Leave a comment

Great Indonesian Literature: Tales of Panji

The stories of Javanese cultural hero, Prince Panji Inu Kertapati, dating from the 13th century, mark the development of a truly Javanese literature that was no longer overshadowed by the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Set among the eastern Javanese kingdoms, the stories tell of Panji’s search for his beloved Princess Candra Kirana, before the two lovers are happy-endingly reunited. During the Majapahit empire from the 14th to 15th centuries, the Panji stories became extremely popular, spreading from Java to Bali, Lombok, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Sumatra.

The Panji tales were spread by merchants along the trading routes, and became one of the most popular forms of literature in Southeast Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries, and crossed the borders to the Malay region where they are known as “Hikayat”. The tales further spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. The Panji influence is described by renowned scholar Adrian Vickers as “a Panji civilization in Southeast Asia.”

Panji tales are unique as there was no single author; the tales were written by diverse authors, each bringing in their version of the story and in their local languages. For instance, Bali calls the Panji character Malat and varied Balinese customs can be found in the stories. In Thailand and the neighboring countries, the character of Panji is known as Inao or Eynao, and his lover as Bossaba.

There is no specific Panji storyline. Generally, the story is about Kuripan’s Prince Raden Inu Kertapati, who is engaged to his niece Dewi Galuh Sekartaji from childhood. However, the mother of Dewi Galuh plans to marry her to another prince. Galuh escapes to the forest where she experiences adventures and disguises herself as varied characters including a warrior who conquers other kingdoms.

Prince Inu Kertapati begins his search and enters the woods. He goes through a wide range of adventures that encompass meeting with ogres, amorous scenes, going through numerous disguises, and waging wars. At the end, the two lovers are reunited. The love story and the adventures are popular among all layers of society.

Read More

Advertisements


Leave a comment

Modernisation and its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

Read More


Leave a comment

What we can learn from multiple translations of the same poem

Translating a poem into another language—its content, its form, its tone, its nuance—is, as almost everyone who has done it knows, a difficult business. But it also has enormous rewards: for the translator, for the reader, for poetry itself.

Some years ago, I was asked to teach a workshop about this impossible process. Among other materials, including essays about translation, I gave the participants two side-by-side English translations of a poem by Pablo Neruda, along with the original Spanish. Those translations proved to be the most valuable resource I offered. Seeing what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem.

The packet of materials began to grow. Soon I had made several compilations of translations, illustrating different kinds of choices translators invariably make, whether they do so consciously or not. Sometime after that, I began asking the students themselves to compile multiple translations of a single poem for class presentation. Their compilations, added to mine, became our most essential “textbook,” and gave us an excellent basis for asking important questions about literary translation.

We might begin by asking where, on a continuum ranging from the most “literal” to the most “free,” a particular translation lies. Where, on another continuum between most loyal to form and most free of it, does a translation of a formal poem lie? What is gained by attempting to replicate meter and/or rhyme, and what is lost? What about levels of diction? More generally, what is the stylistic “register” of a translation, ranging from formal to colloquial, or is there a mixture of styles? If the latter, does this reflect the original poem, or is it an unfortunate (or deliberate) result of the translation? If the poem isn’t contemporary, what is gained and what is lost by moving the poem toward modern and even contemporary English? Beyond style, does a translation substitute contemporary references for original ones? At what point does a translation become (in a term introduced by John Dryden in the seventeenth century and used by Robert Lowell in the twentieth) an “imitation”—or, beyond even that, a poem in its own right that might make reference to the original by inscribing “after Pablo Neruda” (or whomever) beneath the title?

Read More


Leave a comment

The Legacy and Works of Lu Xun — The Father of Modern Chinese Literature

Lu Xun (鲁迅) was the pen name of Zhou Shuren (周树人), one of China’s most famous fiction authors, poets, and essayists. He is considered by many to be the father of modern Chinese literature because he was the first serious author to write using modern colloquial language.

Lu Xun died on October 19, 1936, but his works have remained prominent over the years in Chinese culture.

NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL INFLUENCE

Widely recognized as one of China’s best and most influential authors, Lu Xun remains strikingly relevant to modern China.

