Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Kurunthokai – 71

He tells his heart:

If it’s cure I seek, then she’s cure;
if it’s wealth  I seek, then she’s wealth –
this hill chieftain’s young daughter
with beautiful freckled bosom,
strong shoulders and slender waist.

மருந்து எனின் மருந்தே; வைப்பு எனின் வைப்பே-
அரும்பிய சுணங்கின் அம் பகட்டு இள முலை,
பெருந் தோள், நுணுகிய நுசுப்பின்,
கல் கெழு கானவர் நல்குறு மகளே.

She is the daughter of hill chieftain. She is young and freckle bosomed, has strong shoulders and slender waist and he has fallen in love with her. His heart tells him to go away from her to earn wealth. But he argues with his heart saying there is no need for him to go. If he goes away he will fall love sick and the cure for that is this girl. If it is wealth (future savings) he is going in search of, that too is this girl for him. So why should he go away?

The brevity of original poem is difficult to translate. Literal translation of ‘மருந்து எனின் மருந்தே’ is ‘if cure then cure’. The ‘I seek – then she is’ is implied. I had to make it explicit to make the translation easy to read.

வைப்பு – savings (wealth)
அரும்பிய – budding
சுணங்கு – freckle
பகட்டு – atbeautifu
நுணுகிய – narrow
நுசுப்பு – waist
கல் கெழு – rock filled (hills)
கானவர் – ruler of forest
குறு மகள் – young daughter

Thirukkural – 882

Fear not sword like overt foes,
fear friendship of kinsmen-like foes. 

வாள்போல் பகைவரை அஞ்சற்க வஞ்சுக
கேள்போல் பகைவர் தொடர்பு

One can protect oneself from visible sword like known enemies, so he need not fear them much. But one has to fear enemies who pretend to be kin yet harbor enmity in their hearts. He has to be more careful with them than open foes.

The original verse does not explicitly state ‘overt’. I have added it in translation for better readability.

வாள் – Sword
கேள் – Relatives

Naaladiyaar – 133

Wise men consider salt from saline lands
valuable than paddy from fertile lands;
scholars, even if they are born in low lands,
are placed above those from higher lands.

களர் நிலத்துப் பிறந்த உப்பினைச் சான்றோர்
விளை நிலத்து நெல்லின் விழுமிதாக் கொள்வர்;-
கடை நிலத்தோர் ஆயினும், கற்று அறிந்தோரைத்
தலை நிலத்து வைக்கப்படும்.

This Naaladiyaar poem talks about the value of education. Salt was a precious commodity in those days and wise men valued it much more than paddy sown in fertile lands. Similarly, an educated man, even if he is from lower strata of society, will be placed above those born in higher rungs of society.

Literal meaning: கடை நிலத்து – low lands, தலை நிலத்து – high lands. Thi. Su. Balasundaram Pillai in his commentary interprets it as those born in lower and higher caste respectively.

களர் – saline land
விழுமியம் – value

Thirukkural – 1103

Sleep in the soft arms of the girl one falls in love with –
is lotus-eyed lord’s heaven blissful than that?

தாம்வீழ்வார் மென்தோள் துயிலின் இனிதுகொல் 
தாமரைக் கண்ணான் உலகு

This Kural is under the chapter புணர்ச்சி மகிழ்தல் – to delight in copulation (Some English commentators title it as ‘Rejoicing in embrace’, out of prudishness). When his friend advises him to not give in to carnal pleasure, he says “The nap I take in the soft arms of the girl I have fallen for, is so blissful that even lotus-eyed lord’s (Thirumal) abode can’t be compared to it”.

தாம் வீழ்வார் – literally ‘whom one falls to’. I have translated it as ‘whom one falls in love with’.

Based on the preceding Kurals, this Kural can be taken as praising the bliss of post coital nap.

