#AsiaNow Speaks with Archana Venkatesan

Cover image of Archana Venkatesan, Endless Song

Archana Venkatesan is Professor of Religious Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of California Davis and author of Endless Song: Nammāḻvār’s Tiruvāymoḻi, published by Penguin Classics, India, and winner of the 2022 AAS AK Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Endless Song is a complete English translation of the 9th century Tamil devotional poem, Tiruvāymoḻi (Sacred Speech) by the poet Śaṭhakōpaṉ-Nammāḻvār. The long poem of 1102 verses praises the god Vishnu in his many guises—as transcendent deity, divine beloved, as god enshrined in particular sacred places and within the poet’s own heart—and describes in evocative and provocative detail the crests and lows of the poet’s relationship with Vishnu. The Tiruvāymoḻi has been in continuous circulation since at least the 11th century and is a foundational religious text for the sect of South Indian devotees of Vishnu called the Srivaishnavas. The book also has a substantial introduction and ancillary material, such as summaries of medieval commentary, and compilations of myths and sites referred to in the poem. The title, Endless Song, alludes to the interlinked structure of the poem, called the antāti, as well as the poet’s characterization of his poem as a garland of song.

What inspired you to work on this topic?

I never thought to translate or study the Tiruvāymoḻi because it is a daunting poem. It comes with centuries of very erudite commentary. It is profound, brimming with stunning lines of verse and is philosophically difficult. It is the kind of poem one might consider translating after spending a lifetime with it. Professor Francis Clooney, who has worked on the Tiruvāymoḻi for much of his academic career, approached me in the early 2000s with the prospect of working collaboratively on a translation. I was thrilled at the thought of a collaboration, but geography—he’s on the East Coast and I am on the West Coast of the U.S.—and our packed schedules proved too difficult surmount. We worked very closely together on about 60 verses, which was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned a lot from reading and translating with Prof. Clooney. After our initial collaboration (I think it must have been in 2008 or 2009), it took me nearly 10 years to finish a complete draft and then to begin the slow, painstaking work of revision. The book came out in February 2020, just as the pandemic made its presence felt.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I was my greatest obstacle, especially in the early stages of the project. I did not feel up to the task, but I had committed myself to it, so I had to see it through. I had so many doubts when I first started, and the initial stages were agonizingly slow, and I was tempted to give up many times. I was lucky if I did a verse a day. For every verse, I also had to read the commentaries. I read and re-read the pioneering academic works on the Tiruvāymoḻi (Frank Clooney’s Seeing through Texts, Vasudha Narayanan’s Vernacular Veda, and John Carman and Vasudha Narayanan’s Tamil Veda, in particular), and I read a lot of English language poetry to find a register for the Tiruvāymoḻi in English. Eventually, I found my way and I set myself the task of translating every single day, even if only a single verse. Many days, I would post these attempts on social media, and as I had several experienced translators, like Martha Selby and David Shulman, on my social media feed, they would give me useful suggestions and feedback. While I was working on the translation, I was also deep into a research project on the annual Festival of Recitation, at the center of which is the Tiruvāymoḻi. The sights and sounds of the festival, of watching devotees weep listening to specific verses from the text, and of the spectacular processions that are integral to it, allowed me to tap into the somatic and affective dimensions of the poem. By the time I was halfway through the translation, I looked forward to the daily quiet of my translation practice, of time spent with the poem and the poet, in some kind of secret place, just the two of us. I completed the first full revision of the Tiruvāymoḻi while documenting the Festival of Recitation at the Vishnu temple in Tirukkurungudi in December 2017. I finished the last decad of the poem on the festival’s last day, and this was absolutely thrilling.

What is the funniest or most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

When I first begin translating, I often produce multiple versions of a single verse. I followed the same practice with the Tiruvāymoḻi. I also like to start at the beginning of a text and make my way through the whole text before starting major revisions. So, when I was going through the first full revision of the Tiruvāymoḻi, I came upon a translated version that I loved, but that had no relationship to Nammāḻvār. Somewhere along the way, in producing these multiple drafts, I had come up with my own poem that had no relation to the original. This was a startling and revelatory discovery for me, as I prided myself on accuracy as a translator. But it also made me laugh, for I’ve always wanted to be a poet, and I did manage to riff on Nammāḻvār to produce a semi-decent poem of my own. In that moment, I deleted my poem and no longer have a record of it, which of course, I now regret. The experience also made me even more vigilant, and I double-and triple-checked my translations against the Tamil to make sure I wasn’t masquerading as Nammāḻvār.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I have already mentioned the work of Frank Clooney, Vasudha Narayanan, and John Carman. I read and referred to these constantly. Although I knew A.K. Ramanujan’s Hymns for the Drowning, his iconic translation of Nammāḻvār, very well, I avoided reading it deeply while working on my own translation, as I wanted to find my own way. I read Keats, because I always do, and I read many American modernist poets to find inspiration in the ways they handle language and images, and of course in the precision and economy of their poetry. I also read at least one English-language poem every day—this is how I begin my mornings—and I would often reflect on the poem before sitting down with Nammāḻvār. I found it helped me think poetically.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I relish solitude and quiet, but it’s hard to find them amidst the busyness of life and an academic career. Despite the many challenges, disruptions, stresses, and sorrows of the pandemic years, I found this quiet in translation. So, I try to keep up my daily translation practice, not because I need to produce something, but because it gives me great pleasure. I find joy and peace in it. I am also trying to do more creative things, work collaboratively with colleagues, and to take more risks in the kind of translations and research I do. I’ve started re-reading Milton’s Paradise Lost again. I am going very slowly, often just a few lines a day, letting myself sink into the language. Part of the reason I picked up Paradise Lost is because I am working on a translation of the Tamil Rāmāyaṇa of Kampaṉ. This is very different from Nammāḻvār. For one, it is a narrative poem, and the language is lush and extravagant. I’ve struggled to make the switch from Nammāḻvār, and I have been searching for English-language poets who might be able to help me find the perfect pitch in English. I do not know whether Milton will find a way into my translation of Kampaṉ, but I am delighting in my rediscovery of Paradise Lost.

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