Life in Translation in Translation: Language and The Enchanted Loom

Playwright Suvendrini Lena and translator Dushy Gnanapragasam share how the experience of the Tamil diaspora creates unique challenges to the writing and translating of a play featuring Tamil characters, with respect to Lena’s play – translated by Gnanapragasam into Tamil – The Enchanted Loom (Playwrights Canada Press). The contributors share their own relationship to the Tamil language and how the text could be one reflecting its “world of linguistic plurality.”


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“Love has nothing to do with survival Anban” -SeviThe Enchanted Loom is a contemporary play about a Tamil refugee family living in Toronto. The action unfolds in the spring of 2009, during the last days of the Sri Lankan civil war. The original text, written in English, bears the imprint of Tamil language and culture, strained, broken, and reformed through a journey of traumatic forced migration. This Tamil architecture is reflected differently in the English of the refugee parents and children. The publication of this play with Tamil translation returns the text to its roots even though bodies cannot return to their soil. This bilingual text now opens a new conversation about diasporic languages, decolonization, and healing for actors, readers, and the audience.The play was written and first performed in English in a Cahoots/Factory Theatre production directed by Marjorie Chan in 2016. The original cast included one actor of Tamil heritage (Asha Vijayasingham) and a cast of professional actors who brought their own histories of civil war and anti-colonial struggle – in Colombia, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Pakistan – to their interpretation of the text. We can now look forward to a Tamil language performance enabled by this translation.

The Author’s Notes

Tamil is my father tongue. My paternal grandfather was my first Tamil teacher. My mother tongue is Singhalese, the language of the occupier. My tongue is English. When I hear Tamil I hear emotion and must translate meaning. I could never have made a translation of this work. For me the translation restores a kind of loss.All true ensemble plays are made of unique voices. Each character’s lexicon is a singular representation of age, education, occupation, culture, temperament, and spirit. This polyphony is amplified in stories of colonization, dispossession, and migration where single characters simultaneously inhabit different languages, lexicons, and geographies. In a migrant family, each member bears witness to dislocation and change in a different way through the interplay of ancestral and adopted language and meanings. This play thus contains many different “Englishes” and has been translated into many Tamils.Thangan, a journalist and writer, speaks a fluent, poetic, and evocative English. His grammar and lexicon is influenced as much by colonial education, the vocabulary of the Victorian English canon (propagated in colonial schools) as by the forms and imagery of ancient and modern Tamil poetry he carries within his heart.
Thangan deploys his own improvisations on the Tamil poet Barathi’s verse to try to win back the love of his wife. He entreats her to complete familiar couplets, for example, “You are my light/I am your eye” as well as those he improvises playfully. But she resists. She uses the form to emphasize the bitterness that has replaced love in her heart. For her these poetic forms are broken, irrelevant, and traumatizing. Her speech throughout most of the play is the English of survival: transit, money, rent, debt, accounts, labour, and exhaustion. It is the English of a slow death. Only in the final scene does she surrender to poetic speech, finding her way back to “love” in the moment of Thangan’s death. She completes his couplets and invokes the ancient Tamil Sangam tradition, with the lines “red earth and pouring rain,” referring to opposite elements irrevocably intermingled. Love survives, immortalized in poetic speech.The children of course have a different relationship to Tamil. Kavitha, the youngest, the poet of the future, was born in exile. Her English is exuberant and her Tamil is a struggle with fragments, only partly understood, and as a result imbued with magic (as it is for me). Her father is her teacher. In the time that remains to him, he works to make her a bridge of grammar she may one day return to.Her older brother Kanan, born in Northern Sri Lanka, shares language, dislocation, and trauma directly with his parents. He also shares the language (and power) of his father’s medical team. Scientific language at once insulates and alienates him from the rest of the family. It buffers trauma. Kanan finds space here for his own magic in the poetic aspects of neuroanatomy. He invokes the neuronal circuit underpinning memory and identity as a mantra:“…cingulate to entorhinal cortex then hippocampus and subiculum, again. Memory takes hold.” Kanan, Prologue.In the world of the play, scientific language has another meaning and function for its physician speakers and patient listeners. It alienates the uninitiated. Its power lies therein.I specifically wanted the audience to feel disempowered, even angry, as Thangan does, when the doctors who hold his fate in their hands, speak about him, over him, and around him. On the other hand, physicians need the specificity of medical language to describe, diagnose, and treat his illness. Hence, the “English” text with its Tamil poetic forms, broken Tamil lessons, and medical discourse is already somewhat trilingual.

