Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Choosing the best of translations

Tirukkural in English: Choosing the best among translations
ஆங்கிலத்தில் திருக்குறள்: சிறந்த மொழிபெயர்ப்புகளின் தேர்வு

"A translation is generally identified with the period when it was done
and a new generation needs a translation in the language it uses”
Kural translator Kasthuri Sreenivasan (1969)

By 2006, more than 80 different English translations of Kural, either in part or full, had appeared. New translations continue to appear every year, not only in English but in other languages as well. This number is apart from some of the select translations that appear in research publications and monographs (e.g. Thiruvalluvar, 1979, by S. Maharajan, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi). Some of the translators have improved their own translations in their subsequent editions. Ramanathan (1987) who conducted a review of English translations mentions how E.J. Robinson in an attempt to improve his translation, modified some of them in the subsequent publication that appeared in "Tales and Poems of South India". He also mentions instances of the later translators improving the translation of the predecessor (e.g. J. Lazarus doing so with the translation of W.H. Drew; C. Rajagopalachari translating a couplet 671 in two different styles in a single book). All these only go on to show that there is always a scope for improvement in any undertaking involving the translation of a classic.

While going through different translations of the Kural available to me, I realized that no single translation had all the best translations in it. Some translators produced the best possible translation of some couplets, though the overall proportion of good translations varied from one to another. To get the best possible rendering of all the 1330 couplets in Thirukkural, I compared 16 different translations and 8 other works which contained scattered translations of different authors (Table 1).

Different translations compared to bring out the 'best'

(A) .......
Translations of Tirukkural
F.W. Ellis
Tirukkural on Virtue with commentary. II Edition in 1955 by University of Madras
G.U. Pope
The sacred Kural of Tiruvalluvar Nayanar. W.H. Allen & Co., London.
V.V.S. Aiyar
Kural: Maxims of Tiruvalluvar. Amudha Nilayam.
M.S. Poornalingam Pillai
Thirukkural. Reprinted in 1999 by The International Institute of Tamil Studies. Chennai. 312 pages
W.H. Drew and  J. Lazarus
Thirukkural. Teachers Publishing House, Madras. (Reprinted by Asian Education Services, New Delhi in 1988).
C. Rajagopalachari
Kural: The Great Book of Tiru-Valluvar. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
Shuddhananda Bharatiar
Kaviyogi Maharishi. . Tirukkural with English couplets. SISSWP Society, Madras
G. Vanmikanathan
The Tirukkural. The Tirukural Prachar Sangh, Tiruchirappalli.
Kasthuri Sreenivasan
Tirukkural: An Ancient Tamil Classic. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.
K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar
Tiruvalluvar : Tirukkural. Lights of the righteous life. The M.P. Birla Foundation.
P.S. Sundaram
Tiruvalluvar, the Kural. Penguin
K. Krishnaswamy &
Vijaya Ramkumar

On the Internet. Hosted by Vidyavriksha. Kural with Tamil text
J. Narayanaswamy
Thiruk Kural. Published by the author from Coimbatore. 376 pages
S.M. Diaz
Tirukkural. General Editor: N. Mahalingam. Ramanandha Adigalar Foundation, Coimbatore. India.
Satguru  Subramaniyaswami
Weaver's Wisdom. Himalayan Academy Publications.
K. Kannan
Tirukkural expressed in English. Pappa Publications, Madurai. 133 pages

(B) .......
From books and articles
S. Maharajan
Tiruvalluvar. Makers of Indian Literature. Sahitya Academi. Madras, 93 pages
K.N. Subramanyam
Tiruvalluvar and His Tirukkural. Bharatiya Jnanpith Publication. 225 pages
T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar

S. Thandapani Desikar

திருக்குறள் உரைக்களைஞ்சியம்: அறத்துப்பால்-இல்லரவியல். P. 118
Norman Cutler
Tirukkural. In: A Gift of Tamil: Translations from Tamil Literature. Ed-Norman Cutler and Paula Richman. American Institute of Indian Studies.
V.C. Kulandai Swamy
The Immortal Kural. Sahitya Academi. 109 pages
S.D. Rajendran
The Scintillating principles of management as found in Tirukkural translations and explanations. In: On Translation. Editor: M. Valarmathi. IITS, Chennai. Pp 65-70
V. Ramasamy
On translating Tirukkural. International Institute of Tamil Studies. Chennai. 160 pages.


