Sunday, 23 March 2014

(Not) Lost in translation

Hafiz Hamzah feels that ‘there are so many important and interesting works from all around the globe that we can learn from...that come with... a very long literary tradition’. -Photo from Hafiz Hamzah

Hafiz Hamzah feels that ‘there are so many important and interesting works from all around the globe that we can learn from...that come with... a very long literary tradition’. -Photo from Hafiz Hamzah

Hafiz Hamzah has embarked on a project to publish Malay translations of classics in other languages.

YANG ini biar pasti, malam ini akan kau diserangi kejang ... kau akan dicubit setebal indang madu, setiap cubitan lebih sengat dari lebah yang menjadikannya.”

Words punctuated with notes of scorn and wrath. The drama is unmistakable. But even in the midst of the furore, the beauty of the words is undeniable. Like the chords of a magnificent concerto, each word was carefully chosen for its intended effect. And only a true maestro can do that.

Indeed, it was a literary savant who penned those words but not in our national language.

These words were written in a different tongue by the most famous playwright of classic English literature. These are the words spoken by Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “For this, be sure, tonight thou shalt have cramps ... / ... thou shalt be pinched / As thick as honeycomb, each pinch more stinging / Than bees that made ’em.”

Even in another language – as in the Malay translation above by Eddin Khoo – the Bard’s literary genius shines through.

That was exactly the intention of Hafiz Hamzah when he embarked on a monumental, two-pronged project nearly four years ago. Basically, the project was to bring great works of world literature to local readers in the national language.

“It was important for us to keep the language and meaning where they really belong. And, on top of that, the spirit and soul of the original text is most crucial to preserve. Thus, we had to stay really close to the meaning and spirit of the text in the original language,” said Hafiz at a recent interview.

What Hafiz, 31, is aspiring to should in no way be seen as didactic. It is simply to ignite the passion of reading and to rekindle the love for Bahasa Malaysia among this country’s readers.

“If you are talking about literature alone, specifically Malay literature, I think it is very stagnant, if not worsening. Malay literature no longer resides in the heart of readers,” Hafiz feels.

His aspirations finally manifested late last year when Obscura: Merapat Renggang was published. The slim volume offers translated snippets of works by great writers like Shakespeare, Hemingway and Homer to name a few, as well as original works by Ibrahim Yaakob, Alina Abdullah and Hafiz himself from the local front.

Speaking about the genesis of this project, Hafiz, the founder and editor of Pustaka Obscura, shared: “It is intended to introduce the world of classical literature to a local audience, especially to those who only read in Malay and are not familiar with foreign languages.

“By doing this, we believe that it will enrich the reading experience in Malay and the language itself. I also have to mention that we are not only focusing on translation. We are very much interested in publishing suitable original works by local writers, be they essays, fiction or poetry.”

Some of the excerpts in Obscura are from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper and Franz Kafka’s Before The Law.

The famous “Sing, O Goddess” from Homer’s The Iliad reads thus: “Paduka Dewi, nyanyikanlah: kisah amok akilis putera Peleus, dan bala pedih yang menimpa tentera Akia, ribuan nyawa, jiwa-sukma wira perkasa, terhumban ke neraka dan jasad mereka jadi santapan anjing dan gagak.”

With literary coffers replete with fascinating books, plays and poems, why and how were these particular works chosen?

“To begin with, they had to be really interesting and not clichéd. But, most importantly, they must also have a very good form or style of writing, as we hope to introduce new nuances in Malay writing and elevate it from what we have today,” Hafiz explained.

Hafiz feels that the significance of Obscura in the Malaysian literary world, and for everyday Malaysians, is to “widen the perspectives of local readers, especially those who really care about the development of Malay writing.”

He added, “There are so many important and interesting works from all around the globe that we can learn from. They come with different values and a very long literary tradition.”

There is no denying of the importance of Obscura. We may have read the works of these great writers in the original language but what delights can be found in reading them anew and afresh in another language.

Obscura: Merapat Renggang (Pustaka Obscura, 140 pages) is available at all major bookstores. For online purchase, visit

Related story:

English or Malay ... just read lah

Tags / Keywords: Entertainment , Hafiz Hamzah , Obscura , Bahasa Malaysia , translation , world literature , Shakespeare


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