His socially-critical work is still widely read and discussed in China and references to his stories, characters, and essays abound in everyday speech as well as academia.

Many Chinese people can quote from several of his stories verbatim, as they are still taught as part of China’s national curriculum. His work also continues to influence modern Chinese authors and writers around the world. Nobel-prize-winning author Kenzaburō Ōe reportedly called him “the greatest writer Asia produced in the twentieth century.”

IMPACT ON THE COMMUNIST PARTY

Lu Xun’s work has been embraced and to a certain extent co-opted by China’s Communist Party. Mao Zedong held him in very high esteem, although Mao also worked hard to prevent people from taking Lu Xun’s sharp-tongued critical approach when it came to writing about the Party.

Lu Xun himself died well before the communist revolution and it’s difficult to say what he would have thought of it.

EARLY LIFE

Born on September 25, 1881, in Shaoxing, Zhejiang, Lu Xun was born into a wealthy and well-educated family. However, his grandfather was caught and nearly executed for bribery when Lu Xun was still a child, which sent his family tumbling down the social ladder. This fall from grace and the way once-friendly neighbors treated his family after they had lost their status had a profound effect on the young Lu Xun.

Read More


Leave a comment

Life and Times of Literary Magazines

 Bangladesh’s English language literature over the years

Ironically, it was the 1947 Partition and the carving out of East Pakistan that had brought a measure of English to Bengali Muslims. Partition meant Hindus departed en masse for India, and in its place emerged, blinking and hesitant, a native Muslim elite. As the-then head of the English department of Dhaka University, Professor A G Stock, wrote in her memoir of those times, “severance from West Bengal… conscious of its differences with West Pakistan,” made East Pakistan “vividly conscious of its identity and of the need to find an outlet to explain itself.” One such outlet was an English literary journal called New Values (NV) brought out by K S Murshid – then “in his twenties” and later a hugely respected academic. NV, Stock wrote:

kept a high standard of writing; kept it, in matters literary and artistic, above the mutual admiration level which would have made it a ‘little magazine’… [tempering] its Bengali preoccupations with good articles from overseas and translations and critical discussions of modern writing from other Islamic countries.

This, historically, is where it began for us.

Other developments accelerated this encounter between English and Bengalis. Oxford University Press (OUP), based in Bombay and Calcutta during colonial times, now came to Pakistan. In a symbolically powerful move that ‘severed’ Calcutta’s control of East Bengal’s publication market, it opened a branch office in Dhaka. In 1958, strongman Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, and enacted new educational policies: English now was to be a compulsory subject in schools. OUP prepared the necessary English course books, and later also published university textbooks. It also published specifically for the East Pakistan market, and gave English translations a boost by bringing out works such as that of revered folk poet Jasimuddin – The Field of the Embroidered Quilt: A Tale of Two Pakistani Villages.

By the mid-1960s, the Dhaka office was humming. East Bengali Muslims were now doing things they had scarcely done before – run an administration, teach at colleges and universities, travel abroad, play cricket. And aspire to write in English – Syed Waliullah’s short stories appeared in Miscellany, the publication of Pakistan PEN, in the 1950s. Razia Amin, of Dhaka University, also wrote fiction in English. Academics wrote essays and literary criticism. Newspapers and magazines opened up their platform to poems and other writing.

Read More


Leave a comment

How the visual arts shaped Japan’s modern literature

By the turn of the 20th century, “sketching from life” had become such a popular literary form that the editors of the literary magazine Hototogisu encouraged the submission of prose essays in this liberating new style.

Early on in Natsume Soseki’s 1908 campus novel “Sanshiro” — one of the most important expositions of the inter-connectedness of visual and literary art ever written — a young scientist, Nonomiya, looks up at a long, thin, white cloud floating diagonally in the sky.

“Do you know what that is?” he asks the titular Sanshiro. “That’s all particles of snow. When you look at it down here, it’s not moving in the least. But up there, it’s moving with a velocity greater than that of a hurricane. Have you read Ruskin? … It would be interesting to sketch this sky.”

