The Indelible: Faithfully captures the life of the original text | Sunday Observer
H.A.I. Goonetileke Prize 2020

The Indelible: Faithfully captures the life of the original text

11 July, 2021
Malinda Seneviratne
Malinda Seneviratne

Although it is an impossibility to imagine a graceful literary event in the midst of a pandemic, an online awards ceremony of the Gratiaen Awards 2019–2020 was concluded on a high note recently and the most coveted award for translation, the H. A. I. Goonetileke Prize, presented for the ninth year, was for Malinda Seneviratne’s faithful rendition of a Sinhala novel that is as epic and moving as it is a landmark work of literature - ‘Senkottan’ by Mahinda Prasad Masimbula. 

‘The Indelible’ by Malinda Seneviratne was serialised exclusively in the Sunday Observer continuously for over six months last year. This is the second time that Malinda has been awarded the H.A.I. Goonatilake Prize for his absolutely brilliant talent in translation.

“I’m not a professional translator, rather it is an addiction. I’m a fan of Sinhala literature and when I encounter a beautifully written piece of literature - be it a poem, short story or a novel, I mark them as my life-goals to translate one day,”  Malinda said humbly, in an interview with the ‘Sunday Observer’.

Like most of Malinda’s other literary treasures that he has read and collected, ‘Senkottan’  was also in his life-goals list until the writer suggested to him last year just before the pandemic, to translate it for it to be serialised weekly in the ‘Sunday Observer’.  

As he recalls ‘Sekottan’ and Mahinda Prasad Masimbula, the writer of this poetic novel, was introduced to him by journalist and writer, Kusumanjali Thilakaratne when he was the editor of ‘The Nation’. Years later when Dilini Eriyawala urged him to translate ‘Senkottan’,  he had read the book by that time and was quite moved by its poetic language. 

“It was beautifully written although I had few criticisms over it. However, ‘The Indelible’ came to light this soon because I had a weekly deadline to follow and I’m grateful to you and the ‘Sunday Observer’ for agreeing to serialise it like my previous translation ‘SansaranyayeDadayakkaraya’ for which I received the same translation award in 2012,” Malinda said. 

Below is an extract of a lengthy conversation the writer had with Malinda Seneviratne where he shares his life experience as a translator and a writer. 

Q: Could you recall the beginning of your journey as a translator?   

A: I joined the ‘Sunday Island’ in 2000 and I was understudy to the editor and was parachuted into journalism. There I was doing writing more than anything else. At that time the features section of the ‘Sunday Island’ was full of articles from the ‘Sunday Telegraph’. So I suggested to the features editor that we do our own feature articles. But we really didn’t have staff. I used to go to the ‘Divaina’ editorial very often. There I noticed really good feature articles published in the ‘Divaina’. So I started to translate these articles for ‘Sunday Island’. I think that was the initial attempt of my journey in translation. 

However, when I was studying in the United States I followed a class called ‘Marx, Nietzsche and Freud’; it was in the German Studies Department at Cornell University. The graduate students had to maintain a journal.

There was a very good South Asian collection at the University library and I actually read most of the Sinhala literature while I was a student there. I was reading ‘Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya’ by Saiman Nawagaththegama at that time and I found a passage in the book which was relevant to the class. So I translated that passage to present it in that class. That also was the sharp moment that I realised that translation was not something impossible.

Then I started translating that book from the beginning. After I translated the first two chapters I sent it to Liyanage Amarakeerthi who was at that time reading his doctorate at Wisconsin University in the States. He gave me the green light to continue and that was quite an encouragement. So that’s how I got into translations.   

Q: How long did it take you to be satisfied with your translations? 

A: I think it took quite a long time. However, I never had a rush as I have never been a professional translator.

I translated ‘Upanda Sita’ by Martin Wickramasignhe following a request by his son Ranga Wickramasinghe at a family gathering at his place in Koggala. That was my first fiction translation but I’m not happy with it. It’s a weak translation. I did it twenty years ago when I was new to the whole thing about translation, my vocabulary in Sinhala and English was limited, my understanding of cultural nuance of the Sinhala text was probably much less than it is now. So I never wanted to publish it.  

Although in 2006 following a request by Mahagamasekara’s son, Ravindra, I tried to translate ‘Prabuddha’ but I couldn’t grasp Sekara’s tone of expression. So I stopped. However, four or five years later I took it on again. Then I realised I could do it much easier than before, as my command of Sinhala and English have improved. By that time my ability to write poetry may also have improved as well. I think by then I was a more mature human being than before. I was determined to finish it by 2015 before I turned 50. I finished it on my 50th birthday. Occasionally I also used to translate poems that I liked. I have been doing translations mostly as a hobby or for my own self-satisfaction.  

Q:  So you jumped into the deep end by undertaking the translation of  ‘Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya’,  your first published work?

A: Absolutely. It was a challenge and that was my first comprehensive work in translation. The difficulty of the text really pushed me to get into it much more seriously. Navagaththegama had the ability of describing the most mundane thing in a way nobody can even think about. I think I spent about a year working on that book, but I’m not at all surprised it took me that long. Even now, having translated that fabulous work by Nawagaththegama, I look back and wonder how I did it.

