Yesterday unbound | Daily News


Yesterday unbound

“A work that announces a distinctive voice for itself- setting itself, the task of being accessible to the ordinary reader and at the same time faithful to the intent of the author. It is a work that is distinctively different from previous translations of the original- a work that is eminently deserving of its place in the canon of translations of classical literature… The award goes to Kav Silumina, the story of the Bodhisattva king Kusa, translated by Vini Vitharana.” - Citation from the H A I Goonetileke Prize for Translation of the Gratiaen Trust

He unfolded the crown and passed it across the counter. No one would challenge the authority of this man – someone no less a man, but a king himself. He has fought and won wars. He sent the enemies packing and saved his race.

Yet, he was unmoved by kingship. He passed it to his son and retreated to his study so as to concentrate on literary meditation. Such monarchs are scarce in the royal lineage of this land. That explains why he is remembered down in the annals of history as Parakramabahu II the Great. And the rest is of course history as we have heard the title: Kavsilumina, though a few among us would have knowledge of his authorial claim to that epic classic.

Kavsilumina is Homer’s The Odyssey for the Sinhalese poets and other vernacular literary enthusiasts. The work is revered for its poetic dictum, metre, rhyme and, above all, the creativity in the best-deconstructed form. To translate one verse – even into loose English – is simply undreamt of. It is a much mind-boggling exercise more than translating Odyssey from the ancient Greek into English. First, the work is composed in medieval Sinhalese. Second, in the most poetic of the poetry.

That vouchsafes the intensity of the translation if anyone would dare. But then someone has dared to venture into that exercise.

He is none other than Professor Vini Vitharana. The academic, now in the nineties, is more known for his expertise in the Sinhala language, its grammar and the classical works. But it would raise anyone’s eyebrows the very moment it is heard that he has translated the medieval Sinhalese poetry into English. He is known for eruditeness in Sinhala all right, but what of the other language? Well, that’s up to the readers of the work to decide.

Yet, in his encounter with the Daily News, done in English, the nonagenarian Sinhala academic, exhibited the crispness and lucidity in the flow of his expression. Not even a stammer or a second or two hunting for the ideal word. Nay, not any of that. The flow was smooth and a breath’s pause was markedly interesting.

Professor Vitharana’s translation has caught attention at two eminent literary award ceremonies as the best work of translation: State Literary Awards and the Gratiaen’s H A I Goonetileke Prize for Translation.

The academic has practised that rare trait of the patience of sitting down in one place to concentrate on a vast volume of classical works. He has accomplished the difficult task of translating Muvadevdavatha, Sasadavatha, Kokila Sandesa – and what’s more, the 1750 pages of Saddharmaratnavaliya – into English. With such feats accomplished, translating Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia, Tagore’s Geethanjali, selected works of Shakespeare, Shelley and Wordsworth would have been easier for him than eating a piece of cake.

“Translating Kavsilumina was, of course, a challenge. I started it at the university. I taught this classical work for 30 years at the university. When you translate from one language to another, there is one thing you need to satisfy. You have to be adept in the vocabulary of both languages. Fortunately, I have been good at both languages right from the beginning.”

“So I became a translator,” adds he with much delight, “that chartered my post-retirement course.”

At university, Professor Vitharana claims to have never turned to modern fiction. He was always beyond Polonnaruwa and Dambadeniya eras. That was his main concentration. That was his mainstay.

“I am interested in classics because hardly anyone is interested in them. So many people are interested in modern works. For me, the classics are good enough. It is wealthy enough. You have to devote more attention to classical studies than you devote to modern studies. Modern works could be understood as you read. But the classical works you cannot even if you read 10 times.”

Kavsilumina is the best of all the classical works done by the best of the men in medieval Sinhala. That was a challenge enough. And he did it.

Professor Vini Vitharana

“I don’t think modern people will be interested in reading this. My publisher Godage knows that fact for sure. He has done this as a national cause. It is naturally difficult medieval Sinhala. Excellent poetic style of medieval Sinhala. Every word is correct. You cannot find a better replacement. That’s the challenge. I paid special attention. I read it over and over again. There were times I substituted words as much as possible. The Gratiaen award comes as a surprise as it is an English-oriented panel.”

King Parakramabahu II fought wars against formidable enemies. One was Chandrabhanu and the other Magha. They came to snatch the Sacred Tooth Relic away and raze the Sinhalese race to the ground. The king won the wars waged against them and saved the race. Back in the palace, he was not interested in the royal affairs. His interests were bent on magnanimous matters. Inside his study, the king worked on three major works. They include two commentaries; one to the Buddhist Code of Discipline and the other to Visuddhi Magga, a work written following the Buddha’s death elaborating the path to purification. And the third, the most discussed Kav Silumina.

“The king knew his Pali. He knew his Sanskrit. Commenting on a literary work as a linguist is good enough to establish yourself in the scholarly terrain. The most important thing is that he switched to creative writing after he was conferred the honorary title Kalikala Sahitya Sarvanna Panditha. Writing a commentary to a scholarly work is one, and composing an epic creative work is another. He struck a balance between two opposed perspectives amazingly.”

Kavsilumina is based on the Kusa Jataka. However, it is no mere recounting of the Jataka story. The mere Jataka story of a beast-like king and a beauty-like queen turns into an epic poem in the monarch-turned-scribe’s hands with many elements interspersed.

“As Cumaratunga Munidasa notes, the war descriptions of this epic poem are much better than any war found in Sanskrit classics. It is the best description of the war in Sri Lankan literature. We find no war scenes in the Jataka. But since the king fought wars, he had firsthand experience to remodel the narration.

Vini Vitharana entered Mahinda College when Galle was a garrison in the eve of World War II. He had the opportunity to study five languages: English, Sinhala, Sanskrit, Pali and Latin. He was already versed in English as he was living with a Burgher family. Sinhala was introduced to him later towards school life.

“I don’t care whether the people will read it or not,” remarks Professor Vitharana in such a forthright manner. The elderly academic has nothing to worry about. The world still studies Shakespeare. It still derives influence from the likes of Beowulf. It still hunts for classical inspiration.

The greatest classics in the world were not originally written in English. They were translated into that language. Such a world needs Professor Vitharana’s translation now available titled The Crest-Gem of Poetry.

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