20 May, 2022


Piyadasa Nisshanka: The Brightest Beacon Of Inspiration For Translating Sanskrit Classics Into Sinhala

By Rohana Seneviratne

Prof. Rohana Seneviratne

(In commemoration of the 25th death anniversary of a translator extraordinaire)

When the source language is not his first language, a staunch translator usually weighs his selection of words, diction, and register in the target language against that by the original author. If he is well versed in the source language, possibly his mother tongue, but not-so-finely in the target language, he encounters the same issue and straddles the fence at least for some time until satisfaction dawns. And when it comes to classics, translating a piece of time-honoured wisdom into a readable work in any modern language requires the translator to be armed in a set of specific paraphernalia and clad in a perdurable defensive armour in addition to sufficient expertise in both his source and target languages. This is because he is highly likely to be exposed to some painful encounters in the form of missing context, literary obsolescence, multilayered paronomasia and so on during his time-travel through the labyrinth of text. He will require numerous tools to delve into the source text. Similarly, criticism in all possible forms awaits a translation because a classical text may well have been already edited and translated several times and stand well-known to at least a limited readership.

Piyadasa Nisshanka

What do all these indicate? A translator remains doubtful throughout his textual expedition before cherry-picking what he determines makes the highest justice to the source and presenting his audience with an acceptable literary replica of the original. For the Sanskrit classics translated into Sinhala during the last few decades, we, however, witnessed an “undoubting” translator as his last name connoted, the harvest of whose efforts stands tall and stout before us, causing some others’ translations of his source texts to droop and wither. He is Piyadasa Nisshanka, the brightest beacon of inspiration for our translating Sanskrit classics into Sinhala.

General Background

Until his demise in 1996 concluding a long journey of 73 years, Piyadasa Nisshanka untiredly and assuredly worked on translating into Sinhala an impressive array of finest Sanskrit classics. Being trained in oriental languages and literature under the guidance of Ven. Dhammaratana at the Dangalla Rajamaha Vihara and at then the Nittambuwa Teacher Training College (now Sariputta National College of Education, Nittambuwa), he began his career as a school teacher at the Mahanama College, Walana, in 1946 and transferred himself to several schools before his unduly forced retirement in 1978. His unquenched thirst for knowledge encouraged him to enter the University of Peradeniya in 1953, where he followed the Vidya-visharada Diploma in Sinhala, Tamil, and Sanskrit, a significant turning point that kindled the initial sparks of his illustrious literary career. Nisshanka’s career as a scholar at Peradeniya received enrichment under the supervision and companionship of Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996) and D. E. Hettiarachchi (1909-1989).

Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra | Photo credit sarachchandra.org

As Sarachchandra has reminisced, Nisshanka’s debut in translating Sanskrit classics into Sinhala initiated with the Sanskrit play “Svapnavasavadatta” translated at his request. Pleasantly surprised by the superstandard translation and his enthusiasm for fathoming of the unlimited wealth of Sanskrit, Sarachchandra invited him to publish it as the inaugural issue of the series titled “Vishva Natya Pustakamala” under his editorship and motivated him to continue working on rendering more masterpieces of Sanskrit theatre into Sinhala. Nisshanka’s inspiration for delving into the vivid realm of Sanskrit plays was, therefore, Sarachchandra whose prestige as a leading figure among Sinhala literati in that era, and also a critic, playwright, and producer may have had a lasting impact on writers with refreshed hopes of nationalism. His association with intellectuals like D.E. Hettiarachchi, Sucharitha Gamlath (1934-2013), Bandula Jayawardhana (1926-2003), and Siri Gunasinghe (1925-2017) kindled his interests in numerous aspects of scholarship and sharpened his perspectives. As Sucharita Gamlath portrays in his “Guru Guna Samara” (1997), the cordial symposia Sarachchandra used to have in most weekends in the early 1960s were attended by many genial literature-lovers also from outside of Peradeniya such as Gunadasa Amarasekara (b. 1929), Madawala S. Rathnayake (1929-1997), and Premasinghe Welikala. Nisshanka was also among them. 

