The Folly of Translating Malay Classics into English
September 25, 2006 in Bookworm Confessions, Local Politics, Social Activism & Religious Matter
My comment to Bibliobibuli‘s post about classical Malay novels (besides Off The Edge‘s 1st anniversary) led me to do a little bit of Internet scouring, hoping that something on the classical Malay novels translation project still exist somewhere in the World Wide Web.
And as luck would have it, it did! And there’s a related article in Malaysia Today by M.Bakri Musa too, who was recently in the news for his (in)famous “Undur lah, Pak Lah” piece which the inimitable MP Mr Lim Kit Siang brought up in Parliament. Ah, the merry wonders of the Internet! What would I do without it? (Most likely spending a couple of hours at the National Library trying to get the (un)helpful staff there to help me look up on news about this translation project!)
Ok, so, getting down to business…the question me and I’m quite sure a lot of us would like to ask…”What happened to the classical Malay novel translation project??” There a lot of possible answers to this mystery – my guess is…the project either died a very quick and painful death or the project had gone into hiberbation mode typical of most projects that’s too ambitious for its own good.
Funds could be a problem that caused its hibernation/death. A lack of able translators may be the cause as well – I mean, how many Malay linguists actually do good English translations?? No matter how qualified you are in Malay, there’s still plenty of problems translating classic Malay into English without losing the plot and its original meaning!
Heck, I even thought that I was capable of translating classic Malay into English…on one very slow and boring day, I had nothing to do and so, this merry little thought came to my mind, “Why not translate Hikayat Malim Deman (I mentioned Hikayat Malim Dewa in my comment on Bib’s post. That was a mistake) for fun??”
And so I did… I barely got through to the second page before I realised its a lost cause…two hours were spent on trying to come up with the appropriate English words to describe the scenes on the first page!
Anyways, the Malay classics translation project was made known in the media around end of October last year, nearly a year ago. Since then, there’s been little news about what’s going on. Unless their idea of Malay classics are those Sang Kanchil, Pak Pandir and Hang Tuah [based on Hikayat Hang Tuah (pic right)] picture books and storybooks that are usually found in the children’s book section tucked away in an obscure corner. They probably thought all the hikayat-hikayat are not worth their time translating. There’s quite a few besides Malim Deman…there’s also Hikayat Awang Sulung Merah Muda (the first one I ever tackled in preparation for my SPM Malay Paper), Hikayat Malim Dewa and Hikayat Raja Muda just to name a few. I forgot the rest.
Am just speculating here but of course, it could be anything but could it be the powers that be at Dewan Pustaka and National Translation Institute thought these books unworthy or untranslatable? They should really be up front about it. All of us are curious about it. Perhaps this someone on the inside can shed some light on this?
Or perhaps they were frightened off by M. Bakri Musa’s criticisms about the millions of translated books lying in a dark corner collecting dust instead of reaching the safe, comfortable hands of a bookaholic. Of course, the reason why they aren’t sellable could most likely be due to the interest of the average reader and also the quality of the translated material.
“Tucked deep in the belly of the recent Auditor General’s Report is one obscure item: Millions worth of books unsold at the Translations Institute. A visit to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Language Agency) would reveal similar stacks of unsold books and publications warehoused in its expensive headquarters.”
I do, however, agree with this view of his:-
“The problems at both agencies reflect a much greater issue, that is, the folly of governments when they meddle in what are properly the spheres of the private sector. Civil servants make poor businessmen and women; the civil service milieu is the very antithesis of good business climate.”
The fact that it is a folly to even begin a translating project such as the Malay classics into English remains quite clear. I would rather read Sang Kanchil stories and the silly antics of Pak Pandir in Malay because they’re so much more fun to be read in Malay, in its original language. Heck, Malay might not even be the original language, it could even be in Arab or Sanskrit, knowing that the Malay language borrowed heavily the vocabulary from these two languages. Nevertheless, there will always, always be a problem of the original message being lost in the translation process.
His ideas on how it should be done sounds quite plausible, but it’ll probably be considered too idealistic for the government’s liking. I doubt they would like it very much, and considering it’s from Bakri Musa, who has riled up some government feathers…
“In return, the publisher must donate a copy to every public library in the country. In this way, those published works would get the widest distribution and more likely to be read. This would also encourage our woefully underpaid teachers and professors to write in order to supplement their income. What an excellent way to reward the more industrious and productive among them!
We could tweak the grants further by rewarding writers and translators of science and technical works more. Thousands of titles (many are classics, both fiction and non-fiction) are in the public domain, thus there is no copyright issues. For those books and seminal works still under copyright, I would use the funds to secure the translation rights.”
Still, please explain to me the point of translating anyways. Yes, it is good to give these classics international exposure, and yes, that it is possible to translate a text while retaining the original idea and message and yes, translating into English might make more people want to read it, but I think it’s a lost cause.
I already doubt very much the quality of our translation of English-to-Malay… I was horrified by the Malay version of Harry Potter…totally butchered! Who’s to say it wouldn’t be worse when they do it Malay-to-English?? After all, our standards of English have been very poor! (I know mine is…damn tenses! Nightmare, they are!)
So what do you all think? Should this project go on? I would pick up the translated works and browse through them, but if you ask me to fork out cash to pay for a poorly translated material, you might as well ask the cow to lay eggs instead of giving milk.
I think it would be much better to retain the classics in its Malay language, but not in classical Malay. It should be easier to update the works into modern Malay instead of literally translating them into English. Have attractive graphic art or illustration to attract readers. Chronicles of Narnia is an one fine example of an English classic that garnered fame till today because of its illustrations. Roald Dahl books have illustrations too and so does Beatrix Potter and Enid Blyton. If the English can do that to make books attractive, why can’t classic Malay novels do the same? They’ve already done it to Sang Kanchil, Pak Pandir and Hang Tuah already. Heck, one can even do a comic/manga style version of these Malay classics!
Whatever the National Translation Institute’s plans are as well as that of Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, I hope they have the foresight to know that doing English translations is not really that good an idea (to me anyways, after much thinking and reading of the two linked articles a few times). Surely there are other better and more creative ways of getting students and the public alike to appreciate classic Malay literature, which is every bit as important to our national, cultural heritage as that of historical buildings.
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