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Sunday, 25 September 2011





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Critical perspectives in cultural journalism

The publication of a series of critical essays compiled under the title Cultural Scene thus far by young journalist and cultural critic Indeewara Thilakarathne marks an important development in contemporary cultural journalism in Sri Lanka.

An important aspect of the book is that the critical essays in the book deal with a wide range of topics ranging from mundane issues such as literary awards, literary festivals gangsterism in arts and culture to more philosophical areas such as linguistic nationalism and modern literary theories such as postcolonial literature.

Author : Indeewara Thilakarathne
Publisher : Samaranayake Publishers

Although the essays are in the order that they had been appeared in Montage, Cultural Paradigm of Sunday Observer, the essays can be broadly catogorised into several segments on account of the subject area they deal with. However, the writer's primary focus seems to be on Sri Lankan literary scene and on the standards, status and future of contemporary Sri Lankan literary productions both in Sinhalese and English. The author has particularly paid attention to evolving scenario in the fields of contemporary Sri Lankan arts and literature. One of the significant aspects of the book is the higher degree of objectivity that the author maintains throughout his essays and the meticulous research that the author has done in writing the essays.

Major issues

Among the major issues that the essays deal with, standard of language within the domain of literary production is prominent. Among other things, the author has clearly pointed out that maintenance of higher standards of language both in literary production and in translations is sine qua non for the nation to carve a niche for its literature in the international literary market.

In the essay entitled 'Linguistic nationalism as a facet of decolonization and new writings', the author deals with the evolution of literature in postcolonial Sri Lanka and writes about the growing corpus of Sri Lankan diasporic literature both in English and Singhalese.

Quoting Singaporean poet laureate and academic Prof. Edwin Thumboo, the author points out that the teaching of English language has become a lucrative industry:

"Prof. Thumboo pointed out that this authority that British exercise over English has created a linguistic imperialism. He cites a few examples from Robert Philipson's Linguistic Imperialism (1992). Undoubtedly, Robert Phillipson has made a major contribution to our understanding of the social construction of English as a 'world language' representing potent symbolic medium within the global cultural economy expanding our knowledge on creating a culture of imperialism through English language.

Professor Thumboo giving an exclusive interview to the Sunday Observer stated t "for economic and diplomatic reasons English, the language more than literature, offered opportunities to move into a lucrative niche within the educational set up of almost all the former colonies. These countries needed English for a host of reasons. It created a new imperialism".

Robert Philipson has stated in Linguistic Imperialism "to put more metaphorically, whereas once Britain ruled the waves, now it is English which rules them. The British empire has given way to the Empire of English".


Prof. Thumboo stressed that reasons for control of the expansion of English was the massive employment and income it generated. There are many acronyms to promote the language. One such term is ELT (English Language Teaching) which has boomed over the past 30 years, and seen a proliferation of university departments, language schools, publications, conferences, and all the paraphernalia of established professions.

ELT is also a billion-pound business, described in an Economic Intelligence Unit study of English as "world commodity", in a report written to promote strategies for capitalising further on this growth industry."

He has further stressed that "while the enforcing political power behind English ceased with decolonisation, blunt economic realities that took full advantage of the need for English. The lost empire was cushioned by assiduously cultivated and profitable English imperia; subtle, insinuating and therefore more insidious, invested in purveyors of English language, the specialists. There was also KELP which stands for Key English Language Personnel. The colonial distance was now linguistic distance, with room for maintaining a profitable disparity. Acronyms mushroomed, among them TESOL and ESP: Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages and English for Special Purposes."

In the same essay, the author observes the growing Sri Lankan diasporic literature both in English and Sinhalese and the major themes such as loss of belonging and 'change of skies' that dominate the writings of Sri Lankan diasporic writers.

Standards of language

One of the important areas that some of the essays in Cultural Scene thus far , deals with, is the standards of language. The author argues whether one can reduce the very notion of decolonisation or de-hegemonising language to reconstitution of basic structure of the language to such a degree that it would be hardly difficult for speakers of one dialect could understand, respond to, speakers another dialect. The issue is, briefly, discussed in the essay entitled 'International Standard English or 'Singlish'?' .