I would like to highlight, though concisely, a few aspects of Nisshanka’s mastery of translating Sanskrit classics into Sinhala, which we may revisit to educate ourselves and enrich our efforts along similar avenues. Topics like the necessity of any Sinhala translation of Sanskrit classics and that of Sanskrit itself here in the contemporary cultural setting of Sri Lanka are not addressed here, simply to leave them for an extensive discussion at a later time. Let me first situate our translator in the historical context where his works can be recognized as easily surpassing others’ in the equivalent genres. 

Jayantha Aravinda

The history of rendering Sanskrit works into Sinhala is long. Since around half a millennium, people in Sri Lanka seem to have turned towards densely vivid genres of the classical Sanskrit literature to assimilate knowledge of diverse subjects, including Ayurveda and occult sciences. Adaptations from Sanskrit classics were frequent as a result of which we have a decent number of close replicas of them in Sinhala. A popular Sanskrit manual of poetics known as “Kavyadarsa” adapted into Sinhala as “Siyabaslakara” in the Anuradhapura period can be a substantial example. We may, however, safely conclude that since when pirivena education for Buddhist monks initiated in Sri Lanka, the necessity for Sinhala renditions of Sanskrit works became graver and authors assiduously prepared Sinhala exegetical works known as “sanna” or verbatim interpretations. The prominent characteristic of such works is, inarguably, that the exegetes have taken pain to preserve the grammatical accuracy and syntactical subtleties of the source texts at the expense of considerable damage to the grammatical and lexical cohesion of their Sinhala interpretations. While this characteristic resulted in the Sinhala renditions becoming tediously artificial and devoid of spirit, some pompously pedantic efforts to replace Sanskrit terms in the original not with simpler Sinhala terms with higher currency but with more arcane ones again from Sanskrit contributed to confinement of many Sinhala exegetical works of Sanskrit classics to pirivena textbooks and wearisome specimens of punditry. Further, as a result of such efforts by Sinhala exegetes, even a piece of whimsical poetry in simple Sanskrit ended up turning to be an advanced Sinhala translation of high diction and sober tone. Unfortunately, even today, some translators from Sanskrit into Sinhala irrationally believe in and impetuously follow the paths of those sanna-authors, contributing to the overall impression that Sanskrit is archaic or extinct and only an ostentatious way for showcasing one’s learning.

The Nisshanka Way

Given such a setting in the niche of Sanskrit literature in translation, Piyadasa Nisshanka’s unique legacy of Sinhala translations of Sanskrit classics stands out. As we learned above, Nisshanka’s first exposure to Sanskrit possibly was during the time of his primary education at a pirivena but he was immensely benefitted from his time at Peradeniya in the early 1950s in the association of Sarachchandra and others. We may assume that he had not been armed to the teeth when he completed his first translation but surely it certainly was his meticulous engagement in translating from Sanskrit into Sinhala for a few decades that equipped him with all necessary skills and tools to do miracles. However, Nisshanka’s deep understanding of what the task of “translating” is all about is clear from the very first translation to his credit. Here I quote from his foreword to the Sinhala translation of the Svapnavasavadatta by Bhasa (1956).

Premasinghe Welikala

“What literature does is to place one’s experience, along with the mental states involved in such experience, in another’s mind. Only the language exists there as a tool conveying one’s mental status to another. But in doing a translation the translator needs to stand between them. He should read the minds of the writer and the reader. Then he should place in the reader’s mind the writer’s emotions as they remain there. Since the fundamental responsibility of a writer is to convey exactly to the reader how the poet’s mind has been, he should not be servile to the language or grammar. Translating is the task of enabling the thoughts, preferences, and emotions etc. of the speaker of a certain language to appear in the mind of a speaker of another language. It is not giving meanings of words of a certain language in another language.”

