Place: Malaysia

Summer 2012: A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Editing a Journal of World Literature

I had no interest in replacing a perfectly serviceable translation with a bad one.

“World literature” often gets a lot of attention in the months leading up to each year’s Nobel Prize announcement, but what do we really mean by it? Is it simply all the literatures of the world? Is it a status that applies to texts that circulate in a certain way? As the editor-in-chief of an international journal, I see “world literature” as a shifting aggregate of the literatures that have been translated into any given language. It’s clear to me, writing from Taipei, that an English “world literature” is vastly different from a Chinese one. Upon his passing in June 2012, for example, I discovered that Ray Bradbury had never been translated into Chinese — an omission made more perverse by the fact that translations make up an impressive 50% of all books published in Taiwan, compared to the woeful 3% in the United States. And if Taiwanese readers had been denied the genius of so well-loved an author, one can only imagine what American readers are missing out on.

This asymmetry was what motivated me in May 2012 to initiate a translation project that would introduce to Anglophone readers the newest crop of Chinese writers—a “20 Under 40,” if you will, of the Chinese-speaking world. Such a feature, modeled after Granta’s “Best British Novelists,” consisting of 20 medium-length essays introducing 20 of the most promising authors not only from China — but also from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia — had just been published that month by the leading Taiwanese journal Unitas and I thought Asymptote would be uniquely positioned to showcase it in English. Leveraging a connection, I made a few enquiries; the response from Unitas was positive. Tapping volunteer translators from the And Other Stories Chinese Reading Group and, crucially, proceeding with Unitas’ assurance that we would have free rein in editing the texts, my team and I decided to commit to turning the translation project around in five months: the first ten essays would appear in our Summer 2012 issue, followed by the other ten in the Fall 2012 issue. READ MORE…

A “People’s Literature” of Southeast Asia? 

Attending to this tradition might remind us that the present is not unique, and that the task of imagining other futures is one for the long haul.

Two Singaporean writers have recently provoked state opprobrium with their attempts to present and preserve alternative histories of the city-state. Familiar to many is graphic novelist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which has swept prizes at home and abroad, including three Eisner’s Awards this year. Liew’s fictional biography of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” the eponymous Charlie Chan, is notable not only for its “thrilling postmodern style” but also how it retraces the hopes (and ultimately, the disappointments) of progressive activism in Singapore, from the heady days of post-war collective action to betrayal and repression under a new political establishment. By weaving the stories of real-life activists into Chan’s recollections, Liew leaves us with a tantalizing “what if”: what if something of this history still lives and breathes under the surface of the modern city?

Jeremy Tiang’s novel, State of Emergency (released earlier this year by Epigram Books) takes a different tack. It incorporates fastidiously-researched vignettes from several turning-points in the political history of Singapore and Malaysia–from the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 to the “Marxist conspiracy” of 1987–into the multi-generational narrative of a single Singaporean family. Tiang, also an award-winning translator (and five-time Asymptote contributor), is remarkably successful at re-animating these forgotten episodes. Moreover, by allowing a different acquaintance or relative to narrate each event, he explores how entire communities must live with the echoes of arbitrary detention, harassment and censorship. And just as in The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, what comes to light is an unbroken genealogy of those who have dared to hope against these circumstances.

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Translators’ Tools: Objects from Asymptote’s Virtual Translation Museum

The Jawi Typewriter

Arabic Typewriter

Manufactured: c. 1966

Height: 5.9 inches, width: 15 inches

On display at the Malay Heritage Centre, Singapore

Jawi, an Arabic alphabet, was the dominant form of written Malay in Malaysia and Singapore for more than 600 years, but these days it’s in danger of becoming as obsolete as the typewriter.

Though the Malaysian ministry of education attempted to revive Jawi learning in the past—in 1970, elementary schools began teaching Jawi, and soon after high schools followed suit—by 1981, when I started Standard One (Malaysian first grade), Jawi was no longer part of the national curriculum. By 2006, Malaysia’s only remaining Jawi newspaper, the Utusan Melayu, which first appeared in Singapore in 1939, had ceased publishing.

As a translator of Malay into English, I’ve long been interested in Jawi, and when I spotted what I thought was a Jawi typewriter at the Malay Heritage Centre (MHC) in Singapore, I was immediately curious. I wanted to know where it came from, how old it was, who had owned it, how it was used. What follows is the conversation I had with the MHC concerning its typewriter, carried out over email. Noorashikin Zulkifli, Head of Curation and Programs at the MHC, helped trace the typewriter’s origins and explained its features. Encik Syed Ali Semait, Managing Director of Singapore-based Pustaka Nasional Pte. Ltd, the publishing and typesetting company that donated the typewriter to the MHC in 2012, helped identify the typewriter’s original owner. READ MORE…

Micro-fiction by Sufian Abas

Down-to-earth magical realism from Malaysia

Anxiety over rapid urbanization takes a distinctly Malaysian turn in these stories by Sufian Abas.  READ MORE…