An Irish-English linguist based at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, has translated Thirukkural, the celebrated ancient Tamil classic, into the Fijian language.

Dr Paul Geraghty, an associate professor of linguistics, has been teaching and researching at the university for several years and is respected in Fiji and the Pacific Islands region as an authority in Fijian and several other Pacific languages.

“The object was to simply make this beautiful classic available to speakers and readers of Fijian, so it could reach a wider audience,” Dr Geraghty told Indian Weekender in an interview from England – where he is currently visiting his family – when asked what got him to choose Thirukkural.

Thirukkural is one of Tamil’s most important literary works that was composed by Thiruvalluvar some time between 2200 and 2500 years ago during what is considered as the last of the three Sangam eras – the golden age of ancient Tamil literature.

It is a collection of just over 1300 rhyming couplets that are more in the manner of aphorisms: a timeless collection of thoughts on living a practical, righteous, contented and happy life.

It is one of the earliest works on ethics, though some historians believe it to have been written just after Kautilya’s Arthashastra, perhaps the most ancient Indian work on ethics and statecraft. But like most things ancient Indian, it is hard to prove on definitive dates and scholars could argue till the cows come home.

The Thirukkural also happens to be one of the most translated Indian classics and is available in dozens of languages around the world. Curiously, Dr Geraghty’s latest published effort is not the first in the Fijian language. “There had been an earlier translation from the 1960s I believe, by Dr Samuel Berwick, but has long been out of print,” he said. (See accompanying piece on Dr Benwick’s Thirukkural.)

Dr Geraghty has lived and worked in Fiji all his adult life. He has an MA in modern languages from Cambridge and a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Hawaii. He has a way with languages and when I was in Fiji I have often been amazed at his perspicacity while discussing the finer points of the grammar and syntax of Indian languages.

“I don't read or speak Tamil, so I worked from existing English and French translations. Not ideal obviously, but necessary under the circumstances,” he said. It took him two years to finish the translation. “I worked at home in my spare time at night.”

Before coming to the university he was director of the Institute of Fijian Language and Culture for many years. He is well known in Fiji as a broadcaster and columnist specialising in the languages, culture and history of Fiji and the Pacific, and author of numerous books and academic articles. In 1999 he was made Officer of the Order of Fiji by the then President, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, for services to the Fijian language.

Dr Geraghty’s new translation has been published by the Reddy Group of Companies, one of Fiji’s leading business houses with interests in hotels and construction. While declaring the book published, former Vice President of Fiji Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi said, “In order for the Fijian language to continue to survive, it was important that such works were translated and read by people.”

“The reaction has been very favourable from all quarters,” Dr Geraghty said. “Radio Fiji's Fijian programme has devoted quite a bit of time to quoting from the book.”

– With additional reporting by Padmini Gaunder
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Dr Benwick’s Thirukkural

This was not the first time that Thirukkural has been translated into the Fijian language. Dr Samuel Benwick wrote an earlier translation in 1962. Unfortunately there are no copies of the book available publicly today. But there is a chance that there might be one available at the National Archives in Fiji.

Swami Rudrananda, who established the Ramakrishna Mission in Fiji in 1953, got Dr Berwick to translate the Thirukkural to mark the birth centenary of Swami Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.

Dr Berwick, at that time, used to be the editor of the Fijian section of the Pacific Review, a newspaper that used to be published from Nadi by Swami Rudrananda and A. D. Patel. Half of it was in English and the other half in Fijian, which was called Vakalewa ni Pasifika.

Dr Berwick also translated the Ramayana into Fijian by serialising it every week in the paper and later publishing it as a book with the help of R.O. Sharma of Nadi. 

Swami Rudrananda was perhaps the first to introduce multiracial/multicultural activities in Fiji as a means of bringing the different ethnic groups together. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who admired and supported Swami Rudrananda, later made multiracialism/multiculturalism the official policy of his Alliance government for integrating the nation.  

Swami Rudrananda’s multiracial/multicultural initiatives included establishing multiracial schools at a time when the colonial government forbade such schools. Swami Rudrananda, who had originally come to help the TISI Sangam, made sure that the Sangam schools and the Sri Vivekananda High School that he established were open to children of all ethnic groups. He also organised interfaith services. As mentioned earlier, he also had newspapers in English and Fijian (and also Hindi).

- Padmini Gaunder

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Pears from Thirukkural
•    Humility is a precious quality in all people but it becomes a priceless possession in the wealthy.
•    Whatever you may fail to guard, guard well your tongue, for flawed speech unfailingly invokes anguish and affliction.
•    Unless painstakingly performed, a task will not succeed even if men in multitudes support it.
•    Load too many of them and even peacock feathers Would break the cart's axle.
•    Even faultless and deeply learned men, when closely examined, Are rarely found to be entirely free from ignorance.