Nisshanka’s art of translation can hardly be compared with any other translator’s in Sri Lanka since the past. If I were to compare his with another’s even in recent times, my comparison would have found better justice with Charles Godakumbura’s (1907-1977). The Janakiharana of Kumaradasa that was translated into Sinhala (and English) by Godakumbura and Senarath Paranavithana (1896-1972) encapsulates the charm of a fine Sinhala classical work into an extent that one may not believe easily that it was a Sinhala rendition of a Sanskrit masterpiece. The jewels Nisshanka had cherry-picked from the classical Sinhala literature are found embedded in his translations from Sanskrit in a fabulous way that hardly any other has done. I believe that the gifted poet inside Nisshanka appeared in all his translations of Sanskrit poetry including the plays. His employment of, as Coleridge says, “the best words in the best order” has produced poetry into an extent that one may wonder whether his works are “translations”. In the introduction to his Meghaduta translation (1994), Nisshanka humbly notes declaring this truth: “Translating Kalidasa’s poetry with its delicacy kept intact is extremely a difficult task. Therefore, this should not be considered a literal translation of the original but a transcreation presented after enjoying his poetical thoughts.” Nisshanka’s words reveal how a genuine translator of poetry works, or should work, reminding us also of Robert Frost’s oft-quoted words – “Poetry is what gets lost in translation”, i.e., the translation of poetry into any level of perfection is impossible.

D.E. Hettiarachchi

How did Nisshanka’s poetical transcreations appear in the eyes of his colleagues? Veteran musician and scholar Jayantha Aravinda, who has worked extensively with Sarachchandra, reminisces as follows how he composed music for songs in the Sinhala production of Ratnavali (1968), highlighting Nisshanka’s graceful translation of Sri Harsha’s masterpiece.

“During my university days, I had known Piyadasa Nisshanka only through his Ratnavali. The rhythmic and tempo-specific compositions of the Ratnavali he had rendered were in a poetical language replete with mellifluous sounds. Those lyrical compositions were “poetry meant for signing” (geya-kavya) that are of short and long meters with equal lines, follow tempo, and fit the musical composition.” 

Nisshanka’s translation of the Ratnavali reveals how a poet with a sense of musicality may support others to do wonders. This becomes clearer when his works are compared with some others’ in similar genres, by reading which readers become jaded rather than thrilled due to the coarsely prosaic Sinhala passages appearing as the translation of metrical and dulcet Sanskrit verses.

How did Nisshanka’s consciousness of the register, diction, tone of the source at hand result in? Recognizing the register or, broadly put, diatype of the source text is essential in translation – a rule of thumb for translators of most literary genres – which Nisshanka has excelled in, as we may easily witness in almost all of his translations. A careful study of the Sanskrit original of the Abhijnana-Sakuntala reveals how a vivid blend of registers throughout its seven acts adorns the plot and its characters. The register of the demure conversations between Sakuntala and her two friends, Priyanvada and Anasuya, beautifully alters once the king Dushyanta catches Sakuntala in isolation for days that eventually led to their Gandharva marriage. In contrast, once the fishermen found from the belly of a fish King Dushyanta’s ring that had been given to Sakuntala who had lost it at the Saci-thirtha, the register of their dialogue unfolds before us the breadth of Sanskrit idiom. I believe that the low diction employed there to portray the social class of the characters involved is best translated into Sinhala here. Nisshanka and Hettiarachchi’s translation of Kalidasa’s magnum opus has undoubtedly recognized all its registers well as reflected by the corresponding literary registers in Sinhala. Even the way of addressing each other with informal terms such as “umba”, “tho”, and “bola”, which are literally “you” in English but common Sinhala terms in derogatory social deixis, will substantiate this achievement by the translators. Furthermore, his translations of the works of other genres also witness his skill in accurately reading the register, diction, and tone of the original. Comparison of even a few works to his credits such as the Janakiharana Mahakavya by Kumaradasa, the ancient text of Hindu legal codes titled Manusmrti, and the satirical comedy “The Apple Cart” by George Bernard Shaw would prove it.

