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Translation: Setting an elephant to walk a tightrope

When a translator is faced with a text he should take into account the product of his translation is directed at people who are from a background which is different from that the original target audience. The different background refers to people with a different history, different social practices and who speak a different language.

The translation process can be viewed in two different perspectives. One is technically called relativism, and other is universalism. Within the scope of relativism perspective, the attention is paid for the people's cognitive exercise of understanding. According to this perspective environment plays a crucial role.


Every aspect of the environment is considered to be filtered by a culturally defined conceptual pattern of thinking. This idea was firstly introduced by American Anthropological Linguists Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. Linguistic relativity can be understood by the following examples.

There is no word in Arabic that would encompass all kinds of camels, no general word for snow in Eskimo and no general word for sand in some Australian aboriginal languages. Instead there are separate words for different kinds of camels, snow and sand respectively.

The theory of Universalism pays more attention on the common features which are shared by all human beings. It advocates nativism, which homogenizes all human practices and concepts. That means the same set of concepts can be found in all cultures. This idea emerged with Noam Chomsky's pioneer work called "Syntactic Structures" published in 1957.

Culture plays a crucial role in translation process. Especially poetry translation is said to be nearly untranslatable with regard to the cultural concepts which are strongly bound with the work.

A translation from the perspective of relativism differs from the same exercise from the perspective of Universalism. While one perspective focuses on the common biological and psychological characteristics of the reader, the other focuses on the cultural setting which the reader is placed in.

If the translator follows relativism, he will emphasis the differences and different interpretation strategies will arise as consequences of the different cultural contexts. In this sense the translator makes a great commitment with reader of the target text. To preserve the stylistic impact of the original text, translator chooses different codes to transfer the meaning.

Translation is not merely a question of linguistics. Apart from sounds, words and sentences, one should think on the concepts as well as contexts. Edward Sapir once claimed language as a guide to social reality. He also stressed that no two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality.


Universalism emphasizes the innate structure of the faculty of language. According to Noam Chomsky, the more than 4000 existing languages present a surprisingly similar syntax, in spite of their phonological and graphological differences.

From the universal rationalism perspective the translator seeks the reality exposed one text over another.

Therefore he will not find it difficult to trace the meanings even though the target text contains the references of a culturally distinct setting. This will cause to reduce the translation exercise fundamentally into a linguistic one.

This is an attempt to reveal the actual challenges which have been faced by the literary translators. Consciously or unconsciously translators will utilize either relativism or universalism in their translations.


The nature of the original work will immensely contribute to the choice and the success depends upon the creativity of the translator.

The following examples will highlight the special features of the language utilized by poets to express certain ideas.

Sihil vethii sanda ithaa

Sava ehi pena gathaa

Resin adak nonawathaa

Sitiida ee honda sathaa

("Nelavilla" by Cumarathunga Munidasa)

The poem has been translated by Ms Hemamali Gunasinghe.

Too cool the moonbeams might turn out

The bunny leaps up in one bout

And permits half their light unveil

What a loving creature our cotton tail

Two points could be discussed within this stanza. Sinhalese believe that a hare is visible on the moon. The source for this belief is the 'Sasa Jathakaya'.

There the Bodhisathva appears as a hare that was finally being placed on the moon. This reference is strongly bound with local literature.

Here the translator has reproduced the original idea, although they are likely to cause culture shock. She has put a footnote at the end of the translation to make understand the context to the reader.

The second point is rather bound with the weather zone which the audience of the source text are placed in. in the poem the bunny leaps upon the moon as it is 'too cool'.


As Sri Lankans we prefer the cool weather because we normally experience a hot weather right throughout the year. But this will produce a different sense in a reader who comes from a different weather zone. One could imagine the controversy which can take place in mind of an Eskimo after reading the translation.

Sarasavi oba muva simbii

Siri anga devatii hindii

Hema devioo ebi ebii

Balathi ama rasa nobii

Sarasavi will kiss your face

Siri takes you in her embrace

All the gods yon watch over you

And leave their nectar untouched too

In this stanza the abstract images of Sarasavi and Siri would mislead the target audience. These images are perceived by the target audience merely as ordinary people though they make great sense in local readers. The poet enhances his ideas by using the images of Sarasavi (muse) and Siri (fortune). The translator creates the meaning with the help of footnotes.


The following example will also prove the challenge which is encountered by the translator.

Piruvanaa poth vahanse

Kanappuve peralii etha.

Midula pura viyalunu kola

Ee mee atha visira thibee.

Midule pahan pelee nithara

Saluna della nivii gosya.

Inda hita gee pilikanne

Balleku udu buranu esee.

The poem "Miyagiya Uvasiya" written by Professor Wimal Dissanayake comes in his poetry collection "Kalpa Vinasaya". He himself translates his poem into English.

The death of an old woman

The holy book

Lies upon the table.

The compound drifts

With withered leaves.

The lamp that shone there

Flickers no longer.

Now and then

Behind the hut

A stray dog barks.

Some objects and concepts appear in the poem are exclusive to Sri Lankan culture. They are piruvana poth vahanse, pilikanna, pahanpela and uduburanu. Although Professor Wimal Dissanayake is the poet himself he had not even managed to find perfect equivalents to certain concepts.

The wordings he has used could only cover one layer of those multilayered words.

Here we are touching on the anthropological question of to what degree a common ground exists between different cultures or between speakers of different languages.

Evidently we cannot assume that any system is translatable to another. But human beings share a great number of concepts. The problem is occurred when they perceive them.


Although in certain conditions, people understand situations which are normally alien to them. For an instance an anthropologist studies the culture, communication and linguistic practices of a community and interprets them to an audience who are absolutely foreign to the culture of that community.

As the two groups share common biological and cognitive factors, the audience is capable to understand the interpretation what is made by the anthropologist though they have not experience it. If not so we would not be able to understand the social organization, rituals or general practices of cultures different from ours.

Therefore if the anthropologist is able to convince his findings to an audience, the translator also has the same skill. The factors which are common to human beings will pave the readers to experience a translated text.

On the other hand, people enjoy movies or literature which presents events that occurred in fantasy or unreal worlds including other planets or extraordinary creatures. As everybody being able to perceive those works, it proves the ability of understanding a completely different atmosphere. Therefore understanding a translation might not be a difficult mission to an enthusiastic reader.


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