Indie publisher translates classics in an old kampung house in Melaka


'Many are hesitant due to the lack of significant profit and the potentially tedious nature of the endeavour. However, I believe there's considerable untapped potential in this field. For us at Pipit Press, it's not solely about financial gain,' says Luqman, the founder, regarding the production of Bahasa Malaysia versions of Western classics. Photo: Pipit Press

More and more secondhand bookstores are springing up around Malaysia, but it’s not often that you’d find one tucked inside an old wooden kampung house near the heart of Melaka town.

But that’s precisely what Ahmad Luqman Zahari, 33, is doing – from his great-grandmother’s house in Kampung Mata Kuching, where he is offering a wide selection of vintage and secondhand books.

Inside, the air is filled with the scent of aged pages, and the shelves are stocked with literary classics by Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters.

Here, you'll also find a treasure trove of legendary Russian authors, alongside a myriad of others, covering literature, philosophy, and psychology.

“Our books are mainly imported from overseas and we have a modest amount of vintage hardcover literary books from the 1970s and 1980s,” says Luqman, a trained civil and chemical engineer, who made the leap into the bookselling and indie publishing world to explore new horizons.

“From time to time, we do get requests from customers to view the books in person, but for the most part, we sell via online platforms,” he adds.

A little bird that could

Beyond selling books and dabbling in freelance editing jobs, Luqman also runs Pipit Press, which translates and publishes classics in Bahasa Malaysia.

“The idea for Pipit Press came to me during the pandemic. I was already selling used books then, and I realised that there are many great classics out there that can be hard to come by, but can be a quick sell, such as those by Khalil Gibran, Albert Camus, Osamu Dazai, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

A few classic Western books that have been translated and published in Bahasa Malaysia by Pipit Press, using a mix of independent and in-house editorial teams. Photo: Pipit PressA few classic Western books that have been translated and published in Bahasa Malaysia by Pipit Press, using a mix of independent and in-house editorial teams. Photo: Pipit Press

Last January, Pipit Press published its first title in Bahasa Malaysia – Mitos Sisyphus, or The Myth Of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus. Since then, it has published six titles and are planning to publish three more for the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair (KLIBF), which takes place from May 24 to June 2.

The Bahasa Malaysia titles available include Fear And Trembling (Soren Kierkegaard), Totem And Taboo (Sigmund Freud), White Nights (Fyodor Dostoyevsky), Waiting For Godot (Samuel Beckett) and No Longer Human (Osamu Dazai).

Pipit Press' new translated texts that will debut at KLIBF are The Death Of Ivan Ilyich (Leo Tolstoy), The Black Monk (Anton Chekhov) and The Stranger (Albert Camus).

To raise funds for printing the books, Pipit Press is currently running a sale of its book collection, which are going for RM20 for paperback titles and RM35-RM80 for hardcover books.

Book reading is cool

Luqman, who previously worked as a farmer in between growing his book collection, views the act of reading as an investment.

“In this era of short attention spans, it’s become more important to choose the right books to spend your time with,” he says.

“And what has stood the test of time better than classical literature? The great Greek philosophers are still relevant to us, as are the 19th-century Russians who wrote about our universal suffering.”

To cut down on office rental and overhead costs, Luqman manages Pipit Press operations from his great-grandmother’s old wooden house in Kampung Mata Kuching, Melaka. Photo: Pipit Press To cut down on office rental and overhead costs, Luqman manages Pipit Press operations from his great-grandmother’s old wooden house in Kampung Mata Kuching, Melaka. Photo: Pipit Press

Luqman notes that locally, there’s been a resurgence in book reading because of the Internet.

“People are getting aware of these so-called ‘high-brow’ books, which are increasingly in demand by young readers,” says Luqman, pointing out that around 80% of his customers are below 40.

“Many of them are progressing to more complex books because they’re looking for reading materials that will push them to think beyond the limits of what they’re accustomed to,” he adds.

Translating classical texts into Bahasa Malaysia is no easy task.

"Many are hesitant due to the lack of significant profit and the potentially tedious nature of the endeavour. However, I believe there's considerable untapped potential in this field. For us at Pipit Press, it's not solely about financial gain," he says.

With every translated publication, Luqman views Pipit Press as rejuvenating the Bahasa Malaysia language.

“In translating these works, we need to add non-existent vocabulary and create new words, so in a sense, we’re continuously upgrading the language with each printing – kind of like software,” he says with a laugh.

Flying high

In Bahasa Malaysia, "pipit" is the swallow bird, which Pipit Press takes its name from. Though it may have started out as a parody of international publishing house Penguin, Luqman admits that the indie outfit –which includes a translator and designer – may have also subconsciously placed Penguin as its “benchmark”.

In January 2023, Pipit Press published its first title in Bahasa Malaysia – 'Mitos Sisyphus', or 'The Myth Of Sisyphus', by Albert Camus. Photo: Pipit PressIn January 2023, Pipit Press published its first title in Bahasa Malaysia – 'Mitos Sisyphus', or 'The Myth Of Sisyphus', by Albert Camus. Photo: Pipit Press

"The swallow symbolises our small team at Pipit Press. Despite being new to publishing, we believe our small size allows us to soar higher and withstand challenges." Luqman plans to stay in Melaka, appreciating the ease of connecting with indie book retailers nationwide.

By keeping overheads low, Pipit Press can also focus on quality translated works for the Bahasa Malaysia literary scene.

“We’ve translated nine masterpieces of world literature with this small team in just two years, and we believe we can do more,” concludes Luqman.

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