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
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
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
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
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
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.