Every morning, Fr George Kurukkoor enters a first-floor room at the Pastoral Orientation Centre at Kochi and sits behind a table. There are several glass-paned bookcases on all sides. These contain books in Greek, Sanskrit, Latin, Portuguese, Urdu, Persian, Malayalam, Hindi, and Spanish. There are 46 dictionaries, apart from grammar books of various languages. There are works on philosophy, theology, the Bible and various religions like Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity. Then there are history books: history of the world, India, Kerala and the church.
Fr George is the official translator of the Catholic Church in Kerala. And he dips into the books in his library when he is in search of a word or a phrase. “The types of books that I have translated include those dealing with social justice, catechisms, the Bible, morals, and constitutions of institutions.”
The Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council selects the books to be translated. “According to the Council, all the documents coming from Rome must be translated into Malayalam, so that the people are able to read it,” says Fr George.
But it is not an easy task. A 300-page book in Latin can take three months. “That is because I am translating from an Indo-European language to the Dravidian language,” says Fr George. “The two families are quite different, so the exact style cannot be retained. Generally, a play of words, old sayings, and unusual grammatical expressions are avoided. If the source language is of the same family, translation is easier. So, Latin to English is easy, while Latin to Malayalam is difficult.”
So far, Fr George has translated 100 books in 22 years. Every day he begins at 8 am, and works non-stop - with breaks for lunch, tea, an evening walk and dinner - till 11.30 pm. The work is a passion for Fr George. “I am very interested in languages and the new ideas that I come across while doing this,” he says.
But you have to be a particular type of person to do this job. Apart from a love of languages, the translator should be capable of long hours of sustained concentration. “A lot of time and mental effort are needed,” says Fr George. “I don’t watch TV or listen to the radio. I read the newspaper early in the morning for 15 minutes. When I begin to translate a work, it is the only thing on my mind. Without finishing it, I cannot do anything else.”
There are two types of translations: faithful and free. For the Bible, constitutions of institutions, documents and decrees from Rome, a faithful translation is needed. “So I do not change anything,” says Fr George. “In faithful translations we cannot avoid using the exact wording, so it is not easy to read.” As for free translations, this is used for novels, essays and poetry. “The style and rhythm of the words can be changed according to the translated language,” says Fr George. The priest remembers fondly the first book that he translated. It was the ‘Rerum Novarum’ written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. “The book is probably one of the earliest to talk about social justice,” says Fr George. At that time, in Europe, employees were not given sufficient wages and remained exploited. Then the ideology of Communism arrived. “But the Pope wanted to say that Communism cannot save the people without the help of religion,” says Fr George. “He wrote about the necessity for living wages to be given, and the need for private ownership, human rights, and freedom to practice one’s religion.” Later, Fr George translated ten such documents by various other popes.
Not surprisingly, Fr George is getting kudos for his work. “Many people tell me they can understand the teachings of the church in a much better way because it is in Malayalam,” says Fr George. “Earlier, they would have to read it in Latin or English. That is the feedback I have received from every bishop and diocese.”
And he has also been given a nickname because of his work. “Since I have translated so many works written by the Popes, I am called ‘The Pope of Malayalam’,” says Fr George, with a smile.
Unfortunately, there is nobody to inherit Fr George’s mantle. “Many young priests do not know Latin now because our seminaries are no longer teaching it,” says the 72-year-old priest. “Knowing Latin is necessary because it is the language still used by the Vatican. If the Pope has to write anything, he will do it in Latin only.”
Presently a teacher of Sanskrit at the Major Seminary at Mangalapuzha, Aluva, Fr George encourages his students to study Latin and Sanskrit. “These two languages will help in the proper translation of works into Malayalam,” he says. “Students should also study Syriac and Greek.”