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Problem of Equivalence in Translating English Articles into Tamil

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1.0 Introduction

The art of translation has had a very long history. It is almost as old as written literature. It has been shown that fragmentary versions of the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic have been founded in four or five Asiatic languages of the 2nd millennium B.C1 . Even in China about 781, according to the Nestorian inscription of singantu, 27 books of Jesus were2 known, probably as translations.

Tamil has a very rich output of translated works since time immemorial. Very long ago Sanskrit works and classics found their entry into Tamil. Later, the period of bhakti movement in Tamil literary history witnessed a series of bhakti literatures being transferred into Tamil. In the medieval period, the urge for scholarship in literary as well as philosophical works yielded renditions of treatises in various fields into Tamil. The arrival of European and British traders on Tamil soil in the following centuries made momentous changes in the translation scenario in Tamil and effected a telling land-mark in the history of translation. Soon followed renditions of works from a few European languages, mostly from English, into Tamil.

Tolkaappiyar, the ancient Tamil grammarian refers to the art of translation in his monumental grammatical work 'Tolkaappiyam'. He classifies 'nuul' "book" into two kinds viz., 'mutalnuul' (original work) and 'va?inuul' (adapted work). Translation is listed under adapted works.

"tokuttal virittal tokaiviri mo?ipeyarttu

atarppa?a yaattaloru a?ai marapi?avee" (1597)

This proves the antiquity of translation in Tamil.

2.0 Definition of Translation

Translation has been defined as the replacement and transfer of 'message' from one language into another. Recent theories look translation in the light of speech act and discourse theories and define translation as the phenomenon of replacement of a text in a source language by a semantically and pragmatically equivalent text in the target language with the same 'illocutionary effect' (House, 1977:28). Translation has also been considered as the transfer of 'signs' from one language into another giving it a semiotic dimension.

3.0 Equivalence in Translation

Debates on whether translation is 'possible' or 'impossible' have led the people interested in translation to think on the aspect of faithfulness and fidelity in translation and later on to questions like whether translations are to be literal or liberal, etc. Some tend to dwell on this - question of literal and liberal. They say that the two are incompatible, i.e., what is 'beautiful' cannot be 'faithful' and what is 'faithful' can not be 'beautiful'.

The first step in the process of translating a source language text is to find suitable equivalents in the target language. The term 'equivalence' is actually a key term in translation and it has been defined variously by different scholars. Any 'good' or 'accurate' translation presupposes an 'exact' or 'correct' equivalence being rendered at linguistic, extra linguistic and paralinguistic levels in the target language.

4.0 Structure of English and Tamil Languages

English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages. Geographically English is the most widespread language on the earth and is second only to Mandarin Chinese with regard to the number of speakers. Modern English is analytic. It has pre-positions. Tense and time in English are indicated by auxiliaries that are always placed before the main verbs. In interrogative sentences auxiliaries are shifted to the front position. Adjectives and noun qualifiers always precede the nouns they qualify. It is the only European language which employs uninflected adjectives. Syntactically English is an SVO language. The word order is rather rigid and fixed in English. In complex sentences, the subordinate clause follows the main clause.

Tamil is the principal and the major representative language of the Dravidian family. It has a very rich literary history and tradition which starts well before the Christian era. Among the Dravidian languages it is the most widespread language and has a considerable number of speakers in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Mauritius and South Africa, besides India.

Modern Tamil is agglutinative and is diglossic. It has post-positions. Suffixation is found to be the major process of word formation in Tamil. Tense in Tamil is indicated by tense suffixes which are agglutinated with the verb stems. Auxiliaries in Tamil are always placed after the main verbs. Adjectives are always placed before the nouns they qualify. Syntactically Tamil is an SOV language, that is, the language in which the object is placed before the verb. The word order in Tamil is relatively free and flexible. In complex sentences, subordinate clause always precedes the main clause.

