Excerpts from Thirukkural’s Kaamathupaal: The Book of Love

by த. கண்ணன்

Translating the Tamil classic, Thirukkural, is a tricky task. Many translators have attempted to outdo Thiruvalluvar in brevity, and failed to match his depth and poetic grace. Some resort to elaboration, making it more of commentary than poetry, leaving very little space for interpretation and probably adding layers that are not explicit in the original, seeing more in Kural than Valluvar knew. The two-line, seven-cir (4 + 3 meters, for a rough understanding) format offers an additional challenge. It has so far been impossible to replicate in English. Doing the translation with rhyme tends to become an amateurish exercise. Without rhyme, they are often reduced to pithy maxims. Even as maxims, deprived of the poetic devices, because of the inherent depth of content and the moral strength, they are powerful enough in the first two books – on Aram and Porul (Righteousness and Wealth). In the third book, on Kaamam (Love), the emphasis is on poetry. Even the academia in Tamilnadu has, by and large, turned a blind eye to this part of Thirukkural. It is no surprise that Kaamathupaal has not made a wide impact outside Tamilnadu.

The most popular translation of Thirukkural, till date, remains that of the nineteenth century British cleric, GU Pope. While GU Pope is revered enough in Tamilnadu to warrant a statue along the Marina beech, he was no Alexander Pope (to Homer). Hence, translator after translator, some renowned some unknown, have made sincere attempts, albeit with limited success, to convey to the world the exhilaration they have experienced in Tamil. Unfortunately, A.K.Ramanujan was not one of them; had he taken up Thirukkural, especially Kaamathupaal, he could have brought into force, the poetic wand he wielded over Sangam poems.

I append my name to that long list of translators, hoping that I am taking one small step forward. I, too, had adhered to the two-line free verse format for the first two parts, which I have been publishing directly on my blog (www.thirukkural133.wordpress.com) over the last 7 years. But with Kaamathupaal, I hit against a strong block for more than a year. I felt the two-long-line format for poems on love was too restrictive, and unappealing to the modern sensibilities, especially in English. So, I’ve chosen to experiment with a 5-line format, but altering the meter, space, rhyme and rhythm depending on the individual kural. Why five lines? It is difficult to explain; the compound phrases and pauses in most kurals seemed to seamlessly split into five lines. I haven’t shied away from using rhyme and meter, wherever they have fallen in place without having to contrive much. Though, there is a certain amount of continuity within some of the chapters in Thirukkural, I find it best to treat each kural as a separate poem than as a continuum; each, a separate poem demanding a unique structure, rhyme and language.

I owe my understanding of kural to various commentators, old and new, (especially Parimelazhagar), spanning over maybe 10 centuries. Where my personal reading was not satisfied by any commentary, I have made my own interpretation. Where I felt multiple interpretations to be equally appealing, but was impossible to leave scope for multiple interpretations in the translation, I have made multiple versions for the same kural.

Chapter 110: Reading the cues

அதிகாரம் 110: குறிப்பறிதல்


Her gorging eyes

Have two gazes.

One gaze inflicts the malady.

The other gaze is remedy

For that malady.

இருநோக் கிவளுண்கண் உள்ள தொருநோக்கு

நோய்நோக்கொன் றந்தோய் மருந்து.

– Kural 1091


Her furtive eyes

Steal a fleeting look.

Half the love

Lies in it,

nay much more.

கண்களவு கொள்ளும் சிறுநோக்கம் காமத்தில்

சொம்பாகம் அன்று பெரிது.

– Kural 1092


She looked at me.

Looking, she turned coy.

That was how

She watered

The crop of our love.

நோக்கினாள் நோக்கி இறைஞ்சினாள் அஃதவள்

யாப்பினுள் அட்டிய நீர்.

– Kural 1093


When I look at her

She stares at the ground.

When I turn my gaze

She looks at me

And smiles gently.

யானோக்குங் காலை நிலன்நோக்கும் நோக்காக்கால்

தானோக்கி மெல்ல நகும்.

– Kural 1094


She peeks at me

Not directly

But as if she

Squinted an eye,

And then simpers.

(Version 1)


Her look lets out

Not a single cue.

Coyly she smiles

As if she meant

Something else.

(Version 2)

குறிக்கொண்டு நோக்காமை அல்லால் ஒருகண்

சிறக்கணித்தாள் போல நகும்.

– Kural 1095



She speaks as if

She is hostile.

She feigns anger.

I do sense soon

What she does mean.

