One Way Literature | Daily News

One Way Literature

The literary relations between Russia and Sri Lanka appear to be a one-way street, stretching across a narrow period of about one hundred years. This realization came to me when I attended the Russian Literary Ceremony at the Russian Cultural Centre a few days ago. Russia has the right to be proud and celebrate some selected Russian literature.

We in turn are all very happy that we are fortunate to have been able to read a few great Russian writers and poets for many decades, through translations into English, Sinhala and Tamil. This was mainly due to the days when Russian books, including text books and children's books, were available at very reasonable prices, in all three languages.

We have no doubt about the greatness of the Russian authors and their translations into Sinhala. However, even if it is claimed that writing developed only about a thousand years ago in Russia, we are not aware of any literature in the early period. When we discuss Russian authors, our subject is limited to the few authors who had lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. We do not discuss the post revolutionary writings of the Soviet era or the post Soviet era literature. These books are not translated. When we talk of Russian literature we do not talk of how Pasternak was compelled to decline the Nobel award, or how and why Solzhenitsyn was exiled. We do not think of Nabokov as a Russian author. Many of us do not know much about modern Russian authors, either. It is unfortunate that our knowledge of Russian poetry and prose is but a tiny drop in the great ocean of Russian literature.

Great Russian authors

I do not wish to run down the great Russian authors, but I do want to run up our own great authors. 1,400 years before Pushkin, our poets were writing great poems on the mirror-like wall of Sigiriya. A Sri Lankan king wrote Janakiharana also in the 6th century. Kavsilumina, Aamawatura and our Sandesha kavya were written long before the emergence of Russian literature. In the 20th century we had our great poets like Mahagama Sekara. But unfortunately today, many of us have forgotten our own great poets. We talk about Pushkin, instead.

It is unfortunate that the Russian readers are not aware of Simon Nawagattegama, or Ediriweera Sarachchandra, K. Jayatilleke or Sugathapala de Silva. Fortunately, Martin Wickramasinghe’s Madol Duwa was translated into Russian in 1954. The Gamperaliya trilogy is also reported to have been translated into Russian and it is clear that these translations came into being because of the visits Martin Wickremasinghe made to Russia. This would have paved the way to get Russian writers interested in translating his books to Russian. Several other writers, A.V. Suraweera, Gunasena Vithan too had visited Russia, and some of their books had been translated to Russian. These translations came into being because of the personal contacts the writers had, either with the staff of the Russian Embassy in our country or through their visits where they came in contact with Russian writers and academics.

However, we are not aware of any official promotions of Sri Lankan literature in Russia, by our government or even by our publishers. We cannot blame the Russians for taking an interest in promoting their own literature in our country.

It is natural that the Russian publishers had been only interested in having their books translated into Sinhala and Tamil and marketing them through the People’s Publishing House.

If our students in the Moscow University and Lumumba University had taken a little interest in promoting our literature, the Russian literati and the academics would have been interested in translating Sri Lankan books to Russian. Since all these students would have learned the Russian language, they themselves could have translated a few Sinhala books into Russian. There is no rule saying literary translations have to be done by those whose mother tongue is the target language. There are very successful translations of Sinhala books into English by our Sinhala writers. Our students could have marketed our literature, the same way they introduced our tea, even if this might not have been as lucrative as selling tea.

If we could fall in love with Russian literature and feel this close to the Russian people and their culture, there is no doubt the Russian readers too could get close to our literature, our culture and enjoy reading our writers.

Why I decided to talk about Russian literature was because the Russians have already built a road for literary traffic between the two countries. But, we cannot blame them for the present one-way traffic on that road. It is our responsibility to initiate our own traffic from Sri Lanka to Russia.

We need to learn a lesson from the Russian government in how to promote our literature, not only in Russia but in other countries as well, including our neighbours in South Asia. Our country may not be able to afford setting up cultural centres in other countries, but we can appoint a cultural officer at our embassies and high commissions, to promote our literature.

South Asian literature

Our Ministry of Cultural Affairs could promote our books, in Russia and in all other countries, beginning with the books written in English, or already translated into English. They could promote our Tamil writings in South India, for the 70 million Tamil population. It is only when our books are available for reading and for students studying Asian or South Asian literature, that some among them could take an interest in translating them into their own languages. Our government could offer an incentive for these translators, the way the Book Trust of India did some time ago to promote Indian books translated to other languages in other countries.

The Ministry of Tourism spends millions of dollars to promote tourism. They could think of allocating a few dollars to promote our literature, because our novels and poetry could have a greater effect in creating an interest in our country, our natural and cultural heritage than all the posters, pamphlets and videos could ever do. As I have always said, the disinterest of our publishers to market their books abroad is pathetic.

Let us hope that someday, the Russian readers would talk about Mahagama Sekara and Nawagattegama the way we talk about Pushkin and Gogol.

Let us hope that readers around the world will talk about our writers as they talk of Kafka, Hemingway, Marquez, Murakami or Rabindranath. And the first step to achieving this would be to be proud of our own writers even as we read foreign literature.

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