Stage-ready Translations

Among the highlights of Nisshanka’s mastery in the realm of translating Sanskrit plays in particular, what remains significant is his effort to present Sanskrit prose dialogues as applicably lively and in contemporary common Sinhala parlance as possible and, as we already noted, Sanskrit verses in the originals as Sinhala verses in pertinent meters fitting lyricality. Appraising particularly the poetical translation of the Ratnavali and its theatricality, Sarachchandra says (Javanika, 1960: Issue No.1) as follows.

“The (play titled) Ratnavali produced by P. Welikala is the first attempt in familiarizing the Sanskrit theatre to the Sri Lankan audience. It should be introduced as a significant instance in the history of Sinhala theatre. For his production, Welikala used Piyadasa Nisshanka’s translation. We may accept that his translation influenced the success of Welikala’s production a lot. The simple day-to-day language enriched with lively idiom there immensely helps performance. Thanks to the poetical terms employed in some verses, they have become melodious and enchanting songs that can nicely be sung with the help of notations composed by Jayantha Aravinda.”

When the theatricality of a play in translation is well preserved, its production also tends to become successful as a production of the source does. We do not know certainly if all Sanskrit plays were enacted but they were undeniably meant for theatre, as witnessed by pertinent qualities of the texts. However, we find evidence for some works being staged during specific religious and cultural festivals under the auspices of local rules or wealthy patrons. In contrast, Nisshanka’s translations of Sanskrit plays by superstars in the galaxy of Sanskrit playwrights including Bhavabhuti, Kalidasa, Sudraka, Bhasa, and Sri Harsha, were ready for enactment not because he prepared stage-ready playscripts anew but “naturalized” the classical plays primarily by presenting their dialogues in theatre-friendly sentence structures and poetical Sinhala carefully toned down, wherever relevant, with the contemporary idiom. The fact that many popular Sanskrit plays such as the Ratnavali produced by Premasinghe Welikala (1960, 1967) and Lalita Sarachchandra (1998), Mrcchakatika (as Meti Karaththaya) again by Welikala (190) and Parakrama Niriella (2010), and Sakuntala by Richard Manamudali (2011) were all based on Nisshanka’s aptly theatrical translations discloses his correct and deep understanding of the genre and fundamentals of theatre.  

It appears to me that the passion of our celebrated translator was to retain “naturalness” of the translation in Sinhala as much as possible, but not to compensate it for pedantically grammatical conformity to the source. As I noted above, most of the translators we had in the early decades of the last century do not seem to have recognized the significance of naturalness of the work in translation, largely because of their subservience to the widespread assumption that all aspects of a translation must map precisely onto those of the source, without doing which the translator’s punditry would not be honoured but condemned. Nisshanka was not, fortunately, hindered by such a flawed assumption. What D.E. Hettiarachchi states in the introduction to his and Nisshanka’s translation of the Sakuntala tells us about his expectation to stick closer to the original and, from his perspective, the latter’s desire to do differently. A more trustable account of this polarity of ideas is given by Jayanta Aravinda, who again reminisces the poetical elegance of Nisshanka’s translation that outshines its grammatical conformity to the source: “Compared to Hettiarachchi’s grammatically precise language and expressions, Nisshanka’s verses were more poetical and lyrical.” 

This, however, does not entail that Nisshanka violated the codes of a faithful translator and ignored grammatical subtleties of Sanskrit originals simply to please his readers. Rather, I believe that he esteemed the “function” or – to borrow Hans Vermeer’s (1930-2010) term – skopos (purpose) of his translations. Here is a piece of information to prove it. In Jayantha Aravinda’s words below, Nisshanka’s knew where his translations of Sanskrit plays would be heading and recognized the need of making them ready for theatre while safeguarding the inherent charm of Sanskrit dramaturgy and poetry as connoted by that genre’s title “drshya-kavya (poetry to be seen)”.

