The Folly of Translating Malay Classics into English

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.


  1. great phillip!! will link this for sure. many thanks for all this information.

  2. further thoughts:

    Those classic Malay novels need quite urgently to be translated into English. Malay fiction should be part of an international dialogue, its greatest writers recognised in a wider arena. You cannot think in the narrow terms of just a local market.

    But the books need to be well translated. Translating is an art and translators undervalued and underpaid. Finding the folks with the skills is surely where the hold-up is in getting these works out.

  3. Have you seen the translated version of A Samad Said’s Salina? It’s TERRIBLE.

    The Malay Classics need to be taken out of DBP’s hands and given over to a more capable body for better and more professional translations. Except that DBP is the ONLY organisation around capable… sheesh!

    I think those ancient Malay texts should be “adapted” rather than translated into English for modern readers to understand and appreciate.

    Of course, this means finding exceptional translators that can bring over the intended meaning… and like Sharon says, finding these folks are the hold-up.

    So the question is: Where are the able translators?

    I don’t know, but I’m training myself as one.

  4. Bibs: Yes, I know that it’s great to give our literary greats like A. Samad Said and Usmang Awang international recognition -after all, Malay is one of the key spoken languages in this part of Asia. And like you said, translators are hard to come by.

    Ted: A. Samad Said’s Salina? No, haven’t picked it up. I’m not surprised if the translation is horrible and yes, DBP is very much to be blamed for shoddy work. There’s no one else capable of doing it, I supposed.

    Adaptations is one way. Puteri Gunung Ledang is an example I suppose, since it’s part of the Hikayat Hang Tuah story. Hikayat Awang Sulung Merah Muda was also made into a theatre production too. That’s one way of exposing the public to the text. But again, how do we encourage people to read these new adapted texts?

    You’ll be doing us all a great service should you manage to get a job as a translating writer at DBP, Ted! You might be able to set high quality translation standards there and revolutionise translated literature! 🙂

  5. Hur hur… don’t expect DBP to hire someone like me… but we’ll see how things go.

  6. La..

    I read Malay classic prose (prosa klasik) for SPM, and I can tell you one thing, the only thing that’s going for most of them is the beautiful language. Other than that, the plots are laughable, and the characters sound like they came out of some Japanese anime. 🙂

  7. “ranjau sepanjang jalan” by shanon ahmad was wonderfully translated as “no harvest but a thorn” by adibah amin. some say the translation was even more poetic than the original. i truly loved this book, would buy both versions. but where is it?

    translation is possible but needs an artist.

    ted i think you really would be doing something useful if you did some translating of texts – there are translators courses (my sisters-in-law went on one and found it very useful) – but the money isn’t there so your reward would have to be in doing something you believe in

  8. Phil onii-chan, I’m lazy.

    Pass me a link to one of the books and I’ll see if I can translate even half of it.

    *Suicidal* :p

  9. Oh, and I forgot to add that there might be a more sinister reason: Perhaps the bad translations are meant to encourage people to pick up Malay?

  10. LOL!! Gee, why not? It sounds like an idea they’re capable of. I agree. Get someone who can actually DO IT well.

    You know what makes our literature different from the conventional stuff out there. More often than not, classics in the Western World are mostly good vs. evil. There is almost always a clearly defined good and bad guy.

    Whereas in Asian culture, it’s mostly two forces doing their best to achieve their ideals that are pitted against each other.

    I mean, consider Hang Tuah. Our protagonist has to do certain things that are questionable even though his motives is noble and Hang Jebat, when he went amok, comitted atrocious acts but only because he was grieved by the way Hang Tuah was treated.

    There is a ton of magic yet to be unearthed if only someone can bring it to life.

  11. i’m sure glad i came across this site. i’m currently doing my MA in the Theory and Practice of Translation in Middlesex and one subject that i have is Literature and its Translation. now i fall under most Malaysian stereotypes in the sense that i’m guilty of not having done a lot of reading prior to this, but it’s definitely something i’m looking forward to change!

    to be honest, i’m interested in theatre/drama translation not so much literary works but there is the connection between the two. i’ve only been here for a month, and i tried my hand at translating an excerpt from the PGL movie ( i know, could i BE less obvious.) and in that itself found some challenges, but i for one love dwelling on a piece of text for hours and reworking it over – until it feels just right!

    i suppose what’s important is the responsibility of the translator to interpret the source text and wanting to deliver something that is pleasing both to the mind and ear. what’s the point of translating something if it’s not going to make sense and no one reads it??? these DBP translators you guys talk about need to have some pride for the national language and literary works as well as the quality of translations that they do!

    hopefully i come back with an MA and half as talented as some of the Malaysian authors/translators back home. pleasee please keep posting more stuff on translation, anything to keep me updated..thanks!!

  12. Hi Audra!

    Thanks for dropping by and all the best in your studies to get that MA degree! Malaysia has a wealth of stuff that’s just waiting for the right person to come along and make it accessible to the international market.

    I’ll definitely keep my eyes and ears open to any issue on translation back home. Good luck!

  13. T Dutta

    Dear Eternal Wanderer

    I came across your website while trying to locate Hikayat Malim Dewa online and I must say that I was impressed by the some of the arguments you put forward regarding the translations of the Malay Classics. But I agree with Bibliobibuli that the texts must be translated into English to engage a wider readership (or adapted/ retold). What is surprising is that this has not been done after half a century of independence! Where are the piles of unsold books? Why not put them on sale and invite the public to buy (at low cost). I would buy a few.

    Coming back to Malim Dewa, do you know if there is a summary of the Hikayat online? Can you help regarding the identity of Malim Dewa? Is he actually Nakhoda Ragam?

  14. Hi,

    I have written two books, published by Utusan:

    From The Written Stone – an intro to some of our best Hikayat like Merong Mahawangsa and Malim Deman. From The Gathering, due to be released this year, features 15 legends from the East and West including our own Hang Tuah and Sang Kancil stories. Some stories included as well are the Celtic’s Tristan and Iseult, The story of Panku, Urashimatoro, Indonesia’s Damarwulan and even the Pied piper of Hamlin.

    I have just finished HIKAYAT – From The Ancient Malay Kingdoms which features 25 epics.

    The truth is the Malay pantun, gurindam and shair are all too beautiful to translate so I have included them in my retellings as is… with some translation provided where I felt it was possible.

    René Daillie’s Alam Pantun Melayu gives an in-depth appreciation of the language and language flow. We can only hope to do justice to the legends and the heritage the legends represents.

    But one thing is clear, just like the mak yung, dikir and wayang kulit, these legends need to be showcased at an international level and I have at least done my part to try and preserve the legends.

    My greatest joy is in seeing teenages read my book – at least some spark is kept alive. However, much much more needs to be done.

    And only passion can save this heritage.

    One more thing – the plot and storyline of the Malay panji or hikayat might be ‘soap operaish’ to some – but hey, for 15th 16th century entertainment, I will put the Malay Hikayat on the same shelf with Shakespeare (now don’t get me wrong – I love Shakespeare)and Homer.

    Too bad the penglipurlara of olden days chose to (or had to) remain anonymous.


  15. Just to share an excerpt of my retelling of Shair Siti Zubaidah

    Siti Zubaidah & The Chinese Wars
    Kembayat Negara

    Inilah kesah satu cetera
    Ceritanya Raja Kembayat Negara
    Kerajaan besar tiada terkira
    Banyak raja-raja tiada setara

    Centuries ago, there was a powerful nation, existing between fact and lore. It was called Kembayat Negara. It was indeed a tragedy that this mighty empire exist no more except within the annals of history and poetries of old.

