The Nation Sunday Print Edition - page 32

Translations should not
Page 8 Sunday, October 20, 2013 Fine
Printed and published by Rivira Media Corporation (Pvt) Ltd. on Sunday October 20, 2013 at 249/2, Sri Saddharma Mawatha, Maligawatta, Colombo 10.
Kusumanjalee Thilakarathna
hat does a dentist know
about literature? Sorry we
cannot publish your book,” is
what several publishers said when rejecting his
debut translation. He wasn’t discouraged and
started to publish his own books. The publishers
who rejected him regret their decisions now.
“Looking back, that rejection was also a great
blessing,” said Chandana Mendis.
Best known for the translations of
, the magnificent character created by
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Chandana Mendis is
also a novelist as well as a short story writer.
His translated short story collection
was awarded the best translated
book award at the 2013 State Literary Festival.
His work was presented with the same award
in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and that was for
Lekakayange Wishishta Keti Katha (
Finest short
stories of greatest authors),
Sonduru Sithuwam,
and Muthu Ataya respectively. His novel
Nishchala saha Chanchala
Depala translated
into English by Vijitha Fernando was short
listed for the Gratiaen Award.
“I received my primary education from
Gonapinuwala Saralankara Vidyalaya and
then at Richmond College, Galle. There was an
interest for literature building up from that time.
But my parents wanted me to study science,” he
“Our school principal at that time was Mr.
Shelton Weerasinghe, an English literate who
later became the principle of Wesley College. He
had a great interest in art and tried to develop
an interest in art in the science students. The
person who mostly inspired us on Sinhala and
the universal literature was our teacher WS
Bandara, a great artist. He established a class
library with his own books and encouraged the
class to read,” he said as he remembered the
people who inspired him.
“Other than that, as science students we didn’t
get much of a chance to explore literature and
write. In fact during school years I only wrote
one article when I was 14-years-old, about
Anton Chekhov and that was also for a school
magazine,” Mendis added.
After the Advanced Level examination
Chandana Mendis got selected to the Dental
Faculty of Peradeniya University. “When I was
at the university, I didn’t have much time to
spare for writing or studying literature. In 1970s,
when I joined the Colombo dental hospital my
chief was Gunadasa Amarasekara, the veteran
writer. But our relationship was entirely official
and nothing about literature,” he said.
Mendis continued to work in the government
dental hospitals for over 10 years before he left
the country for a long period. When he returned
he opened a private dental clinic where he found
time to write. “When I first started a new clinic,
patients hardly came in. So I started reading and
doing translations during my free time. I used
to get stacks of books from the British Council
library and read. That is how I got into writing
and translating,” he described. He retired from
dentistry in 2006 and now he gives all his time
for literature.
His debut translation was also a master piece
of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; The lost world,
which was translated into Sinhala as Sangawunu
Lowe Sawariyak. Although there are many
translations, Chandana Mendis’ translations of
the popular Sherlock Holmes adventure series
are popular among the young generation in
the country. His dedication towards searching
and creating new adventures of Sherlock
Holmes is evident by the recorded sales and the
enthusiasm of Holmes fans each year at the
annual Book Fair.
“I wasn’t the first person to translate
into Sinhala. In 1955 Mr. RNH Perera
The Hound of the Baskervilles
Sinhala as
Baskerville Ruduru Baluwa
was also the first translation I ever read. RNH
Perera was such an excellent translator that
his translations attracted me to the character
of Sherlock Holmes as well as inspired me to
translate. The sign of four was translated by
Mr. MDN Ostin was also there. I also got to read
a Nuwana magazine collection from Bandara
sir’s class library which included detective
short stories like July hatha by WA Silva
based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s
Sherlock Holmes. Replacing Holmes and Watson
there were two localized characters; Inspector
Samarasena and Sergeant Ranathunga. Other
than that, the original stories of Sherlock
Holmes were not very common among the
readers,” he explained.
As mentioned earlier when he first translated
The Hound of the Baskervilles, nobody wanted
to publish it since he was a stranger to the field.
“I published it with the sponsorship of Library
and Documentations Services Board. It was a
long, time consuming process,” he said. In the
meantime KG Karunathilake also published his
translation of The hound of the Baskervilles;
Baskerville Dada Balla.
