Arts & Culture

Nazry Bahrawi: Translating Culture

Literary translators should be recognised as creators too.

Words by
b-side staff

Interview by Shawn Hoo

“I think there is value in structure,” Nazry Bahrawi tells me. Amidst scheduling in time to cook, cycle, and take walks as part of his circuit breaker routine, he dedicates every morning to translating four quatrains from a 19th-century poem by Raja Ali Haji. “Eight, if I am really productive,” he adds, although the strict rhyme scheme of the pantun has proved challenging to translate, for an epic which runs up to more than a thousand verses. Yet, one gets the sense that he enjoys the challenge of form. “Creativity exists within certain boundaries,” he reflects, “it is only with boundaries that you can break out of them.” 

Source: Ethos Books; Cover designer: Kum Suning

Translation is, therefore, a creative opportunity for him to carve new form and expression from an existing set of constraints. Nazry is the force who has rendered the works of two Cultural Medallion recipients from Malay into English. He first translated Nadiputra’s Lorong Buang Kok: The Musical (Cokelat, 2012), a drama based on Singapore’s last kampung, and subsequently Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s short story collection Lost Nostalgia (Ethos Books, 2017)—introducing their works to a new audience. Today, in addition to looking back at 19th-century epics, Nazry is also gazing at the future: editing and translating a contemporary anthology of Malay speculative fiction. Without the work of Nazry and other translators, Singapore literature cannot be as enriched as it is, yet readers still struggle to name a translator and some publishers even neglect to name their translators on book covers. In response to that, Nazry insists that readers should “acknowledge the ownership of the translator’s craft” and view translators as creators too. 

Nazry speaks to B-Side about the creative and collaborative nature of translation, and translation as a way of engaging the other. 

Shawn Hoo (SH): Some people view translators as middlemen, but I gather this is not how you think of your role. What is translation to you? 

Nazry Bahrawi (NB): As a literary translator, I begin from the position that no translations can be fully authentic and that the translator is an artist in their own right. Because translation is more an art than a science, the right to choose words are part of a translator’s craft. However, when we see translators as middlemen for a transaction between buyer and seller, the translator is rendered invisible. Yet, no translated text is free from manipulation. On one hand, colonial translators have taken an original text from a native culture, disembowelled it, and passed it off as their own. The Arabian Nights is one example of such plundering. On the other hand, there are authors who merely treat their translators as secretaries. Today, we should recognise that translation is not a one-way relationship but a partnership. A translator, as much as possible, should have an open marriage. 

“Because translation is more an art than a science, the right to choose words are part of a translator’s craft.”

SH: Can you tell us a bit about your partnership with your authors? How do you get yourself to inhabit their words and worlds?

NB: With my first translated work, Lorong Buang Kok: The Musical, Nadiputra was an active participant in the translation process because the book was part of his ongoing theatre production at the time. Thus, when the author is present in my life, I let the author be him or herself. Mohamed Latiff Mohamed—whom I see as a literary father figure—is not like Nadiputra at all. He pretty much left me alone to work on the translation of Lost Nostalgia, since he doesn’t see himself as the author-god and does not want to control his work so much. I know him as an author who possesses a strong belief in empowering his readers to exercise their literary agency, and he extended this generosity to me as a translator, who is first and foremost a reader. 

Now, translating Syair Abdul Muluk, a 19th-century epic poem by Raja Ali Haji, I try to read historical books about the time and place—such as Barbara and Leonard Andaya’s A History of Malaysia and Mulaika Hijjas’ Victorious Wives—to get a sense of what is going on in that period, and then try to channel that voice through me. I don’t look at history as totally factual, instead, I try to derive a sense of speculative history by looking at what is not covered in my readings or what could have changed say, for example, if the colonials didn’t come. Overall, my process would be to channel, inhabit, and try to engage with the other.

A performance of Rasa Sarang at The Arts House  (Credit:

SH: Earlier this year, you worked with Bhumi Collective to stage a lecture-performance Rasa Sarang which dramatised your process of translating Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s ‘K-Love’. Why stage this “translator’s dilemma”? 

NB: A lot of times, a translation is only valued for two things: what it tells us about an original culture, and how faithful it is to the original text. The process of writing is often put on the back burner. In translating ‘K-Love’, however, I came up against issues of representing gender and cross-cultural perception. Staging this dilemma, then, is also an act of translation—where the playwright (Nabilah Said), director (Adib Kosnan), producers (Mohamad Shaifulbahri, Soultari Amin Farid and Diyanah Said) as well as the actors (Chanel Ariel Chan and Hafidz Rahman) have put in their two cents worth. It reflected the kind of process in which I translated ‘K-Love’—the first draft was a solo act, but it subsequently involved more people, with very strong and visible collaboration. What kept it alive was that we weren’t trying to sell the story, we acknowledged that there were difficult things we needed to talk about. This staging has given the story a bit more honesty and audacity. 

SH: What should someone who wants to try out translation for the first time know? 

NB: The translator’s first task is to choose the right text that speaks to you. With Malay literary texts, translators have not always come from the culture. If you look to your own culture, you are able to tap into your lived experience and bring nuances into the picture. This is not to say that someone from a different culture should not translate, but we have too much of that. To have a Malay text translated by someone from the Malay archipelago is a part of decolonising translation. I would love to encourage more of us to translate from the cultures we grew up in.

SH: You are in the midst of translating and editing an anthology of Malay speculative fiction from Singapore. How do these texts speak to you? 

NB: This anthology will be an important intervention not just within literary translation but also race relations. Malay literature, often associated with lamentations of lost traditions and places, is not comfortably equated with speculative fiction. A lot of what gets translated harks back to the past. But Malay literature is also speculating the future and being scientific. A number of stories within this anthology are critical of futures that affect minorities such as systemic inequality brought about by technology. One story, for instance, imagined a sensitive operating system (S-OS) designed for Malay women which turned out to be far from caring. With this collection, I have also included English works. This is important because it suggests that to be a Malay person need not mean that you have to write in Malay. You can write in English and address Malay concerns. 

“The problem with our language policy is that English has worked so well as a unifying language that it has become the only language. This is very strange for a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, of which multilingualism is a big part.”

SH: In many ways, the literature curriculum in our schools raises Anglo-centric readers, if not Anglophiles. How do you think translated literature can be taught in schools?

NB: The first step is to look beyond the Anglophone world. We can start from a position of strength and read translated literature in English, but this should not be the end. We should be able to read translated works from other cultures in our respective mother tongues, for example, a Thai work in Malay or Chinese. For that, we need translators who are familiar with ASEAN languages and who can work between our mother tongues. The problem with our language policy is that English has worked so well as a unifying language that it has become the only language. This is very strange for a country that prides itself on multiculturalism, of which multilingualism is a big part. 


SH: You once said that translation can “help us love strangers”. Who are the strangers amongst us whom we are still struggling to translate and love today? 

NB: Translators exist around many people whom we do not fully know. Singaporeans treat migrant workers as strangers when we suggest that they should live on floating islands. As a nation, we should translate our relationship with migrant workers, which involves a difficult kind of reaching out—the way a translator finds it difficult to reach out when they disagree with a text but tries to find common ground. 

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