The Word and the World (Part Two)

The flourishing of an independent publishing industry in the last few years has gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in the art and craft of translation. Penang has an important place in the history of translation in South-East Asia and has therefore the potential to ride a new wave of literary creativity.

Penang emerged as a significant print centre during the nineteenth century. In turn, this helped spur the development of a market for all kinds of published materials. And, as we have seen, this included a significant output of literary work, both in the languages of the peninsula and in translation. But its position was eclipsed – perhaps inevitably – in the process of post-war nation building.

Pre-war Ferment

Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad (Za’ba), social critic and linguist.

The years leading up to the Second World War laid the foundations for a newly engaged cultural milieu throughout the Malay peninsula. This was perhaps most obviously articulated in a burgeoning Malay nationalist consciousness , whose embryonic leadership created networks to mould a mass constituency, both in Penang and elsewhere.

One remarkable example of this was Sahabat Pena, or penfriends’ league, established by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi’s Penang journal Saudara, which developed into the largest Malay organisation prior to the war. As Tim Harper notes: “It had 12,000 members at its peak, and held its first national conference in November 1934 which drew together large numbers of articulate men and women as self-acknowledged agents for social and cultural advancement.”

At the same time, a new language began to take form. Throughout the peninsula, modernisers of various stripes started associations to reform the Malay language and expand vernacular publishing. In 1936 some 10,000 copies of a dictionary, Buku Katau, were printed and then used at the Sultan Idris Training College in Tanjong Malim, which became the key centre for the higher education of Malays in the pre-war period. As Rachel Leow says, the college was “renowned for its radical literary graduates, early innovations in the Malay language, and its interventions into a vernacular Malay public sphere.” This manifested itself in the emergence of a new literary style, notably in political journalism and novels that both celebrated a love of homeland and grappled with the real issues of everyday life. These concerns included economic weakness, political marginal i sat i on and religious reform. While it is true, as Ariffin Omar contends, that the attempt to construct a viable Malay nationalist movement in the 1930s was essentially a “failure”, the foundations for a new political narrative were nonetheless established.

Efforts to institutionalise translation work beyond the efforts of individual publishers were also in progress. Sultan Idris Training College was designated as the colonial government’s official translation office, with a mandate for providing texts in Malay for use in Malay schools. Pejabat Terjemah Menterjemah – later renamed Pejabat Karang Mengarang – was under the direction of the well-known scholar-administrator R.O. Winstedt, but the chief translator for many years was the celebrated social critic and linguist, Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad (Za’ba). He came up with a two-year training programme and taught translators himself.

Beginning in the 1920s, Pejabat Karang Mengarang oversaw two major translation programmes. The Malay School Series published an eclectic range of titles covering school subjects, handicrafts and even books for Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. The second programme is of greater literary interest. With Za’ba at the helm, the Malay Home Library Service published a total of 64 titles for both children and adults right up to the period before independence. The titles make for fascinating reading: Around the World in Eighty Days, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and more of a similar ilk.

Aside from the efforts of the official colonial education system, private presses (including those in Penang) continued to make important contributions. The reshaping of language in this period and beyond owes a great deal to Muhammad bin Hanif, a singular figure in laying the groundwork for the postwar political lexicography and someone who, thanks to the careful research of Rachel Leow, is now better known than he once was. Muhammad bin Hanif was in important ways a product of Penang’s rich intellectual milieu of the 1920s and 1930s, who took advantage of the relative religious and press freedom there compared to the situation in the Malay states on the peninsula. Literate in Malay, Arabic and English, he read and contributed to a range of local newspapers. He was in a position to observe the role of Penang within the empire and its status as a regional trading entrepot, as well as the relative dominance of Chinese merchants in that trade. He was also exposed to the flow of ideas, publications and writers from across the Straits of Malacca. The political language Muhammad bin Hanif helped forge would find new expression after the traumas of the Japanese occupation and war.

Fashioning a New Language

Muhammad bin Hanif wrote a great deal in the immediate aftermath of the war. But of greatest significance was his Kamus Politik, a dictionary of politics published by one of the leading Malay-language presses of the day, the United Press located on Jalan Dato Keramat in Penang. Written in Jawi, Rachel Leow calls the Kamus a “compelling and uniquely modern text”. There were some precedents from the Dutch East Indies, but they were romanised and tended to be translated from European dictionaries and encyclopaedias. As she records, Muhammad bin Hanif was “prompted to personally compile his dictionary because of the number of political terms entering Malay, which were little understood by most Malay readers.”

