In May this year, WCN Associate Programme Director Kate Griffin returned to Yangon for the second edition of the Link the Wor(l)ds translation festival, run in partnership with PEN Myanmar and the Select Centre in Singapore, and hosted by the Taw Win Garden Hotel.
Things have changed since my last visit to Myanmar. Blogger and activist Nay Phone Latt apologised that he couldn’t take part in Link the Worlds this year as he is now an MP. ‘With writers and intellectuals in Parliament, Myanmar is now the bright spot in South East Asia,’ according to Dan Feng Tan of the Select Centre. While international attention has focused on politics, Link the Worlds is concerned with finding voices from Myanmar and South East Asia, as well as sharing stories from elsewhere with local readers. ‘Literature goes deeper than the news,’ said PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida.
Ten translators from Myanmar worked with their workshop leader Thintlu on an extract from Tash Aw’s ‘The Face: Strangers on a Pier’, part of a personal story that reflects the often complicated heritage of families in South East Asia. Tash talked about the diversity in the region created by huge flows of people moving from one country to another; through his writing he aims to illuminate this shared culture.
In another room, Suchen Christine Lim talked to her group of translators and their workshop leader Moe Thet Han about the cultural, historic and linguistic nuances of the opening to her latest novel. The River’s Songis an exploration of identity, love and loss set against the changes in Singapore over the last few decades and its fast disappearing past.
In Myanmar, the strong tradition of censorship has meant that people are also unaware of the country’s past, a situation that publishers and writers are determined to change.
Under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum, a group of Burmese translators brought Nay’s short story ‘Thakin’ into English. With its universal themes of love, loyalty and jealousy, it’s a story that will have resonance with international readers. We were intrigued to learn that Nay, whose pen name means ‘blue sea’, is a merchant seaman, hence his strong interest in writing about man and nature.
This year, Link the Worlds expanded to include a three-day festival, packed with panel discussions about various aspects of literary translation in Myanmar, both into and out of Burmese. Writers, publishers and translators from Myanmar, other SE Asian countries, Japan and the UK talked about everything from translating poetry to translation and technology.
Much of the discussion explored the current situation for translation in Myanmar. Yangon-based publishers such as Ngar Doe Sar Pay (NDSP) and Seikkuchocho (SKCC) are publishing work in translation. Sanmon Aung of NDSP is particularly interested in the outside view of Myanmar, publishing fiction and non-fiction about Myanmar by authors such Wendy Law-Yone and Pascal Khoo-Htwe. He is keen to encourage the younger generation to read more by bringing them graphic novels by Guy Delisle and bestsellers by authors such as Jonas Jonasson.
Aung Si Thar of SKCC publishing house noted that local readers prefer popular writers from other languages such as English, rather than new books by writers from Myanmar. There are various reasons for this: education was almost lost during the socialist period; for many years censorship made it difficult for writers to get published; they have been isolated from the wider literary community; and there has been little support for writers wanting to improve their craft.
Older writers are popular once again with Myanmar readers, Aung Si Thar noted, both older writers from Myanmar and translated writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle. These are familiar names, and the quality of translation tends to be high, as the books were originally published in the post-independence era when literary translation received a lot of support.
Nowadays, Aung Si Thar explained, the translation market in Myanmar is dominated by self-help books about how to survive daily life. With their lives in such a state of flux, people are looking for inspiration and advice rather than literature.
He believes that the future of the country rests with young people, so SKCC and other publishers are focusing on books that encourage the mental and physical development of children. Translation is an integral part of this, as international stories will open up local children to other cultures.
Likewise, Myanmar can offer literature from a diversity of voices and languages, from the classics to contemporary writing. After the hiatus of several decades, Myanmar publishers are keen to promote their literature to international publishers and to learn from them about editing, distribution, marketing and other aspects of the industry.
Voices from South East Asia
While we were translating, an empty space on the third floor of the Taw Win Shopping Centre was transformed into a lively, bustling book fair, with thousands of local readers browsing and buying books from Myanmar and from other South East Asian countries, brought to Yangon by publishers from Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. Over the weekend, there were many discussions about the future of translation and publishing in South East Asia, and how to make sure that a greater diversity of writing from the region reaches readers internationally, including in the UK.
From the outset, we recognised that South East Asia is not one homogenous place, but a region with great diversity of landscape, urban and rural lives, different languages and complicated histories. Rather than define the region by geography, we focused more on the independent critical thinking that is coming out of SE Asia, and ways in which we could promote these different voices and concerns.
Ma Thida talked about how in Myanmar and elsewhere in SE Asia people are brought up to listen rather than to be listened to; she finds that it’s hard to encourage people to speak out.
Writers under censorship are skilled at expressing themselves indirectly; their readers are equally skilled at understanding what they are saying.
This is not always the case in the West, where readers are used to more direct expression. Thida suggested that in SE Asia we should take advantage of this listening habit and read each other’s literature through translation, whether into English or other languages from the region. Kamolpaj Tosinthiti of Silkworm Books in Thailand noted that when Asian writers get attention from the West, Asian readers pay more attention.
The publishers around the table were all keen to publish more writing from SE Asia, particularly voices that reflect the diversity of the region. Kum Suning of Ethos Books told us about their publication of a collection of poetry by a Bangladeshi construction worker in Singapore, a group rarely acknowledged within the cultural scene. The collection was translated or transcreated in English by the Singaporean poet Cyril Wong.
In Malaysia, Fixi has published ‘Heat’, ‘Flesh’ and ‘Trash’, a triptych of SE Asian anthologies. They found writers through an open call, but Ted Mahsun acknowledged that there were gaps in their coverage, such as Myanmar. Fixi has recently opened an office in London, to promote their English-language list to a wider audience. However, Ted said that for more local fiction they would focus on SE Asia. In literary terms Malaysia is isolated from its neighbours; it is difficult to find Indonesian literature in Malaysia despite the common language.
Thai writer Prabda Yoon said that as a country Thailand feels autonomous from everywhere. The official version is that Thai culture is more civilized and other countries inferior. Despite this propaganda, he reassured us that most Thai people don’t treat their neighbours as enemies; through increased travel and use of the internet, they have been learning more about their neighbouring countries. He would like to see Thai readers gaining more access to literature from SE Asia as well, but there are barriers to this.
One of the main barriers is finding translators for the various language combinations.
In many SE Asian countries, the few who translate do it out of love rather than money.
It is hard for translators to make a living, let alone a career, from literary translation. We discussed ways of supporting translators through training programmes, from translation courses and masterclasses, to mentoring schemes. Ideally such projects would link the translators with editors and publishers, and lead to greater publication opportunities.
The Link the Worlds workshops, festival and book fair provided an excellent platform for meeting and making plans; we hope that the alliances formed and ideas discussed will help literary translation in SE Asia flourish, bringing these different voices and concerns to the rest of the world.
Kate is Associate Programme Director at Writers' Centre Norwich, specialising in translation and international work.