Chamini Kulathunga is an emerging Sri Lankan translator of the Sinhalese. A recent graduate of the University of Iowa’s Literary Translation Workshop, she recently translated Cogwheel Buddha (1967) by Tennyson Perera – the first book to be banned in Sri Lanka – and her translations of poems by Thilini N. Liyanaarachchi were recently featured on this blog during Women In Translation Month. She spoke to us about her journey into literary translation, the challenges of getting Sri Lankan literature published abroad, and the important role of translation in easing political tensions between Sri Lanka’s Tamil- and Sinhalese-speaking communities.
Could you describe the path that led to your work as a literary translator?
Like most other translators, I think it’s fair to say that I, too, stumbled into literary translation by accident. I started obsessively reading the poetry of a famous late-twentieth-century Sri Lankan poet a few years back. I found his poetry to be a literary haven during a difficult time in my life. At some point, I found myself wishing I were the author of such sublime words and music that captured the beauty and pain of human existence so profoundly, and the next thing I knew, I was translating them into English. I’ve been translating Sinhalese literature ever since. The training I received at the University of Iowa’s Literary Translation workshop further honed my passion and potential as a literary translator.
In fact, my time in Iowa City opened up a whole new world to me. I worked closely with talented translators and editors like Jennifer Croft and Ezra E. Fitz, and my professors were just amazing. My time at the International Writing Program as a research assistant gave me further access to international writers who took part in two of its Fall Residencies. From 2018 to 2020, I have worked closely and made friends with around sixty writers from all around the world. It was like a literary and intellectual therapy for life. Those two years brought the best of me as a translator.
What is an aspect of Thilini N. Liyanaarachchi’s poetry that you particularly enjoyed translating, or that drew you to work on these translations in the first place?
Thilini’s poetry has an earnestness unique to her own. The themes she explores in her poetry are relatable to me. Like me, she was born and raised away from the bustle of Sri Lankan suburban life, and like me, she also had to move to Colombo in her twenties. I like the way she captures the dichotomy of urban-rural life. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, this [dichotomy] has become a subject closer to the hearts of many members of our generation in Sri Lanka. Education and career options expanded beyond one’s hometown and many moved to big cities like Colombo and Kandy. What they experienced in these cities was confusing, disorienting, and sometimes, intimidating. Thilini’s poetry captures this in a close-to-heart way.
Although discouraged by Buddhism and the local Buddhist culture, substance intoxication is common in Sri Lanka. And it’s predominantly a male territory. Using these images in her poetry, Thilini N. Liyanaarachchi not only challenges these cultural restrictions, but also subtly shows us the ultimatum of bliss.
— on the poem “Inebriated Love,” recently published on Project Plume
Some of her love poems are daring and intense, something I haven’t seen much in the Sinhalese female writings of our generation. “Inebriated Love” is one such poem. I found that placing intoxicants next to the Buddhist concept of nirvana to be daring for a South Asian girl of Buddhist upbringing (myself included). Anyone who smokes knows how strong the last few puffs of a cigarette are. It’s a strong olfactory image. So is the smell of a half-burnt spliff. The first foaming bubbles of a freshly opened beer bottle are not only auditory, but also tactile. One can almost feel that sizzle and the dream-like state of an intense romance through these images. All the feelings associated with these substances are powerful. And harmful.
That’s when the spiritual dimension of the poem comes into play. However much power the intoxicants have, it’s the supreme bliss of nirvana that she ultimately compares her feelings to. Although discouraged by Buddhism and the local Buddhist culture, substance intoxication is common in Sri Lanka. And it’s predominantly a male territory. Using these images in her poetry, Thilini not only challenges [these] cultural restrictions but also subtly shows us the ultimatum of bliss.
Did you work with the author during the translation process? If so, what was that process and experience like?
Working with Thilini is easy. Her responses to my queries and questions are very helpful. I consulted her while I was working on “To be a Queen is a Sin.” I had to get the historical facts right. Certain lines of the poem are glued to Sri Lankan history. Even for me, it was difficult to decipher them at first. So, I have glossed several places in the translation to compensate for the contextual clues the Anglophone readers are likely to miss. My correspondence with Thilini was productive in this process.