வீழ் – fall down (yield)
துயில் – sleep
தாமரைக் கண்ணான் –  Lotus-eyed lord (Thirumal)
உலகு – world (where the lotus -eyed lord lives)

Puranaanooru – 123

It’s easy for anyone to gift a chariot
if he drinks early and stays tipsy through the day;
gilded chariots gifted by sober Malayan
of lasting fame are innumerable
than fruitful rain drops over Mullur peaks.

நாட்கள் ளுண்டு நாண்மகிழ் மகிழின்
யார்க்கு மெளிதே தேரீ தல்லே
தொலையா நல்லிசை விளங்கு மலையன்
மகிழா தீத்த விழையணி நெடுந்தேர்
பயன்கெழு முள்ளூர் மீமிசைப்
பட்ட மாரி யுறையினும் பலவே.

This is a poem written by Kapilar, the premier Sangam era poet, in praise of Malayan (Malayaman Thirumudik Kaari) who ruled over Mullur hills. He was a famous patron to many poets. Kapilar says “Many patrons bestow chariots as gifts when they are drunk and intoxicated through out the day. Those are tainted by the intoxicated nature of the patron. But Malayaman gifts gilded chariots when he is sober. This makes those chariots more valuable, as they are given in good sense. These chariots are more in number than the rain drops that fall over Mullur hills of Malayaman”

Exaggeration is a poetic virtue. Kapilar too is not immune to that.

மகிழ் – Happy / tipsy
எளிது – easy
ஈதல் – to gift / bestow
தொலையா – un decaying / lasting
நல்லிசை – good name / fame
மகிழாது ஈத்த – given when not tipsy / sober
இழையணி – bedecked / gilded
பயன்கெழு – useful / fruitful
மீமிசை – over (peaks)
மாரி – rain
உறை – drops

Kurunthokai – 113

Her friend says:

Near our hamlet is a pond;
not too far from the pond is a rivulet;
other than white stork in search of prey
nothing else comes to the nearby grove;
we go there to collect clay for our tresses;*
naive girl will come there too.

ஊர்க்கும் அணித்தே, பொய்கை; பொய்கைக்குச்
சேய்த்தும் அன்றே, சிறு கான்யாறே:
இரை தேர் வெண் குருகு அல்லது யாவதும்
துன்னல் போகின்றால், பொழிலே; யாம் எம்
கூழைக்கு எருமண் கொணர்கம் சேறும்;
யாண்டும் வருகுவள் பெரும் பேதையே.

* using clay to wash hair was a prevalent practice till recent times.

He is loitering around their house to meet her. She has decided to change the meeting place. So she asks her friend to convey the message to him. Her friend says “There is a pond near our hamlet. Not far from the pond is a small rivulet that flows from the forest. Near that rivulet is a grove where no one comes except white stork in search of prey. We will come to the banks of that rivulet to collect clay to wash our hair. This naive girl will come there too.”

When she says that ‘we come to the rivulet to collect clay’, she implies others will stay only at the banks of the river, no one else will be in that grove. White stork hunting for fish can be expanded as a metaphor for him trying to meet her. ‘Naive girl’ can be expanded to ‘she is love struck and is naive enough to take such risk to meet you’.

அணித்து – அண்மையில் – near
பொய்கை – natural spring / pond
சிறு கான்யாறு – சிறு கான் ஆறு – small forest river (rivulet)
வெண் – வெண்மை – white
குருகு – stork / crane
துன்னல் – close
பொழில் – grove
கூழை – hair / tress
எருமண் – clay
கொணர்கம் – bring (collect)
சேறும் – செல்வோம் – go there
யாண்டு – there
பேதை – naive (girl)

 

Thirukkural – 114

Was one fair or unfair will be known
by the legacy one leaves behind.

தக்கார் தகவு இலர் என்பது அவர் அவர்
எச்சத்தால் காணப்படும்.

This Kural is under the chapter நடுவுநிலைமை – Impartiality / Neutrality. In this couplet Valluvar says whether one has been fair or unfair will be known by what he leaves behind. The word எச்சம் means ‘remainder / balance’.

