Always Already Translated: Questions of Language in Singapore Literature

Illustration by Dianna Xu

It’s ten in the morning. I lock the gate of my Housing and Development Board flat, and go downstairs. In the lift, a plummy British-accented voice calls out the floors in English. In the lobby there are two furniture delivery men in grey overalls, carrying a large television. I recognise them as Chinese and Indian, but they speak together in simple Malay I can just understand. It’s hot, and I take the covered walkway through the public housing estate to the Mass Rapid Transit station. Two older women are coming back from the market, chatting in Hokkien. I can make out a snatch or two of conversation: something about eating rice. I meet a neighbour and we exchange greetings in Mandarin; her friend whom she is talking to looks at me in surprise, checking my race. As I walk to the MRT I find myself behind a man talking into his phone in Tamil: I know the language by its distinctive multisyllabic rhythms, but I cannot understand a word. A baby in a passing buggy cries, in the only utterance that we all understand. The hooded workers trimming the grass by the side of the path do not speak.

In the MRT train, I’ve forgotten my handphone, and so I look around. Advertisements are mostly in English, but the informational signs are in four languages. As a writer, I live in a textual world that I find difficult to let go of, and I find myself turning these scraps of text over in my mind. English is the language I live in most of the time. The words are completely transparent to me—I look through them to meaning, almost without being aware that I am reading. I know Chinese well enough to understand, and often well enough to check if the translation is good enough. I can make out isolated words of romanised Malay, sometimes enough to work out the message with reference to the English or Chinese. Written Tamil, again, is completely opaque. I cannot decipher the script: I do not even have a sense of how these words, if read out to me, would sound.

Today I am visiting a hospital. When I enter the wards, I return to another world of voices. At the nurse’s station: Tagalog, Burmese, or Indonesian-accented Malay. In the volunteer’s room, I meet my co-workers. We strategise for the day in English. And then we walk the wards, the three of us. My companions are a Chinese-Singaporean woman who speaks English, some Malay, and a few words of the Chinese dialects Hokkien and Cantonese, and a woman from India, who speaks English, Gujarati, and Urdu. I’m a Caucasian—for want of a better word—man who speaks English, some Mandarin, and a few words of Malay. The patients we talk to are mostly older, with linguistic worlds far more complex than the rationalised bilingualism of my students. In choosing languages of address, it’s a little like the childhood game of scissors, paper, stone. I speak in Mandarin to Chinese patients, and they reply not to me but to my Chinese co-worker, who looks back at me in incomprehension. She speaks in Malay to older Chinese and Malay patients, and they reply in Malay not to her but to the third of us, the Indian woman who wears a tudung that marks her out as Muslim and, by a process of mistaken association, Malay. We shuffle languages together, translate, with the patient often taking the lead. Speech pours into the cracks between us. It is not the pain of the body that is worst, but the pain of the heart: xin tong, 心痛, sim tia, sam tung, sakit hati. And then, for a moment, the heart does not hurt any more. We’re like children, passing this fragile bubble of languages from one to another. Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun wrote about the loss of language as cultural loss, but here it seems different, as though linguistic incompetence, incomprehension, and the process of mutual translation forces us back to the body, to the heart.

As my reference to Kuo suggests, writers of poetry and prose fiction in Singapore have tried over a long century to represent this shifting polylingual environment. The soundscape of the city-state as a colonial entrepôt featured a medley of languages and overlapping linguistic communities, stitched together by English both as an elite language of governance and a pidgin, and the much more widespread use of a simplified form of Malay—Pasar Melayu or Bazaar Malay—as a lingua franca. Modernist rationalisation through education, mass literacy, and language policies began in the colonial period and continued after self-rule in 1959 and full independence in 1965. At present, all Singaporeans study at English-medium schools, but Ministry of Education policy aims for them also to be bilingual in a mother tongue designated according to race, which may not necessarily be the language they speak at home. There are four official languages: Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, and English. Some heritage languages of small communities, such as Malayalam or Punjabi, receive sanction from the state, while so-called Chinese “dialects” such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, and Hainanese are disavowed. Other languages, such as Javanese, Baba Malay, and Kristang, have almost vanished. But on the MRT, I often recognise others: Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, German, and Spanish. Languages are also not distinct. Much has been written about Singlish, Singapore’s unique English-based creole, but the term hides a multitude of registers from a formal “Singapore English”, through creolised messages on Facebook and WhatsApp, to a pidgin used between habitual non-English speakers. English/Singlish shades quickly into other languages: at times, with elderly family members, I am not sure whether I am speaking Mandarin with an extensive English vocabulary, or English with a Mandarin-derived sentence structure. And at many family gatherings four languages are being spoken, with no one individual being fully fluent in more than two: incomprehension is bridged by continual informal acts of translation.