However, I had to translate ‘Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya’ twice. After I translated the whole book for the first time I gave it to Nawagaththegama to read but unfortunately he lost the diskette and I had to re-translate the whole thing again many years later. That also was serialised in ‘Sunday Observer’ in 2010 and I won my first H.A.I Goonethileke Award at the Gratiean Awards in 2012.

Q: Masimbula’s prose seems highly emotional yet there’s so much rigour behind it. It’s incredibly nuanced and elegant. How did you go about capturing that?  

A: I’m a fan of most of Masimbula’s  books and of them ‘Senkottan’ is special.  When I was the Editor of ‘The Nation’, Kusumanjali Thilakaratne used to write a weekly column where she interviewed artists, mostly writers. Kusumanjali once interviewed Masimbula and introduced him to me. However, I had met Masimbula in 2010 at a literary festival at the Peradeniya Campus where he read some poems at the event. Although I couldn’t speak to him there, I still remember someone criticised him severely, quite unfairly. However, I still recall his interesting response that drew a special mark in my mind. He said, “I write, how you take it is up to you and I’m fine with that”. 

Masimbula’s prose is quite poetic and rich, the same as Nawagatthegama’s. The caste dynamics that was spoken about in ‘Senkottan’ I have seen in my life - the insults and humiliations people go through in their daily routine and the courage to resolve and bear those insults were too harsh to absorb. In fact my Masters thesis was based on a study of five caste based villages in the dry zone. The power dynamics of the previous era is still not absent today. Masimbula brings that out in his own subtle way in his narrative.

Translations are best when you have moved by the original text. However, I think I will be a better translator ten years from now. You’ll be able to produce a brilliant translation after you start owning the language of the original and the language of the translation.   

I love to translate Masimbula’s ‘Apoiyawa’ which is another beautifully written compact novella, but I feel it’s untranslatable. It also talks about socio-political ideological issues but in a completely different aesthetic manner in an absolutely rich text.  

Q: The prose of one writer is very different to that of another. How do you capture that? 

A: Since I’m not a professional translator it was always by request. Or some books that I really fell in love with and marked as my life-goals to translate them one day. I was once interviewed by K. K. Saman Kumara about my translation of ‘Sansaranyaye Dadayakkaraya’.

He said that some people interpreted Nawagaththegama’s text as that based on Marxism or Buddhism, while others interpreted it as based on psycho-analysis. He asked me what my theoretical approach to understanding the book was.

My reply was simple, maybe because I didn’t and still don’t know any of those ‘isms’. I understood this as a story and I translated the story. I think if I read it through some ideological or theoretical frame, I may have read a different kind of a book and I would  also have translated a different kind of text. Fortunately or unfortunately I took Nawagatthegama’s text as a story and translated the story that I read.

However, it wasn’t easy at all because of his rich language. I think that’s the reason that the H.A.I. Goonethileke prize jury report used the word ‘transliteration’ instead of ‘translation’.  Each sentence of Nawagaththegama’s literature is so layered. It is also the uniqueness of the Sinhala language too.  I think from his many layers I was able to grasp one or two and add one of my own versions too. And that’s the beauty of the process of translation.

Q: You obviously take on quite varied projects. How do you choose and what are your upcoming projects? 

A: ‘Miilanga, Meewitha’ by Ruwan Bandujeewa is one of the best Sinhala poetry books that I have ever come across and I have translated half of the poems in that book and that is one of the books that I hope to finish soon.  ‘Swarnamali Maharaja’ by Udayasiri Wickramaratne is another project I wish to finish soon. Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s ‘Malagiya Aththo’ and ‘Malaunge Aurudu Daa’ are there in my list of life-goals and I hope to translate ‘Viragaya’ by Martin Wickramasinghe at some point of time before I die. 



The translations of the dialogues, in particular, is crisp, delicately triggering the humour and irony that the author of the original devised, while being economical and balanced with the descriptions. We also noted that the translation faithfully captures the life of the original text and enlivens it from within. It also conveys the literary subtleties of the original by distinguishing between the metaphorical and the literal.

Therefore, for deeply etching, in our souls, the ineffaceable marks of disgraceful social negligence and chauvinism in Sri Lankan history, while compelling us to question ourselves again and again about human values and human rights through a story of blood, sweat, and tears unseen and unheard by many; where every thread of thought rendered from the mesmeric embroidery of emotions in the original throbs with vivacity, and is beautifully reproduced in English as a piece of touching prose poetry composed around innocent lives humiliated and cold-shouldered for generations in rural Sri Lanka of the middle of the last century; and leaving us seriously ashamed of our stinky thoughts on caste-based distinctions that randomly and sporadically peek out even today, the H.A.I. Goonetillake Prize 2019-2020 is awarded to, ‘The Indelible’ by Malinda Seneviratne, being an excellent translation of Mahinda Prasad Masimbula’s award-winning novel, ‘Senkottan’.”

– Extract of the citation by Chair of the Jury,  H.A.I. Goonetileke Prize 2019-2020,

Prof. Rohana Seneviratne