In May 2015, I was lucky enough to visit Myanmar for Link the Worlds, a week-long series of translation workshops and literary discussions in Yangon. Writers’ Centre Norwich had been planning the event for just over a year, in partnership with PEN Myanmar and the Select Centre in Singapore. A truly international collaboration, other partners and funders included the British Centre for Literary Translation, Penguin Random House, the Taw Win Foundation, PEN International, the British Council and the National Arts Council of Singapore.
Myanmar has only recently emerged from a long period of isolation. Throughout the week, we explored ways to revive the flow of contemporary writing and ideas between Myanmar and other countries, particularly in South East Asia.
Literary exchange in Burma – now Myanmar – flourished in the years after the declaration of independence in 1948. The Burma Translation Society was established in Rangoon in 1947, and high quality translations of the best literature from other countries became available to readers and writers in Burma. Despite the opening up of the country three or so years ago, in today’s Myanmar many of the translations available in bookshops still date from this period. Censorship has meant that since the 1960s, little world literature – other than Soviet literature – has been translated into Burmese. Since the 1990s, translators have been making an effort to change the situation, but in Myanmar, translation tends to be a labour of love, with little or no financial remuneration. Although there is a need to nurture a new generation of literary translators, there is no systematic support in the form of workshops, or skills development in schools and colleges.
This means that Burmese readers have difficulty gaining access to more contemporary writing and ideas from around the world, and Burmese writers find themselves isolated from their international counterparts. At the same time, little contemporary Burmese writing is translated into other languages as there is a shortage of experienced literary translators who can translate out of the languages of Myanmar. We hoped that Link the Worlds would be a first step towards changing this.
Since its establishment in late 2013, PEN Myanmar has aimed to encourage dialogue between writers and readers, reaching out to different parts of Burmese society by holding literary discussions in public places across the country, including on trains and at bus stops. The level of education in Myanmar is low, so people read very little. PEN Myanmar president Ma Thida said that children need to be encouraged to read and write short stories and poems.
As part of its drive to open up the Burmese literary scene, PEN Myanmar holds literary evenings in Yangon (in English), presenting non-Burmese literature, as well as writing from the other ethnic states of Myanmar. Little ethnic literature is available, because of censorship; PEN would like to help develop more writing and translation between Burmese and ethnic languages. This is also the focus of the British Council’s Hidden Words Hidden Worlds project.
Forging a new publishing scene
The independent publishing sector in Myanmar is small but growing. Our partner San Mon Aung’s publishing house Ngar Doe Sar Pay (Our Literature) is part of a new generation of independent publishers forging a new Burmese publishing scene and bringing it to the international stage.
There are four main barriers to publishing in Myanmar, according to San Mon Aung. The distribution system is terrible; the lack of a reliable postal system makes it difficult to get books to readers, either via bookshops or direct. It’s also difficult to collect money from bookshops, and therefore to survive.
Secondly, the reading rate is very low; a book that sells 1,000 copies is considered a bestseller. Thirdly, publishers struggle to find quality writers and translators; even when they do, high quality and literary style don’t necessarily attract a lot of new readers. Finally, although official censorship is in the past, there are still a lot of laws that control publishing – in effect an alternative version of censorship.
Navigating the waters of censorship
Generally there is not a strong culture of editing in the Burmese publishing industry, and many of the small independent publishers cannot afford to hire editors. Most Burmese editors work for periodicals rather than publishers. Myo Myint Nyein, one of the few experienced editors in Myanmar, told us that until two or three years ago there was an official censorship bureau overseeing publications. The editor was captain of the ship, navigating the waters of censorship.
And in daily life, whenever people had a conversation they felt had to self-edit before they spoke; this atmosphere of caution has left its mark on writers. Burmese writers are still resistant to editing when they see it being used as a form of censorship.
Nowadays, editors are more able to focus on style rather than policing content, but even this can be complicated, for a number of reasons. Spoken Burmese sounds smooth, but when the informal language is written down it can be full of grammatical mistakes. Readers in Myanmar don’t mind this, but if the translation echoes this informality, international readers may be less understanding.
Travelling through translation
Another barrier for many publishers in South East Asia more generally is the linguistic diversity of the region; translation is very important for books to travel even to neighbouring countries. There are no literary agents in Myanmar to promote either Burmese or other writers. It is expensive for Burmese publishers to pay for copyright, as books have such a low circulation and make so little money.
Link the Worlds was welcomed by all concerned, as a first step towards improving the situation for literary translation in Myanmar. At the core of the five-day event were two workshops, each with ten participants from different parts of Myanmar. The Burmese to English group worked with workshop leader Moe Thet Han to translate work by UK author Suzanne Joinson and Singaporean author Alfian Sa’at into Burmese. The English to Burmese group translated work by Myanmar writers Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San into English, under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum.
‘I enjoyed the opportunity to talk to people from Myanmar,’ said Suzanne Joinson. ‘Using the process of translation as a common task, what really opened up was a range of narratives: stories, explorations of language, communication. I have already edited a short story for one participant, and have been in touch with another about Burmese writers. It’s a unique chance to make friends from a distant part of the world.’
Alfian Sa’at said he ‘really appreciated the experience as someone living in Southeast Asia. There haven’t been many initiatives to understand the region and I have to admit that Myanmar was never really in my radar as a writer. But now I’m really keen on reading works from Myanmar writers and hoping that these little acts of connecting with one another will lead to greater cultural integration among the Southeast Asian nations.’
One of the senior translators praised Link the Worlds as the first major translation event in Myanmar since 1969. We hope that we won’t have to wait as long until the next time.