The dictionary was therefore as much a sketch of a language coming to terms with a rapidly changing world as a narrow exercise in lexicography. It contains definitions of over 700 words considered “new” in the Malay peninsula, including political concepts drawn from the experience of world war. “There is also a deep intellectual engagement with empire,” with lengthy definitions of words associated with colonial rule – “mandate”, “trusteeship” and “Commonwealth” – as well as glosses of words from the Arab world and India. Taken together, this was, as Rachel Leow concludes, one of the most important contributions to “the language of new politics in a nation extricating itself from colonial rule”. And in this sense, Muhammad bin Hanif can be considered as an exceptional individual who connected the wider world to very specific, local interests, combining both a cosmopolitan and parochial sensibility.

The post-war Malayan world was also deeply affected by the Japanese occupation in all kinds of unexpected (perhaps unintended) ways, and more in terms of form than content. Japanese ideological education – its rhetoric and propaganda – found all kinds of resonances in Malay thought and culture. And as Tim Harper highlights, “important networks of journalists, actors, film-makers and propagandists were formed in the war”. Above all, Nipponisation had taught that “language held the key to power”.

Culture Wars

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, KL, c.1960.

Unsurprisingly, much of the literary output of the post-war period was devoted to the process of nation building, both before and after 1957. This meant a shift of publishing and translation activities to the federal capital, Kuala Lumpur. The founding of the national language planning agency, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, in 1956 (which moved from Johor Bahru to Kuala Lumpur a year later) was the most obvious sign of this institutionalisation. In many ways, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka took on the role that Sultan Idris Training College had pioneered, by continuing the practice of translating and publishing Malay books for schools and later for higher education institutions. In doing so, it also created an authorised Malay literary canon.

Inevitably, publishing and translation activities became deeply implicated in the culture wars that simmered sporadically in the 1950s and 1960s and that would flare into full-scale antagonism after the passing of the National Language Bill in 1967 and especially in the aftermath of the National Culture Congress of 1971. And at the centre of the culture wars was the question of language.

On the surface, the purpose of promoting Malay was to release Malaysian minds from the fetters of colonial rule and supposed elitism, embodied above all in the English language. But the language policy was also directed at circumscribing the official use of languages other than English. Article 152 of the Federal Constitution had guaranteed the right of all ethnic communities to use, maintain and develop their mother tongues. In practice, however, the sustained aim of successive governments was to create a Malay-based national language, culture and education system. The plurality of the linguistic landscape was to give way to the privileging of Malay as the sole official language of postcolonial Malaysia.

The German translation of Lat’s Kampung Boy.

Under the energetic directorship of Syed Nasir Ismail, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka set about pushing back “the tide of English” and establishing Malay as a modern language capable of being used in government, science, politics and literature. It was situated firmly at the centre of the postcolonial policy direction, as it pressed ahead with efforts to select, translate and publish books to be consumed throughout the education system. By 1967 the National Language Bill passed by Parliament rejected official status for all languages other than Malay, though the final version of the bill outlined some exceptional instances and hedged on the question of multilingualism, allowing for Malay translations of documents from other language communities, including English, Mandarin and Tamil. In any case, these compromises satisfied no one. Malaylanguage activists accused Tunku Abdul Rahman of “having sold Malays down the drain”. After all, Syed Nasir had already threateningly declared: “those people who advocated the principle of multilingualism are treading on dangerous ground and adopting a very unhealthy attitude which is very dangerous for the people of this country”. Meanwhile, champions of the Chinese language were equally affronted by its exclusion from official discourse.

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka redoubled its efforts to promote Malay as the language not only of education and government but also of a “national literature”. And it was not to be any kind of “debased” Malay but bahasa Melayu tulen (unadulterated Malay) or Melayu halus (refined Malay). The possibilities for linguistic pluralism and hybridity were effectively shut down in the name of an authoritative purity.

By the early 1980s Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka formally established a dedicated translation department in order to institutionalise its programmatic activities that had been present since its inception. The translated titles ranged across academic disciplines, including literary publications. It is clear that those titles chosen for publication precisely reflected the perceived developmental needs of the country – in entirely instrumental ways – and, above all, the locked-in trajectory of the national language policy.

Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara

The further institutionalisation of officially sanctioned translation work saw the establishment of Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara (ITBN, National Institute of Translation and Book Production) in 1993. The institute effectively took over translation matters previously handled by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Its rationale was straightforward enough: “to increase the translation and publication of quality knowledge-based material into Malay, to increase efforts in the translation and publication of important national work into foreign languages, and to support the government policy and interested parties in the field of translation and book publication.” Well over a thousand translated titles were produced over the next two decades.

