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Christopher Finnigan

February 25th, 2019

Dispatch: Fairway Galle Literary Festival: Storytelling and translation in Sri Lanka

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christopher Finnigan

February 25th, 2019

Dispatch: Fairway Galle Literary Festival: Storytelling and translation in Sri Lanka

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In January, Galle, Sri Lanka, hosted its tenth edition of Fairway Galle Literary Festival, the country’s most popular literary festival. LSE alumni Romali Tudawe, who attends every year, found a festival this year locked in discussions on the meaning and value of storytelling and translation. 

The Fairway Galle Literary Festival (FGLF) held from 16th to 20th January 2019 celebrated its tenth (10) anniversary. FGLF is situated in and around the Galle Fort, first fortified by the Portuguese in 16th Century and extensively modified subsequently by the Dutch in the 17th Century. The fort’s colonial charm provides an intimate location for FGLF and gives visitors an opportunity to immerse themselves in a literary experience. But as a regular local festival goer the somewhat Anglocentric programming, highly priced private events attended largely by British migrants and holidaymakers, in a backdrop of colonial power, sometimes gave a sense that the spirit of the festival was prone to colonial reminiscing. This year, FGLF, retained its charm by being a smaller and more intimate event, in a sleepy fort (as opposed to the more manic atmosphere of its grander big brother in Jaipur), but also successfully avoided feeling like one catering to colonial nostalgia with its diverse array of events and writers.

Joining the Festival this year were writers, playwrights, poets, journalist, musicians, conservationists and activists, both local and international. The Festival notably ended with the transcultural and strong presence of female voices of Kamila Shamsie, Madeleine Thien and Anne Enright, who express important stories and truths about the times we live in. Representation among the participants was a key focus this year, and even featured Facebook, a company unlikely to be traditionally associated with literary festivals, but one which brought an interesting perspective on digital storytelling and narrative. In contrast was an intimate conversation with Sir Donald McCullin, the celebrated photojournalist particularly recognized for his war photography, expressing how through images, “we are writing to you in a different way” and his experience with tragic scenes that have words which speak to the viewer. Interestingly, Sir McCullin doesn’t consider his work as art, but as a way of communication and information sharing. This could be juxtaposed with Rachel Johnson’s observation on the “responsibility of the fictional writer” in communicating facts through the perspective of the author, especially in light of her book Winter Games which focusses on the social and personal history of people during war time. FGLF, therefore, celebrates storytelling at different levels and different mediums.

It also focuses on literature in multiple languages and features a separate Sinhala and Tamil Programme, (the official languages of Sri Lanka), and a trilingual Children’s Programme. Particularly thought provoking was a panel discussion in the Sinhala Programme on ‘Translating Theatre Production’ with Asoka Handagama, Kaushalya Fernando and Achinthya Bandara, moderated by Priyantha Fonseka. The discussion explored the complexities and different layers of translation, principally between textual translation that directly translates the work word-for-word and translations which interpret and adapt the work to convey more than bare meaning, such as intention and tone etc. The former is suitable for literary texts, or texts which are recommended for the purposes of study. The latter method is more complicated and requires greater understanding of the script; an example of this method are productions which are adapted to a social and linguistic context different to the original play. When exploring this with Achinthya Bandara in detail, he queried as to what extent can a translator capture the voice and the essence of the original writer, especially if it is adapted to a different social and linguistic perspective? When a stage translator reads a script, understands it, and adapts it, does it remain the original author’s play or does is it become a product of the translator?

“What makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare?” Achinthya questions. “Is it the language, style, or structure?” Whatever it is, it is clearly identifiable as Shakespeare. “Would it still be Shakespeare if the play was adapted to Sri Lankan social and historical context? What if the characters were dressed in sarees and sarongs and had local names?” In such a scenario, would the wider contextual integrity of framework remain, despite the environment and the atmosphere of the production changing? “Would it still be Shakespeare?”

Achinthya also considers the difficulty in conveying certain ideas, philosophies, and linguistics devices which may not be familiar to the target audience. This was a constraint also spoken of by French writer, linguist and mathematician, Hervé Le Tellier at the Festival. Le Tellier, whose work has been translated to English, discussed the plight of the translator attempting to capture all of the linguistic elements, such as word play and idioms, of the original text and translating it to perfection. In doing so, he believed that a translator must forego certain elements of the original text. He also spoke about how writing under linguistic constraints brings out the best in the author. This recalls to mind one of the most interesting and ambitious translations of an English production to Sinhala; Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play The Bald Soprano. When Achinthya was questioned as to how a production can convey the genre of absurdity to a Sri Lankan audience, he was quick to make parallels of Sri Lankan culture which already expresses absurdity and satire in the form of kolam. The translation of The Bald Soprano is therefore an example of playing with language and taking a specific conceptual-linguistic space and transforming it into another. It placed the play in the social consciousness of another language and conveyed how communication and language itself is meaningless. This existence of trans-cultural connections is one that echoes with the works of many of the authors participating at FGLF.

Achinthya’s view is that the modern understanding of translation is not merely a direct word-to-word conversion of the script.  Translators link all aspects of the original text when translating, including the layout, line spacing, structure, illustrations, the cover and other marketing aspects. This is known as paratranlsation. What better way to understand this phenomenon than through Archana Pidathala’s exquisitely written Five Morsels of Love. By translating her grandmother Nirmala’s unfinished Telugu cookbook of heirloom Andhra recipes, the book became a celebration of her grandmother’s life and passion for cooking. FGLF included a master class by Pidathala demonstrating recipes from her well-curated book with interesting anecdotes, striking photography and soulful narrative which is so much more than just a translation of recipes.

With a mosaic of literal, visual, audio and immersive experiences, FGLF invited visitors to enjoy the many forms of storytelling, and the multifarious talent of the participants in communicating to audiences their different narrative.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo credit: Stink Pickle, Unsplash

Romali Tudawe read Law at the LSE and is a Barrister. She is also a commercial litigator and conducts legal research on regulatory and legislative reform in Sri Lanka.

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Christopher Finnigan

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