5.0 Articles in English and in Tamil

Articles are considered as a subclass of determiners in English. Determiners are words which specify the range of reference of a noun in various ways, e.g., by making it definite (the boy), indefinite (a boy) or by indicating quantity (many boys). In English determiners always precede the noun they determine. Articles come under the category called central determiners which are the most important in the determiner category4.

Problem of Equivalence in Translating English Articles into Tamil 

There are two articles in English, namely, the definite and the indefinite. Old English did not have a separate category called articles. The function of indefinite article was performed by the numeral 'ān' "one", or by the adjective pronoun 'sum' "a (certain)" or the function was not expressed at all. The definite article was either expressed by the demonstrative which is used in the meaning of 'that' or not expressed at all5.

Two different systems of article use have been set up depending on the type of reference in English6, i.e., specific and generic. While specific reference points out a particular object, generic reference designates the whole class of objects referred to.

Going by the accounts given by G.V. Pope7 and Lehmann8, it can be generally concluded that there are no articles in Tamil. Many a time the indefinite adjectival 'oru' in Tamil can be compared with the English indefinite article. But Tamil has no separate category for 'a' and 'an'.

The English definite article 'the' can be equated with the determiners 'anta' "that" and 'inta' "this" in Tamil. These forms are also demonstratives. The definite article 'the', like its indefinite counterpart, does not have any precise equivalent in Tamil.

6.0 Problem of Equivalence in Translating English Articles into Tamil

We will see hereunder the problems faced in translating the English constructions that have articles in general and English articles in particular. The problems encountered and the various equivalents available in Tamil for English articles are grouped under two different heads - those dealing with indefinite article 'a' and 'an and those concerning the definite article 'the'. We will discuss various possible equivalents one by one under each head.

6.1  Indefinite Article 'a' and 'an'

As said earlier there is no exact or separate category of indefinite article in Tamil. However English indefinite article 'a' and 'an' can mostly be equated with the adjectival form 'oru' in Tamil which occurs in pre-nominal position. In some instances cardinal numeral 'oṉṟu' can be compared with 'a' / 'an'. There are also certain instances in which the definite article in English is said to have had no equivalent item in Tamil.

When constructions having the English indefinite article are analyzed and translated, the following seem to be the probable equivalents in Tamil for the indefinite article in English.

1.  Adjectival form 'oru'

2. Ordinal numeral 'oru' / Cardinal numeral 'oṉṟu'/ Pronominalized Cardinal Numerals 'oruva' /  'orutti' / 'oruva' / 'oruvar'.

3. Zero article

4. Adjectival phrase 'oree maatiriyaaa'

6.1.1 Adjectival form 'oru'

Sentences having indefinite article in which the indefinite article can be substituted by 'one of' and in which the noun in the predicate part of the sentence can be considered a hyperonym of the noun in the subject part, when translated into Tamil, will get 'oru' as the equivalent.


1. Copper is a metal,

"taamiram oru ulookam".

2. He is a doctor,

"avar oru aakar".

6.1.2 Ordinal numeral 'oru' / Cardinal Numeral 'oṉṟu' / Pronominalised Cardinal Numerals 'oruva' / 'orutti' / 'oruva' / 'oruvar'

Sentences wherein the indefinite article is used in the sense of its original numeral 'one' and those wherein it is used as a function word before singular nouns other than proper and mass nouns, when translated into Tamil, will get the form 'oru' which is the adjectival form of the cardinal numeral 'oṉṟu' or the cardinal numeral 'oṉṟu' itself. The adjectival form always occurs in the prenominal position. However the cardinal numeral occurs always in the post-nominal position. Further pronominalised cardinal numerals9 'oruva' / 'orutti' / 'oruvar' can occur in the place of the cardinal numeral 'oṉṟu' depending on the gender and number of the noun that follows the article in English.


1. There was a tree in the ground

a. "anta maitaaattil oru maram iruntatu".

b. "anta maitaaattil maram oṉṟu iruntatu".

