Reflections on a translation project in Yangon, Myanmar
The English-to-Myanmar translation group of the Link the Worlds project spent a long time discussing the title of my short story, ‘Theory of Flight’. I explained that I had taken it from a collection of poems by Muriel Rukeyser, published in 1935, and while it referred to the technicalities of learning to fly there were also other meanings: it was about running away, taking off and changing. Together we explored the various words in Burmese and English for sky, wind, freedom, flight, and these led naturally on to discussions around terms such as homesickness, nostalgia and loss.
Though we did not talk directly about Myanmar’s recent troubled past, when we spoke about language it felt as if trapdoors opened on to individual stories, usually with themes of escape or transition. One participant told how, during turbulent times, he and publisher friends carried his printing press deep into the jungle in order to continue printing. A young and particularly delicate looking female student told me that whenever she could save up the money around her studies she joined the Myanmar Hiking and Trekking Association and spent up to 30 days trekking in the most wild and dangerous Burmese jungles and mountains.
During the course of our week together I learned that at least four people in the room had spent a significant amount of their life in prison, enduring things I could not begin to imagine. The man who sat next to me had a Burmese-to-English dictionary that was so old its cover had disintegrated and most of the pages were loose. He showed me his notebook. It was full of lists of slightly antiquated English vocabulary, ladders of words stretching up and down the pages. Several of the older participants had last attended a similar event in the 1960s, which was perhaps when this faded dictionary was published. Time had stopped in Burma, it seemed, and now after many painful years, it was beginning to move forward again.
Translation, to me, means access to words and thought across geographical swathes of the world and without a skilful capturing of the closest version of what is being said, or written, we can never hope to hear one another’s stories. Translation, as a process, with its never-ending raking through the possibilities of combinations of words, is the greatest form of international conversation we have.
Before taking part in the Link the Worlds project, with its partners – Writers’ Centre Norwich, PEN Myanmar, the Select Centre, the British Centre for Literary Translation and the British Council – I didn’t know much about Myanmar. I knew that George Orwell had visited and wrote his famous Burmese Days. I knew of Aung San Suu Kyi. I knew that previously Burma had been under British rule, and that Britain – as usual – had exploited and then abandoned its former colony. I was only in Yangon for a week, so I barely had time to dip a toe into Burmese life, but what I felt from the discussions was a powerful sense of a country changing and beginning to fly. People told me that censorship is now (relatively) relaxed and the internet is open and accessible. Writers are beginning to write as they want to. Publishers are able to print and publish as they wish. I think. Or at least, they are one step closer to being able to.
A local literary prize’s publicity imagery was of a cage opening and a bird taking a tentative look out and at first I was surprised at that picture. I’m used to more abstract symbols, less overt statements, but by the end of my time in Yangon I came closer to understanding what it meant and why it had been chosen.
It was a privilege to be in a room full of people studying my short story, taking each sentence, examining it, and thoughtfully discussing what it was I was trying to say. Words are precious, important, and people who have had their freedom of speech taken away from them for many years of course know this more than anyone else. Amitav Ghosh wrote in The Hungry Tide, ‘How do you lose a word? Does it vanish into your memory, like an old toy in a cupboard, and lie hidden in the cobwebs and dust, waiting to be cleaned out or rediscovered?’ In the hard-working space of our discussion groups words were being held up, like found treasure, and the atmosphere in the room was full of hope.
My group settled on translating ‘Theory of Flight’ into ‘Flight Manual’, choosing to emphasize the instructions, the navigation and the practical elements. Seeing my story projected on to the screen in the beautiful Burmese script was a special feeling. Listening to it being read out was even more moving, but it was hearing the stories that had been translated from Myanmar into English that was the best part of the workshop for me.
Thank you to all the partners and organisers involved in the project, to our workshop leader, Moe Thet Han, and all the participants. I feel lucky and thankful to have taken part and hope to return one day.