By Susanna Brail
Sri Lanka’s literary landscape has a very particular space for translated work. Hundreds of translations are launched in this island nation by its relatively small publishing community, which as a number, is very insignificant compared with India and Bangladesh. However, as a presentation against the original work published in two main languages spoken in the island nation and the little the English writers in Sri Lanka do, translations into Sinhala record the majority.
For this exclusive interview an emerging translator joins Asia Riview from Colombo, Sri Lanka
Can you tell our readers about your debut? What paved the path to your profession as a translator, and what are the key milestones of your journey?
My debut in the publishing world happened in 2015 with the book I wrote called “Literary Techniques.” It is a book written for anyone who is learning English literature. Ashirwada Publishers gave me that opportunity as they learned of my interest to write and translate and the knowledge I possessed of the subject as a languages graduate from the University of Kelaniya. Afterwards, since they knew I would like to try my hand at literary translations and had already seen a sample translated by me, they offered me the chance to translate Jewels by Danielle Steel. I liked the idea and the book. So, I accepted that offer. As a result, I became a published translator in 2016 with Miniketa.
I would say the key milestones of my journey were my first book (Literary Techniques) and first translation (Minketa), then, the translation of Victoria Holt’s The India Fan as Monara Pile Shapaya and also translating The Lunar Chronicles (my first novel series translation). These are some of the books most loved by my readers too. Moreover, earlier this year, my 25th translation was published. Reaching that milestone was very special for me as a literary translator.
The translator’s job is the slice of cheese between cultural adaptation and originality: can you elaborate on how you deal with this complex demand, the challenges you face, and the tools and skills you possess and offer quality work to your readers?
A translator’s main duty is presenting the meaning of the original text clearly, without changing that meaning, in the target language. For me, this is a job of translating from English to Sinhala. All the novels I have translated so far come from English or American authors. When translating such novels, other than the English language and its different aspects such as colloquial terms, slang, etc. I also need to have an understanding of their culture. My goal as a translator has always been being faithful to the original text.
Fortunately, I have studied English literature and language as a subject in both high school and the university. Consequently, I have an understanding of both English and American literature. Besides, I have always been an avid reader. Therefore, I know how to understand work of different authors, no matter what culture they are from. Also, as a languages student, I always had to translate between two languages. Because I wanted to become a professional translator one day, I even studied a subject called Translation Methods at the University of Kelaniya. All of this has equipped me with the knowledge and the discipline necessary to deliver a good and faithful literary translation of a book I choose to translate.
Additionally, my job as a freelance translator helps me to get more of an understanding of translation as there I have to deal with mostly technical translations. The knowledge and practice I gather by translating nonfiction books, articles or magazines become a great help in my literary translation ventures.
Moreover, I read and write in both Sinhala and English. That is the best way to improve my knowledge of the languages and develop my skills as a writer and translator.
It is vital for a translator to excel in the skills in dealing with personal bias, especially when you are handling cross-cultural work: how do you relate these aspects to your area of work?
First of all, before I start translating any book, I make sure to read it and understand the story and the different subject matters I have to deal with as a translator. Since I am a reader before a translator, any book I choose to translate has to be one that satisfies me as a reader first. This is very important because if I choose a book I do not find enjoyable or interesting, spending months with it during the process of translation becomes an exhausting experience. It also can have a negative effect on the final work. Therefore, all the books I choose to translate are ones I personally enjoy. Once you enjoy someone’s work it is easy to set aside any personal bias you might have about certain details about a work. Since throughout the years, I have matured as a reader, writer and translator, I am able to look at this work by someone else in a much more open minded way. As a result, even if certain cultural aspects may not be something I like or even I am that much familiar with as someone from a different culture, they do not bother me. I try my best to find the most accurate and the most suitable way to translate all this and present a complete work to the reader of my translations. So, you will not find parts missing from the original text in my translations due to some personal bias or any other reason.
What is the most challenging book you have translated so far, and why? How did you deal with it?
