Translation symposium at Hikayat, George Town, Penang
It has only been four months but 2019 has been nothing short of delightful in my journey as a literary translator. During this period, I had begun a cultural residency at the Toji Cultural Centre in South Korea, contributed as a judge for the first ever literary translation prize in Singapore for Bahasa poetry in English, and spoke to some international publishers who are keen on learning about the world of Malay literature.
But the most defining event for me has to be the Commonwealth Writers Translation Symposium early last month. I think fondly of the few humid days that I had spent with fellow translators, publishers and a literary agent from the Commonwealth countries of Asia. We were at the island part of Penang, one half of two Malaysian states recognised collectively as a UNESCO world heritage site. Most of our time was spent in intense discussions upstairs of the beautiful bookshop called Hikayat, the intellectual hub of this once former Straits Settlement. Hikayat is managed by the hospitable former TV personality turned entrepreneur Bettina Khan as well as the erudite and wry editor, Gareth Richards.
Our overarching concern centred on the state of literary translation in our little corners of the world. Thoughtfully curated by the Commonwealth Writers team, supported by the Commonwealth Foundation, we discussed issues relating to South and Southeast Asia, lesser heard narratives, sales and the global market as well as collaborative approaches. Everybody presented, and there was a good balance of not just craft, but also gender. As the only literary agent in the symposium, Jayapriya Vasudevan of Jacaranda Literary Agency took us through the vital role they play in the industry to discover and nurture talents. She represents emerging writers such as Laksmi Pamuntjak and Tiffany Tsao. Nora Nazerene Abu Bakar of Penguin Southeast Asia spoke of the publishing giant’s plan in the region, which includes a series on Southeast Asian Classics. I spoke about the need to recognise literary translation as an original work of creative art and articulated the urgency of a translation award. Some of the more passionate conversations centred on corruption of state institutions and the commodification of literature.
It was not all discourse. There was also poetry. The symposium saw the full participation of Malaysia’s national laureate Muhammad Haji Salleh, a man of great presence and manners, who opened the symposium by reading out a philosophical poem titled ‘translator’ inspired by a shower where he had imagined spurts of water coming at him as words and verbs. At the end of the second evening, some of us performed English renditions of the poetic traditions they know best at a well-attended public event held at the Black Kettle restaurant. The audience heard from Anushiya Ramaswamy, Shabnam Nadiya, Bilal Tanweer, Tan Dan Feng and Mamta Sagar, who danced while reciting her verses. I was both entertained and enthralled by the performances that night. It embodied the very reason for our gathering – that is, for such transcendental works to transcend borders.
Pictured: Muhammad Haji Salleh, Mamta Sagar and Jayapriya Vasudevan during Commonwealth Writers Conversation
We were not in Bandung, but it felt like the palimpsest of Bandung. I am referring to the Bandung Conference of 1955 that saw political leaders of freshly minted nations gather to discuss their collective future. We too were discussing a collective future. True enough, the last day saw our chief rapporteur Arunava Sinha, an accomplished translator of Bengali literature, invoke the Bandung Conference in spirit. I witnessed some nodding and coy smiles of affirmation. Others might have seen me perform one of these, perhaps even both. Sure, this was not a cookie-cutter replication of the Afro-Asia solidarity of that momentous occasion, but it was just as seminal.
Some of us were bothered that the symposium had featured more South Asian participants than Southeast Asian ones. We had later learnt that this was due to the nature of the Commonwealth membership, and was assured by Vijay Krishnarayan, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, of their openness to work with non-Commonwealth countries in Southeast Asia. Vijay too was elated by our invocation of the Bandung spirit.
Between us, we pledged the formation of a plan to forge what we hope will lead to a sustainable engagement between South Asia and Southeast Asia. This was one of the issues that we have identified. We hail from the Global South but we only got to know each other by way of literary centres in the Global North such as the grand annual book fairs of London and Berlin. There was a consensus that something needed to be done to circumvent that system. In essence, we desired a decolonial move that will grant us greater agency. This was yet another Bandung parallel.
And so, we broke out into groups to discuss specifics. We were primarily literary translators, but we had to translate ourselves into administrators in this session. How can we move forward? What can be done? Some of us were, in fact, not role-playing. The ever-reliable Tan Dan Feng had established The Select Centre in Singapore, and for a number of years manoeuvred through red tape and red flags to bring about an annual translation conference and regular workshops. We were lucky to have him in our midst for Dan brought with him his bureaucratic know-how. Then there was Eddin Khoo, another institutional maestro who had founded the Malaysian cultural organisation Pusaka.
Based on three days’ worth of input, Dan and Eddin laid the overarching framework for our collective future. We will establish sub-committees that will look into eight specific areas – training and spaces; outreach programmes and partnerships; website and social media presence; journal and publications; awards and endorsements; grants and residences; best practices; as well as budget and financing.
Those three days in Penang may be short but they were far from ephemeral. I had met so many inspiring individuals, too many to name, but all of whom seemed to me like they could each front a character-driven novel. For now, we must act as one as we began our rousing trek to Bandung 2.0.
Nazry Bahrawi is a literary translator, essayist and academic from Singapore.