“In Sanskrit plays such as the Ratnavali and Sakuntala contain metrical verses composed in agreement with prosody, instead of lyrical songs. Since they are not compositions following any tempo, they are not meant for singing within a wide range but, being limited to few notes, are presented as part of the narration itself. Consequently, the spectators experienced only the joy of poetry through Sanskrit plays. Nevertheless, Nisshanka in his translation of the Ratnavali takes a different path, by following a process of “adapting”, upon Sarachchandra’s advice. He desired to witness those plays being produced while enriching the stylistic musical theatre in the country. Therefore, he approached a more independent avenue in rendering verses in the Sanskrit plays into mellifluous Sinhala songs replete with rhyme and tempo.”

Moreover, what Hettiarachchi says in his editorial to their joint masterpiece, Sakuntala, admitting the intricacy of translating Sanskrit verses into an acceptable form in Sinhala illustrates not only the gravity and significance of Nisshanka’s involvement in it but also the fact that even fine scholars in Sanskrit – including Hettiarachchi himself – would hardly have success in such a venture. 

“I realized that it was not a difficult task to translate into Sinhala the prose in the Abhijnana Sakuntala but translating the Sanskrit verses amounting to 195 in number into Sinhala verses was not so easy. When I attempted to put into verse a few slokas, I felt like I was trying to run by putting myself into a sack. Only when translating a few Sanskrit verses into Sinhala was realized that it is strenuous to do so while making no damage to the meaning of the original, adding nothing to it afresh, preserving the (overall) emotion expressed by it, and picking a (Sinhala) meter that fits all.”


Our inspiring translator teaches us another significant lesson on rendering from Sanskrit into Sinhala: neologism and precise selection of words from Sinhala classics. Nisshanka’s expertise in Sinhala classical literature may significantly have helped to pinpoint the most fitting words he was after or coin new Sinhala words by following pertinent rules of historical linguistics. Compared to the majority of our translators from Sanskrit into Sinhala particularly in the last century who introduced in their works different – frequently knottier – Sanskrit words for the Sanskrit original, Nisshanka delivered highly commendable translations that the readers hardly found “Sanskritic”. The poetry in his translations was elegant largely because of the carefully handpicked Sinhala derivatives (tadbhava) employed there. Coinage of new words also requires advanced knowledge of relevant topics in Indian contexts and relevant strategies and tools to shape Sanskrit terms into acceptably grammatical and meaningful Sinhala terms.

One may wonder about the amount of dedication and fastidiousness of a translator who is generally supposed to be more meticulous than an independent writer. When the source is a classical text, they are again more scrupulous in recognizing its primary and secondary meanings, intended and unintended pun, register, tone, and grammatical peculiarities and determining the most fitting for them in the target language. Until a refined version of the translation is not achieved a countless number of enhancements are made. As we learn from the accounts of Nisshanka by his fellows, he was an exemplar of such a dedicated translator. He was much worried even about minor errors in his works over which he had no control. For example, the publishers who failed or ignored to rectify the misprints in his Sinhala translation of the Sanskrit play titled Uttara-Ramacarita of Bhavabhuti broke his heart. He did not show the error-ridden publications other than to close friends or make available it at bookshops, letting us ponder how seriously the accountability of a translator can govern.

