Archive for June 2014

Speaking English in Malaysia

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.16.14 AMTranslationista has literally been around the world in the last two weeks, crossing Europe and Asia to reach Borneo, then returning by way of Tokyo for a complete circumaviation of the globe. The island of Borneo in Southeast Asia actually has (parts of) three different countries on it: Brunei, part of Indonesia, and half of Malaysia – where I spent eight and a half days in the Sarawak (sa-RA-wak) region, which contains the bustling city of Kuching as well as beaches, mountains and thousands of acres of rainforest. Malaysia’s other, Western half, on the Asian continent, is sandwiched between Thailand and Singapore; Borneo dwellers call it “peninsular Malaysia,” and hiply refer to its capital, Kuala Lumpur, as K.L. Among other things, K.L. is where you change planes on your way to and from Kuching.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.22.05 AMMalaysia is a multi-ethnic country, pieced together out of various groups: Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a panoply of local populations such as the Semang, Senoi and Proto-Malays (collectively referred to as Orang Asli or “original people”) on peninsular Malaysia; and the Iban, Penan, Melanau, Bidayuh, Orang Ulu (“upriver people”), and approximately 200 Dayak populations in various parts of Borneo. It’s a bewildering mix – at least to an outsider – that involves many different languages and religious practices. Peninsular Malaysia is dominated by the Muslim laws and values of the Malay population; in Borneo Malaysia, Christian and various local religions play more of a role. The country’s constitution apparently guarantees the freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring Islam the official state religion – engendering regular debates as to how these terms should be parsed. Recently, for example, a bunch of Bibles were seized for blasphemously translating “God” as “Allah” – just one skirmish in a longstanding battle over whether Malayan Christians have the right to speak of Allah in Christian contexts.

The official language of Borneo is Bahasa Malaysia, a variant of Malay that I take to be the rough equivalent of BBC English. Bahasa Malaysia is taught in Malaysian schools – and so is English, heavily, such that students who start their elementary school education with instruction conducted, say, in the Iban language will graduate more or less fluent in Malaysian English and Bahasa Malaysia as well. In other words, this is a society of multilinguals and code-switching.

I was surprised to see just how much English was getting spoken as part of everyday life in Kuching. This wasn’t just for the sake of tourists (I didn’t see all that many of those), but above all as a way for the different local populations to communicate with one another. There was much more mixing of the different groups than I’d expected. For example, I often saw conservatively dressed Muslim women in headscarves deep in conversation with their lightly clad girlfriends, as would not be unusual in New York. And many of the food stalls run by Chinese Malaysians (who ordinarily might cook with pork) advertised that they were selling food suitable for Muslims. I saw shops run by members of one group being patronized by members of others, and regularly heard meals being ordered in English by people I’m sure weren’t tourists. Pretty much all the signs and menus in town were written up in both English and Bahasa Malaysia.

Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.24.38 AMMost of the less expensive restaurants in Kuching, by the way, resemble American food courts in structure, with a seating area (either outdoors under a roof or in an open storefront) surrounded by several booths or stands, each offering only a small number of dishes. Beverages are typically served at a stand of their own. So ordering a meal involves going around to look at what’s on offer and then placing orders for individual dishes with the staff at each stand (often just a single person or a Mom & Pop team); the food is then brought to your table as it is ready, and you pay separately for each dish as it arrives unless there’s a central cashier. I ate a lot of delicious noodle- and rice-based dishes, of which my favorite was Laksa Sarawak, cooked-to-order thin rice noodles in a rich coconut broth with various meat and vegetable toppings including thin strips of omelet and a chili sauce for spiciness to taste. Another favorite was the hearty dessert drink ABC (the name is an acronym for Air Batu Campur or “mixed ice”): it contains shaved ice and sweetened syrup, along with kernels of corn, bits of thin chopped green beans, red beans and cubes of grass jelly and agar agar served with a thick bubble tea straw for slurping up the solid bits. I also enjoyed a cloudy barley beverage that sometimes came with a few of the grains floating around the bottom of the plastic cup. But the best drink of all was Limau, a delicious concoction of squeezed limes (tiny thin-skinned ones with more and milder juice than their Western counterparts) sweetened with honey and served over ice.

Malaysia has a long colonial history, having been occupied by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th and the British starting in the 18th and continuing on until after World War II. For a long time, in other words, British English was the official language of the region, and it wasn’t until after independence (which took place between 1957 and 1963 for the various parts of the country) that English began to take a back seat to Malay in the new federation. But the linguistic legacy of colonialism remains strong here, as in many other formerly colonized nations. And Malaysian English has evolved in directions of its own, even producing a spinoff: a hybridized Manglish that incorporates words from several other local tongues

Because of this linguistic context, some of Borneo’s highest-circulation newspapers are printed in English, such as The Borneo Post and The New Sarawak Tribune, which were slipped alternately under my door at the Kuching Hilton. Both these papers are at times alarmingly symptomatic of Malaysia’s government-controlled media, with articles triumphantly declaring the success of this or that to my mind questionable policy or program, such as constructing many more palm oil mills despite the fact that the palm oil industry – now with over 1.2 million hectares of plantations – has been taking a devastating toll on the environment in both Malaysias. Or a new “shelter” for trafficked women that turns out to be a only a way station where illegal immigrants of all sorts (including some who came to Malaysia to work as housemaids in upper-class neighborhoods) receive religious instruction before being deported.

Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 5.07.02 PMThe main coalition of parties dominating Malaysian politics, the BN (Barisan Nasional or National Front), has been in power ever since independence, so I don’t expect to see any major changes of direction in the immediate future. Even the cheery phrases emblazoned on the banners lining the road that spirals up the hill to the strangely futuristic North Kuching City Hall (where one can visit the fabulous Cat Museum, devoted to the city’s mascot) were not Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 5.05.49 PMterribly reassuring: “All for One, One for All,” “We Sink and Swim Together” and “We Love To See You Smile.” These are slogans that don’t appear in Orwell only because they’re too flat-footed to be plausible.

The weekend edition of The Borneo Post published during my stay in Kuching came with a supplement entitled “Good English” – basically a primer on usage, with explanations of abstract nouns, idioms, expressions of time and lots of little quizzes. I noticed various minor errors in them. Here’s one of the multiple-choice questions for testing one’s idiom chops:

1. Johan’s colleagues have had it (sick of continual bad behaviour) with his foul language at work.
(a)   up to the job
(b)   up to here
(c)   up to the snuff

Of course, it’s all-too-easy for a native speaker to criticize a non-native speaker of English for getting an idiom slightly wrong. English idioms don’t always make sense to begin with. And to the credit of the creator of this exercise, the idiom “up to snuff” was listed correctly in the little glossary of “up to” expressions that comprised this lesson (up to here, up to it, up to no good, up to one’s chin, etc.) Another lesson was based on the differences between how British and American English handle expressions of duration, as illustrated in this odd little exchange:

Receptionist: The exhibition will be open from June to
American tourist: You mean, June through August?
Receptionist (snaps at him): No! I told you! From June to the
end of September.

The part of the exchange that actually sticks out to me as unidiomatic is the “I told you!”, which isn’t actually part of the lesson.

I wonder how many Malaysians actually sit down to study and work through these newspaper grammar lessons. Maybe a lot, particularly as I have the impression that fluency in English is an important requirement for career and financial success in this country.

But what exactly does fluency mean in this context? Overall the English I read in the Borneo newspapers differs quite a bit from both American and British norms. Here are some examples of sentences that struck me as grammatically adventurous and/or idiomatically off:

“There is a possibility some victims swam to shore to escape as they were worried of action being taken against them.”

“To ensure that the complex will be a world class research centre, the requirements to be met are just below hospital buildings where the monitoring and evaluation requirements such as contamination control, increase in gas pipings for installation of equipments, as well as standby chiller for 24/7 operation have to be met.”

“It is learnt that the victim got drunk easily.”

“The grandmother, who had momentarily regained consciousness after the attack and query if her grandchildren were alright and had been fed, was subsequently warded at the Sarawak General Hospital and is reported to be in stable condition.”

These oddities notwithstanding, Malaysian English is clearly alive and well as a rapidly evolving language in its own right. As a dialect, it may well sound strange to American ears, but it has grown to fit the context in which it is being used, and I assume that for those who study and speak it, it’s a perfectly comfortable medium of communication. Keep in mind that most of the world’s speakers of English live in countries in which English is a second – if not third or fourth – language. It stands to reason that all these different global Englishes will increasingly be taking on lives of their own. And translating between them will require particularized local and cultural knowledge in which the putative native speaker of English is not necessarily at an advantage.

I’ll leave you with two final glimpses of Borneo (the coastline of the Damai Peninsula just north of Kuching) that require no translation:Screen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.30.32 AMScreen Shot 2014-06-29 at 11.26.27 AM

Apply Now to Become a 2014 ALTA Fellow

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 10.43.29 AMThe American Literary Translators Association is undergoing a major transformation this year, with a new institutional home and new leadership. As a member of the new board, I’ve been watching the reshaping of the organization from the inside, and it’s looking good. There’s a new provisional website to handle this year’s conference registration while the permanent website is under development. This year’s conference will be held in Milwaukee, Nov. 12-15, 2014, and if you’re an emerging translator, you can apply for a $1000 fellowship to attend as an ALTA Fellow. ALTA Fellowships have been around for a number of years and provide significant exposure to translators just starting out in the field, so if you qualify, don’t hesitate to apply for one and to do so ASAP, as the July 1 deadline is rapidly approaching. Application instructions here. If you’d like to see the programs of past conferences from 2010 to 2012, you’ll find them on the old ALTA website (which is no longer being updated); and I’ve uploaded the 2013 conference program here. If you’re relatively new to the translation world and don’t know about ALTA yet, please take my word for it that’s it’s well worth your while to try to get to the conference – it’s the best possible opportunity to connect to other translators (including members of the newly established Emerging Literary Translators Network in America) and learn about literary translation as both an art and a profession. Check my blog entries from October 2013 for reports on some of the things that got discussed at the conference last year. I’ll be going again this fall, hope to see you there.

