Penman No. 67: Found in Translation (2)

IMG_2078Penman for Monday, Oct. 7, 2013

AS YOU read this, I should just be returning from Bangkok from another conference of writers and translators, and I’ll be reporting on that encounter next week.

But before anything else—and given this context of world literature in which I’ve been immersed for the past two weeks—let me voice my concern over a development I’d heard about in my absence pertaining to some contemplated changes in our high school curriculum. With our educational system shifting to the K-12 scheme—which I’m in favor of, just to be clear about that—our teachers and school administrators have had to review the curriculum to adjust it to the opportunities presented by the extra class time.

The plan being prepared by the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education was for high school seniors to have two semesters of literature—regional and world literature, meaning, literature by Filipinos outside of Manila and literature written by everybody else. Those of us who teach literature in college were elated to hear about this, because we see how valuable literature is to exposing young Filipino minds to the dynamic realities and challenges of the world around them—beginning with us as still a nation-in-progress, which regional literature helps to build, and with our growing engagement with Southeast Asia and the rest of the planet, which world literature makes sense of and amplifies.

Comes now the news that the DepEd has decided to compress these two semesters into one and to treat both regional and world literature as one subject, which doesn’t make sense for the teachers of these subjects and disperses the intended focus of our concerns in these areas. Makes me wonder what we added those extra semesters for, and, worse, if literature is going to continue to be treated as a disposable frill without any real bearing on national development. Have any of our government officials figured out by now that part of the reason we have a “Zamboanga hostage crisis” or a “Mindanao problem” is that we’ve never really introduced and explained ourselves to ourselves—which is what art and literature do for a people? Let’s hope that the DepEd rethinks its position on this matter, before it’s too late and before we fall farther behind our Asean neighbors in using culture as a foundation for nationbuilding.


AND NOW back to Jakarta, where I spent a few days with a large group of very enthusiastic and talented translators-in-training and with experienced translators and language specialists from as far away as the UK and Norway. As Kate Griffin of the British Centre for Literary Translation put it, the Jakarta workshops were something of a “translation boot camp,” a quick and memorable immersion for the participants into the unique challenges and wonders of translation as a bridge between cultures. (The BCLT promotes the translation of foreign authors into English, in support of what it calls “bibliodiversity,” the opening of minds and hearts through a richer and more accessible fare of reading material.)

As I reported last week, the experience of having parts of my second novel Soledad’s Sister translated into Bahasa Indonesia (where it reads as “Saudara Perambuan Soledad”) reminded me of other fruitful encounters I’d had with my previous translators: Clara Nubile, who translated Soledad into Italian for Isbn Edizioni, Marta Alcaraz, who translated Killing Time in a Warm Place into Spanish for Libros del Asteroide, and Jean-Pierre Aoustin, who translated Soledad into French for Mercure de France. I’d had lively discussions with all of them, especially Jean-Pierre who turned out to be an old Manila hand and who met with me on a recent vacation here.

I think it was Salman Rushdie who once said that “the most interesting parts of a language are the untranslatable ones.” Be that as it may, translators have to do their best to come closest to an author’s original intentions, knowing that it is an impossible and fruitless task to strive for 100% fidelity and accuracy, but creating a space for negotiation and understanding between cultures in the middle of the two languages, the source and the target.

Clara, I recall, asked me to describe what kind of a criminal operation a bukas-kotse gang was. Marta had a load of questions about juego de prenda, the tuta in “Marcos Hitler diktador tuta!”, and why I had chosen to call the ruling party under martial law the “PNR, or the Party of the Newly Risen”; I explained to her that the actual martial-law government party was called the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, or Movement for a New Society. I used PNR as something of a private joke, as the initials also stand for Philippine National Railways (a reference to how everything was railroaded under martial law) and for the Filipino phrase “puwede na rin,” or “it will do” (a reference to mediocrity). Jean-Pierre wondered about my use of “laundry on the clothesline” and if it had any cultural resonances; I told him that we Pinoys still hang our clothes out to dry, and that you can half-expect to find your favorite jeans and shirts gone from where you left them if you don’t watch out.

In other words—literally, I guess—translation involves much more than figuring out equivalents for individual words and phrases; the translator keeps looking for similar, familiar experiences in the target culture to convey a working sense of the author’s meaning.

In Jakarta, my group and I—with the Bali-based translator and art critic Arif Prasetyo facilitating—went over words and phrases that the Indonesians had flagged. Why did I use “cloud-curtained” to describe a rainy evening instead of just “rainy”? (Because it was the novel’s opening scene and I wanted a touch of the theatrical.) Why did I say “a million gas stoves roared to life”? (Because I wanted both the sound and the image of the gas fires coming awake, mirroring the headlights of motorists and even the flowers in the plane’s cargo hold.) When I wrote that the sudden downpour “blurred glasses and windows,” did I mean “eyeglasses”? (Yes, to set up a motif having to do with seeing and perception.) We had fun with the word duhat, which I’d kept in the Filipino original, not knowing its English equivalent; some Googling with images established that, in Bahasa, it was the local jamblang, also known as the duwet or the black plum (but if I’d used “black plum” in my novel, not a single Pinoy would have known what I meant).

Just as interestingly, my translators found a couple of mistakes in my novel, which I acknowledged with equal amounts of embarrassment and gratitude. One was a small typo, the other a major boo-boo: I’d said that the flight from Jeddah to Bangkok had “stretched the daylight with it,” but an alert member of the team who had actually been to Jeddah (I never had) noted that it worked the other way around, that one flew more quickly into the darkness. I promised to correct this in the next edition.

And so my adventure with the translators went, full of surprises and revelations. I learned much from listening to Kate Griffin talk about how, in the UK, interest in translation has been drummed up through popular word games, and how the BCLT (which is based at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, where I began Soledad’s Sister as a David TK Wong Fellow in 1999) combines teaching, research and expertise with an ambitious outreach program. Eric Abrahamsen, an American who has been based in Beijing for the past 12 years, spoke about how he helped form Paper Republic to band translators of Chinese together to professionalize their trade.

John McGlynn, an American translator who works with the Lontar Foundation which translates and publishes Indonesian writing into English, brought up the painfully obvious point: translators don’t get paid enough for their work. Ideally, he suggested, translators should get at least $20 (or, to us, P1,000) per page, given that the US State Department paid professional translators like him $30 per page for contracted work. In reality, however, Indonesian translators got a tiny fraction of that suggested amount. “Factor in the cost of printing and distribution, plus royalties for the author, and you really have very little left for the translator,” said John.

Indeed, translators around the world have a long way to go to attain the same respect and consideration given to the authors whom they lend their voices to, but like the writers themselves, they have no choice but to persevere, the unacceptable alternative being silence and ignorance.

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)

Flotsam & Jetsam No. 28: Traveling Companions

AM DOWN in Jakarta for a conference this week and brought two workhorse pens with me for signing books: my ever-reliable 1993 MB Agatha Christie and a 1928 Parker Duofold Senior, the classic “Big Red.”

I originally bought the Big Red for resale, but decided to keep it when I saw how clean it was. Look how sharp the milling is on the black hard rubber part of the cap: