Of Heroes Unsung, and Mortals Undead

The George Town Literary Festival writes another enthralling chapter this year.

One of the most anticipated literary events in the region, the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) returns November 24-26 for its seventh edition, promising a stellar line-up of local and international luminaries and exciting new programmes.

First held in 2011, GTLF has gone from strength to strength under the expert guidance of festival director Bernice Chauly, and was this year shortlisted for the International Excellence Awards at the London Book Fair’s The Literary Festival award.

But programming a successful literary event is by no means a walk in the park. It requires a tried-and-true formula, one which Chauly swears by. “I believe hard work, meticulous planning and curating, a good selection of writers and poets, and an open audience are what enabled the festival to flourish,” she says.

“GTLF started with five writers and we had a lot less money then. But the direction has changed as we mature as a festival. This year I am pleased to include two curators who will assist me in the festival programming:

Gareth Richards and Pauline Fan, both excellent moderators, editors, writers and translators. The task of programming a festival of this scale is a feat in itself, and I am grateful that we are now able to include two other talented minds in the festival’s planning. We are also privileged to be working with the Penang Convention and Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) which has been tasked to be the official festival producer of GTLF from this year forth.

Bernice Chauly.

“The festival now has a lot more support from the international community of embassies, cultural organisations and art councils. It is respected throughout the world and we are grateful for the continued support from many of our partners. Last year, we had more than 60 writers, poets and performers; this year we will have just as many. This is a good size for us – any bigger and it will become less accessible to our audience. We need to keep it at a manageable size. The festival has always focused on world literature, and we intend to keep doing that, and to keep inviting some of the world’s most vibrant literary figures to the festival.”

This year, luminaries like David van Reybrouck (Belgium), Mei Fong (US/ Malaysia), Laksmi Patmunjak (Indonesia), Gerður Kristný (Iceland), Paul McVeigh (Northern Ireland), Kosal Khiev (Cambodia), Sonny Liew (Singapore), Ulrike Draesner (Germany), Caroline de Gruyter (Netherlands), Maung Day (Myanmar), as well as home-grown writers Zen Cho, Fahmi Mustaffa, Rahmat Haron, Latiff Mohidin, and many more will be invited to spark riveting conversations about the state of governments and world affairs under the theme “Monsters & (Im) Mortals”.

“Our themes have often resonated with the state of the world, and we task our writers with engaging the participants on many levels, provoking them to challenge the role of the writer and poet in society – which is now more crucial than ever.

“The festival celebrates free speech, so our writers are free to be as honest as they want to be. It takes a lot of creativity to push the boundaries of conversation, and I am happy to say that our conversations have become more and more critical and urgent.

“For Monsters & (Im)Mortals, we question what it means to be heroic, and what it means to fail – all while looking at some of the world’s most beloved myths, legends and cosmologies. Men are weak, but then, so were the gods. Zeus was known for his erotic escapades, as were many of the other Greek gods; we also look at the Norse gods – Odin, Thor and Freya – who sometimes walked with humans. We look at men and why men turn to evil, why they turn away from good. But the gods were immortal, and we are not. It’s the enduring tussle of good versus evil, the struggle with mortality and the legacies that are left behind.”

British philosopher and author A.C. Grayling delivered the opening lecture about the festival's theme 'Hiraeth' last year.

National Laureate A. Samad Said performed with his musician son, Az Samad during the 'Fathers and Sons' event at GTLF 2016.

Chauly also acknowledges the importance of cultivating a feminist space in literary events, and has confirmed that Voices, a platform celebrating women’s narratives, will be returning to the festival with the theme “Woman I Rise”. “The literary scene is always more challenging for women because we have so many roles to juggle and writing is often relegated to a lesser priority – unless it is your bread and butter,” she observes. “I write more and often now simply because my children are older. My novel took six years to write and the only reason I could do it is because I could go away to writing residencies and be away from my children for longer periods of time. It is very difficult and I empathise with women who are trying to write when dealing with full-time jobs and demanding domestic responsibilities. I mentor young female writers because it’s a difficult path to navigate and they are often the ones paving the way for new things to happen.”