உறாஅ தவர்போற் சொலினும் செறாஅர்சொல்

ஒல்லை உணரப் படும்.

– Kural 1096


Harsh words with no real anger,

And a put-on angry stare:

These are the cues;

She seems hostile

but loves me true.

செறாஅச் சிறுசொல்லும் செற்றார்போல் நோக்கும்

உறாஅர்போன் றுற்றார் குறிப்பு.

– Kural 1097



A certain beauty lies

In this pliant girl:

Oh, the way she smiles,

Gently, her heart melting,

When I look at her!

அசையியற் குண்டாண்டோர் ஏஎர்யான் நோக்கப்

பசையினள் பைய நகும்.

– Kural 1098



We give each other

Such distant looks

Like we’re strangers.

Only lovers

Can do that.

ஏதிலார் போலப் பொதுநோக்கு நோக்குதல்

காதலார் கண்ணே உள.

– Kural 1099


When my eyes

Meet her eyes,

And concur,

Spoken words

Have no use.

கண்ணொடு கண்ணிணை நோக்கொக்கின் வாய்ச்சொற்கள்

என்ன பயனும் இல.

– Kural 1100


Chapter 111: The joy of making love

அதிகாரம் 111: புணர்ச்சி மகிழ்தல்


The five senses of

Sight, aural, taste, smell and touch

Come alive

Only with this girl

Of gleaming bangles.

கண்டுகேட் டுண்டுயிர்த் துற்றறியும் ஐம்புலனும்

ஒண்டொடி கண்ணே உள.

– Kural 1101


For any disease

The cure lies elsewhere.

My girl decked with jewels

Is herself the cure for

The ailment she induced.

பிணிக்கு மருந்து பிறமன் அணியிழை

தன்நோய்க்குத் தானே மருந்து.

– Kural 1102


When we find on the one we love

A soft shoulder to sleep on,

Can it be sweeter –

The divine world of

the lotus-eyed god?

தாம்வீழ்வார் மென்றோள் துயிலின் இனிதுகொல்

தாமரைக் கண்ணான் உலகு.

– Kural 1103


It sears when I go far

It chills when I get near

Such a fire

Wherefrom did

She acquire?

நீங்கின் தெறூஉங் குறுகுங்கால் தண்ணென்னும்

தீயாண்டுப் பெற்றாள் இவள்.

– Kural 1104


The moment I desire anything

That very thing they seem to be:

The shoulders of her

Whose tresses flow down

adorned with flowers.

வேட்ட பொழுதின் அவையவை போலுமே

தோட்டார் கதுப்பினாள் தோள்.

– Kural 1105


Whenever she embraces me

Her touch, o her touch

Is so good, my life sprouts afresh!

This artless maiden’s arms

Are for sure made of nectar.

உறுதோ றுயிர்தளிர்ப்பத் தீண்டலால் பேதைக்

கமிழ்தின் இயன்றன தோள்.

– Kural 1106


Taking from our house

All that we possess,

To share with and feed others


Cuddling this woman is as good.

(Version 1)


Cuddling this woman,

Her complexion that of mango,

Wow! it is much the same as

Feeding others and sharing with them

Hard earned wealth from our house.

(Version 2)

தம்மில் இருந்து தமதுபாத் துண்டற்றால்

அம்மா அரிவை முயக்கு.

– Kural 1107


We both desire each other

And delightful it is

Our tight hug

Which lets nothing betwixt

Not even air.

வீழும் இருவர்க் கினிதே வளியிடை

போழப் படாஅ முயக்கு.

– Kural 1108


Pouting after a tiff,

Patching up and making out,

These are the perks

Gained by those

United in love.

ஊடல் உணர்தல் புணர்தல் இவைகாமம்

கூடியார் பெற்ற பயன்.

– Kural 1109


The more we learn, the more we learn

There is much unknown.

Same it is with love,

The more I lie with the bejewelled girl

(The more I learn there are joys untold).

அறிதோ றறியாமை கண்டற்றால் காமம்

செறிதோறும் சேயிழை மாட்டு.

– Kural 1110


Thirukkural’s Kaamathupaal: The Book of Love | Loud Thoughts July 24, 2018 - 8:39 am

[…] After another long break, I have resumed Thirukkural translation on my Thirukkural website. The first few chapters of Kaamathupaal are published in the bilingual Tamizhini e-magazine. […]

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Excerpts from Thirukkural’s Kaamathupaal: The Book of Love – Kannan.T – தமிழினி

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