When I read Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere’s book, Sinhala Poetry in Translation,I remembered the words of Kent Johnson, the controversial American, poet, critic and translator: “What is the translation of poetry, anyway? I, for one, don’t have the foggiest idea. Do you? No one knows what Poetry is: So how could we ever grasp the nature [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

An essential collection to be savoured and reread


When I read Professor Ranjini Obeyesekere’s book, Sinhala Poetry in Translation,I remembered the words of Kent Johnson, the controversial American, poet, critic and translator:

“What is the translation of poetry, anyway?

I, for one, don’t have the foggiest idea.

Do you?

No one knows what Poetry is:

So how could we ever grasp the nature of its shadow?

No, that’s already making a claim on it… [“its shadow”]

As if Translation came after, when maybe it’s Poetry that does…

And also, who knows about the Sun?”

As I went through the poems, trying to understand the range and depth of the work of poets writing in Sinhala that Obeyesekere had captured in her book, Kent’s word’s “who knows about the Sun?”, kept coming back to me.

Johnson’s question goes to the heart of any attempt to translate a poem.More so when the poem has been written in a globally little known language and is deeply embedded in its own cultural and historical context, from which it draws its poetic sense and experience. Not only would the translator need to know about the original, the Sun, but would then need to make a series of decisions about reformulating the poem into another language.Whether to reformulate it into a shadow, that vague, two dimensional representation of the original, which faithfully, possibly literally, follows the original? Or perhaps,into a cloud, a new object, that draws inspiration from the sun, but is something altogether different?

To be literal or to create anew? This is the burden that the translator carries.Personally, to me, a good translation would be like the Earth, alive only because of the Sun, eternally orbiting it, but breathing a life of its own.

Obeyesekere has also carried another burden. The book is a selection of poems that sketches the evocative sensuality of Sinhala folk poetry and then moves on to gather a wide range of poets who have written in Sinhala in the 20th century.  In effect, Obeyesekere’s book is a concise anthology. (Although she never presumes to call it this and the use of the word is mine).

In selecting poets and poems she has ensured that there is a representation of the range, different voices, and skills of the poets writing in Sinhala, while also capturing the ethos of this island and the eras they belong to. If this was not deliberate, she has succeeded at the anthologist’s challenge through her training as a scholar, in putting together what she calls “an eclectic collection of translations of Sinhala poetry worked on over a lifetime”.

Obeyesekere was the first to seriously embark on translating Sinhala poetry into English. As Dr Lakshmi de Silva quotes from her own thesis in her foreword to the book, it was a “skilled, purposive activity [that] barely existed till the publication in 1973 of Ranjini Obeyesekere’s brief but valuable paper “Some folk poems from Ceylon”….”

Yet, Obeyesekere’s engagement with Sinhala poetry is not merely academic. Instead, Sinhala poetry has been a part of her life from her childhood and has continued to be a part of her life after she married anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere who has been “passionately involved in collecting folk poetry and working on folk rituals” of Sri Lanka.

The question of knowing about the “Sun”, then, in Obeyesekere’s case, does not arise.  As she herself acknowledges in the preface, “translation has become a kind of instinctive process, a trick of the mind.”I knew of her familiarity with Sri Lankan poetry in English as we had spoken about it and also knew from personal experience, her reading of those works as she had written an introduction to a collection by me.

When I read Obeyesekere’s Sinhala Poetry in Translation, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a reader who might not have any understanding of the language, its idiom, and rhythm,or its complex, multifaceted, cultural nuances. More personally, I read the book as a lover of poetry.

The collection focuses on the work of 18 twentieth century poets, but opens with a brief, but illuminating,introduction to Sinhala folk poems. As Obeyesekere explains, folk poems are examples of the rich poetic sensibility of a ‘folk’ who were skilled at using a phonetic language which could be rhymed easily to express a range of everyday events and concerns.  As she admits, “To capture that in English is nearly impossible” and she uses footnotes to explain the translations. Yet translations of the poems convey to a reader who has no access to Sinhala, the richness of image, and rhythm in a folk verse. At the same time Obeyesekere conveys familiar folk poems to a fluent Sinhala speaker,who possibly knows some of the poems by heart, by revitalizing and infusing them with an unexpected freshness.

In one folk love poem, the poet compares the effect of a smile on the beloved’s face to “flower petals strung upon a chain of gold” and then asks what it would be like “if one were to add more trinkets bold” to that chain. In the original Sinhala poem, the poet says, “pandam vata udin handa pavuvavani”. A direct translation of the last line would be:‘like the moon shining over a fence lined with flares’. Obeyesekere translates it as “a burst of moonrise flooding a torch-flare fence”.

