a session on Sri Lanka at the Modern Language Association meetings in Boston, 3-6 January 2013

Below you will find a description of a panel on Sri Lankan literature at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association which will be held in Boston on January 3-6, 2013.


Translation in Sri Lankan Conflict Literature: Challenges, Opportunities, and Implications,        4 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.


Program arranged by the South Asian Literary Association

Presiding: Maryse Jayasuriya, Univ. of Texas, El Paso

1. “Ethnicity, Literature, and Translation in Sri Lanka,” Chelva Kanaganayakam, Univ. of Toronto

2. “From Kaduwa to Kadulla: Leaping the English Hurdle,” Aparna Halpe, Centennial Coll., Toronto

3. “Witnessing, Human Rights, and Performance in Postconflict Sri Lanka,” Nimanthi Rajasingham, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick


Translation in Sri Lankan Conflict Literature: Challenges, Opportunities, and Implications

Given the fact that one of the significant contributing factors to Sri Lanka’s prolonged ethnic conflict was the willed erasure of common tongues, efforts at a language of reconciliation might turn to translation as a bridge between now disparate communities. While translations of Sinhala literature into English were common in the latter part of the twentieth century, translations of Tamil literature into either Sinhala or English were relatively rare, further propagating the silence surrounding Tamil literary and cultural production among the Lankan elite and the non-Tamil speaking populace. Efforts at redressing this issue include the mandate by Three-Wheeler Press, funded by The Gratiaen Trust, a foundation started by Michael Ondaatje, to focus primarily on translation among all three languages. However, despite the rise in literary awards for translation sponsored by private funding organizations and the government, the body of translations remains scant. We ask, what role can translation hold in developing a post-conflict culture of reconciliation? Is the drive to promote translation premature, given the dearth of able trilingual translators? Can we speak of a politics of cultural translation? What gets lost in translation? What connections can be made between Sri Lanka’s situation in connection to the need for translation and those of other countries/regions in South Asia? How can the need for translation be theorized in relation to concrete situations of ethnic and communal conflict? What possibilities do the digital expansion of modes of communication offer for the production and dissemination of translations among Sinhala, Tamil, and English?


Ethnicity, Literature and Translation in Sri Lanka

Chelva Kanaganayakam

In Sri Lanka, where the political context of ethnicity is defined largely in terms of language, translation from Sinhala and Tamil into English is both problematic and crucial. It is problematic because ethnic conflict in postcolonial Sri Lanka, for almost five decades, has made language a point of contention, and reaching across languages has not been encouraged. At the same time, in the post-conflict phase beginning in 2009, one of the main ways for achieving a sustainable reconciliation is through translations. When translations from either Sinhala or Tamil into English are minimal, the task of representation falls on English writing. While writing in English is often compelling from an aesthetic perspective, it has also moved in the direction of a liberal and non-controversial stance. Thus in order to comprehend the complexity and depth of conflict and its attendant trauma, one needs to turn to literatures written in Tamil and Sinhala. Although one would hope that at some point in the future, Sinhala texts would be translated directly into Tamil and vice versa, at present a valuable compromise would be to facilitate the translation of these literatures into English in order to secure a broad readership.

From Kaduwa to Kadulla: Leaping the English Hurdle

Aparna Halpe

In the post-independence backlash against colonial linguistic structures, English language facility was associated with social and cultural elitism and bourgeois liberalism. In the late ’70s, English was eventually dubbed “kaduwa” (the Sinhala name for the conqueror’s sword) by the radicalized university youth. The case against English was further cemented by the scholarly work of the time that questioned the Anglophone writer’s ability to voice the realities of the nation. One unfortunate consequence of these draconian language policies in literatures of the conflict era, was the absence of a functioning link language that could bridge the gap between the increasingly alienated Sinhala and Tamil communities. As a result, much of the significant literary production in all three languages existed in self-contained bubbles, rendering cross-cultural and cross-ethnic dialogue next to impossible. In 2003, recognizing the need for translation, the Graetian Trust, founded by Michael Ondaatje, brought the Three-Wheeler Press into being. The mandate of the press was to provide literary and scholarly work in translation in all three official languages. However, to date, the production of the press remains resolutely in English. This paper scrutinizes the function of English as a link language in post-conflict literature in translation while reopening the early debates of scholars such as Thiru Kandiah and Gunadasa Amarasekera that drew attention to English as a language of privilege. Does the function of English as a link language remain ideologically colonial? Has the Kaduwa (sword) become the final Kadulla (hurdle) in a literature of reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese?


