During our Link the Worlds event in Myanmar in May 2015, we translated work by two Burmese writers, Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San, into English, under the guidance of literary translator Alfred Birnbaum. As these short extracts show, the two writers have quite different styles, from realist to surrealist, and presented the translators with a range of challenges. We appreciated having the writers with us, to answer endless questions and help hone the translations.
Mom Killed Me
By Min Khite Soe San
It was raining out there. Looking out the window, I saw a red-roofed colonial-style school building. There was also a brick church with two upright spires. Everything was a blur in the rain that drizzled in through the shutters, falling on what I was writing. Stiff as a dead cat, I didn’t budge. Someone should have buried me.
The rain kept falling. My young girlfriend sat quietly in front of me. It was over. She didn’t move from her chair, probably because she had no idea what to do. Or like me, maybe she felt like a dead cat too.
How could I know? Do lovers read each other’s hearts? Nonsense!
To my eyes, the raindrops falling gently on my desk were “unknowable rain”. The green leaves swaying in the monsoon wind “unknowable leaves”. The rice grains hauled by ants along the bottom of the wall “unknowable rice”. Damp tears streaking my lover’s cheeks, “unknowable tears”. Why did these unknowables overflow like sewage? After all it was understood, we knew this day would come.
“U Zaw . . .” she said, “you and me, let’s get married.”
I shook my head. She knew from the start I’d never marry her. Sad but true (my refusal to propose, that is.)
To lessen the hurt, I once tried to keep her away. She wouldn’t have it. I tried to use our fifteen-year age gap to convince myself to treat her as a niece, for a while at least. Finally, I explained at length that I would never marry, an ordinary life was not for me. She seemed to understand and held back for a while, but again it went nowhere.
One day after sichet and kawye noodles in Chinatown, we’d been strolling Latha Street when out of nowhere she was clinging to me, giggling. That’s how we became lovers.
Three or four years on, her parents started asking questions. She never lied, she told them the truth, so they called me. Her parents were rich but reasonable, they didn’t mention our fifteen-year age gap. They had just one question. “When will you two get married?” That was the problem.
And just as I thought, six months later she blurted out again, “Let’s get married!”
I shook my head (otherwise she might think I’d have a change of heart and settle down after a while.)
“What’s wrong with me?” she asked. “Where are my flaws?”
There was nothing wrong with her. She had no flaws. The problem was me, I was sick. Phobic of family. Phobic of children. Phobic of fatherhood. How could I explain? My brain was mush. Maybe I could blend in some syrup to wash it down? Sickness isn’t right or wrong, should or shouldn’t, it’s just reality. The reality of my life.
City of Statues
By Nay Myo
I walked down the road to where it forked in two. I didn’t know which way to go, so in the end I took one street. The sunlight faded, the wind howled, the metallic sky was still. I came to a halt when I got to . . . another statue!
It faced away, all I could see was its broad back. Slowly I approached and looked up in amazement! I took another hard look.
I was awe-struck, waves of astonishment surged up in me. The statue – the eyebrows, the nose, the mouth – all the features were mine. That grand work of art was me.
“Here you are, Sir!” came a voice from behind.
I glanced over my shoulder. A crowd of people was looking at me.
Someone muttered, “No. 106,” as another noted it down.
Now they all went quiet and approached in unison. One person stepped up and whispered, “Sir, it’s time. The glorious end.” It was enough to give me chills.
They led me by the hand. “Would you like to say anything?”
I came back to my senses. “I . . . I don’t know. I don’t understand.”
Again they opened the book and noted this down. “Your words will be recorded as the most dignified, most profound and most sensational of the century.”
Both extracts were translated by Zaw Tun, Khin Hnit Thit Oo, Aung Min Khant, U Kyaw Thura, Mar Mar Soe, Hla Maung, San Lin Tun, Lettyar Tun, Hsu Paing Swe, with authors Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San, under the guidance of Alfred Birnbaum.
Link the Worlds was a week-long series of translation workshops and literary discussions that took place in Yangon in May 2015. It was run by PEN Myanmar, in partnership with Writers’ Centre Norwich and the Select Centre in Singapore. 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.