Translation of creative works from a range of languages into English increases their reach alongside people’s recognition of other cultures and traditions. To support translation is to encourage writing in local languages, in the knowledge that stories can reach wide audiences; translation enriches both the source and target languages, fostering a proliferation of diverse narratives. Language, certainly one’s mother tongue, is a marker of cultural distinctiveness and fundamental to concepts of identity. As highlighted by the UN, ‘Through language, people preserve their community’s history, customs and traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression’. While Commonwealth Writers recognises the value of English’s status (and others widely-spoken) as a ‘bridge language’ – a conduit through which works spread beyond borders or communities – its prevalence has often obscured the vitality and range of creation in non-dominant languages in Commonwealth regions, not least in South and Southeast Asia. Our work both on translation and in original languages strives to increase the visibility and spread of literatures and traditions. English as a global phenomenon creates opportunities; nonetheless, South and Southeast Asian creative works are rarely translated, either between regional (indigenous or longstanding) languages, or into bridge languages.
In March 2019, Commonwealth Writers convened a major Translation Symposium in Penang, Malaysia, to investigate imbalances caused by the relative lack of literary translation in South and Southeast Asia. Recognised as an official event to mark the International Year of Indigenous Languages, this forum gathered translators, writers, experts, publishers and literary agents from Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore and Sri Lanka to explore common issues and assess scope for collaboration and knowledge-sharing.
The Commonwealth Writers Translation Symposium in Malaysia was the beginning of an initiative that will later take in other countries; its aim is to advance creative expression and the status of creators. Designed in close consultation with local writers, translators, industry representatives and researchers, and through regional mapping exercises, it saw the completion of a report which contained concrete recommendations to governments, policy-makers, the private sector, or intergovernmental bodies on what needs to be done to support translation and writers. The hope is that, in the long-term, Commonwealth Writers will help contribute to increasing the number of translated books in these two regions and beyond, increasing the circulation of translated works and the sustainability of local creative industries.
Barriers – real and perceived – to the transnational circulation of creative works will be looked at in relation to sustainable development and engagement with UNESCO’s 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. As part of its support to translation, Commonwealth Writers will facilitate discussions and workshops on a range of topics such as the politics of translation; themes of representation and inclusion of people in all their diversity; infrastructure and funding; the moral and ethical responsibilities of the translator; and best practices for training translators from, into, and between local languages.