Translationista on Hiatus

Kuching-MalaysiaFeels like summer, and Translationista is off for a vacation in Kuching, in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Talk among yourselves, and I’ll be back before you know it. You might be busy watching the World Cup anyhow. And if you’re not that into sports, there’s always the World Cup of Literature for your entertainment. And if you’re in the NYC area and find yourself in the mood for some live translation events next week, there’ll be some of those as well. In other words, have a great couple of weeks, and I’ll see you soon.

2014 IMPAC Dublin Award Announced

winner_slide_2014Ever since its inception in 1996, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for international literature has been the largest literary prize for a single work, with the €100,000 prize split 75%/25% in the case of a translated book. Only novels are eligible, and they are nominated by libraries in major cities throughout the world. The prize itself is a project of the city of Dublin, given through the Dublin City Library and Archive. Obviously it’s an extraordinary honor to be selected for this award. More often than not the prize goes to an English-language author, but this is the eighth time in its history that it’s been given to a work in translation, so those aren’t such bad odds. The 2014 Dublin Literary Award winner is The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. Set in Columbia in a drug trade milieu, the book was described by the judges as a “consummate literary thriller that resonates long after the final page.” A list of past winners, longlists and shortlists is available on the Dublin Award website.

World Cup of Literature

WCLitI think I know a little bit about how soccer works, after all I did once live in Germany. “The ball is round,” explains Sepp Herberger (the German translation of Yogi Berra), “and the game lasts 90 minutes.” Oh, and “if you don’t know what else to do with the ball, just put it in the goal.” I also understand that if you want lots of different teams from all over the world to play each other, you’d better be organized about it. You can’t just run down to the playground and ask who wants to go next. So team A plays team B, and team X plays team Y, and then the two winning teams play against each other, i.e. A against X, or A against Y, or B against X, or B against Y. With all the teams in the world wanting a turn, you can see how quickly this will get complicated. Except tomorrow, when Brazil will be playing Croatia, plain and simple, at 4:00 p.m. New York time.

Imagine my surprise this spring when I logged on to Twitter only to discover that one of my publishers, Norton, was putting on something called “March Madness,” a virtual event that involved books “competing” against each other, much as soccer teams might. I read with interest that readers were invited to submit something called a “book bracket.” Alas, I still don’t know what a bracket is, though I was certainly pleased to see how this particular competition turned out.

But wait, they’re at it again! This time it’s Three Percent that’s thrown down the gauntlet, and since that particular blog is run by the famously sports-obsessed editor/publisher Chad Post, I’m thinking it should be a good show. Maybe by the end of things I’ll even have learned what a bracket is. Meanwhile, here’s an explanation of what going on, including a chart of all the players. Each of the countries selected for the competition is represented by one book, and I guess they’re going to duke it out in some form. Germany is represented by Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, and Switzerland by My Mother’s Lover by Urs Widmer. If you want to check which other countries are included and which books have been named their champions, you’ll have to consult the bracket. There, did I use the term correctly?

I hope the World Cup of Literature is a hit this year, because if so, Chad has promised to run a World Cup of Literature by Women next year, and I do intend to hold him to it. And the year after: maybe only countries that weren’t considered mainstream enough for inclusion this time around? How about Austria for example? You can follow the action on the Three Percent blog or on Twitter (@WorldCupofLit).

Translation on Tap in NYC June 16 – 22, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 12.36.11 PMThe linden trees are blossoming, so it feels like a Berlin summer. What better time to get your translation on? Here’s what I’ve got for you this week:

Thursday, June 19:

The Bridge Series presents the second installment of its series of poets who are also translators, this time featuring poet/translators Rika Lesser & Denise Newman reading and discussing their work. Details here. McNally Jackson Books
, 52 Prince Street, 8:00 p.m.

Friday, June 20:

Launch Party for Stonecutter 4, a lovely magazine that publishes lots of translations. Readings by Alyson Waters, Heather Cleary, Yvette Siegert and others, 61 Local, 61 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, more info here. 7:30 p.m.

The Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize Is Back

Screen Shot 2014-06-11 at 1.15.59 PMAfter a several-year hiatus, the Translation Prize sponsored by the Austrian Cultural Forum is back this year (are you surprised?), offering support for an outstanding translation of a work of post-1945 Austrian literature. Both poetry and prose submissions will be accepted, as will works by Austrian writers translated from German or from any of the country’s officially recognized minority languages: Burgenland Croatian, Czech, Hungarian, Romani, Slovak and Slovenian. The prize comes with a purse of $5000.

I’m pleased to see that the ACF has changed the terms of the award since its earlier iteration. It used to be that prize money would be withheld until the winning translator had successfully placed the work with a publishing house. This theoretically meant that a less-established translator might win the award but then be unable to fulfill the conditions to receive the prize money, even after completing the translation. Now the ACF asks only that the winner “demonstrate a credible effort towards a successful publication of their complete work in English” and submit a complete manuscript.

Applications (submit by email) are due September 1, 2014, consist of a 10 page/4000 word sample, along with a cover letter, bio note and list of previous publications.

For more information, see the Austrian Cultural Forum website.


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