It was, for the most part, translations that brought me to become a keen social and cultural observer, and a full-time fanatic of modern classic English literature as well as Malay literary history and development. I remember reading the renowned Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Keluarga Gerilya (Guerrilla Family) – which he had written in 1950 while imprisoned by the Dutch – during my starting years of undergraduate study.
An Indonesian friend told me, “We were jealous of Malaysians who were very fortunate to get the chance to read the novel before Indonesians were able to get their hands on it. The Dutch went crazy with the novel.”
Two decades after Pram wrote the last page, the novel slipped its way to Malaysian shores, and in 1983 Benedict Anderson translated Keluarga Gerilya into English, which made Pram’s ideas assessable for a wider range of readers.
“Translation becomes a way for us to access something that is very far away from us,” says Bilal Tanwer, a Pakistani novelist and translator of literary works from Urdu. I listened to his talk at the Commonwealth Writers Conversations, held in Penang in March this year, and indeed, in a fragmented world, literary translation connects and brings people together.
In the nineteenth century, the British colonies in the Far East were in dire straits, caught negotiating between preserving local cultural traditions that were associated with backwardness and Western influence that was deemed progressive. As a result, cultural exchanges and interaction through mostly literary activities within polities in the region began to move at a slower pace.
For Muhammad Hj. Salleh, English was his starting point. “I came to Malay literature through the window and the roof, not the main door,” says the national laureate and translator.
In 1977 he was a doctoral candidate writing about literature at the University of Michigan. Now he crosses cities in the European continent, either as a resident scholar or a lone wanderer. “I was a stranger to the Malay literary world because I studied English and later comparative literature. I did not write here (in Malaysia). I started writing when I was in England, and mostly because of the weather and personal detachment from the life at home and my little life among the English,” he says. Ironically, life in foreign countries showed him the way home and reminded him to appreciate and understand more of his motherland.
In the Indian subcontinent, English is still dominant and has, in some ways, become the language of the elite, the bureaucracy and of serious literature. For India, learning English as the first language paves the way to the nation’s prosperity and is a vehicle for economic growth. The country has produced many great writers, such as Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai and Amitav Ghosh; but they, however, came through the door of the West.
Nevertheless, the outcome that every developing nation has to reconcile itself with would be the uncertainty with regards to the future of vernacular languages. The underutilisation of India’s languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Bangla and Urdu – particularly in intellectual discourse – would ultimately push them to the verge of irrelevancy, especially in modern usage.
Emphasising this, Mamtar Sagar, Indian poet, writer, playwright, translator and an activist in the Kannada language, says, “To me, preserving and celebrating Kannada language also means retaining diversity within the language culture.”
More pressingly, Janet Steel, programme manager for Commonwealth Writers, worries about social and cultural marginalisation. “Translation is vital for amplifying the less-heard narratives of civil society across the Commonwealth. Supporting it means supporting those voices.”
Translating and transmitting cultural values through works of literature in modern-day South and South-east Asia are no walk in the park, particularly when English, for a long time, has been rightly described as the third lingua franca and the language responsible for pidgins used in different places. One way to see the rising influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated many other languages, to the extent of erasing many vernacular words and terminologies.
“One of the traps that writers writing in English very often fall into is that they start describing local realities using references that are not local. The universal notion of Islam, for instance, becomes an explanatory way for most writers to write about a reality which might have something to do with Islam but does not necessarily explain the entire story,” says Bilal.
Growing up in a non-English milieu, specifically in Karachi, Bilal believes that the act of writing itself, in large, is an act of translation. Every writer and translator finds the suitable language to picture their surroundings to their audiences.
However, this is still an easy trap for many writers – particularly those who publish abroad – to fall into, especially when the audience does not share the same mother tongue. For Bilal, the best he can do is to be bold, localising the English. “When I’m writing, I’m trying to bring as much foreignness or newness into the English language,” he says.
The fact that both writers and translators have to come to terms with is that different cultures have different concepts and worldviews that go along with their languages. Indeed, translation involves more work – translating emotions and values, not just words per se.
Yet it is the common problem translators have to endure. Muhammad says, “When I read a literary text, I listen to the language. The Malay language must be smooth, gentle and musical. That’s the most difficult part of translating Malay texts – you need to listen to the rhyme and rhythm.”
In another exchange, Muhammad told me that being a writer and translator, one has to dig for words that have vanished and are long forgotten. He himself would go to villages and speak to the people – one of the occasions was to collect Malay pantun (rhymes).
“I translated the 500 page-long Epic of Hang Tuah; I took almost 15 years to finish it. I had to learn about Malay feudalism, including court language as well as the different titles of the courtiers. When I began translating, I was tall, dark and handsome. Lucky that I still am,” he says with a laugh.
Connecting the Disconnect
Through the works of such so-called cultural transmitters, readers from different parts of the world are now able to communicate and understand different cultures and traditions. “Translation helps bring the geniuses of the world into our languages and cultures, into our libraries and homes. With their works we are able to share the best that humankind has to offer,” says Muhammad.
Unesco has named KL the World Book Capital for the year 2020, allowing the city to play a more active role in the literary translation industry. But needless to say, it requires not only the government to make this happen, but also individuals as well as literary agencies.
The Commonwealth Writers Translation Symposium, which gathered more than 30 writers, translators, publishers and booksellers, was the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, and hosted by Hikayat bookstore. It was part of the effort to investigate imbalances caused by the relative lack of literary translations in South and South-east Asia.
As Bilal says, “This conversation between practitioners, editors and publishers of translation is an urgent and necessary intervention. It offers us an opportunity to begin a serious discussion about how we can build an infrastructure for translation to push against the myopias that box us in and make our worlds smaller.”
Jayapriya Vasudevan, owner of India’s first literary agency and former festival director of Times Litfest in Bangalore, says, “This event is an important step for bringing this conversation forward in South and South-east Asia, and I hope it will mark the beginning of the much-needed support for translation and writers in the region.”
As an amateur translator myself, this is a future that I look forward to.
Mohd Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.