In literary media which privilege the oral over the chirographic, representation of the polylingual environment is, superficially at least, easy enough. In Singapore film, subtitles have often been used to draw together linguistic communities. Boo Junfeng’s award-winning film about the death penalty, Apprentice, for instance, is entirely in Malay and English, with the languages at times merging into each other in character’s conversations, but subtitles enabling comprehension for non-Malay speakers. Theatre has been more inventive. Kuo Pao Kun’s multilingual play Mama Looking for Her Cat famously refused the use of subtitles and surtitles, asking audiences to struggle with their own partial comprehension of minoritised languages, and to focus on actors’ expressions and gestures. Kuo’s play also illustrated the pain caused by everyday processes of informal translation. In one key scene a mother dictates a letter to her son who is studying abroad in Hokkien. They are translated by a chorus of children into English and Mandarin, but stripped of emotional and cultural connotations in the process. We are left with the bare bones of language, and complex emotions are transformed into clichés.

In the 1990s in the theatre, Singlish was often simply used for comic effect. In the last decade, in particular, younger playwrights such as Faith Ng have made a much more nuanced use of the full emotional registers of Singapore’s language continuum. Language use in theatre may be naturalistic or deliberately stylised. In The Necessary Stage’s Manifesto (2016), characters of different ethnicities spoke at times in blends of languages that deliberately aimed not to imitate everyday linguistic practice, but rather to transgress the cultural boundaries that tie language to “race.” And even literary texts with visual but no oral elements can capture some of the complexity of language use in Singapore. Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015) has been praised for its representation of history and its skilful pastiche of comics styles, but is also interesting in its use of language. When an English-speaking character cannot understand another language, the speech balloon of the character who is talking is filled with small, indecipherable, cursive strokes.

Writers in chirographic media—much poetry and most prose fiction—have faced a more difficult challenge. The possibility of transparency offered by film is not there. No writer, and indeed no reader, is fluent in all four languages, with their different orthographic systems: the Roman alphabet in which English and now Malay are written, Chinese characters, and the Brahmic script used for Tamil. Any act of writing in a single language thus involves various forms of translation, and can never be simply an act of transcription. An example might be a common greeting in several languages spoken in Singapore, in which one is asked whether one has eaten yet. It is possible to write this using standard literary orthography, for instance “sudah makan?” in Malay, or 吃饭了没有?in Mandarin Chinese. It’s also possible to represent the Chinese question using standard Mandarin romanization now used in Singapore, Hanyu Pinyin,—“chi fan le mei you? ”—or even a local, non-standard romanised transcription that preserves the sound of a Chinese topolect such as Hokkien, in which the question might well be asked—jiak ba buay?—and this, in turn, could be represented in Chinese characters as 吃饱没 or 吃饱未. Singlish phrases with the same meaning might be represented as “makan orready?” or “eat orready?” imitating phonetically what a speaker would say. But there are other alternatives in an English-language text. A writer could choose to recreate the structural qualities of the Asian languages in English, by removing any reference to the second person in both Malay and Chinese—“eaten already?”, by imitating the alternative question format in Chinese—“eaten or not?” or noting the presence of the noun fan, for instance, in Mandarin—“eaten rice or not?” He or she might go further, and make the question fully grammatical in English—“have you eaten yet?” Finally, it would be possible to replace the greeting with a phrase of a similar formality that is fully standard in English in Singapore and elsewhere, such as “how are you doing?”