During the three-day event, festival goers can expect thought-provoking panel discussions, a poetry marathon, book launches as well as a free public screening of the acclaimed Penang Hokkien film, You Mean the World to Me. The festival will also be partnering with the Fay Khoo Award, which was set up in tribute to the memory of author, publisher and radio host Fay Khoo, who lost her swift battle to cancer earlier this year. A Translators’ Roundtable, co-curated by Richards and Fan, will also be hosted to give more visibility to the role of translators in local literature, and to highlight the many issues they face today. “We try to be as diverse as possible with the line-up of activities, and we are confident that audiences will be even more spoiled for choices than ever,” says Chauly.

The Unsung Heroes of World Literature

“The art and craft of translation are not only undervalued,” says Richards. “But often misunderstood. Literary translators are the unseen messengers across literature’s thresholds, silently navigating the labyrinthine passages between structure and style, content and context, meaning and metaphor. They attend to the afterlife of texts, breathing new life into it by making it speak another language. Above all else, they strive to create something that is literary but not literal, identical and yet set apart.”

“Literary translators are alchemists of language, transforming the leaden mass of non-comprehension into the gold of art and understanding. But they are often overlooked,” adds Fan. “Some people even think they do not need to be named or acknowledged for their work. This attitude is linked to an assumption that translation is less important than writing. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Indeed, the Translators’ Roundtable will explore such issues – by means of panels, workshops and an in-conversation plenary session – through a reflection of the work of translators working in and across Malay, Mandarin, Vietnamese, English, French, Italian and German, and how they open up new worlds. The half-day event will feature a host of established and emerging literary translators such as Muhammad Haji Salleh (Malaysia) Lee Yew Leong (Singapore/Taiwan) Jérôme Bouchaud (France/Malaysia) and Minh Bui Jones (Vietnam/Australia), who is the publisher and editor of Mekong Review, which champions translation work in South-East Asia, in discussion about topics of translation and publishing, the task of the translator, the limits of language and the untranslatable.

“The major tension in all translation is between the poles of the ‘literary’ and the ‘literal’,” explains Richards, who has written lengthily about translation processes from cultural, historical and sociological standpoints. “In my view, good translation can never just be literal; the idea of faithfully ‘returning to the original’ is futile, most especially in languages that are – in grammar, syntax, sound and morphology – quite distant from one another. In any case, if we wish to ‘return to the original’, how do we do it? By learning a language and getting on with it? Then how much returning can we do? But even the so-called ‘literal’ translation encounters major obstacles: ambiguity, lexical gaps (this refers to the actual vocabulary) and situation (the cultural and historical context).

“Literary translation has to also deal with something beyond the precise meaning of individual words or phrases. For example, pace is crucial to an author’s tone and thus also the way that a reader will react to a whole range of revelations or actions. Style, rhythm and voice are all difficult to capture in translation – but then that’s precisely the challenge.

“The quality of a translator depends not merely on their understanding of the mechanics of a language, or on their facility as a writer of prose or as a poet, but also on their capacities as readers of texts, their sense of sub-text, of connotation and of allusion. The translator needs to understand and have a feel for the invisible textures that give a narrative or poem its density and, ultimately, shape its significance.”

Gareth Richards.

Pauline Fan.

On the subject of gains and losses in the translation process, Fan observes, “I prefer not to think of the process of translation in those terms. The act of translation itself is unequivocally valuable and necessary, to my mind. But like every creative process, there is the good, the bad and the mediocre in translation. As a literary translator, what is pertinent for me is not the existential question of ‘to translate or not to translate’, but rather the mystical quest of ‘how to translate the spirit of a text’.”