2. He bought a house.

a. "ava oru viiu vaakiaa"

b. "ava viiu oṉṟu vaakiaa"

6.1.3 Zero Article

When English sentences having indefinite article, which occurs with the names of diseases, are translated into Tamil, the indefinite article does not have any equivalent form in Tamil, i.e., its occurrence is zero in such instances.


1. He developed tonsillitis.

"avaukkut toṇṭaippu vantatu".

When indefinite article is used in the sense of 'any' to single out an individual as the representative of a class no equivalent form is employed in Tamil.


1. A student should obey his teacher.

a. "maaava aaciriyarukkuk kiippaiya veeṇṭum"

2. A hotel should have adequate sanitary workers,

a. "uavuviuti pootumaaa tuppuravut toilaaarka vaittu irukka veeṇṭum".

6.1.4 Adjectival Phrase 'oree maatiriyaaa'

In certain English sentences indefinite article means 'same'. In such instances the indefinite article occurs mostly after prepositions 'of' and 'at'. When such sentences are translated into Tamil, the translated Tamil sentences will have an adjectival phrase 'oree maatiriyaaa'.


1. Birds of a feather flock together

"oree maatiriyaaa paavaika

oṉṟu ceerum"

2. Men of all a sort assembled here.

"oree maatiriyaaa tamaiyuaiya maitarka

ikee kuuiaarka"

3. Spears of a length were abundant in Akbar's armory.

"oree maatiriyaaa niiamuaiya iiṭṭikal

akpari paacaaiyil eeraaamaaka iruntaa".

6.2  Definite Article 'the'

The English definite article does not have any precise equivalent in Tamil (G.U. Pope, 1979:25). In Tamil demonstrative determiners 'anta' "that" and 'inta' "this" can be equated with the English definite article 'the'. There are, however, several instances in which the English article does not have any marked or explicit equivalent in Tamil when translated.

When sentences having the English definite article 'the' have been translated, the definite article 'the' seems to be taking any one of the following equivalents in Tamil depending upon the context and usage.

1. Demonstrative Determiner 'anta'/'inta'

2. Zero equivalent

3. Emphatic clitic 'ee'/'taa'

6.2.1 Demonstrative Determiner 'anta'/'inta':-

The two demonstrative determiners 'anta meaning "that" and 'inta' meaning "this" occur in pre-nominal positions. These determiners specify or identify the referent of a noun phrase by describing the referent's proximity or remoteness to the speaker. While 'inta' shows proximity to the speaker, 'anta' denotes remoteness.

English constructions having the definite article 'the' which points out something and acts as a demonstrative when translated into Tamil will have demonstrative determiners 'anta'/'inta' as equivalents. In translations it is to be noted that 'anta' is more probable and appropriate in several contexts.


1. I met him at the Church.

"naa avaai anta/inta aalayattil cantittee".

2. I went to the hospital to see my uncle,

"naa anta/inta maruttuvamaaikku e

maamaavaip paarkkac ceṉṟee".

3. Let us go to the hotel.

"naam anta/inta hooṭṭalukkup poovoom".

However, when the definite article is not being used in the sense of a demonstrative and not used to point out specifically the object it precedes, the translated sentences in Tamil, unlike the ones given above, will not have any form that can be said as the equivalent for the definite article in English.

6.2.2 Zero equivalent

English definite article occurring before names of natural phenomena, rivers, mountains, sea, state, the name of a unique object, etc., when translated into Tamil will not have any equivalent. Its occurrence in the translated sentences is simply zero.


1. The Persian gulf

"perciya vaaikuaa"

2. The Himalayas

"imayamalait toar"

3. The river Ganges

"kakai aau"

4. The sky


Definite article occurring before superlatives when translated will not also have any equivalent in Tamil.


1. The rose is the loveliest of all flowers,

"roocaa taa / ee aaittup puukkailum atika aakaana oṉṟaakum"

2. Susan is the tallest of the three

"cuucan taa / ee anta muuvaril uyaramaaava"

3. Rama is the youngest in our class

"eka vakuppil raama taa / ee iaiyava".

