Doors of Perception and Translation

loading Jérôme Bouchaud, founding editor of Lettres de Malaisie and the journal Jentayu.

Conversations and Explorations: Jérôme Bouchaud

Beyond a handful of specialists, knowledge of historical French connections with Penang and the wider Malay archipelago is thin. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise. France’s colonial ambitions focused on Indochina – the modern states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – and so the sedimented layers of language and culture are obviously not as evident as they are with the legacies of the British in Malaysia or the Dutch in Indonesia.

Yet the French presence in Penang goes back over two centuries. The French irruption into the Indian Ocean in the second half of the eighteenth century compelled the British East India Company to choose Penang as a strategic and commercial bulwark against a dangerous European rival. In 1808 the French Catholic Missions Étrangères de Paris established a printing press in Penang to disseminate its religious materials, and a succession of missionaries left their mark – notably on education – throughout the nineteenth century. And French merchants dealing in the pepper trade linked Penang with the Aceh coast and Singapore.

Even more concealed from the public gaze is the long-standing attraction that South-East Asia has held for French writers. The classic Malay poetic form, pantun, exercised the imagination of celebrated writers like Baudelaire and Verlaine. And Henri Fauconnier’s Malaisie (The Soul of Malaya) is arguably the greatest Western novel of the twentieth century set in Malaya. This was no one-way fascination either. Published in Penang, Syed Sheikh al-Hadi’s Rokambul series, based on his translations of numerous episodes of the intrepid criminal-adventurer-detective hero, Rocambole, created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, proved hugely popular with a burgeoning Malay-reading audience in the1920s and 1930s.

Those French connections have, in recent years, received fresh stimulus. Major efforts to excavate historical and literary work through translation and critical engagement have been made by the likes of Georges Voisset and Serge Jardin. To these contributions can now be added the innovative efforts of Jérôme Bouchaud, who has started a quiet revolution to fill literary absences. The French-born writer, now living in Langkawi, has fashioned a unique place for himself. His own books – Malaisie: Modernité et traditions en Asie du Sud-est (Malaysia: Modernity and Traditions in South-East Asia) and Langkawi Style with the Penang photographer Howard Tan – have been well received.

But it is as a translator and publisher that he has made a singular contribution. Bouchaud founded the online portal Lettres de Malaisie as a dedicated place for the translation and dissemination of a cornucopia of Malaysian writing, featuring acknowledged literary giants and promising younger authors. Meanwhile, the literary journal Jentayu has a more ambitious embrace – bringing contemporary literature from across Asia to enthusiastic French reading publics. In this in-depth interview Bouchaud reflects on the importance of language and translation, his own cultural voyage of discovery, while paying homage to the French literary legacy in Malaysia.

We should begin with establishing a sense of your own literary journey. Tell me about your childhood and youth, and the ways that books and reading played a part in your early life.

As far as I can remember, books have always been an integral part of my life. I hold fond memories of being read Charles Perrault’s fairy tales as a toddler and, later on, of reading them myself. Then came Enid Blyton’s stories, but also ones by Alphonse Daudet and the Comtesse de Ségur, two essential writers for French youngsters. Very early on, I was also fascinated by Greek mythology and I had these illustrated books on the topic that I kept reading and reading until they got pretty much torn apart. Those Greek gods and goddesses, they’re a wild bunch! Reading about Greek mythology at an early age got me really interested in languages and made me realise how much of today’s French language still owes to this faraway civilisation.

This was – beyond the simple entertainment factor – probably the first true, conscious revelation I got through reading. How a language lives and evolves, not in a vacuum, but through constant borrowing from other cultures and languages, alive or dead.

The second conscious revelation was poetry. As a kid in French primary school, we are meant to learn a lot of poems, but it was only in my early teens that I truly started to hear, and to listen to, what poems had to say. Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire were obvious heroes for the young romantic that I was, and I started penning my own poetry around that time, most of which I would probably blush in embarrassment if I were to read it again today.

The third revelation came also in those early teenage years, when my father introduced me to the Chinese language. He was learning it from home with the help of a Chinese teacher. This discovery opened up new doors of perception through which I ventured gladly, and I started reading Chinese literature in translation from that age onwards. Actually learning the Chinese language came a couple of years later, when I was around 16.

Did this early literary immersion convince you to become a writer when you were young?

As a teenager, I never thought I wanted to become a writer, though I guess I wanted to do something in connection with words, whatever that meant. And that’s what I do today, whatever it is that I do.

Did you go on to study literature at university? What are your memories and experiences of that time?