One important point to make here is that while every choice made by a writer—who may often be unaware of the full range of possible alternatives—has a particular effect on the reader, none is automatically more authentic than another, although each will carry connotations of class, community, and formality associated with specific contexts of utterance. Using Singlish, for instance, may at times be the best way of representing a distinctively Singaporean soundscape; at others, translating other languages into Singlish, rather than transliterating, may write out acts of listening involved for those with linguistic privilege who move into minoritised linguistic worlds.

Over the years, writers in Singapore have struggled to represent this polylingual lived reality within a series of language-based literary traditions. In the early 1950s, students at the elite Anglophone University of Malaya in Singapore attempted to write in a hybrid language that they named using the portmanteau term Engmalchin, combining English, Malay, and Chinese. Editorialising in the student journal The New Cauldron, students summoned European precedents, mentioning Chaucer’s combination of Anglo-Saxon and French words in creating a literary tradition in English, or Dante’s establishing of an Italian vernacular. Yet the identity of this new language was unclear. One of the most famous Engmalchin poems, the clearly pseudonymous Chu Chin Chow’s “Enigma Variations,” was predominately in Malay, with Hokkien and English words. Later Engmalchin poems were predominately in English, with various elements of Malay and Chinese: Tamil was excluded. And the cultural project the language embodied was also uncertain. When it was first used in a 1948 magazine article, the term Engmalchin appeared simply descriptive, with a young woman from Penang describing the way English, Malay, and Hokkien Chinese were mixed together in conversations in her family. Yet later editorials claimed that Engmalchin was a new synthetic literary language which would give birth to the nation, much as the University of Malaya itself was a performative speech act, founded eight years before Malaya’s independence in 1957. At other times they reverted to claiming that poems in Engmalchin simply transcribed “sights and sounds familiar in Malayan life”: the cries of roadside vendors, or a snatch of verses from nursery rhyme. Undergraduate Wang Gungwu, later to become a noted historian of Chinese migration, was often put forward as a leader of the “Engmalchin school.” In his slim volume Pulse (1950), arguably the first Malayan poetry collection, he used both practices. His “Ahmad,” describing a civil servant who gives up a dream of studying at Oxford and Cambridge to settle for a subordinate place in the colonial hierarchy, illustrates this:

Thoughts of Camford fading,
Contentment creeping in.
Allah has been kind;
Orang puteh has been kind.
Only yesterday his brother said,
“Can get lagi satu wife lah!”


Here a narrational voice in formal English gives way to Malay (orang puteh; white man) and then to the hybrid construction “Can get lagi satu wife lah” (can get one more wife), which imitates the rhythms of informal speech. Yet Wang, who, almost uniquely among his contemporaries, was trilingual in written English, Malay, and Chinese, also adopted a different mode of more consciously translational writing. His “Three Faces of Night” describes the Singapore streets at night:

Let’s go to the next world
The crowds wait their share of the steaming fun
At the kuey teow stalls of the kerosene glare
 . . . 
The herbal cool-tea colours the bowls;
Mango skins attract the flies.


Here the English that serves as a framing language is formal, but various forms of translation and transcription from Chinese are used. “Fun” uses the Mandarin pronunciation for a type of thin rice noodles, while “kuay teow” uses the standard transcription in English of the Hokkien words for a flat rice noodle dish. “Cool-tea,” in contrast, is a direct translation of the Chinese characters 涼茶, a type of herbal tea that has cooling properties not in terms of temperature, but in terms of the balance of heat and cold in the body in traditional Chinese medicine. “Kuay teow” is something someone would actually say; “cool-tea” is not, but its strangeness gives the sense of moving into another linguistic and cultural space.

What is seldom raised in discussion of Engmalchin and the evolution of a Malayan literary language is another factor: the globalisation of the English language through popular culture. In 1950, the English-language press in Singapore erupted into a discussion of the “champurisation” of the English language, a phrase derived from the Malay word campur, or mixed. Champurisation had its advocates and antagonists, but all agreed that it not only involved the use of Chinese topolects and Malay and Tamil phrases in English, but also featured Americanisms drawn from the movies, popular music, and comics. The cinema, the spaces within hearing range of the radio and the gramophone, and the roadside stalls selling comics were all additional sites of cultural and linguistic translation through which the world entered the home.