Most of the translations of the Kural I have come across could be basically brought under three categories: (i) Renderings in prose (e.g. VV, CR) , (ii) Renderings in English verse (e.g. GU, SB), and (iii) Renderings in free verse (e.g. SI, PS). Within these three broad categories could be various subcategories based on the length of the translations. The great Tamil scholar Kamil Zvelebil (1974) provides a solution for translating the Kural. He says translations should be as brief and terse as possible, preferably not in rhymed couplets. He goes on to give five examples as well. Apart from brevity and terseness, there is one more characteristic of the Kural which, as translator Sundaram (1989) rightly points out, is the repetition of rhymed words, pun and alliteration. Any translator, who manages to produces all these characteristics, without sacrificing the meaning and content of the couplet, would have managed to do justice to the original. However this is a near impossible task for most couplets as we would see later in this article.

Considering all the requisite features of an ideal Tirukkural translation mentioned above, the first preference while scanning through various translations was to look for an apt and crisp one which does not require any significant alteration to the original words or flow of the translator. S.M. Diaz (2000) did a similar exercise by his objective was not the same. While majority of the couplets were translated by him, he reproduced or adapted the translations of Rajaji, Kasthuri Srinivasan, V.V.S. Iyer, K.M. Balasubramaniam and others for the rest. Sometimes he reproduced translations of others besides retaining his own, in spite of theirs’ being far better and crisp (e.g. couplet 1026). His objective was therefore not to find the best of all translations available during his time, but only present a different perspective to the readers through others’ translations. The end result of presenting such unedited translations source from different authors was clearly evident: some translations were in verse, some in prose and in varying approaches. In this exercise, however, every chosen translation was edited to maintain an uniform style. We cannot do a similar exercise of choosing the best translation of every verse in other texts like Gita, Upanishad or Hitopadesa. These texts contain running texts or narrations therefore the verses are invariably linked to each other. The Kural is almost entirely composed of discrete couplets that can stand alone on their own maxims or aphorisms.

Often, only a small 'correction', either in the form of an additional world or a suitable substitution was enough to retain the credit to the translation. An "astrix" (*) at the end of a couplet indicates slightly modification or 'improvement' done to the original translation. Words or phrases were moved here and there, or inserted or replaced as said above, for clarity, brevity and originality. Sometimes two translations were mixed to produce a befitting one. Wherever possible, preference has been given to translations that bring out this repetitiousness that is the characteristic of Tirukkural. Translations that captured this quality of repetitious word play and brevity were given preference. Brief and crisp translations were preferred over long descriptive translations. Long ones, though by and large rejected outright, were sometimes shortened by getting rid of unnecessary words. The objective was to keep the translations brief to do justice to the very nature of the Kural which is brevity.

Many couplets in the Kural can be identified to have two parts, one part the message and the other the simile (eg. 151, 718, 1087). Sometimes one part says what should or should not be done, while the other suggests what will happen otherwise (eg. 50, 658, 945). Sometimes, the first part is a question and the second part is an answer to it (eg. 291, 380, 1041). Sometimes they emphasize two different standpoints or situations (eg. 26, 53, 714). Some translators translate the first part perfectly, while others the second part. In such cases, they were mixed and both authors were credited for their contribution in the end of the couplet with their initials. Here also, an "astrix" (*) in such couplets of twin authorship indicates that couplet has also been edited by me for reasons cited above. Editing was often necessary to make the translation conform to the mode or flow translations chosen by me. Where only one part of the couplet was found satisfactorily translated, I took the initiative of translating the other part. And when no one translation was found satisfactorily close to the original in spirit, content, message and style, I translated them myself. While doing so, I must admit that I was immensely benefited by all translations I had with me. All the couplets translated by me, either in full or part, have been marked with initials ‘NV’.

