The Word and the World (Part One)
The emergence of a flourishing 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 is well positioned at the forefront of a new wave of literary creativity.
Transmitting Culture through Translation
Translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world. Their products are widely enjoyed and consumed but their names are, perhaps for obvious reasons, less renowned than those of writers. And yet literary translators help write the world’s books for new readers. They do not just craft changes from one language to another – though this in itself requires great skill and sensitivity. Rather, they bridge cultures from different parts of the world. They are the transmitters of thoughts and ideas that connect and move human civilisations. And for that alone their work should be recognised and celebrated.
Located where the monsoons meet, the Malay peninsula has long been at the heart of global history and long-distance connectivities. Initially the peninsula was a meeting point for seamen and sojourners, troops and traders, migrants and magnates, arriving (and departing) from the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. By the beginning of the sixteenth century European states and their armed chartered companies were also expanding into Asian waters. The peninsula and the wider archipelago became a crucial arena for competition and, sometimes, cooperation.
This was the world in which modern Penang was born. It is arguable that the port cities of South-East Asia were as plural as any on earth at that time, and more so than most. It is well known that Penang’s early development was driven by trade (in spices, opium, textiles, tea and tin) and imperial competition. But the island also quickly established itself as a regional cultural centre. As the historian Sunil Amrith puts it: “A rich exchange of ideas and language was the result of transient encounters or cross-cultural relationships.” And the word – spoken, in manuscripts and printed – played a vital role in absorbing a wide range of cultural influences, acquiring new languages and spreading novel ideas. Above all, “command of language” was crucial for the consolidation of new communities and identities.
An Emporium of Languages: Devotion and Commerce
In fact Asian translation traditions were already established long before the various East India companies gained footholds and fortresses on South-East Asia’s littorals. After all, translation was vital in this world of strangers. Countless translations left their traces in one way or another, from the outside but equally importantly within the region itself. As the lingua franca of much of the archipelago, the role of translations from and into the Malay language can be best illustrated in two complementary ways. On the one hand, translations of Arabic texts, including the Quran, helped disseminate
Islam through the region and Malay became the mediating language of devotion. Equally importantly, key religious works, royal genealogies and semi-historical epics originally written in Malay criss-crossed the archipelago and influenced other languages with a long writing tradition of their own, such as Javanese and Sundanese.
In analogous ways, European travellers observed of the Tamil Muslims that “the Chulyars are a People that range into all Kingdoms and Countreys in Asia.” As a result, they “doe learne to write and Speake Severall of the Eastern languages.” Similarly, Chinese merchants had been trading down to South-East Asia for centuries, sojourning – and sometimes settling – during the course of their voyages. In contrast to some other languages, however, it is striking that very little Chinese written culture was introduced to the region. The Qing government had forbidden its subjects to teach Chinese to foreigners. As Lucille Chia notes, “Indeed, of the myriad commodities carried by Chinese junks in the Nanyang trade, books may have been the one item that was largely missing.” This would change with the large-scale arrivals of immigrants in South-East Asia in the nineteenth century when, as we shall see, a major local publishing and translation practice did emerge.
After Bowrey’s pioneering work, it was not until the early nineteenth century that British studies of Malay developed in earnest, through the efforts of colonial scholar-administrators. This endeavour had a direct connection with Penang through the efforts of Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd, who both worked for the East India Company and
The Print Revolution
If the early efforts at translation belonged largely to Asian oral and manuscript traditions, and printing in Europe, colonialism helped create print centres in South-East Asia itself. Batavia ( Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies was the first. But given what Rachel Leow calls “the unusual linguistic diversity to be found in Penang,” it is not surprising that the first print centre on the peninsula emerged there, more or less at the same time as in Malacca. Early pioneers systematically experimented with various printing technologies – xylography, lithography and letterpress – and acquired roman, Arabic and Siamese fonts as they geared up for ambitious publishing projects.
From these modest beginnings, the print revolution – and the attendant explosion of translated works – took hold through the course of the next century and beyond. Printed materials were produced in every conceivable form: books of all kinds, religious tracts, reference works, pamphlets, periodicals, reports and newspapers. Printing technologies also had a direct impact on language itself. Malay was printed in both the modified Arabic script, Jawi, as well as romanised script, Rumi, and the medium encouraged the move towards the standardisation of orthographies. Similarly, printing technologies had a longterm impact on Chinese typography – a process that persists today with the variety and refinement of Chinese character systems in use.
Two Exemplars of Early Literary Translation
A rapid flowering of the publishing industry took place as a result of the print revolution. Ian Proudfoot distinguishes three streams of print publishing in Penang and the other Straits Settlements for the century or so beginning in 1820. These are the European presses, Straits-born Chinese (Peranakan or Baba) publishers and Muslim publishers. One characteristic feature of printed material that was produced and circulated in abundance in Penang and elsewhere was the sheer variety of genres and subject matter, including both fiction and poetry. And much of this material appeared in translation. This is best demonstrated in two fascinating exemplars of this eclectic publishing world: the development of literature in Malay by Chinese Peranakan, illustrated in the literary translations of Chan Kim Boon; and the work of the Muslim intelligentsia, led by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, who would be the harbingers of later nationalist struggles.
