Translating Tamil Dalit Poetry - [PDF]
World Literature Today
For the past two years, I have been involved in a project to translate Tamil Dalit literature into English. (Dalit is the collective term for the “untouchable” castes of India.) ... Initially, I had planned on getting a professional translator to do the work involved and actually spent a whole summer in India meeting prospective writers and translators who expressed an interest in my proposed book. All the men I met were professors of English in city colleges who had translated Tamil Dalit writing before. Except for one, none of them were of Dalit origin, but then, neither am I. In fact, one of the initial reasons I felt uneasy about even trying to translate Tamil Dalit poetry was my uncomfortable awareness that I was attempting to take on the task of interpreting and illuminating voices of a culture that had for centuries been silenced by those belonging to my caste groups and class....
... Dalit literature is an entirely new genre within Tamil literature, and Tamil scholars -- many of them non-Dalit -- find themselves scrambling trying to find a new poetics for this emergent literature...
... [N. T. Rajkumar, a Dalit poet, says:] "Our gods are jungle gods. Their stories and even their statues are now being tamed to make them fit mainstream Hinduism, especially now, with the Hindutva movement aggressively taking over our local temples. These men find the statues of our gods too wild, in some elemental fashion, as if their very mode of address goes against the patriarchal bent of the Hindu scriptures. So our goddess statues, with their Kali-like, dark-stone images have been covered in sandalwood past -- as if by turning the black stone into yellow, the narratives could also be changed..."
And here, from the same article, is a poem by N. T. Rajkumar:
For the family
to gain religious merit
in the next life,
they fed the poor full of rice.
Then, when the girl from Kollathi
began to wash the dishes
in the back lot,
she was forced into intercourse.
After feeding on her
the Brahmin promised to come
in his next life, too.
She killed herself and
as the goddess of Kollangottu,
screaming for human sacrifice.
Lusting after women and gold,
he married the dancer with lies of love
then stoned her to death
amid the thorns of the cactus fields.
You are my witnesses, she cried
to the cacti as she died.
The dark-blue goddess of the cactus fields
demands blood-filled rice,
transmogrifies into the midnight