One month ago, we started a community library in a small village in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. The concept of the library was simple. I asked a shopkeeper for space in her shop to keep the books in and her daughter volunteered to act as librarian. The village carpenter made four shelves [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Musings on the Book Fair


One month ago, we started a community library in a small village in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka. The concept of the library was simple. I asked a shopkeeper for space in her shop to keep the books in and her daughter volunteered to act as librarian. The village carpenter made four shelves to keep books on and thus began the library.

I fundraised amongst friends and relatives and with the early donations I managed to buy fifty books. I wanted to give them a range of reading for children, for teenagers, for young adults and older adults. I wanted to cover all genres, not too serious – many of them entertaining, but also some classics. I wanted them to be exposed to local writers as well as some translations. 

Browsing not buying: Although there were large crowds at the nine day Book Fair, sales were down. Pic by Athula Devapriya

Initially I gave them books (mostly fiction and folk tales) that were authored by Sri Lankans and covered age groups from six to early twenties. I decided to add to the library by buying more books at the recently concluded Colombo Book Fair held from September 14 – 22.

The Perera Hussein Publishing House had a stall at the Book Fair, which was manned from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and thus ensured my presence daily. It gave me time to browse and purchase books through all nine days. It was the first time I was shopping for Sinhala books at the Book Fair and it gave me the opportunity to visit small Sinhala language publishing houses, chat to the owners and ask for advice etc. An added advantage was that this year we were not in our normal halls of A or B (which hold all the English language publications) but were in Hall D surrounded by publishers just like ourselves but dealing in the Sinhala and Tamil language. 

A kindly stall keeper advised me to buy books from stalls that had their own imprints as they would be able to give me the maximum discount of 30 per cent if I told them I was buying for a library. Armed with that knowledge, I trotted off through the various aisles. I was looking to buy books written by Sinhala authors as well as some good translations. I explained to the stall keepers that the reading age of the village, even for adults, was at a maximum of O’ Levels and that I was looking for both children’s books and simple adult books.

This is what I found. There are hundreds upon hundreds of Sinhala ‘love stories’. With covers of young girls in various poses – some with a village background, some in the city – the stories ranged from being jilted in love and finding love elsewhere, poor girl falling in love with rich boy, rich girl falling in love with poor boy, girl falling in love with dancing teacher, boy falling in love with girl who is not suitable or opposed by parents, girl falling in love with boy who is in love with rich girl etc., etc. I bought six ‘love stories’ which included three novels from Edward Mallawaarachchi who was a literary rock star a few years ago. We had a stall three doors away from him and over the nine days became nodding acquaintances. 

The lady opposite us wrote psychology books and I thought it would be nice to have one or two such books for the library. Over many days of conversation and opinion she recommended that I buy one on women’s issues, one for husbands and wives and a happy family life, and one for teenagers and their problems. Four books by local writers were novels: one of them dealt with youth falling into bad company, another titled The Anderson Road Murder and two books for teenagers by Kulasena Fonseka. With most of them around 150 pages, the books cost around Rs. 250-Rs 350 and were simply printed and designed.
Then I moved into the books that had been translated into Sinhala.

I was amazed that there were literally thousands of them. Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Chimamanda Adichie, Michael Ondaatje, Chinua Achebe, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Michael Morpurgo, Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins even James Hadley Chase but by far the most number of translated books were of Russian authors. From children’s books to adults, every bookstall, every publisher had faithfully translated at least one, but most often exceeding ten Russian titles! Gorky, Chingiz Aitmatov, Korolenko, Boris Pasternak, and of course, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and the other more famous authors. Plus there were also Marx, Che Guevara, Lenin and Trotsky. A healthy dose of Marxism and Soviet Communism was in evidence.

So what did I choose for the library? I picked up three beautifully illustrated booklets on Russian folk tales, a copy of Mullah Nasruddin tales, Robinson Crusoe, Sherlock Holmes, Jules Verne, Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and Carolyne Keene’s Lost in the Everglades. My finds were: Kushwant’s Singh’s Train to Pakistan, Narayan’s Malgudi School Days, Aitmatov’s Jamila, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby complete with Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan on the cover, Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg and Alexander Ruskin’s When Daddy Was a Little Boy. This time the books cost me around Rs. 300 for a 150 page book. Many of the translations looked to be abridged versions.

Whenever friends and I have discussions on literature in Sri Lanka it inevitably veers towards translations and the need for it in Sri Lanka. Perhaps all these years I was under the impression that there was not enough translation going into Sinhalese, but what I saw at the Book Fair evidently laid some of those fears to rest. Obviously, the whole of what is available in English of good literature is still not translated. I did not see any Orhan Parmuk nor any Noam Chomsky. But I am convinced the market is aware of what needs to be translated and caters to the demand that arises.

Perhaps the discussion on literature is really about translation from Sinhala and Tamil into English. But what we should be talking about is translating from Sinhala and Tamil into each of the other languages. From what I saw at the Book Fair, English is the least essential language regarding fiction or creative writing. While the English language stalls did have visitors, they did not in any way compare to the purchases of Sinhala books. While it is true that the most popular purchases were academic books, stationery and children’s books, the Sinhala fiction books – novels and short stories were extremely popular. 

Many visitors to our stall told us they have no time to read as they have to study. I watched three students from Musaeus College, beg their parents to buy them books from our collection only to be told, “They are only story books, you don’t need them.” Eventually the resourceful three, bought three separate books which they could share with each other. Their parents stood in the corridor laden with text books, self help books, books on Buddhism and text books on English literature and grammar.

Another discussion that should be had is the quality of translation. My Sinhala being weak, I am not sure how the translated books I bought read. Many would-be translators visited our stall and expressed interest in translating our novels into Sinhala but at best I can only describe their spoken English as being mediocre. Translation is not merely knowing two languages. A good translation will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically in a manner that resembles and corresponds to the aesthetic experience of the original readers. Translators need to develop a strong sense of style in both languages. They need to explore their critical awareness of the emotional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere that is created by the writer and which they have to create themselves.

They need to increase their awareness and proficiency in a given literary idiom. For example in fiction, dialogue can convey a multitude of information including class, education, background etc. The translator needs to respect that and convey it successfully. A translator may make decisions to change the name of a film or a joke that will be more relevant to the reading audience, one that will convey the meaning more effectively. These among others are significant decisions that translators need to take into consideration. 

Many translations I have read in English of Sinhala and Tamil fiction have left me wanting. However, in recent times, I have come across good translations that have made me appreciate the original writer’s skill without the imposition of the translator’s weaknesses. In the future I look forward to seeing a healthy exchange of translation in all languages relevant in Sri Lanka – Sinhala, Tamil, and English. In the meantime when I think of many great writers – Neruda, Marquez, Eco, Cervantes, Kafka, Goethe, and realise that I read them in translation, I can only marvel at how well they were done.

But, back to the Book Fair. Crowds were large, book sales were down and my conclusion is that I should be in the food business. Maggi noodles, ice-cream, soft drinks, and Nescafe made out like bandits. The rest of us, we survive till the next Book Fair. See you then.

The writer is an author and co-founder of the Perera-Hussein Publishing House. Two collections of stories for children collected and edited by her: MILK RICE 2 and THE VAMPIRE UMPIRE – featuring established and emerging authors, will be launched before the end of this year.

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