23 March 2015

Pasan Kodikara, in and out of the text

Pic by Nilantha Gamage
He’s gone now. He has left a soft footprint in many hearts and along many pathways, literary and otherwise. So soft that it will take some effort to obliterate.  Read my tribute, 'Pasan Kodikara left behind the softest footprints'. The article below was written 14 years ago for the Sunday Island. 

Several years ago, a young man, small-made, thin, sporting a beard and long hair rolled into a bun at the back of his head, stood in a street corner with a friend. Another man had come running by and jumped into a crowded, moving bus. In the rush, the file that he was carrying slipped from his hands, sending a sheaf of half-sheets scattering all over the road and the pavement, clearly unrecoverable. The bearded young man is reported to have burst out laughing. His friend had admonished him at finding humour in another’s misfortune.

"A long time ago, when I went to the Soviet Union to study, a group of us, all committed Marxists, found Soviet society to be anything but what we had thought socialism and communism to be. So we thought we should teach Marxism to these people, and formed a collective called the ‘nyashtiya’ (nucleus). I was asked to write the constitution of the nyashtiya, since I was attending a different university. Having written the document, I went to meet my friends, and as it happened there was a raging snow storm, with fierce winds almost blowing me off my feet. A particularly fierce gust of wind took away all my papers. The blinding snow, the wind and the cold made sure that recovery was futile. I lost the nucleus of the nucleus and didn’t sight the place for three whole months.

"So I laughed because it occurred to me that something which appear to be life and death issues at one point, are trivial and funny at others."

I first met Pasan Kodikara in 1993, when he came to the Agrarian Research and Training Institute to visit his friends from Russia. I was struck by his attire, his huge shirts and baggy trousers accentuating his wiry frame, and his moustache, beard and hair making him a character who seemed to have jumped out of the cartoon pages. I was even more impressed by the depth of his knowledge on literature and the arts and the eloquence with which he articulated these. Eight years later, I met with this now well-known translator and writer, to "catch up" and trace the avenues that his fertile mind had since travelled.

Pasan, born in 1962, was the youngest in a family of three. His mother was a teacher, and his father is the well known journalist, writer and poet, Sirilal Kodikara. His brother, Amila, is a translator and he described his sister, as a good and critical reader. Having access to his father’s considerable library, it was natural that young Pasan would take a keen interest in literature. From an early age he had got used to "reading heavy books".

After completing his secondary education at Nalanda College, Pasan was awarded a scholarship to study in the Soviet Union. After spending 10 months at Lumumba University learning Russian, he enrolled at the Gorky Literary Institute, Moscow where he went on to complete a Masters in 1991. As part of his thesis he presented a collection of poems titled Anithya (impermanence), which included a Russian translation. Some of these poems were published in Russian newspapers and a collection under that title, which includes several other poems is in print and will be put out by Sanhinda Prakashana.

Pasan admitted that he doesn’t write much poetry now. "There are certain material realities that construct barriers, such as the low value for poetry, the difficulty of finding a publisher, etc." Still, Pasan is not a man whose creative urges are not dictated by market forces. He has, over the past few years come out with several books, including several translations. His own collection of short stories, Thahanam Gahaka Gedi (Forbidden Fruit) came out at the end of last year and included stories he has written over the past 15 years, some of which have appeared in newspapers such as Ravaya, Aththa and Divaina. He added "I am right now thinking of a novel of my own".

In 1998, the readers were treated to Aganthukaya and Veradi Vetaheema (translations of Camus’ The Guest and the play Cross Purpose, respectively). In the same year, he translated Boris Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. The following year saw his translation of Bulgakov’s Mister Moliere’s Life. In the year 2000, Pasan came out with "papayata veteema" (Camus’ The Fall) as well as translations of Sigmund Freud’s lectures and Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffman’s Nebensansichden des Katers Murr (translated as moor poosage jeevitha dekeem). Hoffman is recognised as the harbinger of magical realism as a literary form and Bulgakov is said to have been greatly influenced by his work. Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbath (arbath daruwo") and Alexander Balkov’s Magician of the Emerald City (kola menik pure mayakaraya) are currently in print.

Pasan is also a dramatist, specialising in experimental theatre, having produced two plays, Saadarayen Piliganimu and Iththo, a tragi-comedy and a melodrama, respectively. These, according to Pasan were moderately successful. He said that he learnt a lot in the process of producing these plays. He was also a member of a street-theatre collective called Rangana Samuhikathvaya, which also produced an academic journal concentrating on theater by the name of Preksha. He is hopeful that they will be able to produce this on a more regular basis.

Writers are often poorly paid and even then do not enjoy a regular income. So Pasan used to work as a visiting lecturer at Kelaniya University in the Department of Mass Communication, teaching creative communication and inter-cultural communication. From October last year he has been a visiting lecturer at the Sripali Campus, Horana of the Colombo University, teaching aesthetics, literature studies, and several drama-related subjects. "I do enjoy interacting with the teaching/academic sphere, but it certainly hampers my creative work. I have to work on my translations in the time I steal from the work I do to obtain an income," he said.

