Saturday, May 30, 2009
On Translating Sula
“I know what every colored woman in this country is doing. . . . Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world.” - Sula
These are the words of a strong woman whom I have met in my life; I was translating her to my tongue. Sula is one of those women who are often being exclaimed as “Whoa! What a Woman!” Having translated Toni Morrison's novel Sula into Malayalam, the second joy is that I do not have to go offline or stay invisible whenever I see my publisher online :-) The first joy is of course to get to know Sula better. Sula stands out in her uniqueness and Toni Morrison herself says, "I wanted certain kinds of books, and since they weren't available, I would write them. I wrote Sula so that I could read it when I got through."
The story in brief goes like this. The bottom, the abode of a black neighbourhood is situated in the hills, above the rich, white valley dwellers of Medallion. The bottom was a gift to a slave by his owner. He was promised a piece of valley land and his freedom in return to some hard labour. In the end, the master did not want to give valley land to the slave and gave him a stretch of hilly land, convincing him that the land was even more worthy than the valley since the hills are the valley of heaven.
After establishing the setting, the novel moves forward and tells the tales of two black women- Sula and Nel-from their growing up together in a small Ohio town, through their contrasting paths of womanhood, their ultimate confrontation and understanding. Nel chooses to stay in Bottom, to marry, to have a family and live in the black community. Sula rejects all that Nel has embraced. She goes to college, sinks in the city life, and returns as a rebel, a seductress. Both of them lives through the choices they made; both loving each other, yet conflicting with each other.
Once Sula returns, the town regards her as evil for her disregard of the societal norms. It started when they came to know that Sula slept with Nel’s husband afterwhich he left Nel, but the hatred intensified when they came to know that she sleeps with white men.
Sula problematizes the terms “good” and “evil” and at times one quality greys into another and there is an ambiguity maintained throughout the novel where it becomes difficult to assign complete goodness or complete badness to anything.
As a translator, while reading it a number of times and trying to think in such a way as to translate the heart of the work to a language which is culturally and linguistically miles apart from the original, I had a tough time. There were times when I was stuck with the work and could not move forward. Understanding and translating race to an Indian Language was difficult, especially with the poetically crafted grammatical errors of the spoken language of bottom people. Caste was in my mind throughout, when I was working on the novel. I believe that keeping the caste hierarchy in mind and think in terms of it when you read and reread is the only way to translate a writer like Toni Morrison to Malayalam. Even then I do not have the courage to claim that I have maintained 100 % faithfulness to the work. I somehow hope that I have done my best. I am glad that Sula was my first translation.
By the end of the work when I had walked every single step of the story with Toni Morrison, Sula, Nel, Hannah and Eva were etched in my mind for ever. They are different shades of womanhood and I felt that at one point or the other, I have behaved like all of them, women.
Toni Morrison, throughout this novel, questions the neat compartments of good and evil and war and peace. The simple surname of Sula, Peace plays ultimate importance in the times of Toni Morrison’s writing the novel as she has composed her novel in the heights of the Vietnam War. Toni Morrison herself says that “ Sula was begun in 1969... in a period of extraordinary political activity. Shadrack, who also acts as a central character in the novel is a war victim whose insanity is a response to the horrors of war and death. Morrison brings in the grimace of War when Eva is forced to kill her son Plum who is another war victim. In a surreal account Morrison describes how Shadrack “saw the face of a soldier near him fly off. Before he could register shock, the rest of the soldier’s head disappeared under the inverted soup bowl of his helmet. But stubbornly, taking no action from the brain, the body of the headless soldier ran on, with energy and grace, ignoring altogether the drip and slide of brain tissue down its back.”
The notions of good and bad are questioned when Sula tells Nel, “About who was good. How do you know it was you?” “What you mean?” “I mean may be it wasn’t you. May be it was me. And even after big indifferences creep in between them, both Nel and Sula misses each other and thinks about the other one constantly. In the end, Sula survives in Nel and a late realization comes from her, “All that time, all that time, I thought I was missing Jude.” And the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her thought. “We was girls together,” she said as though explaining something.
Nel cries in the memory of Sula, and the final line of the novel goes like “ It was a fine cry- loud and long- ut it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
Sula is a parable of life and death, love and hatred. It is a tale of female friendship.