The definite article occurring in English constructions in which proper name precedes the adjective and when the whole phrase becomes a recognized appellation, will not also have any equivalent in Tamil when translated.


1. Alexander the great

"maaviira alaikcaaṇṭar"

2. Edward the seventh

"eeaam evaru"

3. William the conqueror

"veṟṟiviira villiam"

Constructions having the definite article in which the definite article is used with a singular countable noun to signal the qualities of an animal/object and referring to all members of a class when translated into Tamil can have (1) no article, (2) the plural suffix '-ka' (3) plural suffix '-ka' and quantity noun 'ellaam'.


1. The cat likes milk.

a. "puuai paalai virumpum"

b. "puuaika paalai virumpum"

c. "puuaika ellaam paalai virumpum".

2. The cow is a useful animal.

a. "pacu oru payauḷḷa vilaku"

b. "pacukka payauḷḷa vilakuka"

c. "pacukka ellaam payauḷḷa vilakuka".

6.2.3 Emphatic Clitic 'ee' / 'taa'

When sentences having the definite article 'the', in which the definite article is used emphatically in the sense of 'the pre-eminent', 'the typical', 'the only worth-mentioning', 'par excellence', etc., to convey that the subject of the sentence is supreme in qualities, are translated into Tamil the translated sentences will have emphatic clitic 'taa' or 'ee'.


1. He is the violinist of the day.

"avar taa /ee iṉṟaya vayali meetai".

2. Caesar is the general of Rome.

"ceecar taa / ee roomi cakkaravarutti aavaar".

3. Verb is the soul of a sentence.

"viai taa / ee vaakkiyatti uyirnaai / jiiva aakum".

7.0 Conclusion

The problems of equivalence in translating English articles into Tamil are discussed in detail in this paper. The different equivalent forms that are available in Tamil for English indefinite articles a and an and also for English definite article the are enumerated with suitable examples. Further a detailed analysis and a description of the linguistic context in English that determines the choice of a particular equivalent in Tamil are carried out and the contexts are listed out accordingly. It has been shown in this paper that the English indefinite article a and an can have (1) Adjectival form oru (2) Ordinal numeral oru / cardinal numeral oṉṟu / Pronominalized cardinal numerals oruva / orutti / oruva / oruvar (3) Zero article and (4) Adjectival phrase oree maatiriyaaa as equivalents depending on the linguistic context in which it occurs in English. Likewise, the equivalent forms that occur in Tamil for the English definite article the have also been enumerated and a detailed analysis has also been given in this paper. It is found that the definite article the can have (1) Demonstrative determiner inta / anta, (2) Zero equivalent and (3) Emphatic clitic ee / taa as equivalents depending on the linguistic context in which it occurs in English sentences. The detailed analysis of the linguistic contexts and the choice of an equivalent item in Tamil will be very useful for those who are teaching Tamil as a second language to the native speakers of English and also for those who work in the areas of translation, especially in Machine translation, lexicography and contrastive linguistic studies.


1. Encyclopeadia Americana, Vol.27, 1984, Grolier Incorporated, Danbury, p.12.

2. Encyclopeadia of Religion and Ethics, Vol.II, 1967, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, p.585.

3. Abhai Maurya, 1988, Confluence: Historico-Comparative and other Literary Studies, Sterling Publishers Private Ltd., New Delhi, p.75.

4. Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik, 1979, A Communicative Grammar of English, Longman, Harlow, p.226.

5. Encylopeadia Britannica, Vol.22, 1986, p.677.

6. Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, 1979, A University Grammar of English, Longman, Harlow, p.69.

7. G.U. Pope, 1979, A Handbook of Tamil Language, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, p.25, 193.

8. Thomas Lehmann, 1989, A Grammar of Modern Tamil, Pondicherry Institute of Linguistics and Culture, Pondicherry, p.112.

9. Ibid., p.113.


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Published - June 2010

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