There has been a modest emphasis by ITBN on the translation of literary work, both of local literature into foreign languages and vice versa. To this end, there have been some interesting collaborations, and some surprising ones. In conjunction with the Goethe-Institut, Lat’s Kampung Boy came out in German as Ein Frechdachs aus Malaysia, while Goethe’s celebrated collection of lyrical poems, West-östlicher Divan, inspired by the great Persian poet Hafez, was published under the title Sajak-sajak daripada Diwan Barat-Timur. IBTN’s programme with the publishing company Les Indes savantes has seen the works of national laureates translated into French, including Anwar Ridhwan, Keris Mas and A. Samad Said. IBTN has also taken responsibility for republishing some wellknown Japanese novels, including Desi Salji (Snow Village) by the celebrated Yasunari Kawabata. Meanwhile, the recently published Antologi Cerpen: Malaysia-Taiwan, done in partnership with the Taipei Chinese Centre PEN International, marks a breakthrough in Malay-Chinese cross-translations.

The New Wave

Government-sponsored translation work continues. But it is still constrained – as it has been for more than four decades – by conservatism, coercion and censorship, and the law. The notorious level of official proscription across a whole range of artistic forms – film, theatre, television, music, the press, cartoons as well as books – is well known. Silverfish Books, the independent bookshop in Bangsar, reports that censorship or outright banning has applied to literary authors as diverse as Milan Kundera, Khalil Gibran, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Burgess and Irving Welsh. It is quite a stellar list. Malaysian writers like Faisal Tehrani and the award-winning cartoonist Zunar have also been subjected to the red pen and even charges of sedition.

Given the ever-present threat of suppression, it is perhaps a bit surprising that both commercial and independent publishers have ventured into the field. The former are obviously attracted by Malaysia’s market potential where books originally written in English (and not translations into English from other languages) predominate. But mainstream publishers are also notoriously allergic to literary fiction in translation. It should be remembered that the global market for literary translations – comprising fiction, poetry, drama, children’s books and creative non-fiction – is absolutely miniscule (for example, about three per cent of total publishing output in Britain).

One telling example makes the point. The Penang-born writer Tan Twan Eng has received universal acclaim for two brilliant novels: The Gift of Rain (2007), which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and The Garden of Evening Mists (2012), which won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. The first book has been translated into a whole raft of European languages, including Italian, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Czech, Serbian, French, Russian and Hungarian; while the latter has been translated into Mandarin (in Taiwan), Thai and Korean, among others. But bizarrely neither novel has appeared in Malay, and according to Tan it is not for want of trying. A similar neglect is the experience of other critically praised writers such as Preeta Samarasan or Tash Aw.

Jérôme Bouchaud, curator of Lettres de Malaisie and editor of Jentayu.

In light of this inattention, where commercial publishers fear to tread, it has been the independent publishers who have really encouraged a new wave of literary translation. Whatever other motives they may have, there is no doubt that they position themselves as a site of resistance to authority-defined conceptions of culture, including what some see as the dead hand of agencies like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

Two long-standing pioneers deserve special mention. Raman Krishnan set up Silverfish Books as a bookshop in 1999 and its publishing house two years later, as a direct response to what he saw as the mediocrity of much Malaysian literature. Today it stands as a leading publisher of Malaysian writing in English, though there has been much less attention given to work in translation with the exception of important historical texts. Optimistic about the future, Raman says in relation to contemporary writing: “Much is happening, but there is much more to be done. There is courage to push boundaries and a hunger to learn.”

Malay literary works translated into French and published by Les Indes savantes.

At around the same time as Silverfish was born, Chong Ton Sin set up Strategic Information and Research Development Centre and its sister organisation GB Gerakbudaya in Petaling Jaya, driven by a more overtly political agenda to prise open democratic space. While the majority of titles on the SIRD list are non-fiction, Chong has also made a commitment to publishing some fiction and poetry titles, and has facilitated translations into and from Malay, Mandarin and English. Equally importantly, GB Gerakbudaya acts as the nationwide and regional distributor for nearly all Malaysia’s independent publishers – the indispensable cog in the book trade.

Of all the independent publishers that have made a mark over the last few years, pride of place must surely go to Amir Muhammad’s Buku FIXI, founded in 2011. The imprint has published over 150 titles in Malay and English, specialising in original, edgy, urban fiction. In recognition of its impact, Buku FIXI won The Bookseller International Adult Trade Publisher Award at the 2014 London Book Fair. A more recent development offers yet more creative scope. Under the Fixi Verso imprint, Amir has ventured into literary translation, with Malay-language versions of work by best-selling authors such Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, John Green, Haruki Murakami and others. “I wanted to spread happiness!” Amir says. “These are writers I enjoy reading, so I assume (or hope) that readers who are more comfortable with Malay would enjoy them too.” A translated anthology, Malay Pulp Fiction, is on the cards for release in London in 2017.