The emergence of a distinctive Peranakan translation tradition can be traced to the last decades of the nineteenth century, when a significant proportion of educated Chinese were reading romanised Malay. A very interesting figure among the early Peranakan translators was Chan Kim Boon (1851-1920), born into a merchant family in Penang and who went by the pen name Batu Gantong (Hanging Rock). He attended Penang Free School, where instruction was in English, and also had a good command of Malay and Chinese.
Though there were a few other notable translators during this period, such as Tan Beng Teck and Lim Hock Chee, there is little doubt that Chan Kim Boon became the dominant figure in the small Peranakan Malay publishing industry. Apart from Sam Kok, he also translated two other Chinese classics: Song Kang (Water Margin) and Kou Chey Tian (Journey to the West), and other texts that have unfortunately not survived. After his death, the translation of Chinese stories into Malay declined, due in part to the Peranakan community’s increasing preference for English-language books.
In exactly the same period of the late nineteenth century a vibrant Muslim press and publishing industry also flourished in Penang. It is more accurate to describe this maturation as Muslim rather than Malay, since many of the leading personalities in the publishing world had mixed ethnic backgrounds, including Jawi Peranakan with Indian
Even more significant was their role in circulating the ideology of Islamic modernism and reform that would lay the foundations for the later emergence of Malay nationalism. As Abu Talib Ahmad describes them, they were “forward-thinking” and became “crucial agents of change” in pre-war Malay society. Perhaps the leading carrier of the modernist message in the early decades of the twentieth century was the iconic figure Syed Sheikh al-Hadi (1867-1934), author, translator, educator, publisher and founder of the Jelutong Press. Born near Malacca, al-Hadi’s early life illustrates just how cosmopolitan the experiences of early Muslim reformers could be: he spent formative years in the literary centre of Penyengat, Riau, having access to a wide range of Arabic and Malay texts, books and newspapers in the royal library; he received a religious education in Terengganu; he travelled to Egypt and is reported to have met the leading reformist intellectuals Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, whose work he later translated; he was
in Singapore as an editor of the modernist journal Al-Iman and as a teacher in a madrasah; and moved to Johor Bahru where he worked as a religious lawyer for private clients. Al-Hadi was, in short, a true organic intellectual.
Detective fiction was one of the most popular genres with the early reading public. And the most famous crime stories were al-Hadi’s Rokambul series. He took on numerous episodes of the intrepid criminal-adventurer-detective hero, Rocambole, created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, most likely from Arabic translations rather than from their French originals. It has even been suggested that the portrayal of outsiders in detective fiction was an attempt to instil a culture of resistance in their readers, albeit on an imaginative level – a kind of “hidden transcript” as a critique of power. As an interesting aside, numerous Rocambole stories were also translated into Malay by Lie Kim Hock in Batavia and published in the early years of the twentieth century. It remains an open case whether al-Hadi – working some 20 years later – perhaps knew of Lie’s translations.
Communities of Imagination
As we have seen, all this activity was grounded in much older practices of literary production – in which the archipelago made extensive use of and was in turn shaped by Arabic, Indian, Chinese and European source texts of all kinds. These provided the materials for a sophisticated Asian translation tradition. Nonetheless, the impact of European colonialism – accompanied by modernising dynamics such as formal education and the print revolution – initiated a qualitatively new phase of literary production and translation strategies.
The print revolution was, of course, a necessary precondition for this flourishing. But more important than the technology itself was the profound impact that print had for moulding people of disparate linguistic traditions into “deep horizontal comradeship” and communities of imagination, as Benedict Anderson memorably puts it. In the period leading up to the Second World War, translated work – both fiction and non-fiction – found a new readership in the rapidly changing world of Penang and the Malay peninsula. It represented a process of acquisition, incorporation and adaptation – one that would help form the post-war cultural milieu.
Abu Talib Ahmad, Museums, History and Culture in Malaysia, Singapore: NUS Press, 2015.
Amrith, Sunil S., Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gallop, Annabel Teh, Early Malay Printing: An Introduction to the British Library Collection, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1990.
Hooker, Virginia Matheson, Writing a New Society: Social Change through the Novel in Malay, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.
Jedamski, Doris, ‘Translation in the Malay world’, in Eva Hung and Judy Wakabayashi, eds, Asian Translation Traditions, London: Routledge, 2014.
Leow, Rachel, Taming Babel: Language in the Making of Malaysia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Proudfoot, Ian, Early Malay Printed Books, Kuala Lumpur: Academy of Malay Studies and the Library, University of Malaya, 1993.
Roff, William, ‘The mystery of the first Malay novel (and who was Rokambul?)’, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, vol. 130, no. 4, 1974.
Salmon, Claudine, ‘Writings in romanised Malay by the Chinese of Malaya – a preliminary inquiry’, in Claudine Salmon, ed., Literary Migrations: Traditional Chinese Fiction in Asia (17th–20th Centuries), Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2013.
Tagliacozzo, Eric and Wen-Chin Chang, eds, Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
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.