IRRESPONSIBLE USE OF LANGUAGE OR INTELLECTUALIST MISREPRESENTATION?
Posted on July 15th, 2018

By Rohana R. Wasala

The Midweek Review feature article under the title Hitler Reincarnate – And Sri Lanka’s Presidential Stakes by Susirith Mendis (The Island/July 4, 2018) embodies the soft soothing voice of wisdom, that got drowned in the cacophonous ‘sound and fury’ raised in the wake of the Asgiriya Anunayake Ven. Wendaruwe Upali thera’s ‘Hitler’ remarks made in the course of a sermon delivered at an alms-giving conducted at the residence of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a potential presidential candidate for 2020. This is despite Mendis’s unquestioning acceptance of the garbled English version of the monk’s words given by certain intellectuals” as a true representation of the Anunayake thera’s Sinhala language remarks. Mendis seems to have missed the live video of the monk speaking.  Since, apparently, he hasn’t listened to what the monk actually said speaking in Sinhala, he assumes the distorted English rendering of the monk’s remarks given by those he calls with some awe ‘Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political scientist and commentator’, and  ‘eminent social scientist’ to be authentic, which it is not. What Mendis describes as ‘This great revival of Hitler….’ (that was allegedly ‘triggered’ by the Anunayake thera’s words) is an airy nothing. It is an imaginary bogey created by you-know-who survivalists currently bogged down in a swamp of anarchy of their own making. (The farfetched Gotabhaya-Hitler analogy hit off as an ideal slogan for those who were waiting for the proverbial straw to hang on to” in Mendis’s own words.) The truth is that there will never be any Hitlers in Sri Lanka, come the polls. The sneaky ones who seized upon and benefited from the Anunayake thera’s verbal faux pas won’t have another chance when the people are allowed the chance to exercise their franchise freely at future elections.

Mendis quotes the monk as (mis)translated by the previously mentioned  eminent intellectuals: ‘As the clergy, we feel the country needs a religious leader… Some people have described you as a Hitler. Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country” – or something to that effect’. (This is an intellectualist distortion of the prelate’s words. The prelate never said: …… ‘we feel the country needs a religious leader……’ or  ‘Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country’ Please look at my own correct translation of his actual words given towards the end of this essay.) And immediately, he (Mendis) condemns those words in no uncertain terms, but wisely desists from blaming the whole Maha Sangha for any alleged advocacy of ruthless Hitler-like despotism; instead he looks askance at the indecent haste of the ‘intellectuals’ who unleashed an uncalled for blitzkrieg (on the monk) that is far out of all proportion to the target: ‘This kind of politically explosive profanity is usually uttered by politicians themselves – the not uncommon ‘foot-in-mouth’ disease amongst their kind. Not by erudite Buddhist priests during sermons to would-be leaders of the nation – even in the privacy of their homes’. Well said! Mendis does not believe that erudite Buddhist monks would utter words like these (although the venerable prelate in question did as he assumes on the authority of the two ‘intellectuals’). He is also justifiably impatient at the ‘formidable’ intellectuals who mounted devastating attacks on the Anunayake thera ‘the foolhardy Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) men who rounded up and mauled a prowling leopard in Kilinochchi – to intellectually club the Anunayake to pitiful incoherence and silence’. But I don’t agree with Mendis that the Anunayake was reduced ‘to pitiful incoherence and silence’ on account of being misunderstood or misinterpreted; where our nation is concerned, he is a far more authentic intellectual than these uncomprehending and incomprehensible intellectuals. The monk was very coherent and articulate in his attempt to explain himself. Mendis is making too much of the Anunayake’s suspected ignorance about Hitler. I don’t doubt that he knows enough about world history to know that Hitler was a universally hated dictator. However, Mendis is correct about the overreaction of the so-called intellectuals to the monk’s particular remarks. To me, these are some pedants who, for some reason, are or are behaving like pseudo-intellectuals (or mere intellectualists), selfish, coldhearted, and lacking in empathy towards their co-ethnics. Needless to say, the kind of deliberate misrepresentation of the ideas of people that they don’t agree with gravely contradicts their claims to intellectuality.

