Singing Creatures on a Land That Sings: A Conversation with Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

By

The longest thread in my email inbox is the one that Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma and I began nine years ago on the topic of translating from classical Tamil. Intermittent as it is, our nine-year-long thread ties our shared sense of awe and responsibility toward Tamil’s ancient, wisdom-soaked literary heritage. We met at the 2012 AWP conference in Chicago, where he was on a panel about teaching. Among his anecdotes about using magic tricks to make poetry enticing to young people, he mentioned as an aside his Fulbright project in India, in my hometown of Madurai in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu—an instant connection. His latest translation project—the gnomic and profound work known as Tirukkural—grew directly from his experiences there in 2003-2004, and now, over years of reflection and the entwining nature of poetry (a little like our email thread, I suppose), has culminated in The Kural, his boldly contemporary translation forthcoming from Beacon Press in January.

Tirukkural encodes the moral intelligence of the Tamil people in 1,330 couplets, written by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama); however, it does not include the typical fourth section on achieving spiritual release. By mastering this worldly wisdom, Tiruvalluvar seems to say, the spiritual realms will not pose any problem for you, which may account for these verses’ continued significance in a place of such religious diversity as southern India.

Pruiksma’s rendering of Tirukkural brings a touchstone of Tamil culture to life in English; a very long thread stretching from a fourth-century CE subcontinental civilization to contemporary North American readers.

This interview is merely a continuation of our now almost decade-long conversation.

***

The Rumpus: What possessed you to try to translate the whole Kural? This work lies at the heart of Tamil identity and culture, and, even more than that, Tirukkural is made of the Tamil language in a way that nothing else is.

Thomas Pruiksma: For a long time, this major project was one I didn’t anticipate doing. I’d studied and memorized a couple of verses of Tirukkural as long ago as 1998. And then in 2003-2004, when I had a Fulbright and was living as a guest in my teacher’s house, we read the entire Tirukkural and all the major commentaries. I memorized maybe six or seven hundred of the verses. My teacher selected the ones he felt would be good to know by heart, and then I chose a few beyond that that I just liked for various reasons—the musicality, the idea, or some personal association I had with the verse, so I had a fairly solid foundation.

In the years since, my teacher would say to me, “You know, somebody really ought to do a proper literary translation of Tirukkural. They should read the commentaries that we’ve read, and they could really do a proper job.” And I would say, “Yes, somebody should do that. It would be a great project for somebody as a PhD student, or somebody… right?” It’s so funny to me that I never thought maybe it should be me. Partly, that’s because my teacher was never shy about telling me what he thought I should or should not do. But, I think, because he was also a poet, he had a poet’s sensibility, a poet’s heart. He realized that you can’t tell somebody to do a project like this. You can’t assign it. So, the beginning of the process was for the idea to occur spontaneously to me. I love that the root of the English word “spontaneous” means “from within.”

In 2016, the idea just sort of occurred to me, and I decided I would do one verse a day. And because it was one-a-day, and because there are 1,330 verses, I couldn’t worry about getting to the end. I could only worry about, “Well, if I were to translate this verse, how would I do it?” From there, the process unfolded with me letting the poems tell me how to translate them.

The first challenge was how to translate a venpa verse, which is an extremely compact form of poetic utterance, venerable, with a long history of practitioners. I feel fortunate that my first major attempt to translate something from Tamil was the four-line venpa of Avvaiyar (Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar, Red Hen Press 2009). The lines of Tirukkural are basically the last two lines of a four-line venpa, which is three full lines and a half line, or a little bit more. I love the fact that it’s actually a little bit more. There’s a beauty in the asymmetry of that—two feet, plus a syllable, which leaves it open in a way.

Rumpus: I love the way that that incomplete line throws us into reflection on the verse, like a slingshot effect.

Pruiksma: One of the key things for me was the dissymmetry, so that if my general principle is that the first line is longer than the second line, that gives me a form. Then the form demands something of me. I think that’s what forms do when they serve us best. They force us to go beyond what we might have done. It forces us to grow, to reach, but in the way a tree reaches, not overreaching. So, it gave me a form, but also an openness. I didn’t have to be counting syllables per se but working more intuitively.

Of course, Tiruvalluvar has broken his lines in certain ways, and you can do things with word order in Tamil that you can’t do in English. How far could I bend my understanding of English without bending it too far, but without being so tied to my understanding of conventional word order that I couldn’t be playful in the way that Tiruvalluvar is playful. This is characteristic of the poets I most love and admire: Even if they’re talking about life and death issues—talking about evil and goodness—they can still have fun, even if they’re playing on, for instance, one of the words for “evil” in Tamil, which is the same as the word for “fire.” And just the impulse to play and associate allows poetry to take a form of wisdom and elevate it beyond mere rules and injunctions, into something that is also musical and associative.

Rumpus: How did this project compare with your 2009 translation of the classical Tamil poet Avvaiyar?

