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Editorial Issue 3

by Pauline Fan and Bilal Tanweer
15 July 2021


Dear Pauline,

In the parlour of literary translation, the phrase ‘lost in translation’ is like a curio that has lost its gleam. It invites little discussion or thought by those that lounge and idle, chat and drink in the room.

In the act of translation, loss of meaning is so basic, so elemental that one doesn’t even pause to mull it over. When pressed to consider, the idea evinces an immediate—and often fierce—apologia: about all the ‘gains’ in translation. (I am not opposed to this apologia; in fact, I am guilty of adding to it many times.)

In the note to one of my books, I wrote: ‘Alastair Reid describes translation as a “mysterious alchemy—some poems survive it to become poems in another language, but others refuse to live in any language but their own.” As a translator, I don’t believe there is a royal road to translation. Every work of translation must negotiate its own preferences around which it can bear its losses.’  My own sense is that while losing in translation is inevitable, what is lost is a result of choices and preferences. In other words, different translators make different versions of the same text because they prefer to cohere it along different elements they value—all of which are present in the text but perhaps not equally obvious to every reader. Every translator has a way of accessing the ‘soul’ (or ‘style’) of the work they are translating—an element that allows them to capture the sense of the ‘whole’. For me, this is offered by the voice of the text. I was reassured of my approach when I read notes from our fellow translators who mentioned a similar strategy while tackling their works. Tuhin Bhowal very interestingly mentions that for him to translate Sourav Roy’s poems was to translate his narrators!

Having said this, the question remains: what about losses in translation, especially losses irreparable and irretrievable?

Dialect, for instance, is one of the hardest elements to retain in translation. Dialect is essentially the same language that bears all the difference in meaning not in what it says but how. Words uttered in dialect could belong to a world significantly different to one from which the standard language issues. In some stories, this difference might be everything. And in the language of translation, this nuance might be impossible to capture.

It is interesting that so many of the translators featured in adda’s Translations: South and Southeast Asia mention diction. But more often than not the diction they feel compelled to recreate in the target language is the simple and direct one. But what of the allusive, symbolic diction? What of language that switches registers and like a ‘velcroed’ thing, tacks fibres and miscellanea of associative meanings to its surface, so much so that very often the original object is no longer visible in the word as the primary referent?

I wonder how you think about this phrase and this problem.



Dear Bilal,

Inevitable, irreparable, irretrievable—you have encapsulated perfectly the abyss of loss that we must all traverse as translators. At times the act of translation feels like a futile attempt to reconstruct a monument from the ruins of one language upon the resistant soil of another. It is a predicament to which there are no easy answers.

And yet, even in my most disoriented moments, I have never experienced loss as an inimical force. Perhaps this is because I have always been drawn to the danger of the unknown. I often long to lose myself, momentarily, to the enigma of the elements, like the song of the sea which soothes in its disquiet.

Perhaps as translators we are called to embrace loss itself and the condition of being lost. In our effort to call forth meaning, we must also learn to yield to the presence of the unfathomable. Perhaps our task is not to find definitive answers but explore the endless contours of the question. Loss, like grieving, can open pathways to another kind of knowing. Only when we lose something can we discover it anew.

In Malay, we use the term ‘lupa’ (literally: to forget or forgetting) to describe a state of ecstatic trance, a prevalent feature of ritual performance in the Malay world and Southeast Asia. While there is, of course, a sense of uncertainty and risk associated with ‘lupa’, it is also a doorway to a visceral freedom otherwise unattainable in mundane reality. In the transitory casting off of the social self, one discovers another, more essential, self. I see such liminal experience as instructive to the process of translation—perhaps in losing (ourselves and meaning) we can access hidden aspects of language, something there but yet unwritten.

Loss is the underlying impulse of a story by Bhushan Korgaonka featured in this issue. The story highlights the loss of a folk tradition called lavani, a mode of expression that blends stylisation and improvisation, where concealed meanings reveal themselves in an unrepeatable moment. In her translator’s note, Sheela Jaywant reflects that although the text was written in Marathi, the lavani lyrics that were incorporated into the narrative were infused with rural dialect. ‘In India, the language changes every couple of kilometres, and in “lavani” (which I consider a semi-orthodox performing art form, a combination of song, dance and acting), it’s hard to pinpoint just where the popular part ends and the classical begins.’

It falls, ultimately, to each translator to choose how to grapple with the inexorable loss that accompanies and haunts our craft. Whatever literary and linguistic devices we decide on in translating a particular text, we negotiate and navigate realms between absence and presence.

As Derrida suggests in his concept of Différance, the meaning of a text is never something complete or immutable, nor does it originate in its source language. Rather, meaning manifests through infinite transformations that are dependent on context, pointing to the impossibility and possibility of translation itself.

For me, the act of translation is a performance of paradox. It can only express sameness through difference. It discovers life through loss. It is born through the passage of death.

Warm thoughts,


Translations: South & South East Asia ISSUE 3

Illustration by Syafiqah Sharom

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 […]