The crux of the argument is that international standard should be maintained, at least, in international languages such as English in the area of literary productions so that they can be read and enjoyed by an international readership and enjoy a rightful place in the international literary market.

Exclusively quoting from the book 'The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English' by Prof. Manique Gunesekera, the author questions why the proponents of the so-called sub-varieties of English do not use the same sub-variety they propagate and stand for. " Prof. Manique Gunesekera in "The Post Colonial Identity of Sri Lankan English", defines Sri Lankan English as "The language used by Sri Lankans who choose to use English for whatever purpose in Sri Lanka."

However, she states in no ambiguous terms that most of the speakers of Sri Lankan English, even the speakers of standard version Sri Lankan English, do not accept the very existence of Sri Lankan English.

Prof. Gunesekera points out that overarching influence of Sinhalese and Tamils on Sri Lankan English is manifested by syntax and morphology of Sri Lankan English. Although the question of existence or non-existence of the variety of English termed as Sri Lankan English should best be left to the academics. The rationale behind promotion of such regionalised version of English is questionable.

The power of English language lies in its ability to communicate across ethnic, racial and geographical frontiers and as a common and perhaps a neutral language.

If English is to be promoted as an international language, a language of global communication, it is the International Standard English that should be promoted and not a regionalised variety of it.

The influence and promotion of Sri Lankan English is one of the reasons that contemporary Sri Lankan literature in English does not reach international literary market in a substantial manner.

In the context of postcolonial writers including Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, Prof. Gunesekera says, "...These writers may represent plural identities, but they have chosen to write in English: in a variety of English which can be described as international Standard English.

This variety is grounded in Sri Lankan culture, in the same way that Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" (1997) is steeped in Kerala culture, but she, in the case of these Sri Lankan writers, uses international Standard English. This is a variety of English, which is acceptable and understood by an international readership of users of English."

Her book on Sri Lankan English was written in International Standard English and not in 'Sri Lankan English'...".

State of translations

One of the important areas that the Cultural Scene thus far deals with is translations. The author in an essay entitled 'Importance of translations to literature', emphasises on the important role that translations play in a given literary culture, particularly making literature in native tongue accessible to a wider audience in translation.

The global translation industry has grown rapidly leading to the creation of literatures in translations. For instance, Russian, Chinese and Latin American literatures have been widely read in their translations.

The author, apart from describing the rich Sri Lankan translation tradition in the past, has also expressed his options and critical observations on the contemporary Sri Lankan translation industry.

Parlous state of translations

Over the years the once rich Sri Lankan tradition of translations has, unfortunately, reduced into a proverbial pulp making industry.

Although there are exceptional translations, most of the translations both from English into Sinhala and vice versa belonged to the above category.

They are marked for their inferior quality of language, causing irreparable damages to the original author. For instance, in some of the Sinhalese translations, original works often in English have been indiscriminately reduced into one third offering only the part of anatomy of the work to the Sinhala readers.

The important questions are that what is the right of the translator to reduce the original work into one third of it? Has the translator done justice to readers? Or is the translator a traitor to both the original writer as well as to readers who are eagerly waiting for quality translations? "

Cultural Scene thus far, offers a critical perspective on the contemporary Sri Lankan arts and culture and the dramatic personae dominating the scene. There are numbers of essays that the author has dedicated to feature Sri Lankan as well as international literati. Prominent among them are essays on Mahatma Gandhi, Eva Ranaweera, Martin Wickremasinghe, Prof.Edwin Thumboo, Raja Rao, Aravin Adiga, Gunadasa Amerasekara, Dayasena Gunasinghe and Sugathapala de Silva. All in all, Cultural Scene thus far, provides readers with an informative read on wide ranging subjects in general and on Sri Lankan arts, culture and literature in particular.



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