Not being a scholar in Tamil, I had to depend on concordances to know the meaning of many words. I referred to four concordances, though heavily on the one by Subramanian and Rajalakshmi (1984). However, concordances only provide us the meaning(s) of a particular and because a word can take different meanings according to the context, it becomes important to used one’s insight to reveal what the author would have intended by interpreting the couplet in its appropriate setting. As Valluvar himself said:

A man may have studied many subtle works,
But what survives is his innate wisdom
.  (Kural 373) (PS)

Some salient findings of this comparison

Soon I realized that P.S. Sundaram’s translation conformed to the criteria I had set in beginning. Ramasamy (2001) who wrote ‘on translating Tirukkural’ also considered that Sundaram’s renderings reflected the spirit and characteristic of the Kural. My job then was to use Sundaram’s translation as the basis and compare every couplet with translations of others’.

I found some of the translators declaring how they were personally benefitted from some of the earlier translations that appeared earlier. I could see shades of G.U. Pope’s (GU) translation in that of Kasthuri Sreenivasan, Suddhanata Bharathi's (SB) influence in J. Narayanaswamy’s (JN) renderings, Rajaji's influence in P.S. Sundaram’s (PS) translation and in turn the influence of his translation in the translation of Satguru Subramaniswamy. Sundaram himself says he was benefited enormously from Rajaji's translation (Sundaram, 1989).

Kural translations by Srinivasa Iyengar (SI) and PS appeared during the 80s and both of them have seem to have focused on brevity. They may look similar to a casual reader but Sundaram's is a far superior one. SI's translations are invariably a gist of the original and as a result are not close to the original. SI's translation was perhaps the least literal of all the translations compared for the present exercise. Of course there is also a very abridged version of the Kural which is nothing but one-liners. An unknown author has abbreviated the entire Kural and Nalatiyar into a single line verses and the entire translation is available here. No doubt this abbreviation is a brilliant attempt to truncate the already crisp Thirukkural, but it did not serve my purpose of producing a translation close to the original in spirit, content and style. This ‘translation’ was therefore not taken into consideration for my analysis. SI freely drops words found in the original, sometimes adds extra words on his own, often resulting in distortions and mistranslations. The table below shows some examples of these undoing.

Table 2: Examples of Srinivasa Iyengar’s translations that did not reflect the meaning of the original
Examples for
SI's translations
Finally chosen combinations
Like a shadow, retribution pursues
   the sinner to punish him.
The consequences of evil deeds leave not
Like the persistent shadow under the feet. 
Given up gains, though useful, if ill acquired;
   ends don't justify the means.
Though profitable, turn away
From unjust gains without delay.
You win by singles and lose by thousands;
   this, no highway to success!
Can gamblers, who gain one and lose a hundred,
Gain anything good in life? *
The poor are praised, the rich condemned:
  but when the poor beg, giving is good.
To receive is bad, even for good cause;
And to give is good even if there is no heaven.
(NV, PS)

As I mentioned ealier P.S. Sundaram's (PS) translation is by far the best one I have come across so far, and it gives us the impression that this is how Valluvar himself would have written his couplets had he knew English. As VR said, Sundaram has given attention to word repetitions, rhymes, brevity and clarity unlike many others who, in their attempt to render the couplets in rhymed verses, have often spoiled the poetic qualities of the original (Ramasamy, 2001). However, like SI, he also at times indulges in over shortening of one part of the couplet and thereby deviating away from my criterion of being close to the original in content. Given below are some of the instances where PS has over-condensed the translation (highlighted in green), requiring either some modification or replacement of the other part with translations borrowed from others.

