5 tips for translating culture
Essential advice from translator Nazry Bahrawi

We’re celebrating International Translation Day! In this article Nazry Bahrawi, our translator in virtual residence from Singapore, shares his top advice for creating effective translations.

1. Translate to your coziest tongue

Regardless of the number of languages within your linguistic repertoire, you are most expressive through your most comfortable tongue. This is particularly useful for translating a text from a foreign culture because this grants you access to a wider register – a skill that is particularly useful when trying to articulate the nuances of incommensurable or untranslatable words. In that tongue, the day is not merely hot, it is more precisely scorching, humid or sweltering. It is to be expected that this cozy tongue is the language that you grew up with speaking at home. In Singapore, we call it your ‘mother tongue’. For most translators in the Global South, this is likely a non-European language. Still, it is not uncommon for one’s mother tongue to be foreign to your ethnic tradition. I know of a Pakistani translator who translates from Arabic to English and a South Asian translator who translates from Portuguese and Spanish to English. They have done amazing work and flourished.


2. Don’t explain certain words

In today’s post-truth age of values over verities, it has become clearer to me that humans cherish meaning as much as, if not more, than facts. While certain translators may feel that the mark of a good translation is that it has made familiar what was foreign, I would counter-argue that a text should retain some of its original words, phrases, even paragraphs. Cultures that are not our own should remain their own. This accords them some level of respect in the informal world republic of letters where European cultures are often placed at the top as a result of colonisation. Refusing to translate certain words is also good for the reader. Yes, this will make reading the text a chore. No, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Meaning is elusive in our everyday interactions – many of us have sometimes revisited a conversation or a speech to unpack it. And we achieve a sort of mini-epiphany when we think we finally got it, only to revisit them again. This constitutes a personal growth of perspective and conviction. If some explaining needs to be done at all, a glossary at the end of the book is a better option than footnotes on every page. This struggle for meaning will be rewarding.

3. Know your audience

Unlike writing, translating is seldom an act that an individual does for themselves as their one and only audience. Translators work with words that have been committed to paper. Words that have been sanctioned by a group of readers. Words that are other people’s thoughts. So, while authors can say that they are writing for themselves, translators do not often have this luxury. Yet, this should not be taken to mean that translation is not a creative act, which I explore further in my next tip. For now, translating a text from a foreign culture will be made much easier, much more meaningful, if you have some semblance of your ideal imagined reader or community of readers. With it comes a deeper understanding of that demographic’s expectations, concerns and possibly, tastes. That should enable you to do a better job at meeting or thwarting these standards if you wish.


4. Something has to give

Once upon a time, structures were all the craze in literary theory. Then came the age of the post-structuralists heralded by the likes of Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler. Both are important literary modes of reading and creating but translators would find they have to contend with working within structures – syntax, morphology, semantics, even plot. Translators of poetic works would especially find structures unavoidable. Do you translate a poem for its meaning? Or do you prioritise rhyme? Most texts of foreign cultures are translated for content and not aesthetics. This runs the risk of reducing them to anthropological works about alien modes of living. If you are in this business of translating culture, then you will need to make a choice. This is why translation is a creative act, and translators need to be recognised and celebrated as creative producers as much as the writers of their translated texts. Let us put the names of translators on book covers and award them prizes in recognition of their editorial choices and struggles.


5. Amplify the margins

Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’ is an uplifting poem. What transpired with the backlash to plans for its Dutch and Catalan translations – despite some strong reactions – is also just as empowering. Detractors would say that translators should be hired for their linguistic and literary sensibilities, and not their skin colour. Unfortunately, neither language nor translation is a neutral phenomenon. Let me give you an example taken from the Malay culture. An episode from the classical Malay text Sulalat al-Salatin (The Genealogy of Kings) has it that a clever boy saved old Singapore from a garfish attack unto the island. In fact, the original text used the word ‘budak’ (child), a non-gendered word because Bahasa Melayu is a non-gendered language unlike French or Arabic. Still, when it was translated to English by colonial-era orientalists from the United Kingdom like John Leyden and C.C. Brown, the child had become a boy. Even a Malay film in 1961 that had dramatised this folktale had reproduced this gendered reading. In fact, that clever child could have been female. While this is no guarantee, a translator from a marginal community might be more attuned to the workings of power and representation. And imagine the cultural impact of that tale if it were first translated by a female and/or Malay translator. I have described an instance of possible misgendering and mistranslation. The cost is real. If you are in a position to influence, choose to support minority translators and marginal texts not because it is politically correct, but because of new and buried perspectives that would benefit us all.

Nazry’s virtual residency with NCW was generously supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore.

Nazry Bahrawi is a literary translator, critic and academic at Singapore University of Technology and Design. He has translated two Singapore literary works by Cultural Medallion winners from Bahasa to English. These are Muzika Lorong Buangkok (2012) by Nadiputra and Lost Nostalgia (2017) by Mohamed Latiff Mohamed. He has also translated for the Golden Point Award by The Arts House as well as subtitled a classical Malay film for Objectifs and a play for Teater Ekamatra. As a critic, his essays on Singapore literature were published on Esplanade Offstage and Bite the Tongue, an online exhibition curated by Xing. He has also written critical introductions for Alfian Sa’at’s Collected Plays Three and ASAS 50’s literary collection, Sakura Mekar Di Bumi Berdarah.
As a literary translator, Nazry sees his role as introducing Anglophone readers to the rich tradition of Bahasa literature, both modern and premodern. During his residency, he will be working on the English translation of a classical epic Malay poem called Syair Abdul Muluk by the renowned historian, poet and scholar Raja Ali Haji and/or his sister, first published in 1847 and part of Singapore’s precolonial heritage that connects it to the Malay Archipelago. Nazry is interested in decolonising literary translation and translation theory, looking at how translation studies can embrace decolonial perspectives, thinkers and ideas from South East Asia.

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