Translator's notes


By Kutti Revathi

Kutti Revathi is in a long tradition of a certain kind of woman poet in India, writing in a number of languages, whose poems are at once intensely cerebral, intellectual, allusive and fearlessly erotic. In her case, she is deeply immersed in the linguistics, history and heritage of the Tamil language, not least through her study of its traditional medicine. Her vocabulary turns the poem into a far echo chamber – as perhaps ought to be natural for a thoroughly modern poet working in a language with a two-thousand-year-old unbroken literary tradition. Nevertheless, ironically, even a ‘native’ Tamil reader can find some of the poems difficult, not only for their sometimes obscure vocabulary, but because they can be suddenly discontinuous and full of powerful obliquities. She first became famous in Tamil public life when a poem from her second book, Mulaigal (Breasts) was attacked for its supposedly pornographic content by leading male film lyricists and poets. While the poem faced an extended public debate and excoriation in magazines and on TV talk shows, the writer herself faced violent threats and obscene phone calls. 

This only proves true the idea that, as Rilke says somewhere, ‘fame is nothing more than the sum of misunderstandings that gather around a [person’s] name’; in fact the poem was not explicit at all in the usual sense. Revathi has said she wanted to explore women’s breasts as ‘inhabited reality’ and not ‘exhibited commodity’; but again, it is also important for us to know that her word for ‘breasts’, mulaigal, reaches back to the vocabulary of the Sangam era, the earliest, most ancient strata of Tamil poetics.

The making of this translation involved three people – Padma, who
is a fully bilingual translator of Tamil prose; Revathi who lives and
dreams much more in Tamil but also speaks an English that is excellent and more than adequate to both everyday and academic conversation; and Vivek, who grew up speaking Tamil and can read the script, but whose reading of the written language is hobbled at best. Usually, Vivek begins by discussing the poem with Padma, who makes the first trot, and then closely, going line by line, with Revathi. Vivek sits down to copy out the poem and make one or several drafts of it in English, then takes it back to Revathi. The two of them then decide the final form of the poem in English.

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