I did not study literature. I went to a business school instead. When I finished high school, I felt a strong urge to travel and to discover cultures different from my own. There was no way my parents would let me embark on a solo adventure and delay post-baccalaureate studies, so I managed to get myself enrolled in a business school which advertised itself as a pioneer in international trade and intercultural exchanges.

I graduated four years later, determined to get my first job in China. I had been constantly studying about China throughout those four years, learning the language, collecting articles and reading books, thus acquiring a certain understanding of the local culture and way of life. Of course, in the end, all of this was not nearly enough to prepare me for the shock of actually living in China.

How then did you get into writing? And what are the creative dynamics and processes like for you?

I have been writing from a young age. As I mentioned earlier, poetry was a serious hobby during my teens. It may seem like something all teenagers do – holding a diary, writing a love letter, a few poems – but I was really into it. It was a daily, albeit mostly nocturnal, affair. At that time, I was also getting myself acquainted with literary translation by translating into French song lyrics from American folk and country singers. I had loads of notebooks filled with translated lyrics. Translating poetry or song lyrics taught me a lot about rhythm and texture, finding ways to convey not only a meaning, but also a feeling, an emotion.

Didn’t the rather straight business life you led in China get in the way of your creativity?

Even when I got into business in China in 2003, working for a French import/export company, I liked nothing better than to put pen to paper and write articles about China for my colleagues back in France. But after five years there, living in a soulless city like Shenzhen, my job didn’t bring much spiritual satisfaction and I sensed it was time for me to move on. I went back to France and got myself some writing assignments from guidebook publishers. On my first gig, I went back to China and there I was, visiting and researching places, interviewing people, learning about local customs and history, and writing. That was the first time that I felt I could actually organise my life in such a way that writing could be at the centre of it, not only on the side.

I’d like to explore the broader picture of French literary interest in Malaya/Malaysia and the wider Nusantara. One the surface, it does not seem as present as that in English (or Dutch in Indonesia) – for obvious historical reasons. And yet there have been exchanges, borrowings and influences in the Francophone imagination for two centuries. Could you reflect on this long-standing literary engagement? I am thinking here of Victor Hugo’s Les orientales (1829), in which he includes a French translation of a pantun. Or the use made of the pantun form by great writers like Baudelaire and Verlaine.

Victor Hugo was indeed the first poet of prominence to make use of the pantun form as it was brought back to him by one of his admirers, a Frenchman by the name of Ernest Fouinet who had read William Marsden’s A Grammar of the Malay Language. As you know, in those days anything foreign, and especially anything coming from the vast Orient, was considered as exotic, mysterious and potentially of great beauty and wisdom. Hugo himself is famously known to have said: “Bring me something Oriental, always more Oriental!” As it was, the pantun that Fouinet passed on to Hugo – the famous pantun kupu-kupu – was of the berkait form, which is not the simple, four-verse pantun that most of us would know, but the longer, unravelling form with verses that repeat themselves over several stanzas.

In Hugo’s book, this pantun berkait was mistakenly introduced as a “pantoum”, thus misspelling the original Malay word with a final “-m”. A printing typo which would prove to be fatal to the quatrain form as it is known here in the wider Nusantara: pantoum the form became, and pantoum it stayed until this very day! In an effort to keep the form fixed, Parnassian poets started making up rules as to what a proper pantoum should be. The repetition of verses from one stanza to the next became an imposition, so did the alternating rhymes. Among the Romantics, Verlaine only ever wrote pantoums, and no pantun as such. So did Baudelaire with his poem Harmonie du soir, which is actually considered a false pantoum as it does not follow the rules set earlier by the Parnassians. And yet it is still the most famous pantoum of all, the first one that comes to mind, even today, to any French-speaking reader interested in poetry. Baudelaire’s stellar aura certainly has much to do with this. Later, the Symbolists went on and experimented with the form, which eventually spread around the world and became practised and popular in many different languages.

Western readers would have to wait until 1930 and the publication of Henri Fauconnier’s The Soul of Malaya to see a pantun presented in its simple quatrain form. But the damage was already done. Today, only a limited number of poetry aficionados and eccentrics would know the link between the internationally successful pantoum and its original Malay form.

Are these writers who borrowed from – and transformed –Asian literary traditions inevitably open to the charge of Orientalism? Or did they manage, somehow, to overcome, to bridge, the embedded presumptions of their own culture?

Exoticism was all the rage in the nineteenth century. And in retrospect, it is very clear that Hugo, Baudelaire, but also Goethe and others, fell prey to what we now call Orientalism, with all that it entails. Yet, with all their so-called flaws in recreating and adapting foreign forms of poetry – and in the case of pantun, as I’ve already mentioned, the strange “colonising in reverse” of an intrinsically Malay form – their writings still demonstrate what is certainly much more important for us readers – and that is the power of imagination. Yes, Hugo and Baudelaire probably had misconceptions of the Orient, misconceptions which were at the time widely shared and rarely, if ever, questioned. But their curiosity and imagination led them onto paths that very few other writers have trodden. For that they remain literary giants, and I cannot see the burden of Orientalism weighing much more than a feather on their shoulders.