How do you usually decide which texts and authors to translate?
I’m conscious not only of what I promote, but also of who I promote through translation. It’s important to get good literature out there, but it’s equally important to consider who you empower in the process. All the authors I’m currently working with are less concerned about profit and more interested in producing good literature. There was one recent incident where I contacted an author who professes to be a sympathizer of socialism and of the Sri Lankan Tamil minorities in his works, but all he talked about was money and his suspicions of whether someone I mentioned during the conversation was a member of the Tamil diaspora. The “Tamil diaspora” has negative associations among certain Sri Lankans [who] believe that almost all the Sri Lankan Tamil expats are either sympathizers or patrons of the LTTE [a militant organization in Sri Lanka] and, according to their definition, the traitors of the nation. I try to avoid authors who don’t live by their ideals.
One more thing I look for in an author is that they should trust me as a translator. I’m not comfortable with unnecessary interference from them during the translation process. If I can’t establish that trust in the author I want to work with, I don’t go ahead with the project. That doesn’t mean I’m not open to their suggestions, it just means that I expect the author to trust me and my craft as much as I trust them and their work. For me, that’s when the question of faith in translation begins. I might also be talking from a privileged point here because I translate from my native language, and the subtleties, intricacies, and nuances of the source text, more often than not, are accessible to me.
Not much Sinhalese literature is translated into English and enters the currently evolving body of world literature. I want the few works that do cross the boundaries of the island to be worthy of attention, safe in my mind that the authors who produced the originals can handle that attention. And honestly, if you spend enough time, it’s not difficult to find good authors who produce good literature.
A lot more can be done to encourage the translation of Sinhalese and Tamil texts into each of these languages. In fact, that is essential to the reconciliation stage the island is currently [experiencing] during this post-war period.
Could you describe a few major points of your process as a literary translator? For example, is it mainly a solo endeavor, or do you ever collaborate on projects to gather feedback?
So far, translating from the Sinhalese has been a solo endeavor. More than an “endeavor”, it’s like a meditation. I’m someone who gets easily distracted, but when I’m translating, I am hyper-focused.
I did collaborate with three poets in co-translating their poetry from the Turkish, Hebrew, and Nepali. They were resident writers of the 2019 IWP Fall Residency. It was an enriching experience. I had to rely on them and the trots they produced for me in order to translate the poems into English. It was my second attempt at translating from a language that wasn’t fully accessible to me.
I always go back to my friends and colleagues who have been supportive of my work for feedback. I’m blessed with a few honest friends, most of whom tend to be translators and/or connoisseurs of literature. Not everyone has the interest and/or the patience to read through literature from geopolitically minute literary spaces.
As for the translation feats, I was able to get my translations published in some major literary journals. In 2019, I [also] read an excerpt from my translation of the first banned book in Sri Lanka, Cogwheel Buddha, along with an introduction to the censorship culture in Sri Lanka at the National Banned Books Reading Week organized by the Midwest Writing Center. I read some of my translations of Thilini’s poems at the Women in Translation Reading organized by the PEN Translation Committee on August 27th. Thilini joined me live from Sri Lanka for the bilingual reading. An author I’ve translated informed me recently that my published translations of his short stories will be used by a professor at Harvard University’s Divinity School for a course he teaches on the literature of contemporary Buddhist countries. Sri Lankan literature getting more visibility in Anglophone audiences has been and will be my greatest translation feat.
The few literary translations from the Sinhalese that do find a home in an international publishing house tend to be either retranslations of classics or texts from the twentieth century … It is not an accurate representation of Sri Lankan literature or the contemporary lit scene of the island.
According to this Words Without Borders introductory article about Sri Lankan literature, there are many translations of English-language literature into Sinhalese and Tamil (the two official languages in Sri Lanka), but few literary translations of works from those languages into English. In your experience, how are literary works in translation received or perceived in Sri Lanka?
