‘Powerful, poignant, many-layered – a word from the translator with Lakshmi Holstrom

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Lakshmi Holström, whose translation of Sri Lankan poet Cherans’s collection In a Time of Burning won an award in 2013

I could forget all thisIn a Time of Burning front cover

forget the flight
headlong through Galle Road
clutching to an instant’s spark of hope,
refusing to abandon this wretched
vulnerable life
even though the very earth shuddered
– and so too, my heart –

forget the sight
of a thigh-bone protruding
from an upturned, burnt-out car

a single eye fixed in its staring
somewhere between earth and sky

-Extract from ‘I could forget all this’, 1983 from In a Time of Burning by Cheran, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Interview by Grace Hetherington

The Visible Poets series, of which this book is a part, publishes poetry in its original language alongside the translation. What effect do you think this has on the reading experience?

One obvious effect of seeing the two languages side by side is to notice the difference in script. Many readers will not have seen the Tamil script before and the visual surprise is a little bit like the aural surprise when you hear a new language.

A reader who knows both languages will be interested to see not only the matching up of words, but also other choices I have made in working out the translation as a whole. For example, the topography of the poem in translation is not exactly the same as the original poem. There are two reasons for this. One is to do with the difference in syntax between English and Tamil. Often the original sentence order in Tamil will have to be reversed in English. This means, of course, that the lines of the poetry will not match up exactly, and there will be no point in trying to do that. But there also times when I have made a decision to change the topography anyway, for example when I broke up the very long second verse in the poem, ‘I could forget everything’. I wanted to separate off each terrible image so that it stands alone, yet flashes past as the narrator flees along Galle Road. So looking at the two texts side-by-side should give the reader some insight into what the translator has done and why.

I also have to mention that the dual language presentation is most meaningful to the growing Tamil diaspora which is now scattered internationally. Second and third generation Tamils who can often understand the language, but have very little experience of reading it, are often encouraged and helped to read the original, by seeing the two languages side-by-side.

In a Time of Burning deals with the pain of loss, civil war, exile, mourning and also love; the voices within these poems are markedly different. When translating Cheran’s poetry, how did you go about capturing this ‘voice’ in English?

You are right: each of Cheran’s poems is different, in a way, from the others. Yet I saw the poems selected for In a Time of Burning as constituting a continuous narrative. At one level it is the story of the Sri Lankan civil war, beginning with a young man’s vision of an idyllic, unspoilt seascape, and ending with the slaughter of thousands, in a narrow lagoon, at the end. But it is also a story of personal experience: of the horrors of war, of the death of friends and parting from lovers, of exile, of the redemptive moments with his young children, of calm reflection, and of mourning for a lost land. Seen this way, the poems are each individual, and speak to us with different voices perhaps, yet they slot into the narrative as a whole.

Cheran has refused to align himself with any of the political groups within the Tamil community. The voice of the poet is that of the chronicler, the observer. How did you achieve this same ‘observer’ standpoint in the English translation? 

In this, I have followed Cheran’s lead always. Sometimes the observer’s voice is one of ironic distance, as in the poems, ‘When they shot him dead’ and ‘21 May 1986’. At other times the voice is passionately engaged, as in the title poem, ‘In a time of burning’, which speaks out against the injustices suffered by the Tamil people at their own leaders’ hands. Then the elegies such as ‘What have we lost?’ and ‘Rajani’ are expressions of personal grief as well as collective mourning. In all these, there is a sense of the poet’s awareness of being part of extraordinary events, of a terrible history unfurling.

I think the voice of the poet as chronicler and witness is most apparent in the poems about the final days of the war, when thousands died in the most dreadful circumstances. Cheran was in Canada at the time, but vividly visualises the events as they happened; the last desperate moments as the thousands gather by the sea and know they are abandoned; the final surrender by their leaders. There is always the telling detail: tracks on the sand still left by army tanks, a heron with broken legs, a torn sari. The poet is often included within the frame of the poem observing and chronicling, but also mourning the dead and abandoned, and exposing the cover-up story. 

Describe In a Time of Burning in three words.

Powerful, poignant, many-layered.


Lakshmi Holmström is a writer and translator. She has translated short stories, novels and poetry by the major contemporary writers in Tamil. Her most recent books are Fish in a Dwindling Lake, a translation of short stories by Ambai (2011); A Second Sunrise, poems by Cheran, translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom & Sascha Ebeling (2011); The Rapids of a Great River: the Penguin book of Tamil poetry (2009), of which she is a co-editor; and The Hour Past Midnight (2009), a translation of a novel by Salma. Her translations of poetry by Tamil women, Wild Girls, Wicked Words, is forthcoming. In 2000 she received the Crossword Book Award for her translation of Karukku by Bama (2nd edn 2012); in 2007 she shared the Crossword-Hutch Award for her translation of Ambai’s short stories, In a Forest, a Deer; and she received the Iyal Award from the Tamil Literary Garden, Canada, in 2008. She is one of the founding trustees of SALIDAA (South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive).

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