In 1865 Mark Twain wrote the 'Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County'. A few years later he wrote another story with a longer title, 'The Jumping Frog in English, Then in French, and then Clawed Back Into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil'. He says he found someone had translated the story into French, and thus decided to back-translate it. But Mark Twain admitted, "I cannot speak the French Language, but I can translate very well, though not fast, I being self-educated."
That was Mark Twain at his best. The title was back-translated as 'The Frog Jumping of the County of Calaveras'. I pulled out just one sentence out of the story, "If there was a horse race, you'd find him flush or you would find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he'd bet on it; if there was a cat-fight he would bet on it..."
The back-translation said "If there was of races, you him find rich or ruined at the end; if it, here is a combat of dogs, he bring his bet; he himself laid always for a combat of cats..."
We could try this on some of our modern translations that flood our bookshops today. Most of them are translations of translations, and if we try to back-translate them into the original language it would be very difficult to predict what comes out. In reality some of the Sinhala translations have to be back-translated by the reader in his mind, to really understand a phrase or even a sentence.
It is all because we are on turbo-drive when it comes to translations into Sinhala. It is a rat race. Everyone is trying to beat the others, racing to get a translation out before another translator, or before another publisher. In the end it is the Sinhala reader who pays for it, with his money, with his time and worst of all, ending up with misinformation, or reading a novel which is nowhere near the original. Translations have become a category of FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods), a process which would not be easy to reverse.
Translations are not something new to us. The first translations in our country could have been the Buddhist scriptures, translated from Sinhala to Pali by Buddhaghosa Maha Thera. We have been reading translations ever since.
The history of the Sinhala people had been recorded in the Pali language, instead of Sinhala. It was George Turnour in 1826 who first attempted to translate the Mahavamsa into English. His English translation was published in 1837. Wilhelm Geiger translated it into German in 1912. The first Sinhala translation of the Mahavamsa was in 1883 by Hikkaduwe Sumangala Himi and Don Andiris Silva Batuwantudawe, directly from Pali, and not from the English translation.
Translations are necessary, specially today, when the world is becoming smaller, when we are getting closer to all the people around the globe, and that includes the writers. When we get to know the writers, and their works, when we have some idea of what they write about and their society and culture we like to read their work. But our language ability is limited. It limits our reading to books written in the only languages we know. The books written in other languages could be read only in translation.
Like music and painting, novels, short stories and poetry should also become universal, the writers should be able to share their creative work with all humanity, because they belong to all humanity, not just to one race or nation.
In our country, the urgency is to share all creative writing within our nation. There is vast progress in Tamil writing in Sri Lanka, which the Sinhala readers never get to read. All such writings have to be translated into Sinhala, and the best works coming out in Sinhala should also be translated into Tamil. It opens the door to reach 77 million Tamil language users. It would not be difficult. There are many Sri Lankans who are fluent in both languages.
Then we should also translate the Sinhala and Tamil writings into English, to introduce them to the rest of the world, to enable the 500 million English speaking people on earth to read them.
We should go on translating books from other languages into Sinhala and Tamil. In the past books were translated, considering the need, religious or literary. They were carried out without any financial gains in mind. Today financial remunerations for all creative work have become a part of life. We cannot avoid it. But we can still be selective in the translations and translate directly from the original language. As just one example, we do not need a Sinhala translation of the life of the Buddha written in English for the American reader, or a biography of a modern day Western politician who had not done anything for his country or for mankind, or translate an English translation of a Tamil book.
When we translate all the children's books into Sinhala we discourage the children from reading the original English books, which would have improved their language ability. But when we translate Tamil into Sinhala we can expect more children to learn Tamil too, which could improve the present Tamil literacy among the Sinhala community from ten percent to at least twenty or thirty percent.
The future of translations would belong to intelligent machines. Already we have instant translations of web pages by Google and Yahoo and other search engines. Babylon software offers translations between about thirty languages. Statistical Machine Translation systems for Sinhala and Tamil is been developed at the University of Colombo and at Sri Jayawardenapura there is a project on English to Sinhala Machine translation.
What ever we do in the name of Arts and Culture should be for the benefit of all mankind, and all our future generations. We have a civic and a moral duty. Our pen, our paint brush, our violin should only create something useful, while providing entertainment.