Mendis’s Sherlock Holmes translations
continued even after the final Sherlock Holmes
story of Sir Doyle. After Doyle’s last SH book His
Last Bow, translated into Sinhala as Oben Samu
Ganimi, Mendis started a new series called
private and confidential files of Sherlock Holmes’.
“Most of these stories are translations of stories
which other people authored based on the
character Conan Doyle built. Some of these are
Conan Doyle’s son Adrian Conan Doyle’s. But
he was not as skilled as his father. Most stories
included in Sherlock Holmes Apasu Ei (Return
of SH) are his work,” he iterated.
In the beginning of Sherlock
Holmes Apasu
Ei, Mendis wrote that he found an old trunk
box containing old notes of Dr. Watson when
he was in England. “I did not find such a box,”
he confessed. “That is where my fiction begins.
It is true that I was there in England. Even the
people mentioned in the story truly exist. The
only thing was that I was not given an old trunk
full of Dr. Watson’s notes but got to read lots of
stories based on that character. In fact Sherlock
Holmes and Dr. Watson never really existed
neither did they live in 221B Baker Street,” he
revealed the bitter truth Sherlock Holmes fans
still refuse to believe.
He said one reason his translations of
Sherlock Holmes was popular could be the
language he used in his translations. His
language is simple with short sentences which
are easy to understand. “I always try to use
simple language since my aim is to produce
a translation which could be understood by
everyone. I read one sentence two or three times
before I translate. Rather than translating the
complete English sentence into Sinhala, I see
what the easily understandable way is for the
Sinhala reader,” he explained.
According to Mendis translating something
exactly as it is, is not a successful translation
method. “In some translated books there are
paragraph long sentences. After reading the
sentence the reader cannot remember the
beginning of the sentence. I object to this
completely. The main point is that the reader
should understand what he or she is reading. I
have seen questions presented to writers asking
why their writing is so difficult to understand
and they admit it saying ‘yes, it is hard and if
you want to understand good things you have
to force your brain to grasp it’,” he exclaimed.
“I think it should be the other way around. The
writer should be capable of conveying his idea
without making the reader strain the brain.
He also explained the process of getting
permission for translation from the original
writer or the proprietor of the book. Even if the
author of a particular book has passed away,
the proprietorship of the book belongs to his
family or the publisher for 70 more years. A
book cannot be translated without proprietor’s
permission according to international law. After
70 years it becomes something of a common
asset. “It is a very important as well as a complex
process. I started applying for permission to
translate Daphne Du Maurier’s
Jamaica Inn
even before I returned to Sri Lanka. Du Maurier
had passed away in 1980 and to wait for another
70 years is a long time,” he said.
When he first applied, the proprietors had
asked him to pay more than 1,000 pounds to
grant permission. “I was not capable of parting
with such an amount at that time. I tried again
and again and after several attempts they
granted me permission for 400 pounds. When I
paid that amount through a bank they sent an
agreement form. Even then there were many
conditions. I could not make any movies based
on the book, no television or radio drama. And
I can only print the book in paperback,” he
explained the process.
“The same goes for Roald Dahl’s short
stories. I took permission for each short story I
translated for the short story collection
. Same with the translation of the book
The Reincarnation of Peter Proud
Randi Rahasak)
, which was also a major movie
hit,” he added. Sri Lankan authors have equal
rights for their creative work. “I used Martin
Madol Doova
Upali and Jinna in the
Abirahas Dupathe
. Before publishing that I wrote
to the Martin Wickramasinghe Trust to get
permission,” he pointed out.
Although there is a law to prevent people
from translating or adapting stories of another
writer, there are still people who are not aware
of this international law. Maybe these are
people who simply ignore laws. “Before the
publishing process of the translation of the
Jamaica Inn
Yakage Nawathena
was over;
there was a book in the market which claimed
that another translation of
Jamaica Inn
soon be available to the readers. On one hand
it was illegal and in the other it was going to
be a huge loss for us since we have already
undergone immense trouble to get permission.
We immediately contacted the translator as well
as the publishing company and informed them
about the permission he have with a copy of the
agreement. If I were to inform the proprietors
they could have taken legal action against him
where I wouldn’t even be involved,” he explained
his experience.