Pruiksma: They are both poets who are overtly interested in wisdom. People use the term “didactic poetry,” which I find not as satisfying a term, simply because it is often used as a pejorative. I think “wisdom literature” is better, because they are trying to impart some lived wisdom, but they’re trying to do so as poets, not merely as didacts. A poem can express a sense of ethical responsibility and ethical possibility without it merely being a rule to follow. So, there’s that similarity between the poets, but then Tiruvalluvar’s work is so compact. So my process, as I was discovering it, was to sit with each of the verses and think to myself, “How in the world can you convey something like this in English?” That daily process forced me to make choices.

Rumpus: How did you decide what to keep and what to let go in the process?

Pruiksma: As a poet and as a musician, a sense of measure is supremely important to me. Even though I’m not what some might call a formalist, I am interested in music. And it was extremely important to me to convey something of the music of the poetry. As far as I’m concerned, if you can’t translate at least some of the music you haven’t translated the poem. You’ve translated a commentary on the poem, an “idea” of a poem. But that’s not the poem. The poem is that plus the music and the silence and the rhythm—everything that makes a poem a poem and not merely a set of words.

Rumpus: Did Tiruvalluvar invent significant things in the language? Especially new concepts or new usages for words?

Pruiksma: That’s a great question. I know that there are words that we know best because of Tirukkural. Maybe he invented them, or maybe he brought them into prominence by placing them in the poem. If you read the Tamil lexicon, for instance, a large percentage of the examples for words are from Tirukkural. Just like if you read the Oxford English Dictionary, a large percentage of the citations are from Shakespeare.

Rumpus: I’m thinking of the way that Confucius changed the term “ren” to mean something very particular and central to his system of wisdom philosophy. Were there new philosophical concepts that came into Tamil because of this poetry?

Pruiksma: I don’t know if I know enough to say. Because the book is so open, it has many commentaries, which sometimes have very distinct philosophical or religious allegiances. So, you have commentaries that are more Jain or Vaishnavite or Shaivite. One of the remarkable things about the Kural is that it is open to those readings, even the very first chapter, which is ostensibly in praise of the gods. It doesn’t have to be read in praise of the gods. It can be read in praise of enlightened teachers or the spiritual leaders of Jainism. And, they can also be Shiva. And, they can also be the Christian God; there were missionaries who would read the book in a kind of proto-Christian way. And, this is even more unusual but because I have some experience of Sufism, one could even read it in a Sufi way.

I’m sure there are scholars who could answer your question in a much more satisfactory way, but one of the things that really struck me has to do with the word “ozhukkam,” which we could translate as “conduct.” I’ll tell you a story from when I was first learning Tamil with my teacher. When it rained, water would come down a little pipe from the rooftop veranda of their house. One time, he looked outside and pointed to the pipe, and I saw a little bit of water dribbling down the outside. He used that to illustrate “ozhuku,” to seep or to flow, and that’s the root word for “ozhukkam,” meaning discipline or conduct. It seemed so incongruous at the time. This dripping water, what does that have to do with conduct? But, whether or not my teacher intended it, that’s been a twenty-year meditation for me. That in the flowing of water—and particularly the flowing of water in land, bodies of water, rivers—there’s something that Tamil poets and even the language itself seems to understand. The way a river flows through the land to reach the sea suggests something about the naturalness of right conduct. It’s not an imposition but grows out of relatedness. Whether or not Tiruvalluvar put that into the language, he has highlighted it in a way I find to be enormously relevant.

Something that I was very keen on keeping as I was translating the book was that sense of the flowing of water. Even in English, “conduct” has a kind of resonance with right conduct in the form of water, like a “duct,” meaning a channel. And that was another principle at work in my process: A good translation can reveal something to us about the language into which it is being translated as much as the language from which it is being translated. It can renew our appreciation of our own language.

Rumpus: How do you envision the relationship of North American readers to this, your translation of Tirukkural, especially in light of the fact that it is necessarily so different from the relationship that Tamil readers have with this book?

Pruiksma: There are a few strands that could be a semblance of an answer. One is because I am also a poet, certain poetic qualities of English have been important to me for a long time, and they have been important in my approach to translating Tirukkural. Many of the poets whom I admire from twentieth and twenty-first century North America have been poets who have turned away from conventional end-rhymed poetry in favor of slant rhyme or internal rhyme or consonantal rhyme. I’m thinking of William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, and W.S. Merwin in particular, as well as Wendell Berry and Hayden Carruth. In fact, this lineage of poets is better suited to translating Tiruvalluvar than those in a tradition of end-rhymed poetry. The interesting paradox is that both of those things turn us to earlier sources of English. Anglo-Saxon rhymes in similar ways to how Tamil rhymes in formal, classical literature. So the paradox is that reaching to translate a work from a totally different world turns my mind and ear back to the roots of English.

Also, because it is such a venerated, even sacred work, there’s a deep sense of wanting to be as faithful as possible to the original. I needed to trust what I learned in countless hours of discussion with my teacher, what I’ve read and reread in the commentaries. My faith has really had to be in poetry, the capacity of poetry to render a living insight, which is as relevant now as it was 2,000 years ago.

Of course, not everything will speak to a North American reader, which is why I love Archana Venkatesan’s introduction to the translation. She goes right at it. How does this text privilege a male point of view? And yet, it has women’s voices in it in a very interesting way. How does that inform our reading of it now? My idea is that a reader who doesn’t know anything about Tiruvalluvar or Tamil Nadu or any of that, might nonetheless feel spoken to. And spoken to in the way that every great poet or writer can speak to us about what’s really going on, especially as it addresses questions like: What does it mean to be a good person? What does it mean to be a loving person? What is love about anyway? What is power about anyway? I wanted it to be enticing to the reader in English who is open to the kind of exploration that Tiruvalluvar offers. And as much a source of pride, esteem, and gratitude for a reader who knows the original in Tamil and feels that the work has been served well.

Rumpus: Did you make the decision to publish this translation without facing-page original verses or transliterations?

Pruiksma: I originally wanted it to be one chapter and then the commentary across from it, which mirrors the popular “gift edition” Tirukkural, which was the first copy I was given, until I realized that my commentary would be too long to do that. A big part of the tradition of reading Tirukkural is the simultaneous reading of a commentary. In the original Tamil, almost nobody reads just the bare poem. Because I wrote a kind of commentary, that offers me a chance to simultaneously honor that tradition and to give to an interested reader some of the things I couldn’t get in the translations themselves. Some verses I love the sounds of but couldn’t make happen that way in English. The paradox is that the better it is in the original language, the more rooted it is in all the potentials of that language. It’s the same problem with Shakespeare. Every single word he uses, for the most part, he uses every meaning of that word. That’s the astonishing thing about it.

We’ve shot a series of sixty-one videos that we’ll be releasing, in which I recite one of the verses in English and recite it in Tamil with a very short reflection on it as another way of sharing the sound of the Tamil and the English. It’ll be on my website and hopefully plant little seeds among the other things that get put out on social media.

Rumpus: I’m so excited to see these. A multimedia Tirukkural for the twenty-first century. My first copy of the book, gifted to me when I was thirteen by one of my uncles, was the classic G.U. Pope translation, which is so very Victorian. What are your impressions of the famous translations?

Pruiksma: Archana Venkatesan talks about the different translations in her introduction, including Pope’s. As I began, I was astonished to discover that in the United States right now there wasn’t even an edition in print from a major publisher. Penguin Classics had a 1989 edition, but they dropped it. There’s a monastery in Hawaii that translated the first two sections of the Kural, but the guru didn’t want his monks translating the “sensual” love verses.

But G.U. Pope is venerated. In fact, one of Gandhi’s grandsons, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, revised that translation and published it in a more contemporary idiom. I haven’t met him, but I’d like to one day, so we can commiserate about how hard it is to translate this thing. As for my own translation, I would love for it to be the sort of book that somebody would be proud to give their kids.

Rumpus: Well, are you sending a copy to Vice President Kamala Devi Harris?

Pruiksma: For sure! Actually there are a number of interesting figures on our list, Vice President Harris being chief among them.

Rumpus: I imagine that more people will be interested in this because of her and of its inescapable influence.

Pruiksma: And because it is so profound and so perceptive about politics. What does it mean to be a leader? What does it mean to have advisors? I wrote an essay during the Trump years, which I didn’t end up publishing, on how the Kural is a commentary on the present moment. There was a time when Trump was jettisoning all his advisors, and there’s a Kural chapter on what happens to a leader who jettisons all their advisors.

Because this is a book that is concerned with wisdom and right conduct, the translators who have been drawn to it, naturally enough, have put the accent on its ideas. The poetic qualities then become secondary. If I had to summarize my deepest intention, it is that both the poetic qualities and the wisdom can be equally important, if not the music being more important because it is a way that wisdom can express itself.

Rumpus: That was so profound. I agree wholeheartedly, from my own attempts to translate Kural verses. The wisdom comes through the music. And we are singing creatures.

Pruiksma: Oh my gosh, yes. And there’s a huge civilizational issue here. We are inheritors in English of a tradition that has divided poetry from philosophy and intellect from the time of Plato, and we suffer from that division to this day. I think there’s something profoundly instructive and healing in being reminded that such a division is not the only way of organizing intellectual, spiritual, and ethical life. One might discuss ethics in a poem, and that doesn’t ruin the poem. That division has everything to do with our ecological crisis and our crisis of relatedness in all its forms. That’s all a matter of proportion. And poetry is all about proportion. In the grander scheme of things, that’s where I’d want to place a work like this: as a reminder of the possibility of wholeness and completeness, a reminder of relatedness, which involves us as singing creatures among singing creatures, on a land that sings.

***

Photograph of Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma by David Mielke.


A. Anupama is a writer, artist, and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her poems, translations, reviews, and essays have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Tupelo Quarterly, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Anupama teaches writing intensives at a small, public, liberal-arts college near her home in the lower Hudson Valley of New York, where she loves to spend her free time painting watercolor meditations and perfecting her biryani recipe for family and neighbors. More about her at aanupama.com. More from this author →