Earlier you mentioned Henri Fauconnier in passing. I’d like to ask you to reflect a little more on him and, of course, the Prix Goncourt prize-winning Malaisie (The Soul of Malaya, 1930), which is probably the best-known book on Malaya/Malaysia written in French. How do you judge his life and account of Malayan society, and his lasting influence, if any?

Henri Fauconnier was a man of extraordinary talent and vision. It is only sad that his name would be almost forgotten today as his book The Soul of Malaya is certainly the best novel ever written by a Westerner on the topic of Malaya. Anthony Burgess said so himself. The fact that Muhammad Haji Salleh decided to translate the novel into Malay – Nurani Tanah Melayu (published by Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Malaysia in 2015) – is testament to its power and validity till today. All in all, Fauconnier spent less than 10 years in Malaya, enough time for him to make a small fortune out of rubber and to introduce oil palm to the local soil, but also to learn Malay and Tamil and to become well-versed in the subtle art of pantun.

The esteemed poet Muhammad Haji Salleh, and translator of Fauconnier’s Malaisie into Malay as Nurani Tanah Melayu.

His novel avoids most of the traps into which many foreign accounts of Malayan life fell in those days (and which make them barely readable today!). It is his hands-on knowledge of Malay culture that truly sets Fauconnier apart, and especially his mastery of pantun. His legacy is important and should be preserved. His novel – the only one he ever managed to write – marks a sharp turn from so-called colonial literature and was rightly awarded the Prix Goncourt.

Fauconnier’s extraordinary life also tells us of the power of recollection and of the magnifying effect of time, as he had already left Malaya – the land of his dreams – for many years when he started working on his novel. The experiences he had and the knowledge he gained during his days here contributed to making him such a fine writer and a man of great empathy and wisdom. I am glad that his name is being passed on to younger generations of Malaysian readers thanks to Muhammad Haji Salleh’s translation effort.

Fauconnier writes, “All poetry is untranslatable, but in the translation of a pantun it is not merely the rhythm, the rhyme and the assonances that are lost. It is the play on words, the equivocations, the tenuous allusions, that constitute their special charm for the Malays.” If he’s right, then how does a modern translator go about capturing the allusive and elusive qualities of literature in a way that maintains the integrity of the original?

As with any translation, there is an inevitable loss, and that loss should be compensated, as much as one can, by a gain. In the case of pantun, our gain would be that it is translated at all, as very few attempts at rendering traditional Malay poetry in French (or in any other languages) have been made thus far, as compared with, say, the Japanese haiku. It is only through the work of early scholars like Edouard Dulaurier (1807–1881) or through Fauconnier’s seminal novel, and more recently through François-René Daillie’s and Georges Voisset’s many translations, that we are now able to enjoy a wide variety of Malay pantun in the French language.

Georges Voisset has this to say about the act of translation: “Debates on what makes a good translation of a pantun are unlikely to ever be solved, as the crux of them all lies in the relationship of men with their tongue” (Le chant à quatre mains, Collection du Banian, 2010). Malay people have a completely different relationship to their language than French people have with French, and this will inevitably affect the integrity of any translation. Much will be lost, but there is also so much to gain – in discovering and trying to capture the images and metaphors used in pantun, their lyrical and playful qualities which make them so unique but also completely at one with the greater family of short forms of world poetry.

Let us turn now to your own current literary work. What were the original motivation and rationale for establishing Lettres de Malaisie, Éditions Jentayu and Jentayu review? How do you conceive the importance of literary translation?

Literary translation is to me of utmost importance in today’s world. Living in a globalised world unfortunately doesn’t mean that we understand each other better and that we are willing to open our eyes and empathise with other people’s lives, be they close or far away from us.

Literature, the art of telling stories, has been from time immemorial one of the few tools at our disposal to express the particularities and ambiguities of life. Reading literary works allows us to find ourselves in a world that’s at the same time strange and relatable. In that sense, literary translation is essential as it permits us to learn not only of our differences but also of this commonality. This is so critical to emphasise if we want to live respecting and in peace with each other. It’s that basic, really.

So that ethos drew you towards publishing?

Yes, that’s how I started working on Lettres de Malaisie. Back in 2011 it was a motivational tool for me to get to know better the country I was starting to live more permanently in – Malaysia. From there, I decided to expand to other countries, other stories, other experiences and that’s how the Jentayu project came about. Jentayu being a powerful mythical bird known to many Asian cultures, albeit under various names, I thought it would work well as a name for a publishing venture focusing on Asian literature but at the same time attaching little importance to borders.

