Lots in Translation

11 September 2017

Malaysia has a rich collection of literature, and we’re sharing it with the world – one translation at a time. Learn about the country’s literary translation industry and the minds behind it.

Not far from the Sri Rampai LRT Station in Wangsa Maju is the home of the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books, or ITBM.

A low-rise, plain white building, its unassuming appearance belies its purpose – as the lead agency for the translation industry, the institute carries out translation services for official documents and reference books, interpreting services as well as training courses in translation.

But more than this, in its capacity as a knowledge transfer entity, the institute is also tasked with publishing international literary works into Malay and vice versa.

For example, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s seminal piece of German literature Faust was translated into Malay and Hikayat Hang Tuah, a Malay manuscript that tells the tale of the legendary warrior, was translated into English by the institute.


“Translating world literature into Malay means Malaysians have the access to enhance their intellectual capabilities. Similarly, translating Malaysian literature means the international reader can access our rich Malaysian culture,” explains ITBM managing director Mohd Khair Ngadiron.

To date, a total of 847 book titles have been translated by the institute. Target languages include English, Arabic, German, French, Spanish, Dutch, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. The institute has more than 1,500 translators, interpreters and editors registered with it.

ITBM managing director Mohd Khair Ngadiron.

In 2015, the government allocated RM5 million to the institute, so that it may continue to publish more original Malaysian works and conduct programmes to cultivate new literary talent.

“We want to boost the national publishing industry and produce Malaysian works that are recognised worldwide,” says Mohd Khair.  

To this end, ITBM participates in international book fairs on a regular basis, the most recent being the Riyadh International Book Fair held last March in Saudi Arabia. The institute also collaborates frequently with Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese and even French and German publishers.

“By going overseas and having international ties, ITBM helps to showcase and create awareness of our unique Malaysian culture,” says Dr Looi Wai Ling, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Languages & Linguistics, University of Malaya.

Dr Looi, who completed her doctorate in Translation Studies at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, recently convened the 16th International Conference on Translation 2017 held in Kuala Lumpur.

In conjunction with the conference, the organising committee published a compilation of translations of the popular Malaysian folktale The Mouse Deer and the Crocodiles.

“We translated the story into 111 languages, including five Chinese dialects. It took us more than one year to put it all together, since we were working also with overseas collaborators,” explains Dr Looi.

Dr Looi holds up a copy of The Mouse Deer and the Crocodiles, a compilation of the beloved Malaysian folktale in 111 languages.

The Mouse Deer and the Crocodiles (originally Sang Kancil Dengan Buaya in Malay) is a simple tale that Malaysian children grow up with, but now a lot more people around the world can get to read it.

One of the courses that Dr Looi teaches explores the quality of translation – what makes for a good translation? 

“Determining the quality of a translation depends on the purpose of the translation. With something like an official, historical document, what’s important is the original text [can] be clearly understood through the translated text. But with a literary piece, what’s important is retaining the richness, the character of the original text,” says Dr Looi.

Local publisher and bookstore Buku Fixi has produced Malay editions of international bestsellers.

Based on individual styles and differences, every translator will translate slightly differently from the next, but a literary translation should never deviate from the feeling of the original text – or what Dr Looi likes to call its “peculiarity”.

Three years into its business, local publisher Buku Fixi started putting out Malay editions of international bestsellers under its Fixi Verso arm, starting with Stephen King’s Joyland and Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane in January 2014.

“I thought it would be fun to do,” says Fixi founder and publisher Amir Muhammad. “Plus almost every country I’ve been to has many books translated into their language, but I didn’t see many books translated into Malay.”

Since then, Fixi has translated nine works of fiction, choosing translators Amir feels have the “flair and stamina” for it.

“I choose those books whose themes and reputation I feel are in line with the kind of pulp fiction that Fixi already publishes, because those readers are our target market anyway,” says Amir.

“The only one I would consider a bestseller would be our translation of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green which sold 8,000 copies. All the others couldn't even sell 3,000.”

Fixi founder Amir Muhammad.

Nevertheless, there’s a certain pride that goes into every translated work. “The single translation I am most proud of is for Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage which had to be done from the original Japanese. The English version wasn’t out yet at the time,” says Amir.

The tenth Fixi Verso, Yesterday by Malaysian-born author Felicia Yap, will be out later this year.

Like most Malaysians, Amir is bilingual. But as a publisher who deals in translations, what has he realised are the stark differences between Malay and English?

“English words are shorter! A 60,000-word manuscript tends to be 300 pages in Malay but about 260 pages in English. The fact that Malay pronouns are not gendered can also create some interesting twists.”

And as for the act of translation itself, is it more of an art or a science? Amir remarks, “Perhaps it's more akin to alchemy or its reverse.”

ITBM Wisma ITBM, No 2, Jalan 2/27E, Seksyen 10, Wangsa Maju, 53300 Kuala Lumpur
Kedai Fixi 4-24 & 4-25 Level 4, Sunway Putra Mall, No 100, Jalan Putra, 50350 Kuala Lumpur

By Luwita Hana Randhawa
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi and Luwita Hana Randhawa

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