Myanmar literature lost in translation
May 16 - 22, 2011
Author Nu Nu Yi at home with a copy of the English translation of her book Smile As They Bow. Pic: Yadana Htun
WHEN well-known writer Nu Nu Yi visited Blackwell’s Books in Oxford, England, in 1998, she searched for the section where English-language translations of Myanmar authors might be kept.
Aside from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma, there was no trace of Myanmar literature amid stacks of translated works by Thai writers. Nu Nu Yi said that as she stood in the bookstore, her eyes filled with tears over the realisation that there was no international audience for authors from her home country.
“I returned to England in 2010 and visited Blackwell’s again because I wanted to find a copy of my novel, which by then had been translated into English,” Nu Nu Yi said.
She was referring to her novel Smile As They Bow, which had been published in English translation in 2008 by New York-based Hyperion publishing company.
But Nu Nu Yi said that after a long search in the bookstore, she was sadly unable to find a copy of the book. So she approached the information desk to ask for help.
“The woman behind the counter typed the title Smile As They Bow into her computer. I waited excitedly for a few minutes, and then she said she had found a copy and I would get it soon,” Nu Nu Yi said.
“At that moment, my friend who had come along to the bookstore told the woman behind the counter that I was the one who had written the book. The woman was surprised and dumbfounded. She shook my hand and asked for my autograph,” she said.
“Myanmar literary works are, without a doubt, very fine,” she said, “but only a meagre number are translated into other languages, due to the lack of good translators, market demand and local support.”
Nu Nu Yi said there was a need for translators who will “keep the translation as faithful as possible to the original novel without spoiling the theme, words and hallmark of the characters contained in the novels”.
“Translators must be able to make the readers feel sentiments such as love, sympathy and pleasure the way the author intended in the original work. It must be done in an artistic way, not just a literal translation.”
Smile As They Bow was translated by American scholar Alfred Birnbaum and his Myanmar wife Thi Thi Aye.
“I couldn’t pick up all the nuances or slang or implications of the text,” Mr Birnbaum told The Myanmar Times in an email interview.
“My wife doesn’t really write much English, so she would read the text for basic meaning and write down a simple sentence in English, which I would write up into a more literary style.”
Mr Birnbaum, who has also been a translator of Japanese contemporary literature for more than 30 years, said editors in the United States were no longer “keen” on Japanese writers. Hyperion, like most publishers, were looking for a “new discovery”.
In 2004 Mr Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye translated a sample chapter of another novel by Nu Nu Yi titled Emerald Block Kamayut, but Hyperion was not interested in publishing it. The following year the couple submitted a chapter from Smile As They Bow, and this time they got the green light to go ahead with the project.
“As with many Asian languages, Myanmar leaves many things implied. Even the title, literally ‘Smiling While Bowing’, needed puzzling and interpretation,” said Mr Birnbaum.
“For Thi Thi Aye, [the challenge was] trying to convey all the emotions, slang, swear words into something like English. For me, as always, [it was] giving each character a distinct voice without making the whole seem too overwrought or forced.”
Writer Ma Thanegi said a lack of good translators was the main obstacle to getting an international audience for Myanmar literature. She pointed out that only a handful of short stories have been translated into English, Russian, German and Japanese by foreign scholars studying Myanmar language.
“A translator must also have some talent as a writer, which cannot be taught. It’s not enough to be fluent in a foreign language and know the slang, idioms and nuances,” Ma Thanegi said.
She said another challenge was dealing with the jokes and puns that pepper Myanmar speech and literature, which she claimed were “impossible” to translate into English.
She added that it was also difficult to translate Myanmar idioms into other languages.
Nu Nu Yi said she has been an avid reader of novels translated from English to Myanmar, especially in the 1980s when the original English works were difficult to find.
“There were many veteran translators but only a few had creative talent. I used to compare the same novel rendered by two different people, and I realised that translators must possess the ability to make the readers click and get the feeling of the original novel,” she said.
Another deterrent to creating foreign-language translations of Myanmar works is the lack of international name-recognition for local authors.
“Publishers outside of universities do not like publishing translated works because, unless the original book is already a world-famous bestseller, it won’t sell. International publishing is very much about profits,” Ma Thanegi said.
“There is no bestselling author from Myanmar in the world,” Nu Nu Yi said. “We are complete strangers outside the country, and publishers will take into account the potential profits.”
She said writers also suffer from the lack of a support system for translating books into other languages.
“A team has to be formed to select novels to be rendered into English. Our country has great translators who write in a literary style, but they need help contacting publishing companies overseas after they finish the translations. The writers alone cannot do it all,” she said.
Nu Nu Yi added that international literary competitions were another way for Myanmar authors to receive worldwide attention. One year before the English-language edition of Smile As They Bow was published, it was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize.
“I think novels that depict a country’s culture and society, and the communities’ way of life, should be the ones that are translated,” she said.
Ma Thanegi suggested that the best approach would be to first publish the translations at home, then find international distributors.
“But for international distribution we need to get ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers). There was a lot of talk last year about ISBNs but things seem to have slowed down again,” she said.
Nu Nu Yi recounted a story that revealed the low regard among international readers with which Myanmar literature has been held, and is likely to continue to be held until good translations become available in other countries.
“In 2000 I attended the International Writing Program in Iowa in the US, and at the time no translations of my work had been published,” she said.
“Almost all the writers from around the world brought copies of their novels published in translation and read from them. When it was my turn, I took out a stack of papers on which two or three of my short stories had been roughly translated.
“When one of the writers from another country saw my pile of papers, he asked if my stories had ever been published outside of Myanmar. When I said no, he remarked that my writing must not be up to international standards. It hurt me a lot.”