Sri Lankan professor translates the ‘unspoken’ voice of her native country from war times

English Professor Anushiya Ramaswamy has published translations of well-known Sri Lankan writer

English professor Anushiya Ramaswamy spent her recent sabbatical giving a voice to Sri Lankan writer Shobasakthi’s works, which are written in his native Tamil language.

Like Shobasakthi, Ramaswamy had some first-hand experiences with the civil war in 1983 “at its height,” yet she and her family were able to emigrate to India. She said she finds translating the Sri Lankan writer fulfilling.

“I was a child and we lost everything,” Ramaswamy said. “For me the work makes me feel fortunate as we have been able to build lives for ourselves and continue on.”

According to Ramaswamy, the minority Tamil peoples exerted political and then militant agitation for a separate nation starting in the late 1970s. The armed conflict ended with the Sri Lankan military bombing and killing thousands of those who were regarded as militant Tamils in 2009.

Ramaswamy said her sabbatical was wonderful as she completed 17 stories by Shobasakthi with her manuscript set to be published by Penguin publishers in India next year.

“It was a relief to be able to sit and translate without interruption,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy said her work in translating his work into English “is very necessary, I think, to make the stories of all these silenced refugees, victims of a civil war available to the world.”

Ramaswamy said she is committed to translate Shobaskthi’s stories.

“To me as an educated person living in the West, someone who comes from a minority, I recognize we come from an uneven world, [especially] when you have experiences and know what it is like to live in a powerless situation,” Ramaswamy said.

Ramaswamy said it is impossible to translate perfectly–trying to convey anything from the original text and language can be difficult. Translations can be especially biased from a colonial perspective.

“It can never be accurate,” Ramaswamy said. “It’s a lost cause… Colonial bureaucracies behave as if translations are transparent activities which they are not.”

According to Ramaswamy, the act of translating “causes you to interrogate the written and spoken word with every breath.”

Thus, Ramaswamy includes a 20-25 page preface or introduction to explain the context from which she translates in her work.

Ramaswamy said her translations of Shobasakthi’s work allow “us to question things we take to be normal” because this normalcy covers the atrocities of civil war.

“The ugliness of civil war is that your enemy is very intimate. You share a land, culture and language…then we do horrible things in the name of war,” Ramaswamy said.

According to Ramaswamy there are journalists who have written about the civil war in Sri Lanka, yet in terms of literature, “there is very little by ways of translation.”

Ramaswamy said she discovered Shobasakthi’s publications in 2006 and was amazed.

“Shobasakthi’s first novel ‘Gorilla’ came out in 2001 and was magnificently received within the Tamil-speaking world. His second novel and his short stories receive a lot of attention with the Tamil diaspora [dispersion]. Sri Lankan Tamils who lived scattered all over the world read Shobasakthi mostly online,” Ramaswamy said.

In 2008 she translated his Shobsakthi’s “Gorilla” to English in which Random House published her work. His second novel, “Traitor,” Ramaswamy translated as well and her work was published in 2011.

English Department Chair Sharon McGee said Ramaswamy’s work and dedication in translating Shobasakthi’s writing is important and that the English-speaking world needs to have access to them.

“Regardless of where it is written, good fiction needs to be shared with the world because it helps us as human beings interact with a time and place with which we may have little knowledge,” McGee said. “Yet, we can understand the struggles of others on that very basic human level, especially when we read good literature.”


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