In Other Words
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Thursday, May 30, 2024


In Other Words


Photo: The Irrawaddy

Publishers and writers debate how to resurrect Burma’s great translation tradition

Although the days are long gone when Burma’s publishers could produce such politically charged works as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in the Burmese language, the country’s literati still dream of establishing a truly independent and effective translation society.

Orwell and other Western authors were translated into Burmese when the country had an active Translation Society, founded in 1947 by the country’s first prime minister, U Nu, who also worked as a translator for a time at Rangoon’s Judson College.

The Translation Society was renamed Sarpay Beikhman—“Building Great Literature”—in 1963, one year after the coup that brought Ne Win to power. But it has never lived up to its grandiose title.

Although Sarpay Beikhman hands out annual awards, few translators are honored. No translation prize at all was awarded in 2008.

Some complained that the Sarpay Beikhman society was also to blame because its awards favored government policies and practices.

Financial restraints as well as regime interference and censorship are blamed by writers for the decline of translation work in Burma’s publishing houses.

“I can’t publish some heavy classic works in translation because of the investment involved,” said Shwe Kyaw, owner of the Seikku Cho Cho publishing house.

An employee of the Mone Ywaee publishing house also said translations were often too expensive to contemplate. “Currently, we have no plans to publish any classic books in translation.”

It’s a far cry from the golden days of Burmese publishing, when determined efforts were made to introduce Burmese readers to Western classics.

The first venture into these new waters was made in 1904 by James Hla Kyaw, who adapted part of the Alexandre Dumas novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” in a Burmese translation titled “Maung Yin Maung Ma Me Ma.”

The appearance of James Hla Kyaw’s ground-breaking translation led others to realize that exposure to world literature, particularly books of the West, would greatly assist efforts to modernize Burmese writing.

Translators such as Thakin Ba Taung, Shwe U Daung, Zaw Gyi, Mya Than Tint, Dagon Shwe Hmyar, Maung Htun Thu and Maung Moe Thu introduced Burmese readers to virtually the entire repertoire of Western and Russian writing.

Mya Than Tint won Burma’s National Literature Award five times for his translations of such major works as “War and Peace” and “Gone with the Wind.”

When the University of Rangoon was founded in 1920, some members of the academic staff—most notably J. S. Furnivall, founder of the Burma Education Extension Association—were determined to make foreign literature available to Burmese. Many new adaptations of foreign works into Burmese followed.

In 1910, Furnivall helped establish the Burma Research Society, going on to found the Burma Book Club in 1924 and the Burma Education Extension Association in 1928. A Burmese-English dictionary, which Furnivall compiled with C. W. Dunn, followed in 1940.

Furnivall encouraged young writers to venture into translation in his magazine Ganda Lawka (World of Books) magazine, which regularly published competitions intended to improve translating skills.

A young academic named U Thant—who later achieved fame as UN secretary-general—won a Ganda Lawka award for his translation of Robert Browning’s ode, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

Thakin Ba Thaung, a founder of Dobama Asiayone (“We Burmese Association”) won the Ganda Lawka prize five times and was also presented with the Prince of Wales award in 1929 for his translation of “Outlines of General History” by William Francis Collier.
Thakin Ba Thaung also translated works by Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Moliere, George Orwell, Upton Sinclair, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. All were snapped up by Burmese readers.

Even a busy politician, former Prime Minister U Nu remained an enthusiastic promoter of translated world literature. In 1937, he joined a group of Burmese politicians in founding the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club, modeled on publisher Victor Gollancz’s left-leaning Book Club in London. The Nagani club said its aim was to publish low-priced books in the Burmese language containing the essence of contemporary international literature, history, economics, politics and science.

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Burmese writer Wrote:
Sarpay Beikman is always transliterated as 'House or Palace of literature'in writings on Burmese literature and media. Beikman or Biman is originally meant as a grand place for devas.

Kyi May Kaung Wrote:
Was it Furnivall or Gordon H. Luce who set up the book club?

Yes, it's a pity junta has its foot on Everything.

This is in contrast to Thailand, or Finland, where I walked into bookstores and found thousands of books translated from English.

There's also the need for great Burmese writing to be translated into English.

Prof. Howard Goldblatt alone has translated so many masterpieces from the Chinese, such as Mo Yan's work and Red Poppy by the Tibetan writer Alai, writing in Mandarin.
Maureen Freeley has been wonderful with Orhan Pamuk's Snow etc., originally in Turkish.

Think of Pamuk's My Name is Red, how Burmese readers would love it. This was translated by Erdag Goknar.

Famous China scholar Arthur Waley was a friend of Luce and Furnivall.

You can't be free under the military boot and also in west it's a matter of economics too.

A young Burmese man I met overseas had never heard of Rushdie and thought he was a woman.

Kyi May Kaung.

Dr Maung Maung Nyo Wrote:
One of the reasons for lack of translated literature in Burma is the high cost of books, costing more than their daily meals. There was a flurry of translated works in the 1970s and 1980s. I was one of the selectors for the National Literary Prize from 1987 to 1997. But most translations then were pot boilers like those from Harold Robins and Chinese Kungfu books! Mya Than Tint was an exception and Saya Paragu has translated classic or good books of Hindi into Burmese like Ambapali, Buddha's Diary and Sihasenapati. But in the 1990s translation works decreased due to economic and political reasons. What we need now to increase the translated works both in quantity and quality is to raise the standard of living and education, to improve reading habits of the people, to increase the number of libraries in the country, to hold translation competition in high schools and universities, and to make foreign literature easily available in Burma. Developed countries encourage translation.

Burmese writer Wrote:
Both translation prizes on fiction and non-fiction genres were awarded for 2008. The guy who got the non-fiction translation award is a 25 year old young Sino-Burmese doctor called Taw Kaung Min with his translation of biography on the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, published by Thiha-yadana Sarpay of the late Journal-gyaw Ma Ma Lay.

Ko Shwe Kyaw is not the owner of the Seikku Cho Cho publishing house. It's Ko Sann Oo's.

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