In the 21st century, the English that is spoken around the world is an entirely different language than the one the great bard William Shakespeare wrote in. It is next to impossible for an untrained person to understand and appreciate Elizabethan English without the guidance of someone who has studied the texts in detail. So when they are translated into another language, the wealth of Shakespeare’s writing is often lost.
Russian writers who translated Shakespeare in the 19th century attempted to use old Russian to keep in tune with the original. This is a tactic that did not necessarily please everyone. One of the fiercest critics of Shakespeare’s works in Russia was Leo Tolstoy. The English playwright is much loved in Kerala, both by people who have read his work in the original as well as those who have read Malayalam translations.
The first translation of Shakespeare’s work in Malayalam was available in 1893 and was the handiwork of Kandathil Varghese Mappillai, the visionary founder of 'Malayala Manorama'.
Shakespeare’s 'The Taming of the Shrew' was translated and adapted by Varghese Mappillai as 'Kalahinidamanakam'. For an audience that was not at all familiar with the works of Shakespeare, Varghese Mappillai deliberately translated blank verse into prose. Writing for the Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature publication, academic and writer Kainikkara Kumara Pillai in 1964 called it a “faithful and apt translation” of the original.
The story was well received and there was a demand for another edition in 1900. When Varghese Mappillai tasked himself with translating 'Othello', he decided to make sure it was verse for verse.
Close on the heels of the success of Varghese Mappillai's translation of 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'Hamlet' and 'King Lear' were published in Malayalam in 1897. 'Hamlet' was translated by Sanskrit scholar Kodungallur Kunjikkuttan Thampuran, best known for translating the Mahabharata into Malayalam. According to Pillai, Thampuran did not know English, so the play was interpreted into Malayalam by someone with a sufficient understanding of English.
Thampuran “rendered it into proper form in Malayalam prose for prose and slokas, i.e. quatrains in various Sanskrit metres, for blank
verse,” Pillai wrote. “Though his poetic diction is as mellifluous as ever in this, it could not be reckoned as a success as a translation, probably because of the ineptitude of the gentleman who assisted him to get at the meaning of the original.”
Perhaps Shakespeare would have been most proud of 'Vasantikaswapnam', C Krishna Warrier’s 1906 translation of 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream'. Warrier’s work was a translation of the play from the Sanskrit translation of scholar R Krishnamachariar. It was a musical play with Sanskrit slokas and modelled on the pattern of Tamil musical drama, which had then recently crossed the Palakkad Gap and made its way across Kerala.
Over the next few decades and into India’s emergence as an independent nation, a few more works of Shakespeare were translated into Malayalam. A Govinda Pillai, a judge of the Travancore High Court, translated 'King Lear' and 'The Merchant of Venice'.
In his article for the Sahitya Akademi’s publication, Pillai argued that the works of Shakespeare left only a small impression on Malayali writers. “Well, very many might have been impressed, I don’t deny, but only very few have reacted with any kind of answering expression,” Pillai wrote. “And when we look for influence, we seem to be pursuing an elusive will-o’-the-wisp.”
Striking a chord
Even if Shakespeare has not influenced many writers from Kerala as much as we would like, he has touched millions of Malayalis. When reading 'A Midsummer Night’s Dream', this writer’s mind wanders, not to ancient Greece or the English countryside, but a village near the town of Chittur in Palakkad district, to the summer of 1987. Those actors and fairies in the play seem so similar to both real and imaginary people we once knew.
It is indeed Shakespeare's greatness that his rich language and style has such a universal appeal, with people from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds feeling a sense of both internalisation and ownership for his timeless work.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana' and 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island')