How translated should a book be?

Pyre by Perumal Murugan, tr. Aniruddhan Vasudevan and The Birthday Party by Laurent Mauvignier, tr. Daniel Levin Becker

Pyre was the most accessible of the International Booker Prize longlist, availabilty-wise. My ebook hold came in almost right away. It’s quite short and sparse, and it’s a propulsive story with an inevitable conclusion that still manages to be shocking. But I’m left with questions, some specifically about the characters, and some about the accessibility of translated works in general. How much can a person reading in English understand the author’s intentions? How much hand-holding should a translator do?

In Pyre, Kumaresan, a young man from a tiny village in southern India, moves to a nearby city to work. He meets a girl, Saroja, and they elope, with plans to settle back in his home village. Saroja leaves her whole life behind, on a promise that she will be accepted by Kumaresan’s family and village, eventually. They eloped because they are from different castes, and neither family would have been in favour of the marriage, but they both seem to believe that when presented as a fait accompli, people will come around.

People do not come around. Not only are the couple not accepted, but they are instantly, continuously, relentlessly, and violently rejected, most vehemently by Kumaresan’s mother, but also by close family members, friends, and village officials, who consider cancelling a planned festival until Saroja can be cast out.

As a reader, am I to believe that Kumaresan, who grew up in this village and in this culture, had no idea this would happen? Is he very naive? Or was he blinded by love (or lust?) Or was he influenced by his time in the city, where rules around caste are more loosely observed? It was never clear to me, so I had a hard time understanding how annoyed I should be at this guy because Saroja, of course, bears the brunt of the villagers’ ire.

Apart from that (rather major) unknowable element of Pyre, much of the language was obscure to me. Names for food, clothing, and such were often presented in Tamil, and probably for good reason, but even my Kobo couldn’t help me out – no dictionary definitions, not even Wikipedia entries in many cases. Had I read a paper copy, I would have figured out sooner that there was a translator’s note and glossary in the back, but even those were pretty thin.

I’m not saying that translated books need to hold my hand. I can google as well as anyone, though after a few attempts at searching “Tamil castes”, “Nadu castes”, and so on, I was not much wiser as to how much Kumaresan should have know. This story, which is otherwise told in a very straightforward manner, remains impenetrable to me on some levels.

On the other hand, IBP longlister The Birthday Party feels a little over translated. I don’t think Three Lone Girls is a real place in France, but if it was, surely it would be Trois Filles Seules. Nor do I think that Stories of the Night, the book Marion reads to her daughter at bedtime, is real, but if it was, it would surely be called Histoires de la Nuit – and that’s the title of this book in French. “The Birthday Party” is a very literal title, since the setup is Marion’s fortieth birthday, and we first meet her husband Patrice, neighbour Christine, and daughter Ida as they prepare for her party. Histoires de la Nuit or Stories of the Night is much more suggestive.

Even the dog’s name is changed from Radjah to Rajah – Radjah seems to be a variant spelling that’s more popular in French. I promise I would have understood that the dog’s name is roughly Prince – though maybe I should just be glad it wasn’t rendered as “Prince”!

All this Anglicization annoys me. I wonder if that’s because I’m overconfident in my French reading abilities due to my Duo Lingo streak, or, if the characters just feel more familiar. I don’t think I’ve pissed off anyone enough to have my home invaded (mild spoiler, but don’t worry, I’m on page 300 and have NO idea where this is going to end up), but I am, like Marion, a working mom who met my husband on a first-generation dating website. I also understand the context of contemporary, Gilet jaunes-era France a bit better than I understand caste-related violence in 1980s India. But I wonder what cues and references I am missing?

I have a feeling I’ll be doing a little more research on both of these books – Pyre to illuminate the characters and plot points I may have missed or misinterpreted, and The Birthday Party just to see what other readers think of this complex and thrilling story. Here’s a review for Pyre that helped me understand a bit more about the author; I learned that he’s written a book from the point of view of a goat, which was given a rave review by Parul Seghal, for one thing! As for The Birthday Party, I tried to read the first chapter in French with an ebook sample, but it was not happening. Perhaps I could read a review in French though?



  1. Laura

    Really interesting post. It’s an issue we sometimes discuss in my book group, though not always with translated fiction – how much explaining should a book do to readers who don’t share the same cultural context? My instinct is ‘not much’, but I have been challenged by some counter-examples recently. The Pyre sounds especially tricky to navigate.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes I’m the same way, normally I would say I don’t want to be spoon fed. I think the combo of the historical (ish – 1980s) time period, the unfamiliar setting and culture, and language I’ve never read in translation was very challenging for me!

  2. Liz Dexter

    This is interesting – I think the same as you and Laura and get a bit annoyed when every little thing is translated or glossarised right in the text – but if these terms are not-googleable, has the translator transliterated them correctly, I wonder.

  3. Pingback: International Booker Prize 2023 mini reviews | Reading in Bed

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s