O. V. Vijayan translated his Malayalam novel ഖസാക്കിന്റെ ഇതിഹാസം (Khasākkinte Ithihāsam) to English about three decades after it was originally published, with the title The Legends of Khasak. The Wikipedia article, citing P. P. Ravindran as a source, says:

Khasakkinte Itihasam has been translated into ... English ... differing substantially from the original in its sensibility - most readers prefer to read it as an independent novel by Vijayan in English rather than seeing it as a translation. [...]

The early Vijayan was marked by deep philosophical doubt and skepticism, but the later Vijayan upheld certitudes. The Legends of Khasak was written by the Vijayan of certitudes, which makes it a very different novel in its sensibility, in spite of being a translation.

This reminds me of the situation in Should Go Set A Watchman be read before To Kill A Mockingbird?

I can read both languages fairly well, so discounting difficulty in understanding the language itself, which work should I read earlier? The original Malayalam novel, or the English "translation"?

To underscore the difference in the works, the titles themselves are different. The Malayalam word ഇതിഹാസം is singular, and its plural is ഇതിഹാസങ്ങൾ (Ithihāsangal). Thus, the Malayalam title would be literally The Legend of Khasak, which can be interpreted differently from The Legends of Khasak. The former could mean that Khasak itself is of legend (like in the legend of El Dorado), whereas the latter implies the legends belong to Khasak (like in the legends of England).


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Read the Malayalam original first. Whatever your aim in reading the English translation, you will achieve it more readily by having the knowledge of the original in mind.

As the quote you have provided from P P Ravindran says, the two works are far enough in Vijayan's career as to belong to completely different stages in the development of his sensibility. So if you are interested in understanding how Vijayan's outlook and craft changed over the years, then it makes sense to start with the earlier version and move to the later.

If on the other hand you are interested in seeing how Vijayan adapts the same story to different audiences (Malayali vs. global, regional vs. cosmopolitan, insider vs. outsider, or however you want to frame the difference), again it makes sense to start with the original and then go through the translation with an eye out for the changes.

Even if you are interested only in seeing how The Legends of Khasak fits within the tradition of Indian novels in English, knowing what the original is like will deepen your understanding of how English writing in India works when compared to the vernacular traditions.

The Malayalam version can augment your understanding of the English in all these ways; broadly similar arguments can be made for any other goals you have in mind for reading the English version. The converse is not true. The only way that the English version will help your understanding of the Malayalam one is if it lowers some language barrier. But you've already indicated that you are equally competent in both languages, so that's not an issue.

Note: I said understanding, not appreciation. It is certainly true that juxtaposing the two versions will lead to an enhanced appreciation of both; for this reason (and many unrelated ones) your fluency in both languages is enviable. But reading the English one first won't help you trace Vijayan's development, or see how a different audience requires changes, or judge how Indian novels in English fit into the entirety of the literary traditions of the subcontinent, etc. And it would be awkward to get those insights retrospectively, by reverse-engineering them as it were while reading the Malayalam original afterwards.

If the Malayalam version had been merely an early draft that didn't stand on its own and was interesting only insofar as it was the origin of a more complete and successful English novel, then there would be no point reading it first; its value would depend solely on the later work. But given that it has its own identity and is practically a different novel altogether, reading the two texts in chronological order makes sense.

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