October 17, 2019
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    “Language to Unite”

    February 23, 2019

    The International Mother Language day 2019 theme is: “Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation”. However ‘indigenous languages’ are what is keeping people apart, and the only solution we have at present to cross this barrier is by translation, either to a link language or from one language to another.

    This year too our country is joining in the celebrations of International Mother Languages Day. The Bangladesh High Commission spearheaded the celebrations at the Viharamahadevi Park, as they had been doing over the past several years. Along with the Ministry of Official Languages, attended by many leaders and diplomats from many countries, and many schoolchildren, they have been “planning to unleash a bit of creative madness.” Their theme is “Language to Unite”.

    This theme needs our attention since Language had always been used and exploited to create disunity, division, rivalry and destruction. The time has come to reverse the process.

    Our history has always showed unity among people using divers mother tongues. If we accept our Pali Chronicles, when Vijaya had arrived in Lanka he had been able to communicate with Kuveni. The Buddha appears to have been able to preach to the Yaksha, Naga and other tribes in Lanka. Trading activities have a long history, with traders arriving along the Silk Route from China and Arab traders from the Near East communicating and carrying out business transactions with the people of Lanka and India.

    Between 400 – 700 CE, Chinese travellers, Fa Hsien, Sung Yun, Huang Tsang and I Tsing visited South Asia, to obtain Buddhist scriptures in Sanskrit and Pali.

    Buddhist literature

    Buddhagosha had been able to learn Sinhala and had enough knowledge of Pali to be able to translate all the Buddhist literature from Sinhala to Pali. Jain, Hindu and Buddhist monks who arrived from different regions in India would have been able to communicate and preach their Dhamma to our people. In the more recent past, we had Ven. S. Mahinda himi.

    Sikkim Mahinda was born around 1901 in Sikkim and named Pempa Tendupi Serky Cherin, he had claimed himself to be Tibetan, probably because Sikkim was not well known, and it was easier to identify with a neighbouring country which was well known. His mother tongue would have been Tibetan or Sikkimese, or any one of the other 10 languages used in Sikkim. Yet when he arrived in Sri Lanka he was not only able to learn the Sinhala language, but even to compose poetry and patriotic songs, awakening the Sinhala people. He had also mastered Pali, to be able to translate Sadhammopijana into Sinhala.

    Anne Ranasinghe born in Germany to Jewish parents, whose mother-tongue would have been German or Hebrew, became a leading poet writing in English and won the Sahitya Rathna award, and many literary awards for her poetry.

    In my schooldays, I was familiar with many real polyglots. Fr. Vito Perniola, who came from Italy, learned Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit, and published a Pali Grammar. Rev. Fr. Aloysius Peiris had mastered Pali and Latin by the age of fourteen. Later he mastered Sanskrit, Hebrew, French, German and Italian. Rev. Fr. Julius Pogany’s mother tongue would have been Hebrew or German when he arrived in Sri Lanka. He used to teach Physics in the English medium and when the transition came to teach science in the mother tongue, he was able to switch over to Sinhala without any difficulty.

    Our universities teach not only Pali and Sanskrit, but also Greek, Japanese, Korean and Chinese, and many of them teach Translation Methods. I have met a professor from Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland, who is teaching Sanskrit and another who teaches Urdu and Hindi, encouraging students to use Devanagari script for both languages. Recently Ven. Prof. Gallelle Sumanasiri published a textbook to teach Pali in Chinese.

    In 1830, the Wesleyan missionary Rev. B. Clough produced, probably the first Sinhala – English dictionary, which established his skill with the new language he had learnt only after arriving in Sri Lanka. This was followed by Rev. Charles Carter in 1924. Even today these two dictionaries are still used as there has not been a really good Sinhala English dictionary published after them.

    British officials travelling around India discovered several stone inscriptions in a script not known to any Indian academics at the time. It was a British administrator James Prinsep who was able to translate the Ashoka inscriptions from Brahmi to English, and identify King Ashoka. The most authoritative translation of Ashoka inscriptions is by the German Indologist Eugen Hultzsch, “Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, vol. 1. Inscriptions of Asoka”.

    Mahavamsa was unknown to the public in Sri Lanka until James Turnour discovered a few copies of the Pali chronicle and began the laborious task of translation in 1826. Turnour published the first English translation in 1837, Wilhelm Geiger published the German translation in 1912, which was translated into English by Mabel Haynes Bode, and revised by Geiger. The complete Tripitaka was translated into English by T. W. Rhys Davids and C. A. F. Rhys Davids in 43 volumes in the year 1900. Prof. Ranjini Obeysekare translated Saddharma Rathnawaliya into English, Kav Silumina was translated by Prof. Vini Vitharana.

    We in the south of Sri Lanka would have received the English translation of the Kural by Tiruvalluvar, only after 1886, with the first English translation done by Rev. Dr. G. U. Pope, Rev. W. H. Drew, Rev. John Lazarus and F. W. Ellis. A Sinhala translation was done by Ms. Misihami Gorokgoda in 1964. Dr. M. H. Peter Silva translated Silapadikaram into Sinhala from Tamil as ‘Nuruvela teda'. Peter Silva had also translated ‘Vira Solium’ into Sinhala.

    Indigenous languages

    In fiction, Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s novels were translated into Japanese by Tadashi Noguchi. Matin Wickramasinghe’s Viragaya and Madol Duwa were also translated into Japanese by Noguchi. Gamperaliya was translated into Russian, and Madol Duwa into Chinese. Several books by Sybil Wettasinghe have been translated into Japanese, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Korean, Chinese, in addition to English and Tamil.

    These are just a few examples of translations, which could keep us united, and they show the important role to be played by translators. Even though man is the only animal capable of rational speech, it is our misfortune that we cannot communicate with each other. Even as we celebrated our indigenous languages on February 21 we must keep in mind that until someday we could develop a universal language, a Vishva Basha, we have to depend on translations, human or electronic, for communication. It is only then that we can expect language to unite us.

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