELT at Alagappa University in Tamil Nadu, one of the largest states in India, located in the southernmost part of the country. It ranks among the states which are known for urban development, economic growth and high employment rate. Its official language is Tamil. Ramesh is a simple fellow with a simple lifestyle.


He is a workaholic by nature. At campus, people know him as a busy person who is always carrying a heavy brown leather satchel. The worn-out bag is a sign of his simplicity and hard work as a prolific writer. His poetry translations have already appeared in many Tamil periodicals and scholarly journals. His three books (two collections of short stories and a novel Pradhama otran ‘Spy chief’) are under publication.

When I asked him about his dreams in life, he gave a very simple and candid answer,  ‘I have no dreams and no ambitions in my life. Ambition is everyman's folly. I am a visitor to this vast planet. Life is but a temporary stay in the worldly inn. I want to write some translation works and some fiction works as contribution to my mother tongue’.

He says that he loves Chaucer because Chaucer is a universal poet. He explains,  ‘His characters are found universally. You can see Chaucerian characters everywhere in all cultured societies’. Ramesh's Tamil translation of the Canterbury Tales was released on April 7, 2013.

The translation is entitled ‘Canterbury Kadhaigal’.  The Tamil word ‘kadhaigal’ means ' stories'.  This research work in translation has been published on non-commercial basis in collaboration with Tamil Nadu Tamil Language development department. The translation consists of 100 pages.  He says that it took him two years to translate this particular work. Translating a piece of foreign literature is really difficult because you have to convey through translation not only the meanings of words but also contexts, culture and various shades of pragmatics. Doing all this is not possible if the translator does not have thorough understanding of the target language and culture. Talking about the built-in difficulties that he came across while translating the great work, he said, ‘It was too challenging. The real difficulty lies in understanding the English culture and finding Tamil equivalents. First of all, I tried to understand the English text. Then I learnt the parallels for it in Tamil culture. Then, I used some archaic Tamil words and did it. I learnt the entire Bible in Tamil in order to familiarize myself with the archaic Tamil words. Literally I memorized the Bible’. Your feelings are different when you are toiling hard to complete your work but when the labour is over and the job is accomplished, your feelings may be different. Describing his emotions after the project was finally was over, he said, ‘It was like bringing to life a ghost buried in crypt and forgotten.... Giving life to a spirit.... However, each sentence I wrote in translation, I felt proud that I was bringing new treasure to my mother tongue, Tamil language’.

He claims that his book is, perhaps, the first Indian language translation of the tales. He is hopeful that his publication will enjoy good readership because of the prestige and importance Tamil enjoys as one of the classical languages of India. It is actually one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world. He is hopeful that the work will be enjoyed by Tamil readers living in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka,  Andaman, Nicobar Islands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, the USA, Canada, South Africa USA, and Netherlands'.

He concluded the interview by expressing his happiness at having brought the great medieval work to his own culture. More than six centuries have gone by since the work was originally published during Chaucer’s own life. This translation seems to be an evidence of his ageless art of characterization. Ramesh hopes that the translation will contribute to the rich literature that Tamil language already contains. With this publication, says Ramesh, ‘Chaucer, the father of English poetry, now speaks in an Indian tongue’.

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