Translating Tamil classic Thirukkural for wider dissemination of its wisdom

By Suchitra Srinivas

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma had a resounding impact of Tamil literature during his stay in the culture-soaked-lands of Madurai in South India. Five years in the new land and the literary connections he could make here made him realize a new purpose in life. Very soon he began his work on the translation of the Tamil classic Thirukkural into English, focused on maintaining its true poetic form.

1330 verses in 133 chapters, arranged into sections that cover three important concepts prescribed by Hindu tradition, namely virtue, wealth, and love are all translated into English in his book-Kural.  The book covers a vast array of human knowledge, experience, and wisdom, offering an intricate interweaving of ethics and poetry, full of wordplay, sharp imagery, and rhythmic sophistication.

“Little had I ever imagined that I would translate such a beautiful and purposeful work and I see this truly as a blessing,” said Thomas Pruiksma humbly.

Much of the world’s problems would cease to exist if men started living a life led by the teachings of Thirukkural. A reason for him to come up with the translation was to reach millions of people having no connection to Tamil language or culture.

While there are many commentaries in English of the classic, no one has brought out more of the poetic intensity, rhythmic quality, and linguistic playfulness of the original work, maintaining the sophisticated rhyming patterns, rhyming consonant or vowel sounds, as Thomas Pruiksma has attempted.

He attributes this work to Late Dr. K.V. Ramakoti, Tamil professor at Sourashtra College, Madurai.  “My teacher kindled my enthusiasm and introduced me to the poetic richness of this extraordinary work,” he said.

Initially, Pruiksma spent two and half years in Madurai on Oberlin Shansi Fellowship and he was teaching English in American College. During this time, he had met Dr. Ramakoti and got introduced to commentaries on Thirukkural. Later with a Fulbright grant to study language and literature, he came back to indulge more in Tamil literature.

Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma’s translated Thirukkural is releasing this month. (Photo by David-Mielke)

“My teacher would say, it would be good if someone did a translation of Thirukkural based on all the commentaries we read. It never occurred to me that he was indicating that I do it. On 1st Jan 2016,  I started translating one Kural each day, the book became a reality today. Dr. Ramakoti himself being a poet with good knowledge of English was able to push me to use the right words that brought out the meaning in the context.”

He worked on this project for five years and is now ready for its online release on 11th January 2022. He has earlier translated 60 verses of Athichoodi, yet another work targeting children written by poetess Avvaiyar.

Pruiksma was born in Seattle. His mother’s roots in Okinawa, Japan and the Asian culture he was exposed to made him understand the nuances and appreciate the context of Thirukkural. “When I went to Madurai removing the slippers before entering the house, the Asian culture was very natural to me.” Living in the villages near Madurai, talking to local people and making friends was what he relished.

In his translation of chapter 63 he observes how one can find lessons to handle pandemic situations. “When the wise look within, the flood of adversity vanishes”.

Inner balance allows us to handle adversity. Not denying the adversity, but how to face it while keeping calm is what one would decipher from this Kural, he said adding that In Tamil Nadu everyone seems to know a good number of these couplets. They apply the teachings that give them confidence and be a guide in day-to-day life.

The English translation, he believes, will reach a larger population. Apart from universities and research scholars’ desks, this book will become a pick at the general bookstore by a common man. With its simple language and deep meaning conveyed by saint Thiruvalluvar, the translation is expected to be picked well.

He also plans to release a series of videos bringing out his personal insights on the couplets to see how their message connects with everyday life. Having conversations with noted people from different cultures and traditions on the couplets and their meaning can definitely make a difference.

An American steeped in Asian culture has translated into English the classic by Saint Thiruvalluvar’s book of verses, considered the greatest work ever written on ethics and morality.

The Imperative of Right Action 

Some verses as translated by  Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma

  • It grants eternity and also grants wealth—what gains

A life more than doing right

  • Nothing gains more than virtue—nothing destroys more

Than forgetting it

  • As best as one can do right without ceasing

Everywhere that right can be done

  • Right action is purity of heart-and-mind—all else

Nothing but noise

  • Envy desire anger bitter words—right action

Is freedom from all four

  • Do right without waiting—at death it remains

Beside one undying

  • No need to speak of virtue—look who is borne

And who bears the palanquin

  • It closes the way back like a weir—enacting what’s good

Without wasting one day

  • Right action brings happiness—all else

Oblivion and pain

  • Action that fits is virtue—action

That doesn’t is vice

Images courtesy of (Photos provided), (Photo by David-Mielke) and .

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