Singapore Writers Festival: Sharing by Tommy Koh, Kamal Al-Solaylee; publishers discuss translation

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh delivered an engaging keynote speech titled My Adventures With Books. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

SINGAPORE – Literary translation and the challenges faced by the scene in Singapore were explored in a lively discussion at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday.

On the panel were Dr Tung Roh Suan of Balestier Press, Mr Ng Kah Gay of Ethos Books and Ms Tan Waln Ching, founder of City Book Room.

Ms Tan, whose publishing arm recently released a Chinese translation of Alfian Sa’at’s Corridor (1999), said: “The obstacles to publishing translated works are twofold: funding and finding suitable translators.

“The process of publishing translated works is more complicated, in which multiple discussions between editor, author, translator and proofreader are involved. This increases the cost and time, but we do not have other sources of funding, except the National Arts Council (NAC).”

She noted that courses offered by organisations such as the Singapore Book Council are “mostly tailored to beginners”.

“But publishing houses looking for translators are not just looking for techniques, but also a wealth of reading and translating experience in terms of literary works. Most translators have to hold down a day job, and translation requires time and energy. I hope the Government can be more supportive of the fledgling local scene of translation publication, in terms of funding and other areas towards (helping) publishing houses and translators.”

Dr Tung, the founding editor of Balestier Press, would like the Singapore Literature Prize to introduce a separate category for translation. It would also help, he added, if funding for translation could be administered by more groups other than the NAC.

Mr Ng noted that given the small size of the Singapore market, it makes sense for publishers to go regional. Teo You Yenn’s bestseller This Is What Inequality Looks Like, which Ethos Books published in 2018, has since been translated into Chinese for readers in China.

Why Get Them Translated?, moderated by Chan Cheow Thia (far left), featured publishers (from second from left) Tan Waln Ching, Ng Kah Gay and Tung Roh Suan. PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

Another engaging event on Saturday was Tommy Koh: My Adventures With Books.

The veteran diplomat spoke about his early love for reading and his experience chairing committees of awards and events such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Bernard Schwartz Book Award and International Summit of the Book.

Playwright Robert Yeo, who was in the audience, asked Prof Koh if there was any book that changed his life.

“I’m afraid not,” replied Prof Koh. He added, however, that he was inspired by the biographies of people such as former president S R Nathan, who grew up poor and was once a teenage runaway.

“The life story of S R Nathan can be made into a movie.”

Over at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Canadian journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee spoke about his 2021 book Return: Why We Go Back To Where We Come From, which draws on his interviews with people who wanted to return to their homelands.

He said: “To me, the idea of a home is not just this big amorphous idea, but a physical structure that houses your feelings, longings, desires and connections.”

Canadian journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee talking about his book Return: Why We Go Back To Where We Come From (2021). PHOTO: ARTS HOUSE LIMITED

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