Experiments in transcription and transliteration continued as changing educational policies from the 1960s onwards resulted in English slowly becoming Singapore’s primary lingua franca. The first Singapore performance in 1985 of Stella Kon’s monodrama of a Straits Chinese matriarch, Emily of Emerald Hill represented the arrival of a distinctively Singaporean English on stage. What is often forgotten is the range of different Englishes used in different social contexts in the play, and indeed the presence of Malay words which cause confusion for young non-Malay Singaporeans. In written media, Arthur Yap’s poem “2 mothers in a HDB playground” and Catherine Lim’s short story “The Taximan&8217;s Story” are often praised as early uses of Singlish in literary writing, and then parsed for accuracy. Again, commentators often forget their artfulness. Yap mimes the rhythms of Singlish speech and makes strategic use of Hokkien or Malay vocabulary, but stays largely with standard English spelling in order to transform a fleeting conversation into high modernist art. Lim’s “The Taximan’s Story” is a monologue that makes use of a particular situation: a taxi-driver whose first language is not English speaking to a presumably more English-knowing passenger. Yet it, too, is stylised: very little Malay or Chinese language vocabulary is used, and sentence construction ranges from colloquial to formal. But by the middle of the 1990s a new norm was being established. The novels of Rex Shelley have dialogue that is rich in various inflections of Singapore English, contained within prose narration that proceeds in standard English, with silent translation making the presence of other languages in the novels’ scenes largely invisible. This, indeed, has continued to be the default mode of much prose fiction in Singapore over the last two decades, as shown in the work of writers as diverse as Tan Hwee Hwee and Claire Tham.

One case from the late 1990s onwards, however, delineates the contours of ongoing struggles to translate polylingual everyday environments into an English-language text. In 1995, Ming Cher’s novel Spider Boys was published by Penguin New Zealand and William Morrow in the United States, achieving an international prominence matched by few Singaporean works of literature. The novel was set in the settlement of Bukit Ho Swee, on the fringes of the city, in years leading up to the disastrous fire of 1961, which razed the settlement yet also provided a pretext for the construction of new public housing: one of the first of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates that Yap would inhabit poetically two decades later. Yet what was unusual was not the novel’s setting, but its use of language. Ming Cher had left Singapore with only a primary school education, and had learned languages as a merchant seaman largely through oral communication. The novel as published was thus written in a non-standard English, and represented a world in which Chinese topolects such as Hokkien and Cantonese were widely spoken, and English was rarely used. The status of the novel was further complicated by the attention it received outside Singapore from editors without knowledge of Singapore’s polylingual environment, and claims made that it authentically represented a historical—or even, at the most extreme, contemporary—version of colloquial Singapore English. In 2012, a revised version of the novel was published in Singapore. With the author’s consent, the text was substantially edited to fit the default mode of much Singapore fiction in English, with standard English for narration, non-standard structures associated with Singlish in dialogue, and with words from languages such as Malay and Hokkien italicised rather than being run seamlessly into the text.

The changes can be illustrated in the following passage, in which two boys prepare for the spider fighting that gives the book its title:

The next morning they crawl out of their mosquito nets and jump out of the bedroom window into the narrow alley between neighbor’s wall at the back of their house.

Ah Seow clap away the dust from the jump and moan. “So early…!” Rubbing his long sleepy eyes on the sleeves of his shirt, spider boxes inside a canvas bag over his shoulder.

“Don’t talk prick words!” Kwang elbow at him lightly. “I tell you something when we get there, run!” He push him for a race. They corners and up slopes and passing the backyard of a farmhouse on to a small plot of big yam leaves which pools morning dew its waxy surface.


In the 2012 version, the passage is rendered thus:

The next morning, the boys crawled out of their mosquito nets and jumped out of their bedroom windows into the narrow alley between the back of their houses and their neighbour’s wall. Ah Seow clapped away the dust from his clothes and moaned.” So early…!” He rubbed his sleepy eyes on the sleeves of his shirt. He had the spider boxes inside a canvas bag over his shoulder.