PS's translations
Correct translation
The daily feeding of a guest
Will never end in want (83)
Poverty does not befall the life of one
Who always takes care of his guests.
* (KV)
Good friends are like good books-
A perpetual delight. (783)
Being with good friends is like reading good books.
More time you spend, more the delight.
Avoid diffidence
And deserters in need. (798)
Dwell not in thoughts that dim your spirit
And befriend not those who desert in affliction. * (SS)
What fame will givers achieve
But for beggars? (1059)
What fame can givers achieve if there is none
To beg and receive?
(PS, NV)
Love's joy is as the sea,
Its pangs vaster. (1166)
The pleasure of love is as vast as the sea.
Vaster still is the sorrow of its hurt.
No sooner is my lord gone
Than pallor comes. (1185)
There goes my lover and here comes the pallor
To creep over my body.
* (KV)
The great achieve deeds
Rare in achievement (975)
If the great achieve anything, it will be deeds
Rare in achievement.
* (PS)
Fraught with ill are the sweet words 
Of jeweled women who sell their love. (911)
Fraught with disgrace are the sweet words of jeweled women
Who desire wealth, not love. * (PS)

Taking couplet 911 from the above table as an example (அன்பின் விழையார் பொருள் விழையும் ஆய் தொடியார் இன் சொல் இழுக்குத் தரும்), PS translates this as: "Fraught with ill are the sweet words of jewelled women who sell their love". The translation looks fine but for the fact that two phrases "அன்பின் விழையார்" "பொருள் விழையும்" have been reduced in translation to mean "sell their love". Since no other translator has brought out the meaning of the couplet so succinctly like Sundaram, all one has to do is change the last few words to make it look "close to the original". "Fraught with disgrace are the sweet words of jeweled women who desire wealth, not love" * (PS). Though few changes have been made to this translation, the translator is still credited with his initials since the crux of the verse came from the translator himself.

At the end of my comparative study of P.S. Sundaram’s translation with the other translators, 33% (445 of 1330) of his renderings got retained as such, with some of them requiring only a minor tweaking here and there. Apart from this, nearly 14% (n=182) of his translations required the supplementation of other translator. The rest came from other from 23 odd translators that include me. Almost 15% of 1330 couplets required my complete translation and almost 10% of the translations of different translators had to be supplemented by me. Basically, the entire exercise was like challenging every translation of Sundaram with that of other 15-20 translators. Translation attributed to a single author accounted for nearly 73% of the 1330 couplets which came from 17 different translators (Fig 1).
 Fig 1. Number of couplets of different translators taken into consideration as such

Valluvar's nature is to tell anything with telling effect with a sense of pun. He takes immense pleasure in having a dig at hypocrites and falsehood mongers. He has this nagging way of putting across things that otherwise go unnoticed if told plain. Where the moral is simple, he lifts them with his poetic skill and where both wisdom and poetic merit are in equal measure, the couplet becomes extraordinary. It is difficult to produce that effect in a translation.

Very often, translations do not reflect all the words in the original. The consequence of such incomplete rendering in obvious; the word won’t get displayed when someone searches for a word in an English translation. For instance, most of Sundaram's translations are not only crisp but also reflect what is there in the original. However many are not literal and as a result does not bring out the words employed by Valluvar in composing these couplets. These translations had to be supplemented with a word or two (see table below for a few examples). 

Original translation
Missing words
Corrected translation
The great will achieve deeds
Rare in achievement.
(if achieve)
If the great achieve anything,
It will be deeds rare in achievement. * (PS)
A miser makes of his vast wealth
No more use than a corpse.
(not used)
A miser makes of his pile of vast wealth, 
No more use than a corpse. * (PS)
Asleep he is round my shoulders.
Awake in my heart again.
Asleep he is round my shoulders.
Awake he hurries back to my heart. * (PS)
Fain would I hide my love,
But it breaks out like a sneeze.
Fain would I hide my love,
But it breaks out unawares like a sneeze. * (PS) 

This is true with other translators as well. Here is an example of the need to modify G.U. Pope’s translation:

உயர்வகலம் திண்மை அருமைஇந் நான்கின்
அமைவரண் என்றுரைக்கும் நூல்.   (743)

G.U. Pope’s original translation:         Height, breadth, strength, difficult access;
                                                            Science declares a forte must these possess.
Edited translation ..................               Books declare that a fort should have these four:
                                                            Height, breadth, strength and difficult access.* (GU)

While it is justifiable to ensure that every word in the original is translated as far as possible, there are times when such a ‘literal’ translation would end up awkward in translation. During such occasions, it is better to not reflect in translation the words in the original text. For instance the word "cool" (தண்ணம்) in couplet 1277 does not fit into the sequence in English so much so that many translators have incorporated it (eg. JN, VS, MS, DZ, GU, DL). The word "துறைவன்" has been taken to mean "Lord of the sea shore" and therefore the phrase "தண்ணந்துறைவன்" to mean as "Lord of the cool seashore". However, the word for "seashore" is not explicitly mentioned here but only implied. In the end, I translated the couplet this way: “Even before I could, my bangles figured out the immanent separation from my lord”. (NV)

Sometimes, repetition of a word will look good in the original but not in translation. In such cases, it is better to omit such repetitions in translation.

வினைவலியும் தன்வலியும் மாற்றான் வலியும்
துணைவலியும் தூக்கிச் செயல்.    (471)

Let us take two translators, GU and DL as examples:
The force the strife demands, the force he owns, the force of foes,
force of friends; these should he weigh ere to the war he goes. (GU)
Let (one) weigh well the
strength of the deed (he purposes to do), his own strength,
the strength of his enemy, and the strength of the allies (of both), and then let him act. (DL)

The chosen translation for this couplet is that of K. Kannan. Here the word ‘valiyum’ meaning ‘strength’ has been translated only once despite its occurrence four times in the original.

Weigh the strengths of the task, yourselves,
Opponents, and allies before acting.
* (KK)

Another example is couplet 1112. Two words for flowers occur in the original ("மலர்" and "பூ") but it is not deemed essential to repeat both in translation.

மலர்காணின் மையாத்தி நெஞ்சே இவள்கண்
பலர்காணும் பூவொக்கும் என்று.   (1112)
            O heart, why get distracted seeing common flowers
            And match them with her eyes! * (PS, VS)

Rarely do we come across a situation where a word will have to be repeated in a translation though it occurred only once in the original. Here is an example:

சாதலின் இன்னாத தில்லை இனிததூஉம்
ஈதல் இயையாக் கடை.   (230)
Nothing is worse than death;
But even death is sweet if one can't help the poor. * (PS)

In this verse, the word for ‘death’ "சாதல்" (sāthal) occurs only once in the original. It had to be repeated again in the second line for clarity. At times introduction of an extra word in translation, which is only implied but not there in the original, would make it easier for the target audience to appreciate the meaning. Here is an example:
பொருட்பெண்டிர் பொய்ம்மை முயக்கம் இருட்டறையில்
ஏதில் பிணந்தழீஇ அற்று.     (913)

P.S. Sundaram’s original translation was this:

A harlot's embrace feigning love for lucre    
Is like one clasping an alien corpse in a dark room for money.

It has been modified incorporating the details of G. Vanmikanathan’s (GV) translation of the couplet:

A harlot’s false embrace for money is like one hired
To clasp an alien corpse in a dark room.
* (PS, GV) 

The extra word “hired” has appeared in translation only to signify that no one would otherwise go and hug a corpse. GV’s rendering is probably based on the commentaries of Manakkudavar and Paripperumāl: “பொருளே கருதும் பெண்டிர் ஒருவனோடு பொய்யே முயங்கும் முயக்கம், இருட்டறையினுள்ளே கிடந்ததொரு வேற்றுமைப் பிணத்தை கூலிக்குத் தழுவியது போலும் என்றவாறு”. Though the option of providing a foot-note is always there, an extra word or phrase is better added to avoid directing the reader to notes in the end or below the page. The following table shows few other instances where I had to add a word or phrase for clarity:

