by Lucas Stewart
Myanmar’s first post-independence President, U Nu, recognised the value of good literary translation with the establishment of the Burma Translation Society in 1947. This organisation grew in strength over the next ten years producing high quality volumes of English, French and Russian to Burmese translations of European Classics and Western modernists.
After the military coup in 1962, the philosophy of the ‘Society’ was quickly strangled to the degree that it soon could only translate from a limited, pre-approved list of texts which were not considered ‘harmful to the state of the nation’. Literary translation became another victim of General Ne Win’s socialist ‘way to democracy’. Augment this with a disastrous national budget shift which saw education financing plummet to some of the lowest GDP percentage rates in the world, and two generations of Burmese and world readers have lived without access to each other’s literature.
A literary translation workshop organised by PEN Myanmar, the British Council and the British Centre for Literary Translation is hoping to change that.
Slated for the last week of May, the workshop, the first of its kind in Myanmar, at least since 1962, will see 20 Burmese participants, selected by an open call application process, learn the basic techniques for English to Burmese and Burmese to English literary translation. Guiding them along the way will be English writer Suzanne Joinson, author of a Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, Murakami translator Alfred Birnbaum and Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at.