Parimel Alagar and Devaneya Paavaanar interpret it as ‘progeny / children’ and read the Kural as “whether one was fair or unfair will be known by the qualities of his children”. Dr. Mu.Va. on the other hand interprets it as fame or infamy. In that case the Kural will be read as “whether one was fair or unfair will be known by his fame or infamy after his death”

I couldn’t decide either way and felt as if Valluvar was laughing at us across 2 milleniums with his ambiguous choice of words. I settled on legacy which can be read either way, as ambiguous as the original.

தக்கார் தகவில ரென்ப தவரவ
ரெச்சத்தாற் காணப் படும்.

தக்கார் – தகுதி மிக்கவர் – qualified / just person
தகவு – Quality
இலர் – இல்லாதவர் – without
எச்சம் – Balace / remainder / left over

Some questions I have been asked

1. Are you a Tamil scholar/expert/academic?

No, definitely not. I studied in English medium schools in various towns of Tamil Nadu. I learned Tamil only as a language, it wasn’t my medium of education. However, all my initial fiction reading was in Tamil. I read my first English book only when I was 13. My translations are part of my self learning of classical Tamil literature.

I am an Engineer by qualification. I have worked as an Engineer, Ship Chandler and now am a business owner. I have never been a teacher / academic. The beauty of Tamil is it is a living classical language, so it is easily accessible to any Tamil speaking person if he is willing to put in effort.

2. Why have a separate twitter account for translation? Why not post it in your personal account?

A separate account creates a focused brand. If I post in my personal account, it will be diluted with my personal tweets. In the polarized world we live in, my politics (I identify myself as a Liberal atheist) may not be appreciated by those who follow me only for translations. So I thought it is better to keep the accounts separate.

3.How do you choose which poem to translate?

Purely on random basis. Sometimes I select poems in line with current news events. I try to mix and match slice of life poems, aphorisms, epics and so on so that there is no monotony.

4.Why not translate in chronological order, finishing one anthology before moving on to the next?

I tried to translate Kamba Ramayanam in 2013, but couldn’t make much progress because the monotony got to me. I lack the perseverance to stick to one project. By this method of mix and match, I myself don’t know what I will be translating tomorrow. So it keeps the interest going, for me and the readers.

5.Where is your source material from?

The original poems I take from Tamilvu.org site. It is a treasure trove for Tamil literature and one of those instances where a government organization does real good.

The translations are done by me.  (Yes, I still get this query). For commentaries I rely on Tamil commentaries from Tamilvu site as well as blogs. There are many Tamil blogs that have detailed commentaries. For dictionary, again I use the Madras University Tamil lexicon in the Tamilvu site.

6.Do you think your translations are good? Why waste time?

Sangam Poetry has many translations off line and online. Thirukkural has been translated countless times. Other works have been translated in bits and pieces. So it is not like I am the first one to do this. I am my worst critic. I am aware of my drawbacks. I would like to have skills like Vikram Seth and translate metrical Tamil poetry into iambic pentameter verse. But I don’t have such skills.

I read somewhere that “you have to be willing to be bad at something before you become good at it”. That’s what I am doing. I am putting myself out there, warts and all, and trying to improve.

7. How do you find time? 

I don’t watch TV much. That frees up a lot of time. I do steal time from my family, but they have reconciled to that a long time ago. My other reading has suffered a lot since I started this project.

8. Why don’t you include Tamil commentary / audio clip for each poem?

I have a business to run too :-). This is a solo project. My skills are limited and there is only so much time I can spend. I did try recording my voice, but it came out horrible.

There are lot of Tamil commentaries available online –  தினம் ஒரு சங்கத் தமிழ் (KRS blog), 365 பா (Group blog), கற்க நிற்க (Palaniappan Vairam Sarathi), http://learnsangamtamil.com (Vaidehi Herbert), sangacholai (Dr. P Pandiaraja), http://vaiyan.blogspot.in (Sengai Pothuvan) are some I know. You can google and find more.

9. Why do you do reposts in twitter? Why not tweet only new translations?

To keep the readers engaged. This is one tip I got from twitter.com/sentantiq .