I find that each book comes with their own set of challenges. That said the most challenging book or rather books, I have translated so far are actually a trilogy. It is the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden. Other than the normal challenges a translator is presented with, these books posed the challenge of providing the accurate pronunciation of Russian names and Russian words used in the text. As someone who takes pronunciation of names seriously, I made sure to listen to the audio books and even follow some Russian pronunciation guides in order to find the correct pronunciation and provide that as accurately as possible in Sinhala. Also, this series belongs to the fantasy genre, historical fantasy to be specific. So, there was the challenge of making sure the story was presented well with all the tools necessary for the readers to understand certain elements mainly because fantasy is not a very popular genre in Sri Lanka. For that, I used the glossary provided by the author herself. I also made sure to insert footnotes at necessary places in the books. The storyline deals with some parts of the Russian history along with the fantasy element. Therefore, it was very important to understand the story and present it right. I read what other information I could find and listened to the author’s ideas in order to make sure I understood the story correctly and presented it well to the Sinhala reader.
What do you think about the publishing landscape in Sri Lanka? What needs to improve?
I think the publishing landscape in Sri Lanka is evolving. I hope that would lead to more authors and translators getting a chance to show their colours and getting their work published without so many obstacles. I personally would like to see genres such as fantasy, horror or sci-fi getting more recognition and space. Authors of good work of fiction under these categories put a lot of hard work into their creations just like romance or historical fiction books which are popular. Also, while there are publishers who give a chance to new authors or translators I wish it would reach a stage where a talented outsider without any industry connections can enter the field based on just talent. I am an outsider who got such a chance to enter the field because my publisher, Ashirwada Publishers, saw my talent and wanted to give me a chance.
A good translation is a window to the world. Is your contribution to your island nation adequately recognised and appreciated?
My readers recognize and appreciate my work. It has reached a point where there are readers who read the most recent translations by me and want to read and collect all of my previous translations as well. At the end of the day, I translate so that people can enjoy the English stories I enjoyed, in Sinhala. There are even established writers and translators of Sri Lanka who appreciate my work. All of their words of encouragement have helped me to grow as a translator.
What is the most unforgettable encounter in your life with your readership?
There are a few moments like that. But I would like to mention just two of them even though I have to choose one. Firstly, the time I met an elderly lady at Colombo International Book Fair when I was giving autographs was very memorable. This was, I think, the first time I went to sign books. When I got to see her joy in meeting me and her words of appreciation and encouragement I felt proud about my work. I also was somewhat surprised and happy to see that my readership was so vast and did not consist of just young people but also older people who love reading.
Secondly, the opportunity I got to meet and talk with readers as well as non readers of my translations at the Colombo Public Library at an event organized by the Colombo Public Library Readers and Writers Forum this September was unforgettable. I got the chance to answer some interesting questions by the readers. I even had the pleasure of meeting the library staff including the Chief Librarian. This is very special because Colombo Public Library is one of the top libraries in the country.
How do you see the relationship between politics and literature?
It is a relationship that exists based on the writer’s intent. If the writer wants to, he or she can include some political message into the work he or she creates. However, it is not something a writer must definitely do. Of course, you can often see some sort of subtle political message in most fiction as politics is part of our human society. It is hard to completely ignore it.
We often see literature as a means of conveying political messages successfully because a writer can present their message beautifully through a story. A lot of people listen to this and understand it in this form than a blunt speech they get to listen to. Nevertheless, I think this is a great power that the writer needs to wield very carefully. At the same time, the reader should be smart enough to not accept just anything presented in this way but ask the necessary questions.
New project (s) in the pipeline? Could you give us a hint?
There are a couple of translations I have completed. I am particularly excited about one of them because it is a book from an author I have not translated from before. Also, the novel is one I personally like very much. I hope when it is published readers will enjoy it like I did. Moreover, since a few of my short stories have been published in the past few years, I hope to write more. Hopefully, this will result in some good stories I will be proud to share with the world.
What is the message you would like to give to emerging translators in your country?
This will not be an easy journey but do not lose hope. Always respect and value the original text. Do justice to the work of the original author. Always have the need to hone your skills. Listen to others’ criticism, but only trust the advice given by people who have an understanding of your work and genuinely want to see you flourish as a translator.
Well responded. Congrats.