Penman No. 275: Listening in Bali


Penman for Monday, October 30, 2017


The first time I saw Bali was 34 years ago. I was a much younger man, then only 29, an eager participant in a writers’ conference organized by F. Sionil Jose, in the company of other Filipinos who included, as far as I can remember, the late Rey Duque, Marjorie Evasco, Charlson Ong, and Fanny Llego. We spent a week in a villa on the steamy banks of Lake Batur, far away from the tourist traps of Denpasar and Ubud, which we would visit only at the very end of our trip.

It was my first time to attend an international gathering of writers, and I was deeply impressed by all the big names I met, aside from Manong Frankie himself—our host, the scholar S. Takdir Alisjabanah, among the pillars of Bahasa Indonesia; the Singaporean poet and professor Edwin Thumboo; the Malaysian poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra; and the Malaysian-American poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim. I can’t recall a thing I said in the impassioned discussions that took place; that first time, it was all about listening and imbibing the wisdom of the masters in an environment that could not have been more conducive to inspiration.


The lake was a caldera, which explained the hot springs simmering on its fringes, where we joined the unabashed Balinese in their early-morning ablutions; at night, we argued literature under the spell of the stars and the aptly named Bintang beer, to the faint accompaniment of a gamelan symphony. The one discordant note that I would later write about in a short story was an ill-advised sortie across the lake to a private graveyard, which the locals resented; but even that was a writerly touch, an almost obligatory twist to a near-perfect plot. And rightly so: back home, Ninoy and EDSA had yet to happen, and the country was seething in the darkness.

These memories swarmed through my senses last week when I returned to Bali for yet another literary conference, the tenth annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), the region’s largest and most active literary network. Hosted by the Ganesha University of Education in the city of Singaraja in the northern part of the island, the conference brought together about a hundred delegates from all over, but mostly from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the US, and, of course, the Philippines, which has always figured prominently in this organization (I sit on its Advisory Board). With me were UPICW Director Roland Tolentino, the essayist and playwright Luna Sicat-Cleto, the poet and translator Randy Bustamante, and my wife the art restorer Beng, an avid observer and fully paid member of APWT.


Even the most jaded of writers can’t be faulted for flying into Bali and expecting a bit of paradise, and the island and its people can still deliver on that promise in spades. The manicured rice terraces, the monkeys lining the road, the meticulously patterned garlands, the whiskery banyan trees, the uncountable temples and altars—and let’s not forget the scenically smoldering Mount Agung on the horizon—all suggest transport to another realm of blissful serenity. That illusion, of course, was broken fifteen years ago by catastrophic terror bombings that took more than 200 lives, and in the course of our three-day conference, testimonials by our Balinese friends themselves would reveal certain painful realities behind the festive façade.

“It’s very difficult to be a Balinese woman,” more than one of them said (I’m pooling their voices together, as in a chorus). “People expect you just to be a pretty flower. I have a PhD and I make more than my husband, but I still have to appear subordinate to him and to his wishes, and I have to serve him at home, making his coffee and serving his clothes. When I received a fellowship abroad, people congratulated my husband, instantly assuming that it was his achievement and not mine—and I had to smile and say nothing about it. You know why I write in English? Because my husband can’t read English, so English liberates me, allows me to express my true feelings.”


Another intriguing panel I attended took up “Nostalgia and the Asian City,” and the discussion dwelt on how cities like Hong Kong and Singapore had changed in the literary imagination. But, from the floor, I had to interject the Philippine experience and note how nostalgia in many other places like ours referred to a longing for an unspoiled rural Eden that no longer exists, an unrecoverable if not fact an imaginary past. Over lunch, I pursued the point: nostalgia is being used as a powerful political tool, such as in defense of a mythical “better time under martial law” to support a restoration of that regime.

I was assigned to a panel devoted to protest literature, and found myself grouped with three Australians who spoke on their respective struggles as immigrant, aborigine, and bohemian writers. I chose to speak about our history of protest literature and what a deadly business it was. So, our moderator asked in the end, what were we personally doing to upend the status quo? The status quo for me, I said, was darkness and despair, and it was winning out even in literature, so that there’s nothing easier to write these days than another sad and dismal story. Therefore, I would strive to write happy stories—stories with a believably, hard-won, happy ending—as my form of resistance. We have to fight for joy as much as justice; we have to keep fighting for happiness, hope, and beauty in this age of Trump and tokhang—what else were we persisting for?

As I said those words—which I had not expected to say, but had long been coming around to saying—I felt all of my 63 years, hoping perhaps that some young soul in that audience was truly listening.



Penman No. 66: Found in Translation (1)

Penman for Monday, Sept. 30, 2013

I HADN’T been back to Indonesia in 30 years—the last time being in 1983, when Manong Frankie Sionil Jose brought five fellow Filipino writers to an idyllic lakeshore in Bali to meet with other Asian writers—but last week, I flew in to Jakarta again, thanks to the Inisiatif Penerjamahan Sastra, the Initiative for the Improvement and Promotion of Literary Translation in Indonesia.