Witnessing, Human Rights and Performance in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham

This paper will look at questions of witnessing, human rights and reconciliation through two texts. One is the documentary film released in 2011 by British Channel 4, the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka, and the second is a series of performances of Trojan Women in Sinhala directed by Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Often when considering questions of reconciliation in post-conflict situations, narrating past experiences of violence and trauma are crucial mechanisms by which those who have been silenced are given opportunities to speak. Hence, I will consider how witnessing is constructed in both the documentary film and play to understand if they create the conditions of possibility for cross-ethnic conversations. I will also look at these two texts as inter-cultural texts that mediate different linguistic communities.

I will use the film as a symptomatic example of how human rights organizations rely on objective, independent, and unbiased witnesses. The insistence on objective witnessing means that certain kinds of witnesses who may be politically involved or partisan become secondary in the process of witnessing. This may displace local witnesses to violence and prioritize outsiders as the best kinds of witnesses.

I contrast human rights witnessing with an embedded model of witnessing that we find in the performances of Trojan Women. Euripides’ Trojan Women is a Western classic that Bandaranayake used in Sinhala translation to respond to local issues of violence in the context of the Sri Lankan war. It has been performed in numerous contexts, and has travelled to communities where Tamils live. Here, the Sinhala performances had to transcend linguistic differences where the performance troupe and the audience did not speak the same languages. I will explore how embodied performances and performative adaptations transcended linguistic barriers. I argue that the performances used embodiment, and an open-ended, non-hierarchical model of witnessing in contrast to human rights witnessing. I will demonstrate through the play how different contesting and contrasting forms of testimony are allowed space to co-exist and shape narratives of history. The embedded model also enables inter-textual performances of the play as it responds to and engages with local political movements. The language of the play resonates with the powerful Mothers’ Fronts movements in Sri Lanka where women often protested the killing and disappearances of their sons and husbands to state and para-military forces. Historically, the different Mothers’ Fronts remained divided along ethnic lines despite their demands being similar. Connecting the performances to local protest movements of both ethnic groups allows us to imagine a community of women who perform grief and anger as forms of reconciliation.


More information on the MLA convention generally, including the program, as well as information about the MLA can be found here:

More information about the South Asian Literary Association which is sponsoring this session at the MLA can be found here:

At this website, you will find the announcement that there is to be a special issue of the South Asian Review, the publication of the South Asian Literary Association, on Sri Lankan Anglophone literature.  That special issue is now being edited by Professors Maryse Jayasuriya and Aparna Halpe:

“2012 Special Number of SAR: Sri Lankan Anglophone Writing

“South Asian Review, the refereed journal of the South Asian Literary Association, [invited] submissions for its 2012 special number, Volume 33 Number 3, devoted to Sri Lankan Anglophone literature.  The South Asian Reviewcalls for papers that examine Sri Lankan Anglophone fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, and film. Topics of interest may include writings dealing with ethnic conflict, violence, terrorism, and trauma; the role of Anglophone literature in Sri Lanka; the need for translation and the challenges associated with it; the literature of the Sri Lankan diaspora; the difficulties of publishing in Sri Lanka; Sri Lankan literature in relation to modern technology and globalization; the role of Sri Lankan Anglophone literature in efforts at reconciliation; and Sri Lankan writing in relation to human rights discourse, political protest, and social activism. We are also interested in critical essays that deal with Sri Lankan Anglophone literature in relation to gender, sexualities, class, ethnicity, religion, internal displacements, migration, colonialism, imperialism, postcoloniality, and hybridity.”

source: American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies

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