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Remembering Lakshmi Holmström

By Subashree Krishnaswamy

“The most difficult part of translation is, I believe, finding the ‘right’ pitch and voice of the original, and to try and match that. I won’t say ‘replicate’; that’s impossible. But there is also the hard graft of familiarizing oneself with the history and cultural background of the work. A translator should never be afraid of asking questions. Meanings don’t reside in dictionaries alone, we know.”  - Lakshmi Holmström

It’s hard to believe that I will never again hear her soft voice and gentle laughter. Or analyze a book and engage in lively arguments with her. Or chat over a leisurely meal and discuss her next manuscript. Or take off on a pleasurable trip together and rejoice in the misadventures too. Or enjoy her warm hospitality and relish the irrepressible puns of her husband, a noted anthropologist. It’s hard to believe that I will never again read her new book and, worse still, never collaborate with her on a project.

Lakshmi Holmström—translator, writer and scholar—was one of a kind. Cutting across all genres, she single-handedly found new readers across the globe for several Tamil writers. Ambai, Na Muthuswamy, Sundara Ramaswamy, Pudumaipittan, Mauni, Imayam, Bama, and Salma are some of the authors that come to mind immediately. Then there were the poets—Kutti Revathi, Malathi Maitri, Sukirtharani, Cheran, and several others. And who can forget her fine retellings of ancient classics such as Silappadikaram and Manimekalai.

That she was a gifted translator was acknowledged the world over, easily verified by the innumerable awards she received: The Crossword Award for Translation (three times), the A. K. Ramanujan Prize, and the Iyal Award from the Tamil Literary Garden, Canada. She was also made an MBE for her services to literature. Reputable journals—Words without Borders being a fine example—scattered the world over regularly commissioned her sensitive translations and nuanced essays.

Chameleonlike, she effortlessly adapted herself to the world the author inhabited, oftentimes uncannily becoming the writer that she translated. If she captured Ambai’s sharp wit and quirkiness with precision, she also nailed the dry, ironic gaze of Ashokamitran. The telling details of Na Muthuswamy’s writings were as deftly delineated as Sundara Ramaswamy’s lucid prose. She thrived on audacious risks: she took on writers notoriously difficult to translate—Bama, for instance, who forsook standard Tamil and instead relied on the raw, earthy dialect of her community. Lakshmi introduced such writers to non-Tamil readers with élan, never diluting the essence of the original, and showing us “that meanings didn’t reside in dictionaries alone.” Anyone familiar with Indian languages will appreciate the challenges she surmounted. Distance (she lived in Norwich) neither dimmed her grasp of the contemporary idiom in Tamil nor the cultural ethos of the Tamil country. Her annual trips to India—the “yearly pilgrimages,” as we jokingly called them—were as meticulously executed as her manuscripts. She would arrive with copious notes, hold discussions over days with the authors she was translating, and even visit the far-out places that formed the backdrop of the writings to get a better understanding of them. But she also left plenty of time for fun with friends and family.

My friendship with her goes way, way back and is delightfully intertwined with a relationship with another fine, award-winning translator, Lakshmi’s dear friend Gita Krishnankutty (who translates from Malayalam). I had just joined the publishing industry and the first manuscript to land on my desk was A Purple Sea, translated by Lakshmi Holmström. Used thus far to reading sloppy translations in print, I was jolted out of my complacency: here was a wide-ranging collection of stories by the author Ambai rendered in impeccable English, yet as a Tamil myself, I could distinctly hear the cadences of Tamil ringing throughout the text. It was the perfect manuscript: immaculate and crisp, yet somehow gently reminding readers that they are reading a translation and not an original piece of writing. I corrected the typos, pointed out minor discrepancies, and enjoyed reading every proof afresh. I also patted myself on the back for having landed a sinecure: I foresaw years of pleasurable reading, reveling in the company of gifted writers. I was in for a rude shock. The next few manuscripts proved that no one turned in flawless manuscripts like Lakshmi’s or kept to deadlines like she did. And certainly no one replied to every editorial query in the margins of the proofs in a handwriting so graceful that you could “press it to your eyes in reverence,” as we say in Tamil.

Working on her translations and later collaborating with her was always pleasurable and effortlessly educative and enlightening. In her professional dealings, she was neither loud nor strident, but the steely resolve that belied her fragile mien ensured that she stood her ground, always. Ever meticulous, she could justify every word that she put in and she countered arguments politely yet firmly.

 She brought the same perfection to her friendships as she did to her translations: so finely tuned were they that even minor adjustments were unnecessary. Dignity, grace, and poise defined her, but friends also remember her delightful wit and wicked sense of humor. Generous to a fault, she encouraged younger translators and scholars and often took them under her wing. That she didn’t get to see the anthology that I translated, which is just out, is a regret I will carry to my grave.

There is a curious story behind her first bestseller, The Inner Courtyard, one of the first anthologies devoted to women’s writing that included both original writings in English and translations from various Indian languages. Over lunch with an editor from Virago, Lakshmi bemoaned the stereotypical representation of women from Asia and was immediately commissioned to edit an anthology. She had translated a story by Ambai for the anthology, and she then went on to do a bunch of stories, which became A Purple Sea. From then on, there was no looking back.

A thorough scholar, she averred that critical theory informed the rigor needed for a good translation. Her introductions, as exquisitely crafted as her nuanced, sensitive translations, critiqued the works of the writers in a way never done before. One read them as much for information as for her easy, flowing style. I hope her essays are bound together in an anthology someday.

Her voice may have been hushed, but she has left behind a clutch of precious books and memories. For which we, both her friends and readers, are eternally grateful.

While I wait for your words
a heavy silence falls
fills the space

Easier indeed
to trust to silence
than to trust in words
though silence itself has rusted.

(The Rust of Silence by Salma, translated by Lakshmi Holmström)

From the dimly lit, narrow-windowed kitchen, there were hands reaching out to control, like the eight tentacles of the octopus which lives in the sea. They reached out to bind them, tightly, tightly; and the women accepted their bonds with joy. If their waists were bound, they called them jeweled belts; if their feet were held back, they called them anklets, if they touched their foreheads, they called them crowns. The women entered a world that was enclosed by wire on all four sides and reigned there proudly; it was their kingdom. They made earth-shaking decisions; today we’ll have mutton pulao; tomorrow let it be puri-masala . . .

(From A Kitchen in the Corner of the House by Ambai, translated by Lakshmi Holmström)


Lakshmi Holmström (1935–2016) translated short stories, novels, and poetry by the major contemporary writers in Tamil. She guest-edited Words without Borders's April 2015 issue “Changing Landscapes and Identities: New Tamil Writing.” Her recent translations include Fish in a Dwindling Lake, short stories by Ambai (2012); A Second Sunrise, poems by Cheran, translated and edited with Sascha Ebeling (2012); and Wild Girls, Wicked Words, poems by four Tamil women (2012). In a Time of Burning, her translation of another collection of poems by Cheran, was published by Arc Publications in 2013 and won an English PEN award. In 2000 she received the Crossword Book Award for her translation of Karukku by Bama; in 2007 she shared the Crossword-Hutch Award for her translation of Ambai’s short stories, In a Forest, a Deer; and she received the Iyal Award from the Tamil Literary Garden, Canada, in 2008. She was one of the founding trustees of SADAA (South Asian Diaspora Arts Archive).

Published May 19, 2016   Copyright 2016 Subashree Krishnaswamy

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