27 April 2023

Who really wrote ‘Mother’?

‘Mother,’ a Russian novel written in 1906 about revolutionary factory workers, has been translated into many languages. It has been made into several films as well. Bertold Brecht and his friends based their 1932 play ‘The Mother,’ on this novel.  

Who wrote ‘Mother’? Maxim Gorky. Alright. That’s answered. The article though isn’t done.

Gorky himself didn’t consider ‘Mother’ his best piece of writing. That notwithstanding, ‘Mother’ is clearly the most important level he wrote before the Russian Revolution. Important as in influential. Not just in Russia but all over the world. It has for more than a century been a  must-read for most left-leading young people. Even in Sri Lanka.

As mentioned, the book has been translated into many languages and in some cases more than once by different translators into the same language.  In the case ‘Amma,’ the title of the Sinhala translation, it was Dedigama V Rodrigo who did the honours. He was THE translator of Russian and later Soviet literature. Thanks to him, Sinhala readers were able to enjoy a wide range of novels, short stories and poetry by Russian and other Soviet authors.

Of course those who did not know Russian or those other languages cannot really talk about the quality of translation. However, those students who in the Soviet Era studied in the USSR, were required to learn Russian and Marxist-Leninism and also had to read the classics, had the knowledge to compare.

Dr Udaya Rajapaksha, botanist and a keen student of literature, as well as Dr Piyasiri Pelenda, geographer and a translator himself, both colleagues at what was then called the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, had high praise for Rodrigo. Udaya offered the following caveat:

‘His translations were really good, but Chekov in Russian felt so much better that I could only wonder how exquisitely beautiful it must be to a Russian reader.’

This holds true for most translations. Even really good ones. Something gets lost, something gets added. It’s never perfect but that again one disregards the imperfections because you do get a flavour, you are offered slices of the human condition in light that persuades one to reflect.
This however is not about the worth or otherwise of transition and translations. It’s about authors. Authorship. And indeed ownership or appropriation.

I don’t know Spanish, so I have had to read Pablo Neruda and Garcia Marquez in their English translations. I don’t know Russian, so I had to read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, Turgenev, Chekov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Gorky and Aitmatov either in English or in Sinhala. I know that Rodrigo did Sinhala translators and that’s probably because he’s the only one who did so. His name wasn’t on the covers of the books he translated. It was mentioned on one of the inside pages. It was the same with the novels and short stories of Garcia Marquez and the poetry of Pablo Neruda.

It’s the same with the poetry of Rumi and other Sufi mystics as well as the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. I remember the names of the poets, but not all the translators.

This is not to downplay the importance of translators. I feel that Rodrigo, for example, hasn’t been appreciated as much as he should have been. Translators play an invaluable role, they open windows to worlds we are unaware of. They enable sunlight from multiple angles to dispel the various darknesses that envelop our minds and hearts.

Now some might say that a translation is in fact a new book altogether. It is, strictly speaking. And therefore, some may argue, equal credit is deserved.


On the other hand, credit acquired at the cost of making the original author invisible, almost, is problematic. I am thinking of translations with book covers that have the translator’s name in such prominence that the name of the original author, even if mentioned on the cover, looks like a footnote, an afterthought.

I checked out some book covers of ‘Amma.’ The more recently published ones have Rodrigo’s name on the front cover and even these clearly indicate who wrote the original. Earlier version just had the title of the novel and the name of the author, Maxim Gorky.

Just check out the book covers of Sinhala translations of great writers who wrote in other languages. Check the font size of the author and translator. Assess prominence given to each.

I’ve done that and that’s why I asked: who wrote ‘Mother’? I am not asking who wrote the novels that are now in translation, in Sinhala and other languages, but pointing out that there’s something odd about giving the impression that the translator is in fact the novelist or poet or short story writer.

Ego? Misplaced sense of self-worth? Piggybacking on greatness? All of the above? I think some combination of these, to a great or lesser degree.
Dedigama V Rodrigo was an excellent translator. He probably obtained joy in the exercise of translation and delighted in the delight of the reader. He didn’t piggyback on Gorky or any of the authors he translated.

So here’s to Dedigama V Rodrigo. A great translator and man of literary integrity. He didn't claim ownership. He didn't appropriate or misappropriate. He didn’t write ‘Mother’ and would never have claimed even parity of status with Gorky, leave alone supplanting that exceptional Russian writer by way of tinkering with the book covers of the works he translated.  

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart




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