Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 1


Melbourne Writers FestivalIt’s Monday morning, August 25th, a week before the end of Melbourne’s winter season and slightly under a week left of literary events at the Melbourne Writers Festival. In a closed industry event, Writers Victoria and the Melbourne Writers Festival have invited poets, writers, translators and literary sector workers from Australia and the Asia-Pacific to gather at the Wheeler Centre for the Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia- Pacific Writers Forum to discuss issues within the region including topics about translation; politics and censorship; readership; identity and collaboration; publishing; and income generation as a poet, writer or translator.

Present in the room are Melbourne Writers Festival director Lisa Dempster; Writers Victoria director Kate Larsen; Australian poet, non-fiction writer, and curator of contemporary art John Mateer; Indonesian writer and novelist Ahmad Fuadi; Emerging Writers Festival director Sam Twyford-Moore; Kill Your Darlings deputy editor, writer and visual artist Hop Dac; Peril arts and politics editor Jarni Blakkarly; Malaysian poet, writer, translator, journalist and teacher Eddin Khoo; Peril prose editor and Mascara Literary Review creative non-fiction editor, writer and poet Juliana Qian; Singaporean fiction editor of Esquire (Singapore), editor of creative non-fiction magazine POSKOD.SG and writer Amanda Lee Koe; Peril visual arts editor, visual artist and curator Nikki Lam; poet, writer, editor, anthologist, translator and educator Alvin Pang; author, writer and literary translator Linda Jaivin; co-founder and CEO of Yeeyan, the largest translator community site in China, Jiamin Zhao; Beijing based senior correspondent for The Southern Metropolitan Daily, Zhang Tianpan; editorial manager at the Griffith Review Hamish Townsend; Filipina-American non-fiction writer Laurel Fantauzzo; Australian poet and monologist Terry Jaensch; Melbourne-based writer and co-director of RMIT’s nonfiction Lab Research group and of the WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) Program David Carlin; short-story writer, founder and director of Makassar International Writers’ Festival, Indonesia, Lily Yulianti Farid; Lian Low, writer, spoken word artist and editor-at-large with Peril; the founder and director of the annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival Janet de Neefe; French-Australian writer, educator and social entrepreneur and Marco Polo Project founder and Marco Polo Festival of Digital Literature co-director Julien Leyre; novelist, memoirist and essayist and co-director of RMIT’s nonfiction Lab Research Group and the WrICE program Francesca Rendle-Short.

Read on for the first of a three-part report about the two hours of vibrant conversations and debates.  The report has been divided along the lines of each provocation topic: translation; politics and censorship; audience and readership.  The inaugural forum is a wonderful beginning for a much needed longer and ongoing conversation with poets, writers, translators and literary sector workers within the region.

Provocation 1 – Translation

Provocateur: Francesca Rendle-Short

Three things come to Francesca’s mind when she thinks about translation; the first is how “translation is about barking, it’s about becoming something else, in order to communicate”. She reads out an excerpt from Arab francophone writer Abdelfattah Kilito’s essay “Dog words”:

“Quick, what does a Bedouin do when he loses his way at night in the desert? What stratagem does he use to find human habitation, and therefore find himself?. . . Taking his cue from the monkey, he resorts to a rather simian ploy: he starts barking (incredible but true). . . If there are any dogs in the area they will start to bark in turn and indicate human habitation to the traveler . . . One must bark in order to find one’s way; in order to become human one must first turn into a dog”.

The second is the mythical dimension to language, “as opposed to a referential dimension of the signs and symbols” and how it “expresses more than what is communicated – it’s about beliefs, ideas, idealised realities, subjective stances, emotional resonances, socialised ways of thinking”. How mythology is connected to story, fable and rumour and how bards and storytellers like Homer were interested in “story and truths that were timeles poetics of the imagination”.

The third idea is about thinking about language as a third space through writing. Says Francesca, “What is it that we do when we make work? We make this thing that is a third space that is of us, but we are communicating with somebody else. We are giving it as a gift to someone else, and I’m wondering then what happens in terms of translation of making this gift explicable to other people?”

“David Morley says that writing made well, shaped well, writing ceases to feel like artifice and it becomes alive and the moment that happens it ceases to be your own and becomes communal. Joyce Carol Oates says ‘the individual voice is the communal voice, the regional voice is the universal voice’. So, my question then is how does this work in practice; how does the making of work, whatever the work is, actually happen through the communication and on the page?”

