TranslateSingapore explores Chinese-Malay language links

Translator and former Lianhe Zaobao journalist Chan Maw Woh taught herself to read and write in Malay.
Translator and former Lianhe Zaobao journalist Chan Maw Woh taught herself to read and write in Malay.

The little-known kinship between Chinese and Malay vernacular languages, rich with culture and inextricably tied to Singapore's nationhood, will come under the spotlight at the annual TranslateSingapore festival.

In its second year, it will feature events, including talks, book launches and workshops, related to its theme Mari Kita Berbual-Bual (Let's Talk!).

It is run by The Select Centre, an arts organisation focused on promoting intercultural dialogue and translation.

The festival, which kicked off last Tuesday and runs till Oct 2, will highlight the strong historical links between the two languages, which may not be well known to the public, says translator Tan Dan Feng, one of the festival's organisers.

He tells The Straits Times in an e-mail interview: "There was a tide of learning Malay in the years leading up to independence, with many believing that this would unite the different races and connect Singapore to its neighbours.


  • WHERE: Various locations

    WHEN:Till Oct 2, various timings

    ADMISSION:Free by registration for most events


"Even as English became the dominant working language, pioneer linguists continued translating in Malay, compiling dictionaries and researching Malay language, culture and history. We felt it's time to celebrate these pioneers and recognise their contributions now."

One such pioneer is Madam Chan Maw Woh, a translator and former Lianhe Zaobao journalist, who will speak at three panels during the festival.

The 79-year-old taught herself to read and write in Malay and, in 1959, published Nyawa Di Hujung Pedang (Life In Danger), the first Malay novel translated into Chinese in the history of Singapore Chinese literature.

More than five decades later, she is still translating - her latest work is a translation of author Isa Kamari's book Rawa, about the Orang Seletar, an ethnic sub-group of Malay aborigines.

"I like translating Isa's works as they are backgrounded by Singapore history and they look at issues from the Malay perspective. In Rawa, he writes about nature and freedom, which I enjoy reading about," she says.

Lawyer Chan Eng Thai, a Peranakan, will speak at a panel that discusses Baba Malay, a hybrid language which combines Malay with the Hokkien dialect.

The 59-year-old, who has been in The Peranakan Association Singapore for the past 12 years, says: "This spoken language is important as it is peculiar to Chinese Peranakans from Malacca, Singapore and Penang. If Baba Malay is forgotten, it will die out and that is a loss for Singapore's cultural heritage,"

Other activities at the festival include a workshop to translate Shakespeare from English into Chinese and Malay, as well as a contest for the public to translate the titles of 10 paintings at the National Gallery Singapore, where some festival events are held this year.

Festival highlights


Prominent sinologist and literary translator John Minford, who has translated Chinese classics such as The Art Of War, will give a lecture on how translation has evolved in China.

Where: Auditorium, National Gallery Singapore When: Sept 30, 5.30 to 7pm Admission: $10, register at


The Select Centre will mark International Translation Day by unveiling a series of translations of literary works by artists such as playwright Kuo Pao Kun and poets KTM Iqbal and Masuri S.N..

Where: Auditorium, National Gallery Singapore When: Sept 30, 7.30 to 9pm Admission: Free by registration at


This storytelling workshop conducted by children's author Evelyn Wong will use a tale about a young girl, her grandmother and their encounter with a group of mynah birds to help children learn about and appreciate Singapore's multilingual and multicultural environment. Suitable for children aged three to six.

Where: Keppel Workshop, National Gallery Singapore When: Oct 2, 2 to 3pm Admission: Free by registration at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'TranslateSingapore explores Chinese-Malay language links'. Print Edition | Subscribe