“Don’t talk cock!” Kwang elbowed him. “I tell you something when we get there, run!” He pushed him into a race. They took shortcuts and ran up slopes and passed the backyard of a farmhouse on their way to a small plot of big yam leaves. The morning dew had pooled on the waxy surfaces of the leaves.


The original version features American spelling, but also grammatical features that mime Chinese languages, with non-inflected verbs, and the absence of noun-verb agreement. While these features are also present in Singlish, the first passage does not read as an attempt to represent spoken language, but rather as an attempt to remember a Hokkien-speaking world through English. The second passage flattens out the narrative prose into standard English, arguably losing both brevity and detail in the process—in the second version, for instance, it is unclear where the dust on the boys’ clothes comes from. The dialogue, in contrast, does represent casual contemporary colloquial Singapore English. “Don’t talk cock” is something that someone would actually say; “Don’t talk prick words” is not. Both ultimately derive from the Hokkien phrase that might be transliterated as gong lan jiao wa (literally “speak penis language”). However, the phrase “talk cock” is so extensively used in Singaporean English as to now seem slightly parodic and amusing; the Hokkien phrase, estranged through Ming Cher’s literal translation as “talk prick words,” retains more powerfully insulting connotations. As with Wang’s poetry in the 1950s, the translation here of a polylingual environment into English involves artistic choices: there is no baseline of authenticity.

The contestations around these representations of polylingualism in Singapore, as with Wang’s experiments in the 1950s, come at a time in which identity projects are important. In the 1950s Wang and his contemporaries looked forward to the new independent nation-state of Malaya which, they felt, would realise their multicultural dreams. Almost seventy years later, an identification with the local promises a refuge from the winds of globalisation that blow more strongly through Singapore’s open economy than elsewhere. Singlish as a distinct language becomes an identity marker, the coffee shop in the HDB heartland a locus of authentic selfhood. Yet this search for a common language results in a series of critical disavowals, or at least inability to see what is in plain sight. Ann Ang’s short story collection Bang My Car has been widely praised for its use of Singlish, but it is in fact a clever series of pastiches of different forms of writing in a range of social contexts. Joshua Ip’s Sonnets from the Singlish features very few Singlish poems and its title, with its reference to Elizabeth Barret Browning, playfully suggests the absence of an original. Cheryl Lu-Lian Tan’s Sarong Party Girls—published in New York by William Morrow, Ming Cher’s original publishers, and marketed, as Spider Boys was two decades before, as an authentic Singapore voice in Singlish—makes use of a small number of frequently repeated markers of colloquial Singapore English to appeal to an international reader.

In trying to represent and codify spoken Singlish as an identity project, such critical responses to the complexity of literary texts perhaps miss the fictional possibilities provided by everyday translation in Singapore, the linguistic crossings that are often disavowed or forgotten. In Malaysian Sinophone writer Ng Kim Chew’s haunting short story “The Disappearance of M” a reporter who shares the author’s surname attempts to discover the origins of the mysterious Malaysian novel Kristmas, which has achieved international renown, and is written in English mixed together with “a number of the world’s languages, thereby creating a unique written language.” Yet as he searches for certainty the text slips away from him. Perhaps Kristmas itself is a translation from Chinese, even if its author is elusive? And perhaps his quest is itself just another story, one of a series of metafictional texts that nest inside one another?

What would it mean to codify this loss within a literary text in a single language? In contemporary Singapore, perhaps to look away from origins to a new series of linguistic transactions and crossings. In the hospital, the dialogue between a young Filipino nurse and an older Chinese-Singaporean patient, in which they count a shared vocabulary between Tagalog and Malay, that often forgotten national language. Not a search for a common language, then, which would make a world transparent, but rather gestures, holes between languages that everyday translation continually fills up. Not languages to be possessed, but rather languages to be learnt. Not an imagined language of the heartland to be codified, but rather a return to that language of the body, of the heart.