She however recognises the importance of a literary translator’s role as a medium for cultural interaction. “Literary translators move through the liminal spaces between two worlds, two languages and two cultures. Through encountering foreign works of literature, readers open themselves to new ideas, forms of knowledge and possibilities of expression. Such encounters enrich the creative wellsprings of the cultures in which they occur. As the literary scholar George Steiner once said, ‘Every language is a world. Without translation, we could be living in provinces bordering on silence.’

“If we look at history, translators have been at the heart of cultural interaction for millennia. We see this particularly in the spread of belief systems such as religion and philosophy. Buddhist teachings were first transcribed by monk-scholars into Sanskrit and Pali, then later translated into various local Indian languages. These Buddhist scriptures were translated into Chinese as early as the second century by Central Asian proselytisers such as An Shigao, a Parthian prince-turned-missionary, and Lokaksema, a monk from Gandhara who first translated Mahayana sutras into Chinese.

“The spread of Christianity has also been profoundly shaped by scholar-translators. St. Jerome’s translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin in the fourth century was instrumental in the development of ecclesiastical Church Latin. The Byzantine theologians St. Cyril and St. Methodius created the Glagolitic alphabet in the ninth century as the first script for Old Church Slavonic; their translations of major liturgies were vital in the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout the Slavic region. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible from Hebrew and ancient Greek into vernacular German was also a primary catalyst for the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century.

Written literary translation on our own soil, says Fan, stretches as far back as the Malacca Sultanate. “The Sejarah Melayu mentions the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah and Hikayat Amir Hamzah, both of which were probably translated from Persian or Arabic into Jawi-Malay script. This is not yet taking into account how oral traditions travelled across continents and were adapted into local cultures and literatures over centuries. A prime example of this is the ancient Indian epic of the Ramayana, which spread across mainland and maritime South-East Asia and exists in the Malay tradition as both the literary text of Hikayat Seri Rama and the oral tradition of Hikayat Maharaja Wana, which forms the core repertoire of the wayang kulit of Kelantan.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

Hardesh Singh.

“I think it’s significant that the Translators’ Roundtable is taking place in Penang, a place of cultural confluence that has been a hub for publishing and translation since the nineteenth century. I hope festival-goers relish this opportunity to delve into the wild and wondrous world of literary translation,” she says.

A Fringe Festival for the Senses

This year, GTLF will also be accompanied by a Fringe Festival, co-curated by the producers of the Cooler Lumpur Festival, Umapagan Ampikaipakan and Hardesh Singh. The Fringe will be held concurrently with GTLF.

“We love the festival. We’ve either attended or participated in the six previous GTLF editions so it feels quite special to be in the organising committee for a change,” says Umapagan. The general idea behind the Fringe, he explains, is to craft memorable experiences for festival goers that will be distinctly different from the festival proper. “While the GTLF caters to your intellectual needs, we are hoping that the Fringe events will cater to your emotional needs.”

The duo will be curating three events for the Fringe. “Over the last four years, at the Cooler Lumpur Festival, we’ve observed that our midnight ghost-story telling sessions are one of our more popular and well attended events. We know that Malaysians are suckers for a good ghost story and, with that in mind, we decided to do a variation on the idea: there will be a midnight ghost-story telling session; we will commission five original ghost stories by Penang writers: three in English, one in Malay and another in Hokkien. The stories will be set in and around George Town.

“The second event will be a late night heritage walk called George Town Nights. It’s a street tour of George Town by night – of secret haunts and unknown histories, as well as a few surprises along the way. We have a feeling it will be something quite different from the tours festival-goers have been on.

“Last but certainly not least is the event called These Streets Are Alive. We will commission Malaysian artists and doodlers to create a series of short one-page graphic stories based around the various pieces of graffiti and metal wire installations found in and around the streets of George Town,” he says. “These single page stories will be available digitally in the lead-up to the GTLF. There will also be a limited run of print editions available at the festival itself.”

Hold your breath folks, and don’t close your eyes to the monsters and immortals that traverse the books and stories we love.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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