Push for translation

In multilingual Singapore, translations play a vital role in bridging cultures and bringing the text to a larger audience. Writers, publishers and agencies are working quietly to promote translated works

Translated literature has gained popularity overseas in recent years, but locally translated works have yet to catch on in Singapore.

This year's prestigious Man Booker International Prize was awarded to South Korean writer Han Kang's The Vegetarian, a surreal tale about a woman who becomes a vegetarian, and the impact of the decision on her family and society.

The prize money of £50,000 (S$87,900) was split between Han and the book's British translator, Deborah Smith, a mark of the recognition accorded to the translator's role. Previously, the prize was a biennial one given solely to an author for his or her body of work.

A survey this year by publishing data analyst Nielsen Book, owned by research firm Nielsen, showed that translated fiction now sells better than English fiction in the United Kingdom, a trend that swung the other way 15 years ago.


Unfortunately, this is not the case here. Singapore publishers which have been actively bringing out translated titles in the past few years tell The Straits Times that the response has been lukewarm.

Epigram Books has published 13 titles in a series it initiated in 2012 to translate works by Singapore authors, particularly those who write in the vernacular languages and have received the Cultural Medallion, the nation's highest accolade for the arts.

Epigram founder Edmund Wee started the series after Malay writer Suratman Markasan shared with him his difficulties in getting his works published. Mr Wee says: "I remember thinking, 'Here we are giving an award to an artist who is practically a national treasure, yet no one has read his work.' I felt we should translate it into English."

  • Some translated Singapore works

  • 685

    Copies sold so far

    Confrontation (2013)

    By Mohamed Latiff Mohamed (above)

    Translated by Shaffiq Selamat

  • 154

    Copies sold so far

    Teaching Cats To Jump Hoops (2012)

    By You Jin (above)

    Translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin

  • 1,500

    Copies of first print run sold out

    Me Migrant

    By Md Mukul Hossine (above)

    Transcreated by poet Cyril Wong

    Translated from Bangla with help from Fariha Imran and Farouk Ahammed

The best-selling work in the series is Confrontation (2013), Mohamed Latiff Mohamed's book, translated by Shaffiq Selamat, which is about the years leading up to Singapore's merger and eventual separation from Malaysia. It has sold about 680 copies.

The book in the series with the weakest sales is You Jin's Teaching Cats To Jump Hoops (2012), translated by United States-based literary translator Sylvia Li-chun Lin. It has sold about 150 copies.

Art of translation gaining clout

By comparison, two recent Singapore fiction titles released by Epigram, Sebastian Sim's Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! and Wong Souk Yee's Death Of A Perm Sec, both sold out their first print run of 1,000 copies and are into a second print run.

Mr Wee is baffled by the tepid response to translated works. "I'm surprised because we do what we can - get the best translators we can, make sure the covers are well done and re-title them to make them more commercial."

Ethos Books' most popular translated title is by an unlikely poet - Bangladeshi migrant worker Md Mukul Hossine. His 68-page collection, titled Me Migrant, which dwells on his experiences as a transient worker in Singapore, was published this year. It has entered a second print run, after selling out a first print run of 1,500 copies.

Ethos publisher Fong Hoe Fang attributes this to the media attention that the project has received, noting that most translated poetry collections sell up to 500 copies at most.

He says: "Usually, most translated literary works reach out to a literary audience, which is a small group of readers. Me Migrant did well as it reached out to those outside of this group. It also helped that there was a human story behind the book."

Other publishers, however, do see a demand for more commercial translations.

Straits Times Press' general manager, Ms Susan Long, says its most popular titles are the Chinese- language versions of Hard Truths and One Man's View Of The World, both books by Singapore's late founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. She declines to give sales figures.

She estimates that the publisher translates, on average, about six works a year. Its Chinese translation of Dr Lee Wei Ling's A Hakka Woman's Singapore Stories, a collection of Dr Lee's Sunday Times columns, hits the shelves this month.

But putting out a high-quality translated work is costly and can often be a loss-making venture for publishers.

Ms Long says: "Quality translators with editorial experience and specialised domain knowledge and feel for the subject matter are hard to find."

Mr Wee says: "Few translators will work for royalties alone as they expect to be paid. We've not paid anything less than $6,000 and it can cost as much as $20,000, depending on the translator's reputation, the novel's length and the language."