Although Pasan has made a name for himself as a successful translator, it was not at all easy at the beginning. His first book had been rejected by several publishers. He says it is probably because of an expanding market for translations that he was able to accomplish so much so quickly.

"Actually there has always been a good market for translations," he observed. He mentioned Padma Harsha Kuranage and Cyril C. Perera as examples of accomplished translators, pointing out that the Rubaiyat was translated as far back as 1953/54. In fact, Sinhala and Tamil readers were treated to the best of Russian and other Soviet literatures due to the excellent and affordable books that were produced by Progress Publishers and distributed by the Communist Party’s outlet in Slave Island, People’s Publishing House. Dedigama Rodrigo used to be a household name among university students and it is through him that a lot of young people discovered Dostoyevsky, Gorky, Ostrovsky, Sholokov and other literary giants.

Pasan seemed to be more interested in talking about the translator’s craft than himself or his work. I asked him what factors contribute to a good translation.

He said that one of the major problems is that translators are often forced to depend on already translated texts. "For example, if you want to translate a novel written in Spanish, you will have to work on the English translation, with the inevitable double loss."

"In such cases, the would-be translator has to be equipped with a certain sensitivity that allows him to assess the quality of the first translation. Even when translating from the original text, sometimes the success depends on the extent to which the translator experiences it. Actually we tend to translate that which disturbs us, so to speak. The richer the reading experience, the greater the desire to translate. When I read Master and Margarita, I really wanted to translate it.

Translation is needless to say, a difficult and in many ways a tormenting exercise. It requires a fine sensibility, unencumbered by the handicaps of the ‘whom-to-tell-what’ kind, to achieve an approximation to the nuances in the original text. There are other issues of course.

"The translator is challenged at every turn by numerous questions, and he has to sift through many answers before making his choice. He has to remember that he is basically a prisoner of the text. He cannot experiment and therefore there is often a conflict between his nature and sensibilities and those of the author. Whenever someone attempts a translation that is primarily based on his sense of the aesthetic, it ends in failure. It might read well and may even sell well. Whether it is a translation is another matter altogether."

Pasan pointed out that the Soviet Union’s translation programme was particularly successful because poets and writers were employed, a case in point being Boris Pasternak. Having been "gagged" he turned his creative energies to the art of translation, and his translations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust are widely considered to be exceptionally good.

Another problem lies in the field of cultural symbols, according to Pasan. "Where the translator has been denied access to the cultural symbols embedded in the text, the translation necessarily suffers," he said. I asked him if globalisation and the advent of the internet would help alleviate this problem.
"Not necessarily. Very often globalisation sends us specifically ideology-bound slices of other cultures. In many instances, good writers rebel against the cultural ethos of the powerful and if this is what we have to depend on for gleaning cultural significance of a given set of symbols, we would be doing the text great injustice.

"Unfortunately, there are instances where even if the translation is good, society deems it a failure. Sometimes, it boils down to an issue of timing. Just as society was not ready for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass when it was first published, sometimes good translations are appreciated much later."
Pasan confessed that an element of weariness has set in into his translating drive. "There is always the danger of getting trapped in a groove, in other words, getting mechanical about it. Naturally creativity can suffer. Then there are other factors that intrude. Typically a published manuscript will go for 1000-2000 copies of the book. We end up steeped in debt.

"This is partly due to the high cost of paper. For instance in India there is no tax on paper, so printing costs are low. Radical changes in national policy have to happen for writers to thrive. Therefore it is possible to argue that there is a serious problem in this particular market. As a result the future of translations is bleak. Translators, in order to deal with this situation tend to go for short stories and children’s stories. The readership suffers."

Pasan nevertheless showed much admiration for those who consider translating as their life’s work. "Cyril C. Perera is clearly an exceptional translator. I have the greatest respect for him for he has persisted, against all odds, to produce some wonderful translations. In fact he was a regular visitor to our home and I learned much from him. You should have interviewed him and not me, because he has been in this field for many years and probably has the best understanding of all the issues that a translator has to deal with. I have many other interests and therefore I will never achieve that kind of greatness. It requires 100% dedication."

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the great Pakistani poet once said "translating poetry, even when confined to a cognate language with some formal and idiomatic affinities with the original compositions, is an exacting task, but this task is obviously far more formidable when the languages involved are as far removed from each other in cultural background, rhythmic and formal patterns, and the vocabulary of symbol allusion as Urdu and English."

Translating novels might be easier, but bridging the cultural gaps remains a challenge. Pasan Kodikara has had much exposure to the Russian language and culture and as such does have a comparative advantage in the matter. He said that he has been influenced by books, by the people he has met, his teachers and the ideologies and philosophies he has encountered. All this has gelled into a sensitive artist who is able to discern and distinguish between the subtle nuances of language and life processes. Whether he continues to translate or produce more original work, it is clear that he has already contributed much. In time, hopefully, he will do more.