Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 13 February 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Galle Literary Festival and issue of translation

Against the backdrop of the 5th Galle Literary Festival, I would like to focus readers' attention to one of the perennial issues that confronts the literary arena, namely, the importance of translations and the pivotal role of translations in enriching world literature.

I would like to report and discuss the session on translations at the Galle Literary Festival of 2011, entitled Translator and Translated but I confine this column to explore the theme of translations specifically from English into vernacular and vice versa.

This week's column would serve as a prelude to my discussion on the session and its widespread implications on the future prospects of translation industry in Sri Lanka.

Particularly, against the backdrop of increasing mono-lingual readership (Sinhalese, Tamil and English media), Sri Lankan translation industry need to play a pivotal role in bridging not only the linguistic gaps among the country's multi-ethnic and multi-lingual readership, but also making the rich Sinhalese and Tamil literary canons accessible to an inter and intra national audience through meaningful translations. It is one of the ways by which Sri Lanka can make a mark on world literature.

Translation as a craft

It is pertinent here, albeit in brief, to examine translation as a specialist's task. The skills required for any good translation is a prerequisite to perform the task of translation for the benefit of the readers at large. Translation is the process of transferring written or spoken Source Language (SL) text to correspondent written or spoken Target Language (TL) text. The simple purpose of translation is to produce diverse genres of work into a TL, thus, making them available to specific readership or target group.

One of the primary prerequisite for a translator is to be well versed not only in the Source Language (SL), but also in the Target Language (TL). Mono-linguals and semi-literate personalities' entry into the translation industry of a country would only result in the production of poor translations and on most of the instances, trans-distortions!

Understandably, such poor works would cause greater harm to the original text, particularly in the light of creating distorted impressions on the readers who could access the work only as translations. In this regards, the role of a translator is of paramount importance.

One of the pre-requisites of an effective translator is that he or she should possess an excellent command not only both the SL and the TL, but also a greater understanding of specific cultural norms and mores associated with them. For instance, a novice graduate or a life-long reporter would not make an ideal editor of a newspaper for the simple reason that written or spoken texts cannot either be converted into a cohesive set of arguments.

In both cases, their understanding of the language is destined to be mean and superficial making them extremely poor writers. Inability to grasp subtle nuances of a chosen language and idiom would make such reprehensible characters either poor translators or trans-distorters. One of the major issues confronting the contemporary Sri Lankan industry of translation is that whether we have competent and professional translators who are capable of making rich literary cannon in vernaculars truly accessible to a cosmopolitan readership.

State of translations in Sri Lanka

It is pertinent to look at the present state of translation industry in Sri Lanka before embarking on a discussion on the issues facing the industry. The scope for translations in the contemporary Sinhalese literary landscape is wide considering the crisis of the Sinhalese novel. Increasingly mono-lingual readerships (in Sinhalese and Tamil) look for higher quality translations with a view to accessing high quality literary as well as non literary works of post-modern literati and world literature such as French, Russian and Latin American literature.

The diasporic Sri Lankans are longing for English translation of Sinhalese and Tamil literary work, particularly with the intention of making them accessible to second generation of Sri Lankan migrants. It is a fact that the second generation of Sri Lankan migrants are more at home with languages such as French and German than with either Sinhala or Tamil. In addition to those two categories, globalised cosmopolitan readers are searching for literary works in translations particularly from Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, the issue is whether the Sri Lankan translation industry is capable of cashing in on this boom.

At present, the reality of the contemporary Sri Lankan translation industry is bleak. If the impressive infrastructure coupled with efficient service sector is required for an economic take off, vibrant translation industry requires professional translators who are capable of turning indigenous literary canons into sound literary products and who would in turn enrich the contemporary idiom and literature even in the Target Language.

There was a time in the 70s where some of the Sri Lankans including Padma Harsha Kuranage and Dadigama V Rodrigo who produced some excellent translations of Russian works into Sinhala. This positive scenario was prevalent up to the 1990s with regard to the Sinhalese translation of Russian literary work. There are a few exceptions. First, is the former Lake House journalist Thanuja Dharmapala who has done several translations which began with the Great Russian writer Afanasiev, and went on with almost all the Russian writers. In 2001, she published "Sarath Samaye Path," a collection of short stories in Sinhala which is a translated version of Russian writer Sergei Nikitheen. This Russian-Sinhala translation tradition is also taking place from Australia. In 2005, Sydney based novelist and broadcaster, Dr Palitha Ganewatta translated a collection of short stories by Anton Chekov from original Russian to Sinhala in commemoration of Chekov's 100 death anniversary.

Except for a handful of competent translators' work, Sinhalese translations of foreign literary work have, unfortunately, become a farce. This is true, to a greater extent, of the English translations of Sinhalese literary work.



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