During these Corona days, stories pop up everywhere describing how each country and its people are coping with the pandemic. It is said that Japanese people are the most responsible in changing their behavior according to the laws related to the pandemic. The Japanese are known to turn laws into culture. In others words, they absorbs laws into culture; and thereafter, the laws do not look as laws. When laws are made with the participation of the people, those laws easily blend with the public culture. This is in stark contrast to Singapore where laws remain laws, strict, punitive and statist: Obey the law or pay the penalty! In Japan even state power takes beautiful cultural shapes.
Such idealization of Japan is part of our middle class culture. For many of us, Japan is the ideal land: elegantly cultured; adequately Buddhist; appropriately non-Western; seemingly anti-Western; not too religious; obviously modern yet visibly Asian; moderate yet powerful; culturally traditional yet developed and so on. For us, Japan is perhaps the easiest country to love – love openly. We love the West secretly and Japan openly.
Our love of Japan may have many origins. One key source of that love is Professor Edirivira Sarachchandra’s two novels: Malagiya Attho and Malavunge Avurudu Da. After those two novels we have been a bit too romantic about anything Japanese. In the making of our first modern indigenous play, Saracchandra, ‘the father of modern’ Sinhala drama was significantly influenced by Japan. And love to over emphasize that Japanese connection. In my latest novel, Rathu Iri Andina Atha, I created a character who shrewdly manipulates our love of Japan. In order to enter the conscious of educated Sinhala middle class he acts as a professor returning from a long stay in Japan. To make the story believable, he carves out a story of his Japanese wife – a fiction within a fiction! Sri Lankan middle class is ready to be deceived even by an underworld imposter as long as he presents himself as a person refined in Japan. Irony, to be sure, allows us to see the extent to which Japan has become one of our national fantasies.
This essay, however, is about a real scholar who has enriched modern Sinhala literature almost single handedly by translating Japanese literature into Sinhala. He is Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. Several translators such as Jayantha Wimalasena, Tadashi Noguchi, and Wimaladasa Samarasinghe introduced Japanese literature to Sinhala readers. But they translated them from English translations. Professor Rajakaruna translated directly from Japanese. Now in his eighties, the professor continues to translate Japanese literature into Sinhala.
Translated Literature and Sinhala Fiction
The story of modern Sinhala literature is one of many influences. Modern Sinhala fiction in particular was primarily influenced by Russian and French fiction. From the 1940s onwards the key classics of those languages were translated into Sinhala. Edirivira Saracchandra, A. P. Gunarathne, David Karunarathne, Cyril C. Perera, K.G. Karunathilaka, Bobby G. Botheju and numerous others translated those books. Among the present day literary translators Gamini Viyangoda, Chulananda Samaranayake, Ananda Amarasiri and many others have continued to translate contemporary world classics into Sinhala. And the Pragathi Publishers, a literary wing of the Soviet Union, made Russian classics, along with some Soviet ones, available in Sinhala at affordable prices. It must be stressed that they did not translate just Stalinist propaganda. So, we could read Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and Tolstoy who were not Bolsheviks. Those books were nicely printed as well. Some of those books came out in adorable pocket editions that we could carry around showing off our ‘refined taste’ to Sri Lankan Sonyas, Annas, Laras or Altynais – those unforgettable heroines of Russian classics. Dedigama V. Rodrigo, Padma Harsha Kuranage and Piyasena Manilgama are still in our minds as the translators of those classics. Some works of fiction from other national literature such as American, British, German, and Indian were translated here and there but not in any systematic way. The United States did everything it could to rival the USSR during the cold war but never spent any money to translate its literature into other languages. In other words, it did not have an organ equivalent to The Progressive Publishers of the USSR. Thus, we are still to have any translation of the masterpieces of Henry James, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Scott Fitzgerald, or Saul Bellow, for example. At the moment, our regional superpower, China, is also not interested in cultural stuff. They are into giving us colossal loans, cutting deals, and behind-the scene political games, getting ministers in the loop, and so on – very much like the US in that sense.
Japanese Influence on Sinhala literature
In addition to Russian and French literature, Japanese literature is perhaps the single most influential literary tradition to shape contemporary Sinhala literature. To account for literary influences is a difficult task. Yet, the influence of Japanese Haiku is quite visible and ubiquitous in Sinhala literature. After Ariyawansa Ranavira, one of the most senior poets, translated a collection Haiku by Japanese masters in 1980s, many Sinhala poets began writing Haiku like poems. Today, younger poets such as Lakshantha Athukorla, Palitha Senarathne, Piyankarage Bandula Jayaweera, Rev. Aparekke Sirisudhamma and others regularly write shorter poems that show heavy influence of Haiku. Professor Rajakaruna himself translated a collection of Haiku directly from Japanese. His book figures prominently in the ‘Haiku dialogue’ taking place in Sinhala.
