It is said that there is only one novel from Myanmar translated into English. While this isn’t strictly true (there are at least six) Nu Nu Yi’s ‘Smile as they Bow’ gained a much deserved reputation after being the first Burmese novel short listed for a major international award, the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008. Her translator, Alfred Birnbaum, is perhaps better known for his early translations of Haruki Murakami. What many people probably don’t know, including myself until last week, is that Alfred has a Burmese wife, lived in Myanmar for eight years and speaks, reads and writes fluent Burmese.
Mr Birnbaum was back in Myanmar last week as part of the Link the Wor(l)ds literary translation workshop, the first in Myanmar. Organised by PEN Myanmar, with support from the British Council, PEN International, the British Centre for Literary Translation, the Writers Centre Norwich, Select Centre and Penguin Random House, the workshop took a collaborative approach to literary translation with participants separated into pairs and spending a week translating a short story under the guidance of Mr Birnbaum and leading Myanmar translator Moe Thet Han. The creators of the stories, UK novelist Suzanne Joinson and Singaporean playwright Alfie Sa’at, sat in on the workshops and provided discussion and explanation of their words.
Outlets for international translation do exist, increasingly online, and with the current mood for information on Myanmar, it is an opportune time for Myanmar translators to take advantage of that, but understanding the international translation environment, especially in terms of publishing and editing translated works is a secondary barrier which the translators here must overcome. The addition of panel discussions at the end of each workshop day, led by industry professionals such as Imogen Liu, Acquisitions editor at Penguin Random House in Beijing and William Phuan, Managing Director and Co-founder of the Select Centre in Singapore were a great introduction for the participants to what lies ahead of them in their future careers.
The importance of literary translation from ‘emerging countries’ is often overlooked as politics and political changes takes centre stage, and yet it will be through the words of the people who live in the country that the impact of transition will be deliberated over in future years. Without translation, those words will find few readers and even fewer who understand Myanmar.