English or Malay ... just read lah

MALAYSIA - Two local publishing companies are shaking things up with interesting forays into translation. Shakespeare and Stephen King in Malay, anyone?

Hafiz Hamzah, founder and editor of Pustaka Obscura, put out Obscura late last year featuring translated snippets of Shakespeare's The Tempest, T.S Eliot's The Wasteland, and Homer's Iliad, among others.

More recently, Facebook was abuzz with news that publisher Amir Muhammad was releasing Malay versions of King's 2013 book Joyland and Neil Gaiman's bestseller, also from last year, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.

Amir joked on his Facebook page that he is now "not just a Stephen King FAN but a Stephen King PUBLISHER". His post also mentioned that of King's more than 50 books, this is the first one to be translated into Malay.

This is, of course, not the first time popular English language books have been translated into Malay: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga were translated into Malay by the Pelangi Publishing Group. But apart from those "event" projects, English language bestsellers translated into Malay seem to be few and far between.

Classics and literary works are translated more often, with books such as R.K. Narayan's The Man-Eater Of Malgudi (1961) and Anita Desai's A Village By The Sea (1982) being released in Malay by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka as Jelatang Malgudi and Sebuah Kampung Di Pinggir Laut respectively.

But books by the likes of King and Gaiman, or Dean Koontz and Sophie Kinsella? Not so much.

Could the quality of translation be a factor? After all, it's not easy capturing nuance and tone in a different language, a fact acknowledged by awards such as the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award: if the winning title is an English translation, the €100,000 (S$175,000) prize money is split between author and translator with the latter receiving €25,000.

Amir, 41, knows all about the difficulties.

"Finding translators who have talent and stamina" was one of the challenges he faced when he began this project, he explained in an e-mail interview.

"It's more important for the new text to not misrepresent the meaning, spirit and intent of the original, rather than to find the right fit for every single idiom (which can't be translated anyway) or allusion.

"Puns are almost impossible but we did come up with an ingenious (if I may say so myself) solution for 'Put an egg in your shoe and beat it' - but you'd need to read the translation to find out what it is.

"In some cases we added footnotes. For example, Joyland refers to Labour Day. Some Malaysians might not know that Americans celebrate this in September rather than in May, as we do here. All this was a lot of fun to do, though."

He feels that book translation in Malaysia is still in its infancy.

"I think it's still very low when compared to translations into other languages. So the right question should be: why has it taken us this long to start doing this seriously and consistently?"

On the other hand, Uthaya Sankar S.B. feels that translating English language books into Malay isn't such a good idea. The 42-year-old full-time Malay language writer and founder-president of Kumpulan Sasterawan Kavyan (Kavyan Writers' Group) has been reading Malay dan English books since his primary school days.

"I have read some novels translated from English to Malay, but I find something missing," he said, naming Narayan's Jelatang Malgudi and Desai's Sebuah Kampung Di Pinggir Laut mentioned above.

"In my humble opinion, English novels need not be translated into Malay. I have nothing against Malay, obviously. But I feel that if the translated version belittles the original English version, better not do it at all," he said, adding, though, that, "If the translation is as good as what we get in Indonesia, I'm all for it! At least I could read a good novel in two languages."

Would translating English bestsellers into Malay encourage more young people to read? In either language?

Amir puts it the best: he hopes that it just encourages them to read. That is what is most important.

Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman lecturer Paul GnanaSelvam, who published a collection of English language short stories (Latha's Christmas And Other Stories, MPH Publishing, 176 pages) late last year, has an interesting theory about this.

GnanaSelvam, 38, is a vehement believer of originality and only buys "pau from the Chinese and puttu from the Indians - that's original. Curiosity will always lead to discovery. As readers discover the beauty of language and how good storylines can pull them in, they may want to savour the original. Like trying char kway teow from Ah Beng, not Muthu!"

And if Amir and his Fixi Verso publishing imprint have their way, there will be more fodder for such curiosity soon, as he has several translation projects in the pipeline (though he can't talk about them yet due to contractual constraints).

Uthaya, too, believes that there is a market for English translated books here. "It is a sad fact that there are still many Malay novel fans that have trouble with English. So there is an urgent need to translate good books from English (and other languages) into Malay for the benefit of the majority of Malaysians."

The Malay version of Stephen King's Joyland (Fixi Verso) and Neil Gaiman's The Ocean At The End Of The Lane (Lautan di Hujung Lorong; Fixi Verso) are available in major bookstores nationwide.