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In Kerala village, a mason’s helper by day moonlights as translator

Last year, Shafi translated Perumal Murugan's Ardhanaari to Malayalam, which was brought out by Chintha Publications. He is now engaged in translating M V Venkitram's Kathukal.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: January 4, 2019 4:34:18 am
Shafi at a construction site

For the residents of Muzhappilangad village in Kannur district, Muhammed Shafi alias Shafi Cherumavilayi is a mason helper. Every morning, Shafi rides to construction sites to carry bricks and cement mortar. But in the world of letters, this school dropout is an unsung translator, who has translated several Tamil novels and stories into Malayalam.

Credited with having translated 11 novels, four story collections and essays from Tamil to Malayalam in the last 10 years, the 56-year-old construction worker has charted an unusual trajectory in life. Publishers often knock at the door of his three-roomed house, situated on four cents of land in Muzhappilangad, seeking Shafi’s Malayalam rendition for Tamil literary works.

Born at Cherumavilayi village in Kannur, Shafi’s father Moitheenkutty was a fish trader. An avid reader from his school days, Shafi used to contribute short stories for the children’s pages of Malayalam publications. But education came to a halt when he failed class 10.

He says, “In my poor family there was none to motivate me. Among the five children, two hadn’t even gone to school. The other two studied up to fourth standard. I managed to reach tenth class.”

At the age of 16, Shafi boarded a train to Pune where he worked at a shop for two years. Then he returned home. After two years, he moved to Bangalore to work at a small tea stall, owned by a distant relative.

Shafi recalls, “Tamil workers used to turn up for tea and snacks. I slowly learned a bit of Tamil.”

Later, Shafi started reading Tamil publications brought to the stall by workers. “At night, I would read them, especially ones on films. I developed an interest in translating a Tamil story, which was originally from Russian, to Malayalam. The translated story was despatched to CPI’s Malayalam daily Janayugam, which published it in 1985. That gave me confidence.”

With the life in Bangalore not remunerative, Shafi flew to the Gulf where he was employed as a construction worker for three years from 1994. After returning from the Gulf, Shafi again went to Bangalore, this time working at a textile shop. For 10 years, he remained in Bangalore, mastering Tamil.

The turning point came in 2008, when Shafi read an article about Tamil writer Thoppil Mohammed Meeran. “I wrote to him expressing my interest in translating his stories to Malayalam. Meeran agreed and allowed me to translate a collection of stories titled Ananthasainam Colony. It was brought out by Kozhikode-based Poorna Publications. I was the first to introduce Meeran into Malayalam. As the translation worked well, I got more queries from authors and publishers,” says Shafi.

In 2011, Shafi attended a translation workshop organised by Kendra Sahitya Akademi at Trichy in Tamil Nadu as a representative of Malayalam translators. One of the organisers indicated to Shafi a few Tamil works left to be translated to Malayalam. Shafi signed an agreement for translating Sa Kandasamy’s novel Visaranai Commission. Later, the Sahitya Akademy gave him more assignments.

Last year, Shafi translated Perumal Murugan’s Ardhanaari to Malayalam, which was brought out by Chintha Publications. He is now engaged in translating M V Venkitram’s Kathukal.

Shafi takes around four months to translate a work. Early morning, he goes to the construction site. After toiling till 3 pm, he rides back home on his two-wheeler.

At his house, he does not have a writing table. Sitting on the dining table, he started translating at 7 pm. “After the tiring work during the day, I can’t sit long hours. After two hours, I have to go to bed,” he says.

Shafi says he does not see translation as a source of income. Sometimes, publishers give Rs 10 per page. “That will not help me run a family comprising wife, three children and a daughter-in-law. My daily toil at the construction site is my bread. I get Rs 750 a day. Hence, I work six days a week.”

Tamil writer Subra Bharathi Manian said writers in Tamil Nadu are familiar with Shafi. “The feedback we get from Kerala is that Shafi translates Tamil works in simple language. We honoured him by giving him an award for the best translator,” said Manian.

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