New wave of translators waiting in the wings | Sunday Observer

New wave of translators waiting in the wings

5 July, 2020

There are new waves of translators. Some of them are good or almost good. The first consists of translators who are now in their sixties or seventies. Those who belong to the second wave of translators are in their late twenties or thirties. Some of them seem to be properly guided by competent translators. Others seem to follow a trial and error method.

Whatever that may be, modern translators should emulate the example of Elizabethan translators who helped to found a new culture. They believed that translators should relate their work and their art to the living literary interests and central cultural activities of the epoch to which they belong. As Goethe said in 1827, “Translation remains one of the most important and worthiest concerns in the totality of world affairs.”

A translator’s first aim should be to produce a readable text, not a line-for-line or word-to-word translation of the original text. An accurate rendering of the words is not considered a good translation.

The problem lies in our inability to find corresponding idioms in our own language. A literal translation of an English text will not reflect the living language. For straightforward reading we need to use contemporary expressions.

Some translators omit difficult passages of the original text. Even a competent translator such as Peter Green who translated books from Latin into English faced two main problems.

The first was achieving a version which will both convey the force and flavour of its original text. The second was capturing the skilful rhythmic variations and the display of alliteration and assonance.

David Karunaratne who translated more than 25 Sinhala books into English retained the simple and lucid style of the original work. He did not change the narrative or the style of the language. A competent translator should be able to give a literal translation without contravening grammatical rules.

German scholar

When the eminent German scholar, Wilhelm Geiger translated the Sinhala Grammar into English, Munidasa Cumaratunga had failed to recognise the power of Sinhala as a living language and its unique structure.

John Butt who translated Voltaire’s Candide said, “A translator may reflect that however difficult it is to recapture the grace of the original, he has only himself to blame if he fails to convey the essence of the original.”

Today a translator should be competent in at least two languages. Unless you have a firm grasp of the two languages, learning translation methods will be a useless exercise. However, it is not easy to master two languages for a young person. To learn a foreign language well, you have to dedicate several years. An aspiring translator has to learn the grammatical rules in depth and read literary works to gain an in-depth knowledge. Therefore, a translator’s job is not an easy one.

Difficult task

The need for translators arose in the latter part of the 1950s when Sinhala was made the official language. Those who attended school after that time studied in the Sinhala or Tamil medium relegating English to the backseat. At that time there were competent translators who knew Sinhala and English well.

However, with the passage of time a new crop of translators came to the scene. Most of them knew their mother tongue but had only an elementary knowledge of English. They started translating with the use of English – Sinhala dictionaries. With the advent of computers there came into being online English – Sinhala dictionaries. But these dictionaries have only a limited value when it comes to translations.

A competent translator should be able to translate the meaning of an English passage into Sinhala without translating every word in the text.

This is a difficult task when you are not familiar with idiomatic expressions. When he feels very hungry an Englishman would say, “I could eat a horse.”

If you translate it into Sinhala word-to-word, you will write, Mata ashvayek kannapuluvani. However, the correct Sinhala translation will be, Mata yakek kanna badagini.

Translators should avoid mistranslations. In the past ‘the universal joint’ found in vehicles was translated into Sinhala as Sarvaloka Poottuva. ‘Albert Crescent’ (the name of an Englishman) was translated into Sinhala as Albert Chandravanka.

Michael Grant who translated Greek books into English says, “A translation inevitably loses something of the original; the whole question is to decide what losses one ought to cut.” Never have these problems of translations been more widely discussed than they are today. Never have the advantages and disadvantages of this and that method of dealing with them been so vigorously and actively canvassed and dispatched.

Back in the days of the Elizabethans, translators were powerfully aware of the job they had to do.”


Today we agree that a translation is a recreation of the original text. W.A. Silva admirably recreated Rider Haggard’s She into Sinhala as Luxmi Hevath Nonesena Rejiniya. Martin Wickramasinghe followed the same tradition. His Madolduva was a recreation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. His Ape Gama was a recreation of M.R. Mitford’s My Village. Hemapala Munidasa too translated the Indian epic, The Mahabharatha into Sinhala. Prof. Somaratne Balasooriya translated Albert Camu’s L’Etranger as Pitastharaya in lucid Sinhala.

It was a Herculean task as the original novel projected the theme of existentialism. I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla’s Manuthapaya is the Sinhala version of the great literary work of the French writer Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.Ven. Welivitiye Soratha Thera said, Manuthapaya is an abridged transmutation of the celebrated French novel.” According to him, the language of the translation must be simple, comprehensive, appealing, refined and free from grammatical errors.”

The way of a translator must always be attended by two feelings – Hope and prickling doubt. A translator’s distinctive skill lies in the very shape of the words he chooses and the pattern into which they are thrown. He has to realise that language is flesh, rather than the clothing, feeling or thought.

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