I don’t think an adequate number of texts from the Sinhalese and Tamil have been or are being translated between the two languages. There’s a violent history behind these languages. The generation prior to mine is largely monolingual due to an imprudent language policy that was made effective in 1951. The 1951 Language Act made Sinhalese the only official language in Sri Lanka, overlooking the Tamil and English-speaking minorities of the island. The ethnic tensions that followed led to an armed conflict that lasted for three decades. There have been projects to promote the understanding between the Sinhalese and Tamil-speaking communities in Sri Lanka, and the translation of texts between the two languages is mostly a result of them. A lot more can be done to encourage the translation of Sinhalese and Tamil texts into each of these languages. In fact, that is essential to the reconciliation stage the island is currently [experiencing] during this post-war period.
However, it’s true that not many texts are translated into English. Even if there are English translations of Sinhalese and Tamil texts, they hardly reach a publishing venue outside of Sri Lanka. This is especially true of Sinhalese literature translated into English. Interestingly and understandably, there’s a huge demand for the Sinhalese translations of texts from the English and other languages. Most of the time, the Sinhalese translations are based on the English translation if the text is originally written in a language other than English.
Reading literature written in a language that you feel most at home is bliss. It’s a bliss many of us can’t always dwell in, but that is why one has to seek refuge in translation. Translation makes us all immigrants, it makes us all refugees.
You have also referred to and written about Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature as a minority literature. In your view, what does it mean that Sinhalese literature is considered a minority literature, and how does that affect its place in the larger scheme of world literature?
Even within South Asia, Sri Lanka occupies a minority state in terms of both its geography and population. From a translator’s perspective, I couldn’t help but notice that the rate of Sri Lankan contemporary literature that is being circulated (in translation or in the original language/s) and read around the world is comparably lower than the national literatures of many other countries. It is also studied and anthologized much less often than other national literatures of the world. We talk about the infamous “3% factor” of annual literary translation publications in the US, but we’ve hardly ever seen or heard about a translation from the Sinhalese making it to the languages that contribute to that percentage, right?
In that case, not only is it a minority language, one can even call it an “ultraminor literature”, a useful term that was defined and explored in a special issue of Volume 2 of the Journal of World Literature. Sri Lankan literature, let alone Sinhalese literature, is under-translated and, therefore, under-represented in the corpus of world literature that has been and is being produced.
The few literary translations from the Sinhalese that do find a home in an international publishing house tend to be either retranslations of classics or texts from the twentieth century. The main reason for this is the stereotypical role assigned to Sri Lankan texts as historical and religious sources about South Asia and/or the old Ceylon. Another reason is the nature of the institutions that fund these translations and their scholastic interest in Sri Lankan literature. The literary texts independent of these stereotypical subjects struggle to find a way to make an appearance internationally through translation. It is not an accurate representation of Sri Lankan literature or the contemporary lit scene of the island. I’m glad that a discourse is being built around the representation (or the lack) of minority literatures both in literary and scholarly spaces.
What is a book or author you would reccomend, and what are you reading yourself right now?
If I were to recommend one book, I’d say read Jennifer Croft’s Homesick (Unnamed Press, 2019). There’s a profound sense of sisterhood throughout the story, and I find myself relishing it, having grown up without a sister, yearning [for] one [to] this day. The book isn’t necessarily a translation, but it was first written as a Spanish novel, and was then rewritten in English as a memoir. So, the text lies in an interesting liminality. The protagonist eventually turns to translation and photography to cope with pain. Besides, Jennifer Croft is one of the most accomplished translators I know. So, personally, the book is very close to my heart.
I’m currently catching up with as much Sri Lankan literature as possible, mainly poetry and fiction. Reading literature written in a language that you feel most at home is bliss. It’s a bliss many of us can’t always dwell in, but that is why one has to seek refuge in translation. Translation makes us all immigrants, it makes us all refugees.
Interview by Cassandra Bertolini