    At the height of its dominion, Darman Syah ruled. He conquered many countries near and far, small and wide. Its ports and markets bustled with people from every walk of life. From as far as China, India, Iraq, Yunan and Portugal, merchants arrived in Kembayat Negara with goods of every kind and news of the world.

    The land was prosperous, subjects happy and court life peaceful. But the King longed for an heir and pledged that the little prince born will be declared ruler as soon as he was of age. Soon thereafter, the Queen was with child and the King was beside himself with happiness.

    On the long awaited day, the heavens poured. It rained and rained until the rivers of Kembayat Negara overflowed. The people witnessed the biggest flood ever. The King summoned the Royal Nujum, reader of the stars immediately. “My Royal Nujum, tell us what is the meaning of the non-stop heavenly downpour? Have we sinned, faltered or offended the Almighty in any way?” Anxious, the King urged him for the meaning of the flood. After deep meditation, the Royal Nujum announced a day of good omens. But the prince, who will be strong, beauteous and wise, must face many challenges before taking his place as the true King with four wives from the four corners of the world.

    Thus, Prince Zainal Abidin’s fate was proclaimed on the day he was born.

    The King appointed four ladies of court led by Siti Raudhiah as the prince’s nursemaids. And as he grew into boyhood, four chosen ones – Jaafar Siddiq, Umar Baki, Abdullah Sani and Muhammad Muhiyuddin became Prince Zainal Abidin’s closest companions in all their adventures. They studied, fought and rode the fastest horses of the land together. As promised, at tender age, Zainal Abidin was proclaimed Sultan.

    Trade continued to bring Kembayat Negara to greater prominence. Junks came into harbour filled to the brim with merchandise…Porcelain wares, teas and fine silk for the ladies at court. In turn, they left the shores of Kembayat ladened with aromatic woods, spices and other goods.

    One dawn, Cincu Wangkang, a trader from China, sailed into harbour with fineries fit for a lord. Upon arrival, he promised the Dato Berida, a lord of the Royal Palace, that he would hold his goods for him til nightfall. The proud Lord invited the merchant to his palatial home so that they could discuss more business over dinner, and said “My good man, pray do not forget our agreement. My family will be looking forward to your beautiful ware and items. And my lady will organise a feast to welcome you to Kembayat Negara.”

    But the greedy man sold his goods to a higher bidder at midday. He sold everything, lock, stock and barrel except for bins of salted vegetables. This was a terrible act of treachery. Nevermind the fact that Dato Berida had promised his household the grand things he had bought for them, soothing many quarrels for the time being. When Dato Berida was informed of the deceitfulness of the Chinese trader, he marched off immediately to the ship at bay. Everyone then heard of the harsh words and threats that passed between the two men. So much so, the quarrel was brought to the attention of the palace.

    The King was at hunt since dawn. So Darman Syah held court in his stead. After listening to Dato Berida’s long tirade, the elder monarch commanded Cincu Wangkang to give his account. He then decreed that Cincu Wangkang was at fault. But before he could pass his sentence, the hot-tempered trader accused the royal liege of bribery. This so angered Darman Syah that he ordered Cincu Wangkang to be imprisoned in the gallows. The trader cried and lamented his fate so that everyone could hear him.

    Then one day, the cries stopped. The sullenness transformed into a secretive smile. The manipulative Cincu Wangkang had somehow managed to send a message to his Emperor.


  16. Tik

    Salam. Happy to see you continuing your intrest. I know for a fact you grew up with Sang kancil, Pak pandir.Mat Jenin. I wish there are more people come forward with anecdotes, rhymes and song from the cradles. Last night I was watching Zainal of Hijau fame on Astro 180 I would like to complete his mum’ llulaby

    Mak mak
    Bawa pisau
    Buat apa pisau
    Nak kerat bemban
    Buat apa bemban
    Nak juluk bulan
    Di Mana bulan
    Atas pokok
    Pokok apa
    Kayu ara

  17. Once I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the same comment. Is there any means you can remove me from that service? Thanks!

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