Having the mastery of at least one more modern language is certainly a blessing for a translator in addition to his essentially detailed command of the source and target languages. For example, English as an international language into which thousands of Sanskrit works have been translated surely helps a translator from Sanskrit into Sinhala too when uncertainty rules, because he may recognize how English translators have already dealt with the job he currently grapples with. Nisshanka’s proficiency in English may have helped him do wonders in translating from Sanskrit. For instance, he gratefully states in the introduction to his translation of the Manusmrti (1991) how George Buhler’s English translation of it helped him. Further, his translation woks from English witness his fondness for world literature and desire to please the Sinhala readers of his time with them. For instance, Rabindranath Tagore’s second novel “Naukadubi” (“The Wreck” in English) and the English rendition of Nikolai Gogol’s romanticized historical novella “Taras Bulba” translated into Sinhala as “Kunatuwa” and “Taras Bulba” respectively, in addition to the aforementioned translation “Apple karaththaya” (“The Apple Cart” by Bernard Shaw), reveal Nisshanka’s passion as a true lover of world literature and the depth of expertise as a translator from English. His knowledge of Tamil, Portuguese, and Dutch may have enriched his vocabulary and understanding of the nuances of Sinhala idiom associated with them. Equally, during his career as an assistant editor of the Sinhala Dictionary Office, Nisshanka’s expertise in multiple languages from around the globe may substantially have contributed to the dictionary projects in operation under the editorship of D.E. Hettiarachchi. Furthermore, his extensive reading on Sanskrit and Sinhala classics coupled with long-term enrichment of his understanding of poetry resulted in a few elegant pieces of creative writing endowed with fresh perspectives on humanity. The new interpretation of Ravana he presents in his poetry titled “Ravuluwatha” (1992) by bringing in Vibhisana as the villain who perpetrated his brother instead of the epic interpretation of him – a hero who helped the Raghu clan to rescue Sita and punish the womanizer – is sufficient to prove it. 


We observe that the tall stature of Nisshanka never crouched inside the small physique. Beaten badly due to job transfers and other discriminations fueled by political twists, he sometimes regretted losing the dream of becoming an Ayurvedic doctor instead. However, Nisshanka was blessed to have energy and unquenched enthusiasm to continue working for no immediate benefit or recognition. Stressed by all the writers who have contributed to the Nrtyamanjusa (1999), a festschrift for Nisshanka (edited by H.M. Moratuwagama), is Nisshanka’s indifference towards prizes, honorary titles or any other forms of recognition but sincere desire that readers would find someday the value of his effort. I recall here what Bhavabhuti, one of the pioneer Sanskrit playwrights of the classical period, asseverates in the eighth verse of the first act of his Malatimadhava, which may fittingly reflect Nisshanka’s stance on his work: “Those who slander and censure me, I tell them that this work is not meant for them. A person equal to me will be born someday, (because) time is endless and the world is wide.” Or else he proved well what Randall Jarrell, the 11th United States Poet Laureate, said concluding his “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”: “A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.”

It would not be an exaggeration to say that at least for four unkind and deleterious decades, the inner spirit and love for incessantly working on literature in return for nothing enlivened Nisshanka. Translating prescribed works for examinations or those demanded by publishers was not his passion as has been many translators’ here in Sri Lanka today, but a number of his translations were prescribed and recommended for examinations later, purely because of their unparalleled quality. As many writings on this humble scholar underscore, Nisshanka’s personal qualities such as flexibility in work, willingness to listen to the experts in the areas of his interests and refine own works accordingly, strongminded and meticulous approach to the works undertaken, sensitivity, and desire for hospitality adorned his character and scholarship alike. With his broad repertoire, including being a multilingual scholar, Nisshanka easily surpassed his peers, leaving his vestiges on the history of Sinhala translations from Sanskrit. 

Given such a significant contribution Nisshanka has made during the second half of the last century, we may decisively conclude that he was an epoch-making translator. True is that more translators from Sanskrit into Sinhala than before are producing works of almost all genres today. Whether their motive may have been to produce more Sinhala translation to provide students with sufficient study materials or add a new publication to their credit, the multiplicity of publications in Sinhala pleases the readership. However, what hurts is the absence of satisfactory means to gauge the merits or demerits of such translations and the possible impact of substandard and erroneous translations on our understanding of Sanskrit classics. While a better mechanism must be in place to the denounce substandard translations and encourage works of excellence, we are in dire need of more genuine, capable, and faithful translators like Nisshanka. May Piyadasa Nisshanka remain long in the hearts of Sinhala readers of Sanskrit classics.

*The author of this articles is a Professor in Sanskrit at the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya.

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