Avant garde Films and Drama
Professor Rajakaruna translated Japanese classics into English as well. Two film scripts included in A Crazy Page and Crossroads were translated in to English for the first time. Our Professor has helped some Japanese authors to reach international readership. On reading these two film scripts, I was amazed at the kind of modernism and experimentalism in those texs written in 1920s. A Crazy Page is about a man who returns to his abandoned wide and daughter after some thirty years to find wife insane and hospitalized. He tries to make up for all those lost years by finding a job as an attendant at the hospital where the wife awaits her death. The film script has been written breaking the linearity in time and space. Avant garde nature of the film is so much that I couldn’t believe that it was written nearly a century ago.
Some of the plays Professor Rajakaruna translated from Japanese to Sinhala also belong to what we conventionally call “absurd theater.” Unfortunately, his translations were never produced as plays. But one can safely assume that at least of the younger playwrights in Sinhala have read these translated plays. And some universities regularly use them as their required texts.
As a literary critic, Professor Rajakaruna is not known to defend experimentalism in Sinhala literature. His recent critical essays on Sinhala fiction fail to appreciate post realist fiction written by new writers, who have made some significant achievements by writing short stories and novels that transcend naturalist realism. But as a translator, the professor has been particularly keen on translating Japanese texts that are experimental in nature. Though he looks rather conventional as a critic in his recent writing, Prof. Rajakaruna, I must say, was one of the fearless defenders of the literary modernism of Peradeniya School (1950s to 60s). As a young lecturer at the University of Peradeniya Rajakaruna was one of the most vocal supporters of ‘free verses’ of Siri Gunasinghe, the greatest modernist of so called ‘Peradeniya School.’ Interestingly, Professor Rajakaruna continued to side himself with modernist experimentalism in his translations from Japanese to Sinhala.
Professor Rajakaurna translated so many short stories by celebrated Japanese writers. He also supervised two projects of translations that introduced nearly all key writers of Japanese literature into Sinhala. Two volumes of short stories, Ishtartha Siddiya and Asaliya Mal, have gone into several prints already and they include Japanese short stories representing a wide variety of styles and themes. And those stories have been translated from English by leading scholars in the field. It must be mentioned with a sense of gratitude that Japanese agencies such as Toyota Foundation have provided him with financial support to carry out those projects. But in recent times, even those funding agencies have not paid any attention to help us making such cultural products with lasting effects. And there has not been another Ariya Rajakaruna, passionate about Japanese arts and enthusiastic about what we can learn from Japan. Now, China is all over the place. From kitchen to the cabinet, – yes, I mean the ministerial cabinet. We are likely to be indebted to China for several generations to come. But China has no Toyota Foundations that will help you translate literature. Perhaps, China knows that its best writers are not with the Chinese oligarchy, and to translate them is no contribution to China’s geopolitical project.
Heir to his Work
Professor Ariya Rajakaruna, like many others of his generation, failed to produce inspired students who can continue his work on Japanese literature. After him, no one learned Japanese and entered into ever vibrant Japanese literary scene. Therefore, we do not have anyone translating renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogava, Hiromi Kawakami, Junji Ito, Hiroko Oyamada and so on directly from Japanese. Murakami comes to us through English. His work has been translated from English to Sinhala. Professor Rajakaruna learned his Japanese in three years (1962-5) at the Tokyo School of Japanese Language. I wonder why no one after him followed his path. Many after him went to Japan for higher studies but nearly all of them ended up being lucrative car importers instead of translators. Perhaps, new Japan itself needs someone selling its cars rather than someone translating literature!
During the last forty some years, anyone educated in Japan failed to make a lasting impact on the field of the humanities in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, there is something fundamentally wrong in those who go there or in those who teach them there. Or perhaps, after all, this is a different age. Well, the age of Rajakaruna too only produced just a single Rajakaruna. Literary and scholarly achievements have a lot to do with individual passion and commitment. The art of making scholarly passions contagious is still to be discovered.
Technical Japan and Literary Japan
While Japan was being reduced to electronic gadgets and automobiles in the economic atmosphere of post 1977 neo-liberal era, people like Ariya Rajakaruna helped us see that Japan is more than those cute technical and mechanical devices. They showed us the richness of Japanese literature. A fairly well-read person in my generation, by reading even only in Sinhala, can recite a long list of Japanese authors. And the stories of those authors might have already entered the deep crevices of our collective consciousness, and the memories of such literary work might one day influence our literature in ways that we cannot really predict or explain. Literary influences are such that one cannot really see where they come from. But our literary achievements will have the fragrance of the wonderful things their creators were exposed to during their formative years. Any serious writer writing in Sinhala today must have been introduced to some Japanese classics through the work of translators such as Professor Ariya Rajakaruna. As the most prolific translator from Japanese to Sinhala, he has been a wonderful cultural ambassador for us. Sadness is that his ‘embassy’ will be closed forever after him unless we, Sri Lankan literati, and our counterparts in Japan give some serious thoughts to continue this enriching intercultural engagement. To continue that cross-fertilization would be the best tribute to the pioneers such as Professor Rajakaruna.
*This essay is a part of longer research paper the writer is working on. He can be contacted at Liyanage19@gmail.com