Conversations and Explorations: Pauline Fan an Exciting Time for Malaysian Literature

By Gareth Richards
Penang Monthly
January 2017

Translation matters. It always has, but perhaps now more than ever. It is a paradox that globalisation offers the technological means of communication and conversation across borders, and yet politics (including the culture wars) seems to be driven by small-mindedness, xenophobia and enmity. It is these “moments in time when the world is changing” that “bring out the best and the worst in people,” as Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng puts it. If literature possesses an emancipatory potential – if it can open up spaces for critical thinking and be a flame in the darkness – then the act of translating fiction and poetry surely lies somewhere near its centre.

The recent edition of the George Town Literary Festival offered a clear focus on the potential of literary translation. In general terms, the thematic core of the festival – captured by the Welsh word hiraeth, the longing for a homeland that is no longer there – necessarily explored the ways in which literatures travel, across time and space. In addition, there were also dedicated panels that discussed the subtle arts of reading, reimagining and translating foreign fiction and poetry across many different languages. One thing was made clear: no one will ever read an author’s work as closely as her translator does.

We caught up with a number of respected literary translators at the festival to reflect on the process, products and prospects for this work in Malaysia and beyond. Here we feature the KL-based poet Pauline Fan, who is also co-editor of NARATIF | Kisah, a bilingual literary journal that features work by both Malaysian and international authors. For her, translation is a “confluence” of literary traditions where important connections are made. And this work is nested within an ongoing moment of “encounter, engagement and critical contemplation”.

Tell me about your childhood and youth, and how books and reading played a part in your early life. Did you want to become a writer when you were young?

I grew up surrounded by books. Most of the gifts my parents gave me and my sister when we were children were books, and these opened doorways in our imagination that could never again be closed. Both my parents had a vast collection of books, but it was in my father’s library that I fell in love with literature, particularly the modernists. As an adolescent, it was the most exciting thing in the world for me to stand in the dim corners of his study, discovering the works of George Orwell, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka … The books I found there that left the deepest impression on me at the time were Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, The Outsider by Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.

My father [Fan Yew Teng] was a writer, an outspoken and well-read commentator on politics and society, as well as a firebrand politician and a human rights activist. He spent hours on end at his old typewriter and I loved to sit by his room, listening to the incessant clicking of the keys and the sharp ring of the margin bell. So, in a sense, I lived in a writer’s world from a young age, and the thought of being a writer was something both intriguing and natural to me.

How did you get into writing and what was/is the writing process like?

I discovered that I enjoyed writing around the age of 16. I was already reading voraciously, and had begun scribbling juvenile lines of poetry in notebooks (none of which had any literary worth, of course, but which were necessary conduits for the solitude, disquiet and awkwardness of adolescence). After nine years in the local Malaysian school system, I spent three months at an international boarding school in Singapore. I mostly hated it, except for the literature class, which was taught by a wonderful man by the name of Mr Cox.

This is where I wrote my first real essay on literature – on George Orwell’s 1984 – for which Mr Cox gave me top marks in the class, much to my surprise. He also found me, one afternoon, scribbling in my notebook and somehow convinced me to let him read it. He recognised something in me, it seems, and I am grateful to this day for his kindness and encouragement.

I ended up doing my first degree at the Gallatin School for Individualised Study at New York University, eventually focusing on history, literature, philosophy and art history of East Asia. This was an important time to hone my writing skills, to read as much as possible and to engage in meaningful discussions, both within and without the university walls. It was a time of intellectual awakening for me.

After returning to Malaysia, I soon started writing book reviews for a Malay-language magazine, Siasah, that was published by Khalid Jaafar and edited by Al-Mustaqeem Mahmod Radhi. The magazine only lasted a few years in print, but was an important platform for a discussion of culture and politics among young Malay intellectuals. That was my first regular writing engagement. I welcomed the challenge of writing in Malay, a language with which I was comfortable but had, up till then, never written in besides the dreaded “karangan” for school. I remember my first book review for Siasah was on Elsa Morante’s magnificent History: A Novel. I loved the sense that I was discovering the Malay language anew (for myself) as I wrote, and that my writing would perhaps lead to the discovery of unfamiliar literary landscapes (for others).

While I write primarily in English, I still write occasional essays for my column in the Malay edition of Malaysiakini. I love writing in, and translating into, Malay. It is by nature a lyrical and sensual language, and expresses the intertwining of human beings and the natural world in ways that English simply cannot.

What was your original stimulus for engaging seriously with translation work?

I began seriously translating literature soon after I returned to Malaysia after completing my first degree at NYU. While deeply immersed in studying East Asian literature of the early twentieth century, I was particularly struck by the writers and intellectuals of the May Fourth Movement in China, such as Lu Xun and Xu Zhimo, as well as the early modernist writers of Japan such as Natsume Sōseki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Many of the May Fourth intellectuals translated works from European languages to introduce new ideas and literary forms into the Chinese language.

