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Transitions of a theater translation

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Lingual aspects of Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Kalumaali


Playwright and drama directress Ruwanthi de Chickera’s Kalumaali opened with its English version on September 13 to a full house and enjoyed a near similar fullness of the Lionel Wendt auditorium the following day, debuting the Sinhala version. What is remarkable in this project by the Stages Theatre Group is having performances on successive days as English and Sinhala productions. Thus one is left to wonder which is the original? If there can be one of the two scripts pinned down as the original, ‘language wise’. With no discernable deviations in theme, plot, scene line-up, and techniques of stagecraft, it is safely presumable that Kalumaali being presented as a stage play in two languages, as two separate productions did not in its ‘story essence’ and ‘purpose’ attempt to come out as two separate stories.

I wish to discuss some aspects and elements of language observed, comparing the two performances in the light of ‘translations’. The politics of language needless to say when one looks at the postcolonial realities affecting our society are bound to class. My comments are based on language features of the productions which the readers may, of course, be free to interpret and arrive at their conclusions as to how such elements would function.
The story concept shows a family set up that is average Sri Lankan bilingual middle class. Yet that does not mean in the present day context that the middle class income category is made up solely of ‘natural bilinguals’. Far from it, as there are a great many middle class Sinhala and Tamil monolinguals whose limited use of English posits them as ‘late bilinguals’. Keeping this in mind I could not help but feel that the two productions portrayed not so much two very separate classes in terms of economic categorisation but socio-economic classifications. While the English rendition showed a paternal grandmother who seemed slightly laboured in her delivery of dialogue, the Sinhala rendition showed her lines delivered with effortlessness that enhanced her flow of narrative especially as a raconteur to ‘Saki’, the little girl.

The English version’s maternal grandmother interestingly used the word ‘booriya’ as opposed to ‘navel’ or ‘bellybutton’. While the mother ‘Dil’ in her role as raconteur to Saki refers to a ‘grandaunt’ and a ‘granduncle’ who in the Sinhala translation are ‘Loku nanda’ and ‘Loku mama’. Watching the English show, amongst my mental notes was how the Sinhala rendition would translate it, expecting it to be the same relationship translated; but it turned out differently.
The father ‘Kalana’ in the English version described the sound of crashing waves as ‘crash crash’ and said the same in the Sinhala mould, which seems rather odd since the more given Sinhala equivalent would be the dragged ‘ho’ sound. In making ‘transitions for (a) translation’ were these thought of I wonder? The Sinhala Kalumaali was more notably a Sinhala-English lingual fusion, academically known as code mixing and code switching, with the English version starkly limiting the use of Sinhala. The Sinhala version clearly reflected a reality of today where English terms are readily acquired, opted for in an essentially ‘Sinhala dialogue’.

Some notable phonological characteristics in dialogue warranting comment was how Dil in the Sinhala play in her supplications to the imaginary class teacher pronounced ‘concert’ with a lower ‘O’ sound which is characteristic of the Sinhala monolingual unfamiliar with the upper rounded ‘O’ sound, as of ‘orange’. Interestingly Kalana of the Sinhala version also made this lower ‘O’ in pronouncing the word ‘project’ when he read the line ‘Saki ge recycling project eka’ (Saki’s recycling project). The vagabond recluse character in the Sinhala version pronounced ‘call’ with the same Sinhala ‘O’ sound. I make these claims not as imagined but what was clearly discernible pronunciation all the way from the balcony.

In terms of language competency one must keep in mind that the natural Sinhala-English bilingual who can distinguish the two ‘O’ sounds and their application in the English language seldom erodes the upper ‘O’ when inserting an English word into Sinhala speech and ‘code mixes’. Therefore, one may ask whether these were deliberate and thereby made to reflect an aspect of how English and its standards bespeak social class. One should keep in mind that the ‘English vagabond’ delivered his lines with no hiccups in the ‘O’s. Therefore, in the English production how is the character meant to be understood in terms of social class since his English was on par with every other character’? Was the vagabond in his ‘English form’ of a different background as opposed to the ‘Sinhala rendition’ of the character? One could say the difference could simply be attributed to the acting of the players, but my approach in this article is to view the ‘performance’ as a ‘text’ and how it may ‘render’ differently to the text of the ‘script’.

While in the English version Saki was helped by her mother to memorise a song, the Sinhala one dealt with a Sinhala ‘kaviya’. The ‘English Dil’ used ‘mouth opened’ when narrating her Kalumaali story; the more given word of expression being ‘gaped’. But given the context possibly de Chickera thought little Saki would be more familiar with ‘opened’. Yet the English maternal grandmother used the word ‘rubble’ to describe the state of the destroyed house when narrating her Kalumaali story to Saki, and it appears to me a child of that age even from an English speaking home may not have ‘rubble’ as part of the daily vocabulary. But then, I was Saki’s age in the last millennium, and in all fairness to the playwright, perhaps today’s ‘digital age’ children are much ahead in vocabulary to what my generation was. The Sinhala equivalent if I recall right in this regard was worded – (the) ‘house lay flattened to the ground’, which in my opinion was more colloquial and attuned to a child.

Like the proverbial question on precedence between the chicken and the egg, whether Kalumaali the ‘English’ or the ‘Sinhala’ was scripted first, is best known to the playwright. Personally, one of the key evincing factors to presume the English script was the likely prototype, emerged from the scene were Kalana in the Sinhala version as in the English one, sang the line ‘Everything’s gonna be alright now’ (from Bob Marley’s ‘No Woman no cry’) without substitution. Although a lack of cohesion may appear in that element in a household meant to seem more Sinhala oriented, perhaps it was to facilitate positing Bob Marley as Kalana’s Kalumaali, in which case the primacy of the objective was no doubt achieved.

As ‘translations’ go, if one is to presume Kalumaali the Sinhala version was translated from the English, the former doesn’t portray unrealistic language by today’s state of things. And on a scale of ‘linguistic accessibility’ there seemed no great obstacles to a general viewership to enjoy either version, provided they are at least acquainted with the ‘middle ground’ of bilingualism typical to Sri Lanka’s urbanism.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 August 2014 21:35
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