Among foreign cultural missions in Sri Lanka the Goethe Institute of Colombo is undoubtedly the most active and imaginative. Its ‘Poets Translating Poets’ project currently under way is both eclectic and exciting, bringing together poets from the subcontinent together with their counterparts from Germany and Sri Lanka.
The Havelock Bungalow, an exotic restaurant tucked away inside a quiet niche in Colombo 5, seemed an illylic place for poets to meet as I stepped in there on Thursday Dec. 03, the final day of a four-day workshop. This is a restaurant, but seems to have been reserved for the project as there were no diners. The empty tables shaded by frangipani added to the mystique.
On hand were Goethe Institute’s Katrin Becher and Rashmi Dhanwani, regional co-ordinator for the project initiated in July by the Goethe Institute in Mumbai, India. What we see here is a passing glimpse from a train window. This is a year-long project which brings together 48 poets writing in 19 languages. The aim is to promote transcultural understanding.
And to bring poets out of their cultural hideouts, and relative isolation, to a projected regional and international cultural stream, today, Sri Lankan poets Ariyawansa Ranaweera and Somasundarapillai ‘Sopa’ Pathmanathan from Jaffna meet German poet Barbara Kohler. They are stepping across the cultural divide to read, understand and translate each other’s poetry.
Barbara Kohler, born in 1959 in what was then East Germany, worked at several jobs which included a home for the elderly and operating the lights inside a theatre. She wrote underground poetry until the fall of the Iron Curtain. After studying literature from 1985-88, she became a free lance writer and published her first volume of poems in 1991.
Since then, she has won multiple awards, scholarships and acclaim for her innovative poetry, such as the 2007 work “Niemands Frau. Gesänge (Nobody’s Wife: Cantos”, a retelling of the Odyssey from a feminine point of view. She has translated too, the work of American feminist author Gertrude Stein.
Kohler has a comprehensive knowledge of English but has difficulty expressing herself in it; conversation was slow and frustrating. In this project, she works from an ‘interlinear translation’ of her fellow poets work in Sinhala and Tamil, rendering that into a more poetic form in German. This has never been attempted before in this country.
Prof. Asoka de Zoysa from the University of Kelaniya has translated her poem ‘Die Dominospieler’ into Sinhala (Nimka Udapola and Fr. Francis Jeyasegaram are the other two interlinear translators). Prof. de Zoysa notes on the difficulties involved – the poem has no structured sentences, and imagery and ideas are interlinked, making any connection between ideas quite difficult. These are but some of the challenges involved in this project, making it so exciting.
Ariyawansa Ranaweera, a prolific poet whose career goes back to the early 1980s, is well known amongst readers of Sinhala poetry. He has published 15 books of poetry to date, and his work is marked by a lyrical, tender quality. ‘Sopa’ Pathmanathan has led a more tortuous life, his early youth marked by the 1958 anti-Tamil riots. He subsequently lived most of his life in war-torn Jaffna, and his poetry is naturally marked by that painful experience.
As a result of ‘Poets Translating Poets,’ the life experiences of these poets are now available to a wider audience. On Friday Dec. 04 at 7 pm., the three poets, the three interlinear translators and the project coordinator were met for a poetry reading and panel discussion.