15 August, 2022


Malini Govinna: Iconic Sinhala Translator, Journalist, Loses Her Battle Against Cancer

By Somasiri Munasinghe –

Somasiri Munasinghe

It is no wonder that Malini Govinna won the best translation award in 2015 for her outstanding Rela, the Sinhala version of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Waves which recounts her personal tragedy of losing her husband, parents and two children to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. There was no other Sinhala translator who could capture the pain and anguish of the research scholar who worked in the UK and the US, than Malini who passed away after a prolonged battle against cancer on June 21.


It was Malini who caught the eye of Reggie Siriwardane when he was looking for someone to translate Fontamara, written by Italian author Ignazio Silone. Ranjith Gunawardene who noticed Malini’s prodigious talent when she learnt English under him at the Vidyalankara Campus (now Kelaniya University) recommended her to Siriwardene.

According to Jayasiri Alawatte who wrote a moving eulogy of Malini said that she was one of the six who were successful out of 600 students who sat for the exam. Alawatte also considers her feat of translating this classic in two weeks some kind of record.

In the introduction to Fontamara, Siriwardene commented that it was a rare achievement for a girl who hailed from the village background and was exposed to western literature only after she entered the university.

I knew Malini when I worked on Ceylon Daily News in the early to mid-80s. She was a silent, busy character and we exchanged more smiles than words when we met in the corridor, but I was a silent admirer of her enormous body of work. As I can remember she worked in Navayugaya above the Daily News editorial where weeklies like Sarasaviya, Budu Sarana, Kreeda, Tharuni, Mihira and other publications were located.

I had read Malini’s Sinhala translations of Lalitha Withanachchi’s stories which appeared in Sinhala papers from time to time. When I read her works, I had the strange feeling that I was reading stories written by the Sinhala masters like G.B. Senanayake or Martin Wickramasinghe. Her language had their refinement and versatility.

The famous saying that poetry is what is lost in translation did not apply in Malini’s case as she sank deep into the writers’ mind and their  milieu to extract every ounce of their psyche and creative energy.

Though she was said to be a radical, she was rarely overt in her political beliefs or polemics, but taking a closer look at the 15 or so translations she did, we can define where her sympathies lay.

After Fontamara, she chose her translations systematically to suit her socio-political beliefs.

She translated the works of a wide range of celebrated international authors like the wife of Che Guevara Aleida March’s Remembering Che, South African Alon Patton (Cry, the Beloved Country), Booker prize-winning Arundathi Roy (The God of Small Things), Carlos Maria Domingues (The House of Paper), John Barnes (The First Lady Eva Peron), The Motorcycle Diaries (Che Guevara), Indian-Australian Saroo Brieley (A Long Way Home), US author Richard Bach (Jonathan Livingston Seagull), fifth-century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (The Art of War), Australian neurologist Viktor Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning) and Serbian-Australian writer B. Wonger (Gabo Djara). She also published a collection of poems from internationally famous bards.

Compare these translations with the western trash the new crop of Sinhala translators is trying to peddle to the unsuspecting Sinhala readers to the detriment of our native literature! Today anybody with a laptop and Google Translate can become a translator. During Malini’s time, things were quite different.

The 80s, just before the political cutthroats invaded the hallowed institution on the banks of the Beira Lake, marked one of the best periods of its history admired as a repository of creativity and great minds.

On the Sinhala side, there were Dharmasiri Gamage, Soma Devi Parana Yapa, Ajantha Ranasinghe, Somaweera Senanayake, while on the English side the likes of Karel Roberts and Gratiaen Prize winner Lalitha Withanachchi were remarkable, not forgetting my guru Manik de Silva who is one of the best editors that Sri Lanka has produced. Malini belonged to that exclusive club.

A friend of Malini, who was close to her during her last days told me that she refused chemotherapy treatment for cancer, saying, “It will not make me a person free from cancer. It will simply make my death a painful, slow one. I don’t need that.”

He says she was self-critical at times.

“Once, when I asked her why she was not opting for a caregiver, her answer was ‘Not even a caregiver can bear my kind of living. That’s why I don’t even have one.'”

But she was evidently in need of a caregiver judging by her deteriorating health condition, he said. “She could not attend to her household chores as she was so weak that she could not go out on her own to buy her meals,” he said, adding that he came to know her when they were the members of a writers/critics league affiliated to leftist elements in Sri Lanka.

Her worsening condition made her move from her house in Battaramulla, Koswatte, to her ancestral home in Dummalasuriya in Kurunegala, he said.

I don’t think Malini believed in a nirvana. I wish she goes wherever she wanted to be after her passing. I also wish I had a little more time to know her at Lake House and more time to read all her books. I sincerely hope her works become a beacon to budding translators!

*Somasiri Munasinghe translated Mohan Raj Madawala’s Aadaraneeya Victoria (Dear Victoria) and Loveena into English in 2019. Two more of his translations, Madawala’s Colombo and Shamel Jayakody’s Pransha Pemwatha will be published soon. In December 2020 he unveiled his debut Sinhala novel, Imelda, based on a passionate love affair between a Dubai-based Filipina housemaid and a Sri Lankan driver.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Thank you for this heartfelt tribute to Malini. I was at Kelaniya U in the 70s, during Ranjith Gunawardena’s time in the English Dept. I can’t recall Malini, but do remember the translation of Fontamara coming out. Ranjith was carrying a copy around.
    Kelaniya is on my thoughts these days, because I just finished a piece about poet Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, who taught in the sub-dept. of English in the 1970s.

    • 2

      Thank you for your comment. Ranjith Gunawardena taught us. I love Lakdasa’s poetry. The tragedy happened when I was in the university. Are you writing the piece to Colombo Telegraph? Like to read it.

  • 2

    What a moving tribute!
    Made me feel that I know the talented Malini Govinna.

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