The future of Singaporean translation, however, is hardly gloomy.

The Select Centre, a relatively new non-profit arts group which promotes translation and intercultural conversation in Singapore, turns one this month.

It was founded by arts administrator William Phuan and translator Tan Dan Feng and is a recipient of the National Arts Council's Seed Grant, which supports emerging arts organisations.

After working for a year in a temporary space, the centre has moved into an office at Bras Basah Complex, as part of a partnership with Mrs Santha Bhaskar, artistic director of Bhaskar's Arts Academy.

Since its inception in May last year, The Select Centre has held activities such as translation workshops, master classes, book clubs and translation festival TranslateSingapore, which will take place from Sept 13 to Oct 2. Last year's edition drew about 1,000 people.

The festival features talks, workshops, panel discussions and performances to promote translation.

Mr Phuan, who is also the centre's managing director, says: "What we do is new to the arts industry, but the response has been strong and positive and we've been getting feedback that it's needed."

The centre also embarked on Literary Gateway, a platform that translates works for regional audiences. So far, it has translated works by Singapore writers Alfian Sa'at and Suchen Christine Lim into Burmese, and works by Myanmar writers Nay Myo Thant and Min Khite Soe San into English.

Elsewhere, Singaporean translators have also been making waves.

One is Taipei-based Singaporean Lee Yew Leong. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Asymptote, an acclaimed online journal which publishes contemporary writing and world literature in translation.

It clinched a London Book Fair Award last year for International Literary Translation Initiative, the first time a Singaporean entity has won an award at the fair.

One of its recent projects was to translate a Peruvian short story by Pedro Novoa from its original Spanish into 14 languages, including Arabic, Bengali and Chinese.

Mr Lee says: "We commission translations to disrupt the flow of English-centred information and to reach readers from other linguistic communities."

Recently, Singapore author Amanda Lee Koe received a US$3,670 (S$4,900) grant from PEN, an American non-profit organisation which celebrates writing and the freedom of expression, to translate Ten Years Of Marriage, a novel by Chinese author Su Qing, known for her controversial writings about marriage and divorce. Lee declined to be interviewed for this story.

In Singapore, the National Arts Council has ramped up its support for literary translation, providing more than $800,000 in funding since 2011 through its grant schemes and other projects, says Ms May Tan, its acting director for literary arts sector development.

One of its upcoming projects is a translation of Cultural Medallion recipient Isa Kamari's Rawa, about the indigenous Orang Seletar people of Singapore, from Malay to Chinese, by translator Chan Maw Woh.

The council also supports translation mentorship programmes and has held two translation boot camps to train 55 emerging translators. It has also commissioned a collection of critical essays on the translation of Singapore literature, to be published next year.

This year's edition of the annual Singapore Writers Festival, organised by the council, will feature home-grown and international translators from South Korea, Japan, Sweden and Indonesia, and shine the spotlight on literary translation.

Ms Tan says: "We hope to bring more Singapore writing to international readers. Singapore's position as a convergent point of East and West, with its multilingual and multicultural literature, offers a rich canon of literary works."

Other government agencies, such as the Ministry of Communications and Information, have also been promoting translation, while SIM University (UniSIM) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) offer specialised translation programmes.

The Education Ministry has seen a "slight increase" in the take-up for the H2 subject Translation (Chinese), which it introduced last year. More than 70 students from four schools are taking the subject this year at H2 level, which is equivalent to the British A level.

UniSIM enrolled about 30 new students into its Bachelor (Translation and Interpretation) programme last year, while NTU expects about 30 students for the next intake of its master's programme.

Dr Susan Xu, UniSIM's translation and interpretation programme head, says: "We've seen greater interest in translation, so we have introduced minor in translation for majors such as English, Chinese, communication and psychology, over the last two years."

Dr Kirpal Singh, associate professor of English Literature at Singapore Management University, is one who benefited from reading books translated from multiple languages. As a boy, he discovered a treasure trove of translated texts originally written in languages such as Greek, Roman, German, French, Sanskrit, Italian, Spanish and Latin at his uncle's home library.

He says: "That early exposure and experience, I am convinced, gave me the reach, scope and depth which I would not otherwise have if my reading had been confined only to English."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline Push for translation. Subscribe