Edward is no pontianak

What happens when English novels are translated into Bahasa Malaysia?

EDWARD sebenarnya pontianak.” When I read that sentence in the Bahasa Malaysia translation of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight I knew I had to buy the book.

Senjakala is translated and published by Pelangi Books (484 pages, ISBN: 978-9830042329), the same publisher responsible for the Malay translations of the Harry Potter series.

I am now very curious about Harry Potter in BM. What is centaur in Bahasa Malaysia? According to Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s online English-Bahasa Malaysia dictionary, it’s "sentora". And I believe whoever translated Twilight refered to DBP’s Kamus Dewan when translating vampire. Pontianak, however, seems like the wrong word to me.

A pontianak is a female vampire. According to folklore, a woman who dies in childbirth becomes a pontianak. If, like me, you used to watch old Malay movies, you immediately think of a creature with long black hair, a long white dress and a hideous face. In human form she would be a pretty woman in a sexy kebaya. Edward Cullen sebenarnya bukan pontianak (excuse the bad BM).

I didn’t like Twilight in English and it isn’t any better in BM. A different language doesn’t help the daft plot, or make Bella less annoying and Edward less creepy. And it certainly doesn’t help that Bella, in translation, says awkward and unbelievable things like, “Saya juga gembira dapat jumpa ayah”, or refers to the Indian reservation as “penempatan masyarakat Red Indian”. See?

In Malay Bella isn’t just a wet hen; she’s a racist wet hen! However, I’m certain many readers will suck it all up in BM just as many have sucked it up in English. How could they resist the sheer romance of a marble-hard sparkly vampire falling in love with a human girl because she smells finger lickin’ good?

But seriously, I think it’s great that Pelangi Books have translated Twilight (New Moon is also available as Cinta Baru), and the Harry Potters. However, I do feel more effort has to be made on the translation. Of course, I only have Senjakala to go by – much of it reads like the translator has put the text through some kind of software (like Babelfish) and then barely tweaked the results.

It’s the same with English translations of BM novels. “She walked with her arms on her waist” is just one of the many mind-boggling sentences in a translation of a novel by our national laureate A. Samad Said. It’s really a shame that good English translations of Malay novels and short stories are hard to come by because that would obviously widen their reach.

It’s also a shame that good BM translations of English novels are few and far between as it would give our children more choice of reading material.

In an interview on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, Edith Grossman, an award-winning translator of Spanish literary works into English, said that she feels a translation is successful when it has “captured the intention, the tone, and the artfulness of the original writer”.

A translator has to have a strong command of both the original language of the work and the language he is translating it into. More than textbook knowledge of both languages is required to capture the “subtleties of ... the original author”.

Idioms can’t be directly translated. And a translator also needs to be sensitive to the cultural conventions represented in the original work. For example, in Twilight, Bella’s dad refers to her mother, his ex-wife, by her first name, Renee. In the Malay translation, he refers to her as “ibu kamu”. It’s unusual for a Malaysian parent to refer to his/her spouse (or ex-spouse) by name when conversing with his/her child. But Charlie and Bella aren’t Malaysian so I feel the translator should have stuck to Renee.

It seems to me that the reason why sub-standard translations exist in Malaysia is the same as why there are so many badly-written, badly-illustrated and poorly-edited books published here. There’s just a lack of pride in what we produce. It looks like getting a book out is the objective and quality be damned. I’ve been told that some translators are even hired based on who they know, not their qualifications or experience.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. I’ve just started reading National Laureate Muhammad Haji Salleh’s English translation of Hikayat Hang Tuah – The Epic of Hang Tuah (Institute Terjemahan Negara Malaysia, 600 pages, ISBN: 978-9830683300), originally written by Kassim Ahmad. So far, this massive RM250 book seems to me to be a thoughtful, careful work.

But I have to say its size and weight don’t encourage me to bring it to bed (that’s where most of my reading gets done.)

If the National Translation Institute has pubIished this because it hopes to widen the appeal and accessibility of the classic, I hope there will be a smaller, lighter, cheaper edition before too long.

> Daphne Lee reads to wonder and wander, be amazed and amused, horrified and heartened and inspired and comforted. She wishes more people will try it too. Send e-mails to star2@thestar.com.my.

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