A common accusation against the translators
is that they omit chunks from the original book
when they translate. Chandana Mendis admitted
that he also has omitted some details from the
books he had translated. “There are instances
where I had to omit certain information
concerning the culture of our country. There
could be a single sentence in a huge book which
insults a particular religion. For an instance
Daphne Du Maurier was a Christian
but in some instances she wrote against
her religion which I omitted when I translated
Jamaica Inn
,” he explained. He further said that
sometimes those facts are not even relevant to
the stories but just the personal ideas and beliefs
of the authors and omitting something like that
would not harm the story value. “If someone
says it is unfair to the original piece there is
nothing to be done. I believe that this is the right
way. Therefore I am very selective when I choose
a book to translate,” he stressed.
He also pointed out that some information
in western books is not suitable for Sri Lankan
culture. “If you go to a book shop today there are
enough books translated into Sinhala directly
with all the information unedited,” he said.
“If someone is to make a movie out of those
stories, it would create a big issue. Many will be
marginalized as ‘adults only’. Some stories are
not suitable for children at all. No one points out
that aspect of it” he argued.
He further said that a translator should be
more careful and responsible when they choose
a children’s story to translate as the value
system of children depend on the messages they
derive from books. “I remember when I was
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
I had to omit a part where Violet Burigard,
the little girl who always chews gum, pasted
gum on elevator buttons. Imagine a local child
taking after her and pasting gum on the elevator
buttons at a hospital. A patient’s life may depend
on one of these buttons,” the doctor in him
Mendis also mentioned that a writer should
always think about giving the right values to
children. “There is no doubt that Roald Dahl is
an excellent writer. Children admire his books.
But sometimes it is questionable whether the
stories are suitable for kids. Some of his books
are still banned in some schools in England. The
story of
Fantastic Mr. Fox or Danny who steals
pheasants with his dad
which justifies stealing
is one such example. It teaches a kid to steal. I
have rejected to translate some of these books,”
he urged.
He also spoke about the frauds in the field.
“The Sherlock Holmes
book based on Jekyll and
Abhirahas Dostara Samaga Sherlock
was not a direct translation. There was
an American book call
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes.
I initially started translating this book, but
it was not satisfying. Therefore I constructed
my own version of the story based on these
characters. Few months later there was a
book on sale named
Yaksha Wiyaruwa
claimed to be a translation, but turned out to
be the story I wrote. Even the names I made up
weren’t changed. We got through to so-called
author and later he admitted he copied my book
and destroyed all the copies. This is just one
example,” he complained.
He also mentioned that the laws regarding
this are not strong enough within the country.
“There were incidents like this in the past
too. Madawala S Ratnayaka’s translation of
Robinson Crusoe
and KG Karunathilaka’s
are just two small incidents. And there is
no process to catch these thieves,” he pointed
He also said that this is one of the key reasons
writers wait for the Book Fair to publish their
books. “There is a group who wait till genuine
writers get their books out so that they can make
fake copies. It’s a huge loss for us. That is why
we wait until the book fair even if the book is
completed,” he claimed.
In conclusion Mendis said it would be
unfair if a translated book is not compared
with the original when it is considered for an
award. “The jury should be thorough with
the English original. Otherwise it would be
unfair. Translators might make mistakes, he
could change the story, give a different idea or
misunderstand the original idea of the story,” he
pointed out. “When my books were nominated
the judge boards asked for the English copies
which I translated. I believe that they went
through them before delivering judgment. Yet
I doubt that they go through the originals each
time,” he said.
Pics by ChandanaWijesinghe
Mendis worked in government dental hospitals for over 10
years before he left the country for a long period. When he
returned he opened a private dental clinic where he found
time to write. When he first started a new clinic, patients
hardly came in, so he started reading and doing translations
during his free time
“The only thing was
that I was not given
an old trunk full of
Dr. Watson’s notes,
but got to read lots
of stories based on
that character. In fact
Sherlock Holmes and
Dr. Watson never really
existed neither did
they live in 221B Baker
Street, a bitter truth
Sherlock Holmes fans
still refuse to believe”
Chandana Mendis
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