Also I am afraid that if I stop posting for one day, then I might drop the project altogether. So I impose a condition on myself that I have to post atleast one translation a day. Sometimes this leads to too much pressure on myself. No one is going to ask me why I didn’t post that day. Yet, I have to do it. In a way this project is a monkey on my back.

10. Are you bringing out a book anytime soon?

No. There is lot more to do before I can compile these into a book. Most of these translations are done last minute, sometimes while traveling in a bus or train. They are like a curate’s egg, good in parts. I need to build up a corpus of translations and clean them up before venturing to publish a book.

Maduraik Kanchi – 590-599

On the auspicious day of Onam,
birthday of golden garland wearing *Maayon,
who destroyed groups of Asuras,
in the hamlets of warriors
scarred with sword marks on their faces
and strong arms calloused by riding elephants,
passionate warriors wearing garland of flowers
and wound marks in their foreheads
obtained in fights with other clans,
engage elephants to fight each other;
blue cloth spread over a fence of caltrops
to protect the audience, falls down and pricks them;
people roam around buzzed with pure clarified toddy

*Maayon – Thirumal, Tamil equivalent of Vishnu

கணம் கொள் அவுணர்க் கடந்த பொலந் தார்
மாயோன் மேய ஓண நல் நாள்,
கோணம் தின்ற வடு ஆழ் முகத்த,
சாணம் தின்ற சமம் தாங்கு தடக் கை,    
மறம் கொள் சேரி மாறு பொரு செருவில்,          
மாறாது உற்ற வடுப் படு நெற்றி,    
சுரும்பு ஆர் கண்ணிப் பெரும் புகல் மறவர்  
கடுங் களிறு ஓட்டலின், காணுநர் இட்ட
நெடுங் கரைக் காழகம் நிலம் பரல் உறுப்ப,        
கடுங் கள் தேறல் மகிழ் சிறந்து திரிதர

Onam is today identified solely as the festival of Kerala. It was a festival celebrated in Tamil Nadu too, during th Sangam era and the first millennium. This is a description of Onam celebrated in Madurai during the reign of ‘Thalayalanganathu Cheru Vendra Nedunchezhiyan‘ (Nedunchezhiyan who won the Thalayalanganam battle).

The hamlets around Madurai are getting ready to celebrate the auspicious day of Onam, birthday of Maayon (Thirumal, equivalent of Vishnu). Maayon wears a golden garland and destroyed groups of strong Asuras. In the hamlet of warrior clans, warriors with wound marks on their foreheads and strong calloused arms, wearing flower garlands (that signify that they are ready to battle), engage their elephant to fight each other. The whole town is there to see the spectacle. To protect the audience from elephants, a long fence of spiked caltrops are set up and covered with blue cloth. Due to the rush the fence falls down and the spikes prick the audience. Everyone is pleasantly drunk of pure clarified toddy and happily roaming around.

Naaladiyaar – 332

Like people who go to bathe in the ocean saying
“I’ll bathe after the noise (of waves) subsides completely” –
is the shabby conduct of those who wait saying
“I’ll think of virtuous deeds after completing my domestic duties”

பெருங் கடல் ஆடிய சென்றார், ‘ஒருங்கு உடன்
ஓசை அவிந்தபின் ஆடுதும்’ என்றற்றால்-
‘இல் செய் குறைவினை நீக்கி, அறவினை
மற்று அறிவாம்’ என்று இருப்பார் மாண்பு.

One should not wait to complete all his domestic responsibilities before doing good deeds. Because domestic responsibilities never end. It is like those who go to bathe in the ocean and wait for the noise of waves to completely subside before entering the ocean. Only an ignoramus will wait for something that will never happen.

ஒருங்கு – complete
அவிந்த பின் – after it subsides
இல் – home
செய் – to do
குறைவினை – shortage
அறவினை – virtuous deed
மற்று – later
அறிவாம் – will think
இருப்பார் – wait
மாண்பு – glory (used here in opposite meaning – shabby)

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