The following are responses to Francesca’s provocation on translation:

Table 1: Lisa Dempster, Sam Twyford-Moore, John Mateer, Kate Larsen, Hop Dac, Juliana Qian, Eddin Khoo and Jarni Blakkarly.

Table 1 covers translation topics between Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia, focusing on understanding the standards of translation within each country. Indonesia publishes approximately 20,000 titles each year, but only one or two of those are translated. There isn’t enough information about how to cross national borders from one language to another, for example so few texts from Malaysia or Indonesia make it to Australia. Malaysia has a translation house that is government influenced, however Eddin Khoo doesn’t believe that the work is done well because of censorship issues. Eddin runs a publishing house, Kala, that translates works into Malay and he finds that there are inherent problems within the translation because of the cosmopolitan nature of the Malay language.

According to Eddin, the speakers of the Malay language are faced with the “emasculated nature of the language – of being able to speak it and appreciate it and learn it, but not be able to say anything about it” because of the restrictions imposed through censorship. Kala Publishing House is currently working on introducing a vocabulary of translation, not necessarily as a profession, but as a literary venture or literary adventure in its own terms. He engages with youth who are Malay literate and encourages them to build upon their experience of language. One example of this was Eddin working with a young writer and sponsoring him to learn the Czech language because of his interest in Milan Kundera.

One of the issue raised is the quality of translation in Indonesian, and issues that can come about if translation isn’t done well, considering the commercial aspects and financial viability of the translations. If there is no commercial dimension to the work, can the work succeed, and where would the funding come from? In Ahmad Fuadi’s experience, there are no agents in Indonesia which means that he works directly with his editor. As Ahmad Fuadi’s book Negeri 5 Menara (which sold more than 100,000 copies in the first year of its release) was highly successful, his publishing house Gramedia took it upon themselves to have his book translated into English as The Land of 5 Towers. But, this was at the cost of US $3,000 or thirty million rupiah. This cost is estimated to be comparable to the cost of Australian translations. However, given the outlay of the cost, there’s a huge financial viability, which might limit translating to one or two books a year; a luxury rather than a given as many writers will not be able to afford this fee.

Kate Larsen is interested in translation as a collaborative artform. According to Kate, when you look at collected works, you can sometimes get three versions of the same poem. “Especially in poetry when the language is so specific and important, and carefully chosen to have three entirely different versions of that poem because of the translation is fascinating to me. The quality of that translation. But also with a living poet, is it a collaborative effort; is that translation much of the artform as the original work itself?”.

In Australia, people have forgotten about a history of translation spanning over thirty or forty years. Furthermore, while there’s a lot of importance placed on translation, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people learning different languages. In Australia, there has been a change of language learning at high schools – where European languages like French and Italian were the primary languages, now more Asian languages are available, possibly due to the rise of Chinese influence in Australia, which makes it practical to learn the language. However, students can finish Year 12 Chinese but barely know how to read a newspaper, which means that there isn’t a very good standard of language learning in high schools.

Monash University has a translation centre and is interested in developing and educating translators and literary translators, but it isn’t certain if they fund translation projects. The Australian Association for Literary Translation (AALITRA) is a national organisation that promotes an interest in all aspects of literary translation. It doesn’t fund projects, but is supportive of the industry.

In conclusion, Table 1 has the following questions:

Are there enough people learning languages? Is there enough appreciation for language? Is there enough appreciation for the process of translation? In Australia, there are inherent structural problems in regards to paying writers, thus within that broader discussion, how are translators paid? Are we all making literature for love, is there an expectation that we do so out of love? And is that an attitude that needs to be changed in order to be more sustainable?

Table 2: Alvin Pang, Linda Jaivin, Laurel Fantauzzo, Amanda Lee Koe, Nikki Lam, Jiamin Zhao, Zhang Tianpan, Hamish Townsend.

Alvin Pang cheerfully offers, “Our table is full of translators, so we had a really passionate discussion”.

The discussion at Table 2 covers the following two broad themes:

i) Quality of translation – what makes a good translation and how to get the sense of language out.

ii) Economics of translation

In recognising how the industry works, Alvin highlights that certain brand names dominate the market regardless of the quality of translators. This domination of brand names compromises the question about who gets translated and who gets to translate. There is a general consensus around the table that there is a narrow list, which means that the list of good writers and texts audiences read have become very narrow. Due to the market being dominated by certain brand names, there is an issue with the quality of translation, which means that there are many good translators that are not known.