While publishing a book or at least a story in an anthology may appear to be the Holy Grail to all aspiring writers, it is also true that literary magazines have long been the launching pads for great writing and big ideas. The emergence of a new generation of independent magazines reflects both a crisis and an opening. There has been a falling away of publishing new and experimental writing in institutionally based journals or even commercial magazines and newspapers that used to carry fiction in their pages. Into that vacuum have stepped all kinds of interesting new initiatives, both online and in print.

Two of the very best magazines give pride of place to literature in translation. Based in Langkawi for the last nine years, Jérôme Bouchaud is at the forefront of the new wave of literary translation. He has written numerous travel books and translated novels, short stories and poems from English to French. He currently curates Lettres de Malaisie, a Frenchlanguage webzine dedicated to literature from and about Malaysia. He is also the founder of Editions Jentayu, a small publishing venture focusing on pan-Asian literature and literary translation. Its main publication is the eponymous Jentayu review, a biannual literary review dedicated to writings from Asia translated into French that has published close to a hundred writers so far.

Bouchaud is philosophical about the vitality of making connections across borders: “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.” For him, literature – “the art of telling stories” – is one of the most potent tools available “to express the particularities and ambiguities of life … to find ourselves in a world that’s at the same time strange and relatable.”

The new bilingual literary journal NARATIF | Kisah, recently launched to critical acclaim at the Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival, speaks to the same need. One of its editors, Pauline Fan, has long been involved in the subtle arts of reading, reimagining and translating foreign fiction and poetry. Featuring both established and emerging literary voices from Malaysia and South-East Asia, the journal seeks “to explore the idea of the narrative – through reimaginings, retellings, experimentations with form and genre, as well as through literary translation and visual narratives.” It is a platform that fills a gap, for, as Fan says, “the confluence of oral traditions and written expression is something we come across too rarely in our region.”

Future Conditional

Literary translation has a long and rich history in the Malay world. And Penang has had a significant place in its development, notably as one of the first print centres in the nineteenth century and in the social and political ferment of the pre-war years. But it is also true that both literary production and the publishing industry have largely shifted to Kuala Lumpur. The gravitational pull of the commercial, political and cultural centre has been irresistible.

Jentayu, dedicated to translating Asian literature into French.

Nonetheless, Penang is still relatively well positioned to take advantage of a more fluid and more dynamic literary scene, one that may come to rely less on physical location. Local publishers such as Areca Books, Clarity, Entrepot and the state agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated have put out books with high-quality production values, though, with the exception of Clarity’s children’s titles, they have so far steered away from literature. The annual George Town Literary Festival is now firmly established as the country’s premier literary gathering, and a unique opportunity for writers from round the world to gather and exchange ideas. Universiti Sains Malaysia offers a wellregarded graduate programme in translation studies. And Penang itself has an aspiration to rebrand itself as a cultural hub, a dynamic environment conducive to creativity.

None of these ambitions will be easy to sustain. A censorious and increasingly intolerant politics of culture is evident in everyday discourse, perhaps worse than ever. Reading habits are changing, less sustained, though the death of fiction has been grossly exaggerated. Sustaining publishing in the long term is a tough business. The regard for language itself is also shifting, becoming more instrumental, less vital, less loved. And writers, especially young writers, will have to abstain from navel-gazing and cast an outward glance onto a world worthy and in need of intelligent, sensitive and engaged writing. Writing that people want to read, in any language.

Further Reading

  • Harper, T.N., The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Leow, Rachel, ‘Being modern in Penang: Muhammad bin Hanif and the Penang story’, paper at the Penang and the Indian Ocean Conference, Penang, 16–18 September 2011.
  • Leow, Rachel, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Leow, Rachel, ‘What colonial legacy? The Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (House of Language) and Malaysia’s cultural decolonisation’, in Ruth Craggs and Claire Wintle, eds, Cultures of Decolonisation: Transnational Productions and Practices, 194 –70, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016.
  • Sakina Sahuri Suffian Sahuri and Fauziah Taib, ‘The role of translation in education in Malaysia’, in Asmah Haji Omar, ed., Languages in the Malaysian Education System, London: Routledge, 2016.


Gareth Richards is a writer, editor and bookseller.



Mohd Izzuddin Ramli is a research analyst at Penang Institute. He graduated from Universiti Sains Malaysia in Political Science and Anthropology. His research interests include culture, local politics and subaltern studies. He writes occasionally for The Malay Mail.



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