A formidable oeuvre

In the past two decades, Lakshmi Holmström has established herself as one of the principal translators from Tamil (தமிழ்) to English. With clockwork regularity and efficiency, she brings novel after poem, short story after essay, classic after novel to a new life in English- a life that earns new readers, and casts a new light on the original work as well.

Her work is well represented on the Scholars site. Her anthology of short stories by Indian women, The Inner Courtyard was republished by Rupa in 2002 (Virago, 1990). Her most recent work (co-edited with K Srilata & Subashree Krishnaswamy) is The Rapids of a Great River: The Penguin Book of Tamil Poetry which "begins with selections from the earliest known Tamil poetry dating from the second century CE. The writings of the Sangam period laid the foundation for the Tamil poetic tradition, and they continue to underlie and inform the works of Tamil poets even today. The first part of this anthology traverses the Sangam and bhakti periods and closes with pre-modern poems from the nineteenth century.

The second part, a compilation of modern and contemporary poetry, opens with the work of the revolutionary poet Subramania Bharati. Breaking free from prescriptions, the new voices—which include Sri Lankan Tamils, women and dalits, among others—address the contemporary reader; the poems, underscored by a sharp rhetorical edge, grapple with the complexities of the modern political and social world. The selection is wide-ranging and the translations admirably echo the music, pace and resonance of the poems. This anthology links the old with the new, cementing the continuity of a richly textured tradition. There is something in the collection for every reader and each will make his or her own connections—at times startling, at other times familiar."

Holmström easily straddles centuries. In 1996 she did a rendering in English of the Tamil epics Silappadikaram the story of Kovalan and Kannagi and of how Kannagi avenges the wrong done to her husband and Manimekalai, a sequel to Silappadikaram, being the story of Kovalan’s daughter’s renunciation. There are strong spiritual undertones in the story that give an insight into the religious influence of those times.

But it is her translations of contemporary Tamil literature that are invaluable, bringing spectacular writers like Bama, Salma, Asokamitran and Ambai to a wider readership. Her translation of Bama's autobiography, Karukku, won the Crossword award, but more importantly, as K Srilata says in a review published in The Hindu, "Holmstrom's contribution as a translator is not merely to the field of Great Literature. In this case, the process of translation is a specifically political one and involves opening up to English-educated readers an entirely different sensibility, a startlingly honest reality."

She also translated Bama's novel Sangati, and her other colleague, Subhashree Krishnaswamy says in her review, also in The Hindu, "We can only thank Lakshmi Holmström for taking on the audacious task of rendering in English such a difficult book."

Her booklist is long. For OUP, she translated Ambai's In the Forest, a deer. With Katha, Holmström brought out translations of Asokamitran's Water, as well as a host of other works. And most recent is her translation of Salma's The Hour past midnight from Zubaan.



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