Original in Tamil
Corrected translation
நசைஇயார் நல்கார் எனினும் அவர்மாட்டு
இசையும் இனிய செவிக்கு.   (1199)
Though my beloved bestows nothing,
Still any news about him is sweet to my ears. * (DL).
இன்கண் உடைத்தவர் பார்வல் பிரிவஞ்சும்
புன்கண் உடைத்தால் புணர்வு.   (1152)
His mere look was once a delight; but now even his embrace saddens fearing separation. * (VS)
கயலுண்கண் யானிரப்பத் துஞ்சிற் கலந்தார்க்கு
உயலுண்மை சாற்றுவேன் மன். (1212)
If only my painted eyes could sleep,
I will tell him in my dream of my true predicament. * (KV)
இயல்பினான் இல்வாழ்க்கை வாழ்பவன் என்பான்
முயல்வாருள் எல்லாம் தலை.    (47)
Foremost among those who strive for release are the householders leading a righteous life. * (SS)
தொடிநோக்கி மென்தோளும் நோக்கி அடிநோக்கி
அஃதாண் டவள்செய் தது.   (1279)
She did no more than show me her loose bracelets, slender shoulders and swollen feet. (KV, JN)

There are times when extra words that appeared in a translation had to be removed when found unnecessary for conveying the meaning. Few examples of this type of rectification are given below. Almost all such removals have come while considering the inclusion of translations in rhyming verse.

Original translation
Edited translation
G.U. Pope
O heart, as a foe, can I abandon utterly
Him who, though I long for him, longs not for me?
O heart, can I call him a foe and dump him
Who longs not for me though I long for him? * (GU)
More than ascetics they are pure
Who bitter tongues meekly endure.
More pure than ascetics are they
Who bear the insult of transgressors. * (SB)
All the wealth that toils give
Is meant to serve those who deserve.
All the wealth earned by toils is meant
To serve those who deserve. * (SB)

Translations in English verse with the last two rhyming words have their own disadvantages. The translator has to ensure that the last two words of the two lines rhyme and to do so he is often forced to introduce some word or phrase which is actually not there in the original. There are quite a few translations of the Kural done in this style (e.g. G.U. Pope, K. Srinivasan, Suddhanta Bharati, K.M. Balasubramaniam, Lt. Col. Sunder). The translations of Lt. Col. Sunder and K.M. Balasubramaniam were not available to me in full. Pope, Bharati and Srinivasan together contributed to only 43 translations in my overall final selection. Suddhanta Bharati's was easily the best of these six translations, with 30 of these 43 selected by me being his.


The translations presented here are not to be considered the final ones. There may be better translations of some of the couplets but unknown to me. This exercise was done in 2006, and many new translations would have appeared since then. Some of them might contain better translated couplets, I will consider including them in future. Until then, these translations will remain online. Please send your translations or the ones you come across this email.


Sreenivasan, K. 1969. (Translator) Tirukkural: An Ancient Tamil Classic. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay. page vii
Subramanian, N. and Rajalakshmi, R. 1984. The Concordance of Tirukkural. Ennes Publications, Madurai. 250 pages.
Ramanathan, Sp. 1987. Tirukkural and the English translations. In: Tirukkural - Research and Evaluation. Editor: K. Mohanraj. University of Madras. pp 158-174
Diaz, S.M. 2000. Tirukkural. Ramanandha Adigalar Foundation, Coimbatore. Pp 878
Sundaram, P.S. 1989. Tiruvalluvar: The Kural. Penguin Books. 168 pages
Ramasamy, V. 2001. On Translating Tirukkural. International Institute of Tamil Studies. Chennai. Pp 40
Zvelebil, K.V. 1974. Tamil literature. In: History of Indian Literature. Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden. Pp 119-123

© NVK Ashraf, 2006.
Corrected, expanded and revised on 30th Jan 2011.