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Wednesday, 19 May 2010



Turning colours into words

What is implied by colour purple? According to colour symbolism, colour purple represents Royalty, transformation, wisdom in one hand and cruelty, arrogance, mourning in the other. Also most importantly it represents the enlightenment. Alice Walker’s very famous novel The Colour Purple is a perfect combination of those elements, colourfully presented and emotionally illustrated.

A scene from The Colour Purple

The Colour Purple is regarded as Walker’s most successful and critically acclaimed work. Written in an epistolary style, the novel depicts the harsh life of a young Black woman in the South in the early twentieth century.

The Colour Purple explores the individual identity of the Black woman and how embracing that identity and bonding with other women affects the health of her community at large.

Although some reviewers have taken issue with the novel’s portrayal of Black men, the novel has largely been celebrated by critics and popular audiences alike, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1983. In 1985 filmmaker Stephen Spielberg directed the film adaptation of The Colour Purple, which was nominated for 11 awards—including best picture—by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Colour Purple begins with fourteen-year-old Celie writing a letter to God, asking for a sign. Celie is a scared, poor, Black girl living in the South. Her mother has become ill after the most recent of her numerous pregnancies and the man Celie believes to be her father abuses Celie sexually. He tells her, “You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”

Readers discover through subsequent letters that “Pa” fathers two children with Celie, but abducts them from her soon after each birth. Her mother dies during Celie’s second pregnancy, and Celie is unable to confirm whether her children are living or dead.

The Colour Purple dramatically underscores the oppression Black women have experienced throughout history in the rural South in America. Following the Civil War, most Black Americans remained disenfranchised and were typically viewed as less than human by many members of white society.

Women were also regarded as less important than men—both Black and White—making Black women doubly disadvantaged. Black women of the era were often treated as slaves or as property, even by male members of their own families. In The Colour Purple, Celie is passed on from Pa to Mr without any regard for her own desires. She constantly struggles to forge her own self-identity and to not accept the subservient role that society has ascribed to her.

Our Sinhala readers now have got the rare opportunity of reading the Sinhala translation of The Colour Purple as Dampaata Kathaawak Amaali Boralugoda, who translated the book, is not only a translator, but she also is a university academic who teaches and researches on translation studies. I did not get the opportunity to read the translation yet, but I am sure that she might have faced with translation challenges in handling Alice Walker and The Colour Purple.

The first issue I could see is the book’s power of narrative and voice. The language used by Walker is very complicated and often grammatically incorrect. Reproducing a language which has been deliberately changed is a difficult job for a translator.

Next comes the power factor of strong female relationships. Female ties presented in The Color Purple take many forms: some are motherly or sisterly, some are in the form of mentor and pupil, some are sexual, and some are simply friendships. All those ties cannot be easily rewritten in a language like Sinhala. Language may allow, but may not the publisher, readers or translator’s own consciousness.

The cyclical nature of racism and sexism is another key factor that translator could be trapped in her translation. These two concepts are socially and linguistically very sensitive and do not offer many options in a translation.

All these facts raise my curiosity about Amaali’s translation of The Colour Purple. I know Amaali is a special case in the field of translation, because she does translation while exploring the theoretical aspects of translation studies. I wish that Amaali would have recognised the true colour of The Colour Purple: It is a combination – wisdom, cruelty and finally enlightenment.


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