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Editorial Issue 2

by Pauline Fan and Bilal Tanweer
18 June 2021

Dear Bilal,

A thought that recurred to me as I read through the works featured in our second issue is how literary translation is an act of counterpoint. As in musical counterpoint, where the interlacing of two independent melodies creates a composition, a work of translation is propelled by two voices—author and translator—in contrapuntal motion. Drawing close and pulling apart in playful interaction, at times confrontational, these two voices (and languages) are held together by an unseen essence, perhaps the soul of the work. The translated work is the luminous emergent structure of interpretation that is born from this dance around a dark core.

In his dexterous translation of ‘The Golden Land that Bled to Death’, an excerpt from journalist Anwar Shahid Khan’s war diary that he kept as a student during the outbreak of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Taimoor Shahid demonstrates the crucial role of choice. He reflects in his translator’s note: ‘The translation is a dance of choices made in either direction—tending closer to Urdu idiom in some instances and to the principles of English rhetoric in another—a fine balance poised on the fulcrum of affective accuracy, which is also the balance pole used in this performance.’ Here is the translator as a master of counterpoint, summoning a fluid stream of language from the sinews of two tongues.

Elsewhere in this issue, musical analogies offer further insight. We encounter a concern with tonality and rhythm in Christina Ng’s elegant translation of a poem by Dan Ying, ‘Comb of Chastity’. In her translator’s note, Ng reveals her approach to the problem of transposing the concise cadences of Chinese into the lengthy syntax structures of English without compromising the lyricism of the original. She writes: ‘What I chose to adhere to here is emotional vocabulary: to evoke the same emotion and stay true to the central image but give myself a bit more liberty with the musicality of the poem, allowing myself to respond to how I hear it. I wanted to cleave to the original music in the poet’s words but also be able to “sing” it in the rhythm that it had evoked in me.’

There is another sense in which literary translation enacts the contrapuntal. Through interrogating a text, by setting down the translator’s ink upon authorial inscriptions, translation is by its very nature an act of radical reading and rewriting. Translation transforms the authorial voice of a text from monologic to dialogic, from monophonic to polyphonic. Fortified with interpretive power, at times it unearths counter-narratives that challenge the authority of official histories, bend the lines of manmade maps and insist on another kind of memory.

Wan Nor Azriq’s intriguing short story, ‘The Testament of Professor Roolvink’, plays with ideas surrounding the instability of knowledge, the subjectivity of history and the impossibility of authorial credibility. Translator Ali Aiman Mazwin remarks that one of the things that drew him to this work was ‘the melding of real and fiction in the story, giving it an academic or scholarly feel at certain points.’ The narrator of the story, a professor who has spent his career researching various transcriptions of a certain old manuscript, reveals how each transcriber adds a layer of his own idiosyncrasies to the text: ‘…different versions of the manuscript inevitably began to exhibit signs of the transcribers’ recklessness.’ This captures, too, the indelible imprint a translator leaves on a work, while pointing to the dangers of overinterpretation.

How does one keep one’s footing on this tightrope of translation while eluding the death of language that awaits in the stagnant waters of equilibrium? It is easier said than done. For me, the translator must abandon herself to the inner music of the work; she must trust instinct as a pole star on this voyage. She must be always ready to shift her weight and improvise, a counterpoint oscillating without end between consonance and dissonance.

Warm thoughts from Kuala Lumpur,


Dear Pauline,

How elegantly you have touched upon all the ways in which we participate in the texts—and by extension, in the world—we translate: as listeners, as interpreters, as creators.

I admire how you, as a practitioner, speak of translation not as something to be ‘achieved,’ but as a groping with unceasing uncertainty. In your splendid essay on translating Paul Celan’s work you described this embrace of the unknown: ‘I never wanted to simply translate Celan’s words, I wanted to breathe Celan into Malay, to experience what he had described as Atemwende—a turning of breath where silence takes shape to become words, where words reach beyond language to become poetry.’ What I sense is so marvellous about your way of speaking of translation is your attention to and concern for silence. It is rare for one to find this kind of attentiveness to silence and mystery when one speaks of translation. You speak as a translator who is in awe of the mystery that lies at the heart of her practice.

Your words took me back to an interview of a beloved contemporary writer and translator extraordinaire, Ranjit Hoskote, who said in an interview about translation: ‘Translation is a process that demands various kinds of attentiveness—to the sense of the original, to the shape of the words with which you will render it, to the original context of the utterance and the contemporary mirror in which you see it, to etymology and the shifting valency of words, to the strata of meanings that have been applied to the original. The translator must be prepared to switch strategy, to discover fresh archives, to leap from unglamorous dictionary-trawling to enchanted leaps of phrase. Above all, the translator must produce a poem that works well in the target language.’ [Italics are mine.]

All this thinking of translation as grappling with the uncertain makes me wonder: very often, what attracts us to a piece of work, what leads us to select a work for translation is precisely what gets lost in translation. (The music, for instance.) I have thought it odd that this loss does not deter the translator, instead spurs her on. I suspect it is because the moment of loss in translation is also the moment of gain. It is in the moment of loss that we, as translators, are able to fill the void with something of our daring and voice. Christina Ng says as much in her translator statement: ‘What I chose to adhere to here is emotional vocabulary: to evoke the same emotion and stay true to the central image but give myself a bit more liberty with the musicality of the poem, allowing myself to respond to it as how I hear it. I wanted to cleave to the original music in the poet’s words but also be able to “sing” it in the rhythm that it had evoked in me, so to speak.’ The struggle here is to find a rhythm to fill the vast absence of the music in the target language.

And yet, translation isn’t just dwelling on absence, on what gets lost, is it? Translation is also a humble and simple desire for intimacy. As Umair Kazi writes, ‘I translated these poems to satisfy the urge to read them more intimately, to get closer to them.’

This leads us to the other paradox at the heart of ars translatica: what you seek to translate has already been illuminated by the artist.

And what do you see when you plunge into light?



Translations: South & South East Asia ISSUE 2

Illustration by Griselda Gabriele

About the Author

Pauline Fan and Bilal Tanweer

Pauline Fan is a writer, literary translator and cultural researcher. She is Creative Director of cultural organisation PUSAKA and Director of the George Town Literary Festival. Pauline’s tranislation of poems by Sarawak poet Kulleh Grasi, Tell Me, Kenyalang, was shortlisted for the 2020 National Translation Award in Poetry and longlisted for the Best Translated Book […]