The event was the 2013 Literary Translation Workshops, sponsored by the IPS with the support of the program Creative Encounters: Cultural Partnerships between Asia and Europe, promoted by the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) and Arts Network Asia (ANA), in collaboration with Trans Europe Halles (TEH). Further support was provided by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, TransCon, the Lontar Foundation, Komunitas Salihara, Pusat Dokumentasi Sastra, Yayasan Reproduksi Cipta Indonesia, and our own Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of the Philippines.

I had been brought in by IPS’ Eliza Vitri Handayani in my capacity as a novelist—the author of Soledad’s Sister—whose work had been selected as a subject for the workshops’ translation exercises. Going beyond the usual practice of laboring in the dark on a foreign manuscript with just the help of one’s own knowledge of two languages, a dictionary, and the translator’s best understanding of the text, the IPS had brought in the authors of the chosen texts for a conversation with their translators, to clarify the authors’ intentions behind writing specific passages and to establish the best translations for them based on those intentions.

The translations went several ways: from Bahasa Indonesia to English (author Triyanto Trikwitromo, in a group led by literary translator Pamela Allen); from English to Bahasa Indonesia (me, led by Arif Bagus Prasetyo); Norwegian-English-Bahasa Indonesia (Kari Fredrikke Braenne, led by Kari Dickson and Miagina Amal); and Chinese-Bahasa Indonesia and Chinese-English-Bahasa Indonesia (Su Cici, led by Eric Abrahamsen and Yusi Avianto Pareanom).

In choosing my novel for their English text—for which I, of course, felt deeply honored—the workshop organizers underscored the need for us Southeast Asians to restore and strengthen our cultural connections to one another, instead of always turning to the West for inspiration and affirmation. Indeed, as I told the dozen or so young Indonesian translators at my table, it was colonialism that broke us apart and led us down different historical paths; but now, ironically, it was a colonial language—English—that was bringing us back together as a bridge.

Also ironic for me was the fact that my novel was now being translated into Bahasa Indonesia (even if only for an exercise), after it had been translated into Italian and French, and released in a US edition. This, I heard, was a point made in last year’s workshop—how we Asians often have to be validated first in the West before being recognized in our own regions, let alone in our home countries. Sitting down with the Indonesians and listening to their concerns, I was reminded of the many exchanges of emails I’d had with my Italian, French, and Spanish (for Killing Time in a Warm Place) translators, and of what a difficult, precious, and yet little-appreciated skill literary translation is.

The emphasis now being put by the Indonesians on the development of good literary translators also called to mind our own budding efforts in this respect, and of how far behind we are in using translation to promote the best of our literature abroad and within our own shores. I suspect that, for one, we haven’t pushed for translation as hard as we should because many of us naturally assume that we don’t need translation, since we write in English and therefore have direct access to global publishing. But what about our treasure trove of literature in Filipino and other non-English languages? How many capable and willing translators do we have who will devote years of their time and talent to the resurrection and promotion of what could be classics of our literary heritage?

I’m thinking, for example, of the work put by Cecilia Locsin-Nava into her well-received translation of Ramon L. Muzones’ epic 1946 novel Margosatubig (Ateneo Press, 2012), hailed by National Artist Bien Lumbera as “a wonder-work of an English translation, literate and literary, a rare, readable English version of a regional literary treasure. It is a lucid, unornamented rendition of the original Yuhum novel that manages quite effectively to suggest the delicious sensation of following the development, chapter by chapter, of the serialized popular novel.” This was a novel so popular that it reportedly caused Yuhum’s weekly circulation to soar from 2,500 to 37,000 copies. Surely it deserves to be read beyond its original Hiligaynon audience? Thanks to Cecile Nava, this will now be possible.

As the Jakarta organizers reminded everyone, literary translators today have assumed an expanded role. Not only do they render works into another language; they also help promote these works and draw the attention of global publishers to the emergence of vibrant new writing from around the world. Indeed, how could we have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez without the intervention of Gregory Rabassa, or Pablo Neruda without W. S. Merwin, or Italo Calvino without William Weaver?

What kind of relationship do translators have with authors? Here’s part of what Weaver told the Paris Review about working with Calvino: “I had problems with Calvino because he thought he knew English. He would fall in love with English words. Every now and then he would fiddle with a sentence in his English. At one point he fell madly in love with the word feedback, and he didn’t realize that in America feedback is like closure or spinning out of control, something you hear constantly on television. It’s jargon and cliché, and you can’t use it anymore. The word is dead to literature, but to him it was new and fascinating. He thought it was fun and so he kept putting it into this story where it really didn’t belong, and I kept taking it out. Finally the last proofs came, and I took it out definitively. And I’m sorry to say he died before he had the book in his hands, so he never knew that I’d done this to him.”

Authors can be a handful enough, but translators face an even bigger problem beyond the text: getting due recognition and remuneration for their work. I’ll dwell on this—and on the questions I fielded from my Indonesian translators—next week.

(Illustration courtesy of the STAR’s Igan D’Bayan)