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An outstanding translator


Vellakal Pa. Subramania Mudaliar

My recent references to the Tirunelveli and Virudhunagar Districts has had a historian from the area suggesting that I should remember in this column a scholar from there whose 150th birth anniversary will be celebrated in August this year. Certainly the record he sent me of Vellakal Pa. Subramania Mudaliar (VPS) is impressive, revealing him to be an outstanding translator.

As a student in schools in Tirunelveli and, from 1878, at Madras Christian College, VPS acquired a reputation for a rare interest in both Tamil and English Literature and for holding his own in discussions on literary subjects, be it the Kambaramayanam or Milton, with such teachers like the Rev. William Miller. Given the norms of the times, he was expected to become a teacher or join Government Service. He chose the latter, but then surprised everyone by, within a very short time, joining the then newly started Agricultural College in Saidapet. After passing out, he joined the Veterinary Department, which, noting his talent and search for knowledge, sent him to Bombay to get a veterinary degree. Back in Madras, he progressed fast in the Department, but when he retired in 1915, the white ceiling of the time had him stalled at Deputy Superintendent.

Recognition, however, he had in plenty, for he pioneered the translation of veterinary texts from English into Tamil. He rendered the Indian Stock Owner's Manual, a veterinary `Bible' of the times, and More Deadly Forms of Cattle Diseases into Tamil - and made life for many a student as well as cattle-owner easier.

In retirement, he served as the president of the `Tinnevely' Taluk Board and as the presiding judge of the Tenkasi court. But it was literary pursuits, particularly in Tamil, that occupied most of his time till his death in 1946. Among his numerous scholarly works in Tamil, Swarga Neekam, a translation of Milton's Paradise Lost, won lavish acclaim. The Rev. G. U. Pope, whose contributions to Tamil scholarship are acknowledged by that statue of his on the Marina, wrote: "It is a strange thing that the great English Christian epic should be reproduced in this end of the century, in Tamil, for the use principally of non-Christians and that the translator himself should be a non-Christian. One of the readers of the book in India has called it a Christian Puranam and this in fact it is.

"... we feel bound to say after an exceedingly minute and careful study of the lines that the translator has succeeded to a very great - indeed, a surprising - degree in making fluent and interesting Tamil verse out of the stately poetry of the Great Puritan. We may say... that the writer's prose Tamil style is remarkably good, and the quatrains 28-60 exceedingly spirited."

Leading Indian commentators spoke of VPS's "choice diction, dignity of style and sweetness of rhythm" in "beautifully" bringing out "all the ideas of Milton, however difficult the rendering of them may be" and felt that "the endeavours made by Mr. Mudaliar to extend the scope of Tamil Literature deserve the highest encomiums and every encouragement."

His stature in the world of Tamil letters may be judged by the fact that U.Ve. Swaminatha Aiyer presided over his 80th Birthday Celebrations. I wonder whether that stature is still recognised and his work studied.

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