Malayalam novel, English translation to release together

Valson Thampu will readily admit that no one should meddle with creation, but he has already committed the crime. The Principal of St Stephen's College has not only meddled, but has even re-written the laws.

For the first time in Indian publishing history, Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Malayalam writer Sarah Joseph's latest novel to be published by Current Books will have its English counterpart, translated by Thampu, being brought out concurrently by Harper Collins.

The author-translator duo, whose work on Joseph's Othappu won the 2010 Vodafone Crossword Award for Translation for Thampu, has been working on the yet untitled novel alongside. "Sarah e-mails me every chapter as a PDF file after she has written it. I take a day or two to complete the translation, and then mail her back," said Thampu.

Thampu has completed work on the 44th chapter of the book, the penultimate. "It has become a magnificent obsession. I have always maintained that none should meddle with an act of creation, but that is what is happening here," said Thampu.

Sarah Joseph, talking over the phone from Thrissur, said she was working on the final chapter, and that the book would be completed in a week or so. "It has been a very different experience. Our work has been complementary to each other. Achan (priest in Malayalam), with his background in theology, has given a lot of valuable comments and suggestions, " she said.

The book is centred around the theme of eco-spirituality, and takes off from various environmental issues that have plagued Kerala. The author herself has been a vocal critic of environmental degradation. "These are not just the problems of Kerala, but those of crores of the marginalised worldwide. The book is about our changing relations with the soil, of the shift from agri-culture to agri-business," said Joseph.

Interestingly, work on the novel Joseph's fifth started when she and Thampu were in Thiruvananthapuram for the launch of the translation on Othappu. "Sarah was staying in the same building as me and my family. On the morning of December 31, 2009, she came to breakfast with a sheet of paper and said she had written down the first sentences of the idea of a novel that had come to her," recalled Thampu.

"She read out, and I proposed that I should translate the novel simultaneously. She accepted," said Thampu. The first installment was the first four chapters, and work has progressed steadily since.

The incidents in the novel take place in a place called Adi Desham (Adi, the first word in the Malayalam Bible, means the beginning), and talks of its degradation under the influence of a very rich man named Kumaran. Water is an important symbol in the novel: "Even the form of the novel has been influenced by the nature of water. I have just let it flow," said Joseph.

Both author and her translator chuckle when pointed out the contradiction in the pairing Othappu, the story of a nun who chose to leave her congregation, came in for sharp criticism from the church, and Thampu is a priest with the Church of North India. "It was a big deal. I had given him a copy of Othappu, and he got back to me saying he wanted to translate," recalled Joseph.

She is happy with how things have turned out. "I read the translated work as if I had written it: it was a wonder. A good translator is a book's good fortune," said Joseph.

Thampu on his part said the decision to translate Othappu was a conscious one. "I felt that the book will pave the way for an honest, open discussion of religion," he said. After this, Thampu plans to translate Aalaahayude Penmakkal, Joseph's second novel.

When it is published, the English translation of Sarah Joseph's new novel will be the first product of the recently inaugurated St Stephen's Centre for Translations. The SCT also plans to translate the novel into Hindi, Punjabi, German and Bengali.

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