In the same context, Mendis adds: ‘Not surprisingly, someone exclaimed that it was an attempt at ‘killing a mosquito with a canon’. The last word here is an inadvertent misspelling (not, obviously, a misquote) on the part of Mendis. Though most probably a slip of the pen, it is a significant error. The word used in that quote is not ‘canon’, but ‘cannon’, the first means a general rule or principle by which something is judged, or a list of religious texts as being of the highest authority; the second is a large piece of artillery, a heavy gun mounted on two wheels (especially in ancient times). The error is significant because both these words could be considered relevant in the context implied. Actually, the ‘someone’ that Mendis mentions is none other than myself (the present writer). ‘Killing a mosquito with a cannon’ is the title of an article of mine published in The Island newspaper and in the Lankaweb online journal on June 29, 2018. Mendis implicitly reinforces my critical view of the intellectualists’ attack on the prelate for he says:  ‘Nay, it is more like ‘trying to kill a fly with (a) multi-barrelled rocket launcher’! But his lamenting ‘Poor Anunayake! He has had his day in the sun and on prime-time news for the worst of possible reasons!’ is uncalled for, because the monk did not make any outrageous ‘Hitlerite’ proposal to Gotabhaya, nor was he courting the limelight of media attention.

My article contains the correct English rendering of the Anunayake thera’s Hitler remarks. It is totally different from the version whose authenticity Mendis has taken for granted because it came from some ‘formidable intellectuals’. I have a problem with these intellectuals. The problem is that they don’t pay the same attention to Sinhala that they pay to English. The need for verbal explicitness is less important for spoken language than for written communication because the first enjoys certain advantages that the second doesn’t in making the intended meaning clear. A writer is obliged to find other devices to compensate for that deficit. A speaker uses their tone of voice, facial expressions, shared background knowledge, common cultural assumptions, immediate direct feedback from the listeners, their body language that provides

cues to the speaker to modulate their message so as to present it without ambiguity and without the risk of being misunderstood. The intellectualist commentators with ideological axes to grind have taken the monk’s references to Hitler and military rule out of context. I am reproducing my own translation of those remarks contained in the aforementioned article (‘Killing a mosquito with a cannon’) here with some further clarifications. The monk, Ven Wendaruwe Upali,  never said ‘Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country’ as the commentators have claimed, (which would have been a seditious suggestion). Instead, this was what the monk said (my translation, with explanatory comments to help the non-Sinhala speaker):

‘You have been called a Hitler. So, what we finally remind you is that you might even become a Hitler (it’s not that we want you to become a Hitler) and rebuild the country. (Loud laughter was heard from the listeners at this point). What the Maha Sangha finally reiterates is that you rebuild this country even by resorting to a military administration (it’s not that we expect you to be a military ruler)’. (It was clear that he referred to these two images as unlikely options in Gotabhaya’s case.) The laughter that greeted the monk’s reference to Hitler was never reported or commented on in the media as far as I know. The guffawing indicated the Rajapaksa brothers’ lighthearted dismissal of the Hitler invocation as a joke. But the reverend monk’s cogent call for a righteous but firm government that will put an end to the present chaos was unlikely to be lost on the listeners to the sermon, and on the common people who subsequently heard it as reported in the media.

Incorrect is also the biased, culturally self-exiled intellectuals’ translation: ‘As the clergy, we feel the country needs a religious leader…’. It is completely wrong. These intellectuals, that Mendis has unfortunately relied on, have given an equally misleading translation of the Sinhala word ‘daehaemi’, ‘adhering to the dhamma’. The correct English word is ‘righteous’, not ‘religious’. As any person with average intelligence knows, the terms ‘righteous’ and ‘religious’ are not synonyms. To say that the country needs a ‘religious leader’ can only mean that the country needs a Buddhist ecclesiastic (a high monk) as ruler! That’s not what the prelate said. The monks are not demanding  that a Buddhist theocracy be established. That such a thing is inconceivable need hardly be stressed. But a false suggestion like that implying an alleged ‘threat of a religio-fascist state’ will be very useful for those who have evil designs on Sri Lanka. The recent conjuring up of the ghost of dead terrorism by a Tamil woman MP and state minister could be an orchestration at least partly inspired by this deliberate misinterpretation of the Anunayake thera’s urgent request to a potential leader of a future Sri Lankan government.

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