The prestigious State Literary Awards ceremony for 2023 witnessed the recognition of literary excellence across diverse categories, celebrating the outstanding contributions of authors and creators in the realm of Sinhala, Tamil, and English literature.
The celebration held at the Elphinstone Theatre on Thursday (14) recognised veterans and emerging talents who have enriched the literary landscape of Sri Lanka. Among the recipients of these coveted awards were Emeritus Professors Gerald. H. Peiris and Sunanda Mahendra, along with renowned author K. Shattanadan, who were conferred with the Sahithya Rathna Lifetime Awards for their remarkable literary achievements in their respective languages.
In addition to these lifetime achievements, the awards also recognised contemporary talents of those who have demonstrated exceptional prowess in various literary forms.
The Sunday Observer had the privilege of engaging in a brief conversation with some of the winners, offering readers a glimpse into the minds and motivations of these literary luminaries.
Emeritus Professor Sunanda Mahendra: A multifaceted literary maestro
Emeritus Professor Sunanda Mahendra was celebrated for his lifetime contribution to the field of mass communication, which includes the founding of the Mass Communication Department at the University of Kelaniya in 1974.
His dedication to education and inspiration spans over four decades, enriched by the publication of over 400 books across various genres. Notably, his contributions to lexicography with works like ‘Sannivedana Sabdakaraya’ and ‘Sahitya Kala Sabdakaraya’ are regarded as milestones in the field.
Prof. Sunanda Mahendra’s profound influence extends beyond academia, encompassing novels, short stories, poetry, theatre, and journalism. His literary prowess has graced over 10 novels and numerous plays, including his notable production of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler’ as ‘Gaheniyak’ in Sinhala theatre. In recognition of his prolific contributions, he was conferred with the Sahithya Rathna Lifetime Award in the Sinhala medium. Prof. Sunanda Mahendra continues to serve as a coordinator for the Sri Lanka Press Council’s Media and Journalism Studies, enriching the intellectual and cultural landscape.
Vihanga Perera: an award-winning voice in English poetry
The State Literary Award for Poetry in English was bestowed upon Vihanga Perera for his collection “Epistles Elegies Imitations.” This unique collection, bearing a distinct title, reflects the author’s thought-provoking and innovative approach to poetry. “Epistles Elegies Imitations” is a collection I put together with a lot of thinking going into the process, and a collection I enjoyed planning at every stage. That’s one reason I wanted it to compete in the State Literary circuit. So, quite happy to win”, he said.
“Elegies Imitations” was born during a transitional period in the author’s life, marked by his return home after an absence from the country. The collection captures the essence of this time, showcasing Perera’s ability to craft profound and reflective poems. “The collection is made of a set of poems I have been composing in the last quarter of 2021 and first half of 2022. It was a transitional time I had returned home after some time away from the country. It was also a time I lived a full life of leisure. The poetry came as an outcome of these situations.”
When asked about his advice for aspiring poets, especially those writing in English, Perera said the importance of craftsmanship and deep observation. He encouraged poets to take their time with their work and to move beyond superficial impressions.
“I would like to see less slap-dash poetry, less hurry, and less disregard for the fundamentals of poetry. It would be nice to see more restraint, reticence, time taken over crafting the work, and deep observation than superficial impressions. We have seen an overdose of self-pity coming out as poetry. A pruning that too would be good”, he said.
Dr. Chitra Jayathilake: masterful translation of ‘Badde Silindu’
The Sunday Observer talked to Dr. Chitra Jayathilake who was conferred with the State Literary Award for the best translation in a well-deserved acknowledgment of her outstanding work in translating the play ‘Badde Silindu.’ Dr. Jayathilake shared insights into the challenges and nuances of translation, shedding light on her remarkable journey. Ernest Macintyre’s original play, “Silindu of Baddegama,” was published in 2020 by the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. Dr. Jayathilake undertook the task of translating this work into Sinhala under the title “Badde Silindu,” published by Sarasavi Publishers. Macintyre’s play is a noteworthy adaptation of the novel “The Village in the Jungle” by Leonard Woolf, originally published in 1931 as an Oxford publication. While Woolf’s novel presents a portrayal of pre-independent Sri Lanka, Macintyre’s play goes beyond to foreshadow post-independence class relationships in the country.
Dr. Jayathilake said many intricacies were involved in the art of translation. It requires not only linguistic skills but also intercultural communication, a deep understanding of both source and target languages, and the ability to capture the nuances of the original text and its context. This includes understanding the people and internal politics embedded within the original work, often requiring the translator to read between the lines and unearth what remains unsaid.
She highlighted the necessity for a translator to be a part of the intercultural, inter-lingual, and intertextual context, either through formal studies and profession or through informal exposure. This immersion is crucial for capturing the subtleties that make a translation truly resonate with the essence of the original work.
Dr. Jayathilake’s journey as a translator was enriched by her extensive engagement with the texts of both Leonard Woolf and Ernest Macintyre. Her experience ranged from studying these authors during her A/L literature studies to incorporating their works into her PhD research and teaching undergraduates and postgraduates.
This multifaceted engagement allowed her to view the texts through various lenses, including postcolonial perspectives.
Her connection with Sinhala culture, practices, traditions, and domestic politics was another invaluable asset in her translation work.
This dual exposure, both through academic rigour and cultural immersion, equipped her with the tools to tackle the challenges of translation effectively.
Dr. Jayathilake expressed her profound gratitude to Ernest Macintyre, the great playwright of the original text, whose work served as the foundation for her exceptional translation.
The State Literary Awards for 2023 celebrated not only translation but also excellence in various literary genres. The awardees, including Mandulee Mendis for the Best Short Story in English for her work “Lanka Box”, Manuka Wijesinghe for the English Novel “Like Moths to a Flame”, and Indika Ferdinando for the English Drama for “The Irresistible Rise of Mr. Signno”, showcased the diversity and depth of Sri Lankan English literary talent.
The awards ceremony recognised the enduring power of literature to capture the complexities of human experience and illuminate society’s most profound aspects.