One solution strongly put forward is the crowd-sourcing of translators, for eg the community of translators in Yeeyan and the Marco Polo project. However, with crowd-sourcing translation models – whether digital publishing or traditional publishing, copyright issues start to matter.

Unfortunately, the group ran out of time when discussing ideas about the best practice translation model.

Table 3: Lian Low, Terry Jaensch, David Carlin, Lily Yulianti Farid, Janet de Neefe, Julien Leyre and Francesca Rendle-Short.

Table 3 discuss models of translation. Julien Leyre’s Marco Polo Project works on a crowd-sourcing model where two-thirds are people that Julien knows, while a third of translators are random online users. As an educator, he finds the translations quite reasonable quality, but not publication ready. As most of the works published are short non-fiction, there isn’t a consultation process set up as yet with the author. Julien feels more need to train readers, in terms of their expectations when reading a translation.

Translation can be a co-creative process for example having two writers or two poets together to work on translating each other’s work, which is a way of circumventing payment issues as the work is co-shared as a project. Marco Polo has a project of translating poetry in small groups, with quite good results. For example, Marco Polo enabled a project where four people – three high school students and one American based in Shanghai worked on one poem. The framing of the practice in terms of economy was about mutual learning, whereby all participants gain language learning. Normal methods of learning a language requires payment, workshops or tutoring, but with this translation model, the by-product of the learning is a translation, which is a slower model to a professional translator, however, as it is framed within education, there is still a translation result without the need for payment.

When the Makassar International Writers Festival first began, director and founder Lily Yulianti had difficulty in finding a good translator who could translate from Indonesian to English and English to Indonesian. As a literary festival, Lily Yulianti has to find a translator that can do two sorts of translation: i) to communicate ii) translating the poetic and understanding of literary nuance. In Indonesia the primary organisation that does literary translation is the LONTAR Foundation.

In 2011, Terry Jaensch was involved in an Asialink and Cordite Poetry Review Australia-Korea Poetry exchange project. Terry submitted four poems translated by a Korean translator. The inspiration for one of the poems about love and beat culture, “The poet asks his love to write him” was taken from toilet wall graffiti, however, Terry later found out from the translator that a word in his poem ‘Twink’ could not be translated. Terry found the experience and process of translation interesting and problematic, that there can be an absence of language to translate; but because there was no consultation, the social context of the word was not understood and thus missing.

Lily Yulianti’s experience of having her book translated by John McGlynn, co-founder and chairman of the LONTAR Foundation took two years, hundreds of emails and meetings. The process took so long because Lily used a lot of local language, not Indonesian, which wasn’t understood by the translator. They went through three waves of translation, to find the concept then the right word and expression. For example, Lily used the Bugis word ‘makkunrai’, when translated directly as “woman”, doesn’t capture the cultural and religious aspects of the word, which points to the absences of language in translation. Some words don’t need translation – for example, ‘tsunami’. The way Lily and John resolved the issue was footnoting ‘makkunrai’. Despite the slow process, Lily enjoyed the rigour undertook by John in translating her work (he was also translating other works at the same time), and realised that in the translation, she had to trust him in producing the work which for her, is a new creative act.

For the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, director Janet De Neefe finds it hard to find consistent quality of translation every year. Finding funds for translation can also be an issue. Translation for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is adviced by John McGlynn.

Australia is one of the main resource of translators for Indonesia.

For Terry, translation isn’t necessarily just about language, or words that are translated, it can also be translated into performance or a live art discipline. For example, there is a classical Indian dancer who translates poetry, so there isn’t a textual translation, but a performative one. “Is it about having someone having a text that they can read in their own language or is the desire to communicate the piece of writing through some other kind of discipline, because that can be achieved there too, so I guess it’s determining what the desire is in the first place”, says Terry.

* * *

Next week, part two of this special report will feature responses to Linda Jaivin’s provocation on politics and censorship.

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 2- Provocation 2 – Politics and Censorship

> Related: Melbourne Writers Festival’s inaugural Asia-Pacific Writers Forum: Part 3 – Audience and Readership

Author: Lian Low

Lian Low is a writer, editor and spoken word artist.She’s currently at large in Peril‘s outer orbit. Previously editor-in-chief (2010-2014) , prose editor (2009-2014) and on Peril‘s Board until 2016.Find her on and Twitter @Lian__Low

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