The use of the words, “burst”, “moonrise” and “flooding” are unexpected and new. They are a brilliant evocation of the original image, which once experienced through those words cannot be imagined translated any other way. To read that line in translation is to see the “wisp of a smile” on a lover’s glowing face, transform into pure light, just as the poet probably intended us to see it.

The selection of the twentieth century poets ranges from the early poets such as Munidasa Kumaranatunge and G. B. Senanayaka to poets born in the last decades of the century such as Timran Keerthi and Isuru Chamara Somaweera. A review such as this can neither do justice to the poets, all of whom deserve to be mentioned, nor to the effort and choices made by Obeyesekere in the translation of their work.  I hope the poems mentioned here will whet the reader’s appetive to read and reread the book.

Very few Sinhala-speaking children would not know at least the first stanza of Munidasa Kumaranatunge’s poem, The Hare. It is a poem that compares to Blake’s The Lamb in simplicity and beauty — all characteristics which render the poem almost untranslatable. Yet Obeyesekere simultaneously transliterates and translates Kumaranatunge’s masterpiece to capture the essence of the poem while reinvigorating it.

She transliterates the first line, ha ha harihava into “Ha ha, little hare”. Then the second line, kale udin awa (a transliteration of which would be: ‘came across the forest’) she translates into, “Who hops through the tares”. By using “hops” and “tares” she recreates the original image, evoking both the gait of this small animal as well as the particular local terrain of weeds and cultivations it makes its home.

Sinhala Poetry in Translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere. Reviewed by Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

The poems in the collection also mirror the social and political contexts that the writers belong to as well as the transformations that Sri Lankan society has been through over the century. Mahagama Sekera’s The Moon and New York City is an early poem.Yet it captures not only the dislocation of the poet in New York, but also portends the experience of countless migrant workers from Sri Lanka since the 1980s who, not knowing where to go, would “open the window and peer/deep into the abyss”.

To read Mahagma Sekera’s shape poem of a feather falling from a high rise building which follows a few poems later, leaves the reader with dark ambiguity as to whether the object floating to the ground is a feather or the result of something more tragic.

The poets also capture the multilayering, the seamless blending of contradictions, and irreconcilable tensions of individual and collective existence of those who inhabit a Sinhala speaking world: the teachings of the Buddha and pressures of modern life, rituals and deities, love and violence. In Thilakaratne Kuruvita Bandara’s poem The Gods Alarmed, Descend to Earth; in Wimal Dissanayake’s The Walauwa, the remnant of a hierarchical, feudal society languishes like “an enormous snorting beast/ gasping his last”; and in Parakrama Kodituwakku’s The Court Inquiry of a Revolutionary, the accused asks to be allowed to “Crash like a raging river/ Cut clean like a knife”.The poem from Monica Ruwanpathirana’s Listen O Goddess Pattini is an evocative plea by a woman to a goddess for her powers as she had “Waited for permission/to flow as big as a river”. Yet, she says, “The river not permitted to flow/Became me, O goddess”.

The collection reflects the close link that the poets writing in Sinhala have with the natural world, which become at once metaphor and subject for the issues they grapple with. From Siri Gunasinghe’s light hearted comment on the Water Buffalo, who alone has learned the art of possessing “Undying time” in a chaotic world, the collection moves to Liyanage Amerakeerti’s Why This? In the latter poem, citizens disadvantaged by the local political system become double victims when “mother earth”, tears “off the hillside” submerging homes, and children “who did not even have a vote”.

In Buddhadasa Galapatty’s From the Bridge on the Kelani River, we await the next batch of insurgents’ bodies as they float down the river, “Hands tied, feet bound,/ reddened sockets, eyes gouged out”.The river is fact and metaphor for young lives, flowers, that have been “plucked off their stalks and crushed and flung/ into the waters of the nether world”.

In Thilakaratne Kuruvita Bandara’s A Child Pestering we listen to the child trying to coax a chick to ‘wake up’. Yet, the reader realizes a fact the child cannot comprehend. The poet’s prescient affinity to nature is evoked in the line, where the child says, “Look my little chicken there are ants on your small wings/ Wait a bit I will pick them off for you”.

Sinhala Poetry in Translation showcases poetry emerging from within a particular socio-political milieu. It is a poetry where the writers are closely linked to the natural world, through which they view, find meaning and attempt to grapple with personal and political issues.

In the coming decades, as high rise buildings become the reality in Sri Lanka and city life continues to alienate each future generation from the natural world, poetry drawing on such images and metaphors may not be possible.  This may result in a very different poetry in the twenty first century, one where poets will need to turn to different images and metaphors to grapple with the personal and political dilemmas of their time. This change is hinted at in the later poetry in this collection.  As Kent Johnson questions, what if the translation needs to come before the poem? In their fresh and evocative retelling, the poems in Sinhala Poetry in Translation are at once the Sun and the Earth.


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