I also learnt something about the intricacies of literary translation from the scholars I had studied with at NYU, especially the eminent Moss Roberts, who had translated the definitive version of the historical novel Three Kingdoms and Laozi’s Dao De Jing: The Book of the Way, and Rebecca Karl, who at the time was translating the writings of the reformist thinker Liang Qichao. Upon my return to Malaysia, I became involved with a community of young writers and intellectuals who were actively discussing society, politics and literature. We encouraged each other to translate works from the world’s languages into Malay, with the aim of introducing Malay-language readers to world literature while opening up the Malay language to its own possibilities.

Could you tell me something about the process of choosing both who and what to translate? What kind of work do you deal with? And perhaps you could say a bit about the importance of literary forums that promote translation?

I can only translate writers with whom I connect. Otherwise the language does not flow and ends up feeling forced or affected. This is especially true in the translation of poetry. So it is only natural that I choose to translate works that speak to me on a deep level. I have translated poems from English to Malay and vice versa, for example poems by W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound and Louise Bogan. I have also translated German literature into Malay, including poems by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Celan, and prose by Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke, as well as into English, including poems by Georg Trakl, Else Lasker-Schüler and, currently, Joachim Sartorius. Some of my translations have been commissioned and published by Institut Kajian Dasar, including one my first translations into Malay – Immanuel Kant’s seminal essay “Was ist Aufklärung?” (Apa itu pencerahan?). I am also the Malaysian curator for Lyrikline, a Berlin-based international poetry archive and network which encourages translations of their featured poets into other languages. They do not feature amateur translations, only those that are published or authorised by the poets. Efforts such as these are an excellent resource for those who wish to discover translations of contemporary poetry.

What were the motivations for producing the journal and where might your ambitions for it lead?

NARATIF | Kisah is a new bilingual literary journal that features established and emerging literary voices from Malaysia and South-East Asia to explore the idea of the narrative – through reimaginings, retellings, experimentations with form and genre, as well as through literary translation and visual narratives. It also offers a platform for the confluence of oral traditions and written expression, something we come across too rarely in our region. I am the creative director of the cultural organisation PUSAKA, which works to support the continuity and viability of the arts. All of PUSAKA’s work is urged by the desire to rediscover ourselves through processes of encounter, engagement and critical contemplation. Both the journal and translation work in particular are embedded in that ethos.

For this inaugural issue of the journal, we invited some distinguished guest writers and also put out an open call for submissions, in English and Malay. We received an overwhelming response to the open call – more than 200 submissions, from which we eventually selected around 50. Although we actively sought submissions in Chinese and Tamil as well, we received only a handful in Chinese and none at all in Tamil. We will certainly look to featuring these languages in future issues.

Though it’s relatively new what has been the reception for Naratif | Kisah? Where do you envisage it going in the next issues?

The reception for Naratif | Kisah has been overwhelmingly positive and affirming. More than half the 2,000 printed copies have been taken, and many people have told us that they are impressed by the quality and variety of material. Readers appreciate the fact that the journal is bilingual, and that we are encouraging of work that challenges conventional notions of form and content. Our next issues will likely be shaped around a theme. We hope to feature more writers and artists from South-East Asia, both invited guest contributors and through open calls for submissions. We also hope to feature more archival material, particularly contemporary writers engaging with or reflecting on work from the past.

What are the main challenges you face in pursuing literary translation?

The main challenge I grapple with as a literary translator is finding the time to work for extended periods, without interruption, on a text. Our days are filled with too much noise. Most of my translation work (and writing, for that matter) is done after midnight, for the simple reason that I can hear myself think and can listen to the voice and rhythms of the text I am engaging with. I think there is an audience for literary translation in Malaysia, especially among young Malays who are hungry to devour literature these days. One hopes that this hunger and enthusiasm for literature will encourage writers to engage seriously with literary translation. It takes patience, discipline and hours of close reading. The best literary translators are often writers and poets themselves, because translation requires a certain sensibility and an (almost musical) instinct for phrasing. This is even truer of poetry. Anyone can translate word for word. It takes something more to breathe life into a poem in another language.

What is the prospect for the future, both in terms of your own work in literature but also the wider canvas of Malaysian and South-East Asian letters?

I am working seriously on the translations of two German-language poets. One is Paul Celan; my Malay translations of his poems will be published in 2017. The other is Joachim Sartorius, whose poems I am translating into English as well as Malay. I have written essays over the years and would like to do more of this; the essay is one of my favourite literary genres. I feel the urge to write prose that hovers between essay, fiction and memoir. Some of the writers I love best – Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Clarice Lispector, Raduan Nassar – defy easy categorisations of genre. I write poetry (very slowly) but am reluctant to publish anything yet; it is the literary genre I am most deeply connected to and, therefore, tend to be more self-critical when it comes to poetry.

Overall, I feel it’s an exciting time for Malaysian literature – there is a burgeoning of interest in literature and much energy to be tapped. In many ways, Malaysia is a fragmented society and this is reflected in the divergent development of literature in our various languages. There’s nothing wrong with divergence and diversity, it’s something to be celebrated, but it’s a shame that these linguistic-literary communities are so insulated from each other. Now is the perfect time to begin engaging in deeper conversations and explorations of the literatures of our own country, as well as of our region. We hope NARATIF | Kisah will contribute significantly to this process.

Copies of NARATIF | Kisah are available from PUSAKA. Please email [email protected]

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