The Translator’s Notes

These various genres of language that make up The Enchanted Loom and the layers within them made this a very interesting and at the same time very challenging script to translate.How, for example, does one translate the improvised poetic language that Thangan and Sevi share from English back into Tamil? Native Tamil speakers use a highly formal and grammatically accurate language when speaking in public or when writing. However, those same speakers will use a casual, almost careless, language when conversing in private. Therefore, when Thangan interjects poetry, conceivably his own, into conversations with Sevi, the transition feels seamless in English. However, in Tamil translation it could feel abrupt and jarring for both the actor delivering the lines and the audience receiving it.What initially seemed like the simple task of converting back to Tamil a conversation that actually happened in Tamil but was written down in English, now brought with it a set of challenges. But Bharati came to the rescue.Subramania Bharati is an iconic Tamil poet who was born in the late 19th century and ushered his cherished Tamil language into the 20th. Many generations of Tamils, including the many young Tamil Canadians learning Tamil as a heritage language in weekend Tamil lessons across Canada today, are familiar with his poems. Such is the power of his ideas and his ability to weave simplicity into profoundness. The saving grace for the translation project was that the poem that Thangan keeps returning to throughout the play is loosely based on or inspired by Bharati’s famous series of poems titled “Kannamma En Kathali” (Kannamma, My Lover). There is also an instance in the play (Act II, Scene 5) where Thangan, in pleading, calls Sevi “Kannamma.” Therefore, it seemed only obvious to replace Thangan’s poetic lines with that of Bharati’s. And a native Tamil reader or audience would not find it odd to see a person of Thangan’s ilk quote or paraphrase Bharati in daily conversations. Such is Bharati’s influence on Tamil society.Even in that, there was a caveat. Throughout the play, the imagery of red earth and pouring rain is recurrent. The enriched red earth is the preferred type of soil in traditional Tamil homelands in Asia since it aids and abets cultivation. The pouring rain is part and parcel of the tropical monsoon climate that the traditional Tamil homelands are blessed with and just as important as the red earth for cultivation. But the bringing together of these two elements to create an imagery that invokes two lovers of very different backgrounds reaching a confluence in spite of their differences is not from Bharati. That goes back two millennia before him to Kurunthokai – one of the eight anthologies of Tamil Sangam literature available to us today. However, Sevi, in the last scene when she is reciting the poem to Thangan, that he throughout the play repeatedly asks her to recite, effortlessly weaves this imagery from Sangam into Bharati. Effortless in the English improvised couplets. Controversial in Tamil. No one messes with Bharati or his lines. But the insertion of this one line from Sangam into Bharati’s was essential for the play. And so it had to be done as seamlessly as possible. In doing so we were reminded of the words of Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby, one of the foremost Tamil intellectuals who traversed the 20th and 21st centuries. He famously said “Tamil’s greatness lies not in its antiquity, but in its continuity.” Being able to comfortably entwine the 2000-year-old lines of Sempula Peyal Neerar into the 100-year-old poem of Bharati is testament to that.
Another section of the text where Sivathamby’s words ring true is in the translation of the medical jargon spoken between the doctors and Kanan. The language they share is highly technical and is understood only by them. Wagdy (neurosurgeon) and Mendoza (neurologist) are experts at it. Kanan is learning it. But it’s alien not only to the audience but to the rest of the characters as well.Translating medical language into Tamil posed another interesting challenge. In a real situation, even a Tamil doctor speaking to a Tamil patient will most likely use the English words for medical terms. But in translating the play fully to Tamil, the doctors, who are non-Tamil, speak a very formal Tamil throughout the play. This device is used to set apart the language they speak from the casual Tamil the Tamil characters speak. In this way a Tamil audience feels the foreignness of the language spoken and understands that the doctors are not speaking Tamil even though the audience is hearing it in Tamil.Within this paradigm how does one translate the medical terms. Using English would break the paradigm. Hence the medical terms must also be spoken in Tamil. We did not know if Tamil holds words for all of the highly precise medical terms used throughout the play. We were both pleasantly surprised when we discovered there actually was. True most Tamil audiences would not know these words, but they would not understand the English terms either. Therefore, the Tamil medical terms will achieve the same level of alienness that the English medical terms do in a Tamil speaking audience. The key learning here is the dynamism of the Tamil language. A language with more than 2000 years of continuous written literary tradition is comfortable talking neuroscience of the 21st century and beyond!

The Ideal Enchanted Loom

In some respects the ideal Enchanted Loom is made of the many Englishes and many Tamils of the Toronto Tamil diaspora. This family only really lives in a world of linguistic plurality. Some have referred to this as a traumatic Tamil world. Certainly, it is a post-colonial one. Sevi and Thangan would speak to one another, and often to Kanan in Tamil. Kavitha and Kanan would speak to one another in English. Each character finds themselves inside and outside even within the family world. The physicians would speak their language of medicine, and be outsider’s in the family’s Tamil world. In truth, both English and Tamil texts are translations.In the interplay of all these pure languages, the reader or audience member finds an invitation to discover their own meanings. In the spaces between the things/words/ideas we “understand” and the ones we don’t, we imagine our own meanings.The authors would like to extend their thanks to the following:Cahoots Theatre & Majorie ChanThe Tadoussac Translation Residency, Bobby Theodore and Briony Glassco

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Suvendrini Lena is a playwright and neurologist. She works as the staff neurologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and at the Centre for Headache at Women’s College Hospital. She is a lecturer in psychiatry and neurology at the University of Toronto where she teaches medical students, residents, and fellows. She also teaches a course called Staging Medicine, a collaboration between the Theatre Centre and University of Toronto Postgraduate Medical Education. As a neurologist she is particularly interested in conditions that alter the fabric of consciousness—epilepsy, dementia, psychosis, and migraine.Dushy Gnanapragasam received his initiation into theatre at St. Henry’s College in Illavalai, Sri Lanka, and has been an integral part of the vibrant Tamil theatre scene in Toronto for over twenty years. He has directed several of his own translations for Manaveli Performing Arts Group, including Harold Pinter’s New World Order, Mario Fratti’s The Satraps, and Ivan Turgenev’s Broke. He has also directed plays for Asylum Theatre Group, including R. Cheran’s What if the Rain Fails and Not By Our Tears. Off stage, he writes and translates for Thaiveedu, a Tamil monthly with a heavy focus on the arts.