The first five editions of Jentayu together with the recent special issue on Taiwan.

What are your main criteria for commissioning or identifying new work? How you do begin a work of translation?

For Jentayu, I can only choose among existing works; the review is still way too small to commission anything. I guess the key question I ask myself before choosing a text would be: Did I enjoy reading this? Did I get something out of it? That’s for me, but I believe it is the same with most of the literary translators I work with and who submit translation projects to Jentayu.

Another important factor for identifying a new translation project is whether the writer has already had work translated into French. For Jentayu, I mostly select works by writers who are still unknown, or barely known, to French-speaking readers. When asked what made a good piece of fiction, Raymond Carver replied that it was a piece that brought us “news from another world”. That’s the whole idea behind the Jentayu review: to bring news – new voices, fresh stories – from Asia to French-speaking readers.

What has been the reception – in France and elsewhere – to the work published in Jentayu and Lettres de Malaisie? I’m thinking in both critical and commercial terms. Is there now a greater awareness in the Francophone world of these new streams of writing from Asia?

The reception has been very encouraging so far. Many readers have got back to me with very positive responses about both concepts, Lettres de Malaisie and Jentayu. It seems that they both fulfil a need in their own way – Lettres de Malaisie focusing on Malaysian literature and targeting people interested in Malaysia, and Jentayu catering to the growing need for broader knowledge and understanding about Asian cultures. Both are recognised for their expertise and the quality of their content.

Outside of France, the success is already palpable in various ways. Lettres de Malaisie already has two younger siblings, the first one being Lettres de Taiwan (dedicated to literature from and about Taiwan), and the second, more recent one, being Lettres d’Asie centrale (about central Asian literature). As for the first special issue of Jentayu fully dedicated to contemporary Taiwanese literature, we had one launch in Paris and another one in Taipei, both in the presence of many writers and translators who took part in that issue. That’s the approach I wish to emphasise with Jentayu: that literature should be a bridge between cultures, and translators are the pillars supporting that bridge.

What are the main challenges you face in terms of authors, distribution, audiences and so on – the “business” of the book trade, with which you must be very familiar?

In terms of audiences, one of the main challenges faced by Jentayu is that short stories are not really reading staples in France as they seem to be in Malaysia and in many parts of Asia. French readers are way more familiar with the novel form, which we integrate from a young age as the quintessential form of literature. Collections of short stories, though some do get published, rarely get the attention they deserve, and in that sense it is not always easy to promote them with readers.

In terms of distribution, one of the hurdles would be the relative lack of visibility of Asian literature in the French market, though I must say the situation is much better there than in any other Western countries. There’s a wealth of Asian works translated into French which, to my knowledge, cannot be found anywhere else. But still, it is hard to convince bookshops that a review dedicated to pan-Asian literature can sell.

In terms of authors, all the writers who have been included in Jentayu so far – and that’s close to a hundred – have all been thrilled to take part and I am very grateful to all of them for letting us translate and publish their work.

What are the prospects for the future, both in terms of Jentayu and your own work in literature?

Prospects for Jentayu are good, with three publications planned in 2017: an issue on the theme of “food” is already out, which includes an essay by Omar Musa as well as a poem by Melizarani T. Selva; another one on the theme of “love and sensuality” in the summer; and later during the year, a second special issue of Jentayu dedicated to an Asian country I cannot yet reveal.

As for my own work in literature, I plan to keep submitting some pantun of mine to this poetry review I co-founded four years ago called Pantouns et genres brefs. It’s an online poetry review dedicated to the art of Malay pantun ... but in French. My partners in crime in this endeavour are Georges Voisset, the French specialist of pantun, Jean-Claude Trutt, a poetry lover based in Luxembourg, and Serge Jardin, who is a well-known figure in Melaka. We’ve also been getting tremendous support from Malaysia’s very own Muhammad Haji Salleh and we hope to keep the review going as long as we can.

Serge Jardin, Jean-Claude Trutt and Georges Voisset, leading advocates of Malaysian literature in French.

Do you have plans to make literature more visible in your home of Langkawi?

I wish Langkawi had a more cultural vibe. Some venues here have great potential as reading spaces for literary meet-ups. I have not yet planned anything myself but I guess all it takes is a first step! The Langkawi-based writer Karina Bahrin and a few of her friends did organise a great cultural event called Suatukala in December 2015. A second edition might be in the pipeline for this year and I’ll definitely be rooting for it.

Lettres de Malaisie can be contacted at

Gareth Richards is a writer, editor and bookseller.

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