When people think about the literature of modern Japan, they tend to think that most of its influences have been, well, literary, whether native or foreign in origin. But in fact — as I would like to show in this four-part series tracing the story from the 19th century to the present — revolutions in painting and visual art have played a defining role in the creation of diverse and often unappreciated aspects of modern Japanese literature.

When Japan emerged from two centuries of seclusion to enter the modern world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, it struggled to reform and standardize its language and create literary works that could realistically depict the world in the manner of the Western novel.

The difficulties were considerable — the Japanese language itself needed new grammar, such as standardized verb tenses, the merging of literary and colloquial forms and even the creation of third-person pronouns. (The modern word for “she” — kanojo — was not in common currency until the Taisho Era (1912-26)).

Yet even as Japan was absorbing the influence of the Western novel, it was also undergoing a revolution in the visual arts.

Read More


Leave a comment

A.K. Ramanujan: A Lonely Hero

The narrative around the pioneering Indian English poet and translator must rescue him from his image of a remote icon into a living inspiration.

Translation, by definition, always entails some loss of the original substance. All translations are sooner or later revealed as imperfect and eventually, even in the case of the most exemplary performances, come to be regarded as provisional.

—Susan Sontag, The World As India

AK. Ramanujan (or AKR), who taught at the University of Chicago for 30 years, has remained an iconic figure for the Indian literary community for a long time. After making his mark first as an Indian English poet in the mid 1960s, he won enduring fame in India and abroad for his pioneering translations of classical Tamil poetry, and later, of Bhakti poetry in Tamil and Kannada. During the latter half of his career, AKR worked on compiling and translating folk tales from across India in as many as 20 languages. As a scholar and intellectual, he also contributed essays throwing light on several important aspects of Indian culture related to our language systems and oral/written literary traditions. Though he did not spend much time on translating contemporary works, his translation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Kannada novel Samskara, first published in 1976, was a landmark achievement, catapulting the novel and its author to national and international fame. Along with a prodigious output in several genres, AKR also wrote poetry and fiction in Kannada throughout his life. After his untimely demise in 1993, AKR’s papers (poems, folk tales, essays) were collected and edited for publication in several volumes.

For his achievements, AKR was held in high esteem by his peers and contemporaries. To Indians, he had that extra sheen of a non-resident genius, working in fields not easily accessible to Indians of that period. He continues to be venerated here as a translator, scholar and thinker by succeeding generations of Anglophone Indians. It would seem, however, that in the current discourse on Ramanujan and his writings, he is always looked at in isolation, a venerable figure not related to his contemporaries or his successors in a substantive way.

Read More


Leave a comment

Modern Burmese Literature — Its Background in the Independence Movement

FLASHBACK

A look at the history of modern Burmese literature from The Atlantic‘s February 1958 issue.

It was only in the 1920’s, when agitation for independence led to a national awakening, that Burmese classical literature came into the curricula of the schools and Rangoon University, and serious writing in Burmese was supported by the cultural leaders of the country.

We find the earliest examples of literature in the Burmese language in hundreds of inscriptions carved on stone which still survive from the kingdom of Pagan dating back to the eleventh century. Next we have books written on dried palm leaves, such as the Maniratanapum, a fifteenth-century collection of ancient traditions, or Bhikkhu Ratthasara’s Hatthipala Pyo, a long poem based on Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha.

Nawadegyi and Natshinnaung were our great poets of the Toungoo dynasties, and the pandit Binnyadala has left us an exciting prose chronicle of the long struggle between the Burmese King of Ava and the Mon King of Pegu. Much of our history comes down to us from the Egyins, historical ballads that were sung at the cradle ceremony of a new-born prince or princess. Dramatic literature flourished at the courts of Ava and Shwebo, in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, with the themes for poetic plays drawn first from the Jatakas and later, through contact with Siam, from Hindu sources such as the Ramayana.

Our last dynasty had its court at Mandalay (1857-1885) and here were gathered poets, dramatists, and writers of chronicle. Their works were inscribed on heavy paper folios, folded in pleats, called parabaiks, and often were very beautifully illustrated in vivid color. (See Training Elephants, Plate 38 in the art section.) With the British annexation of Burma in 1885 came new forces which were completely to change the patterns of Burmese writing: the printing press and the influence of Western education and literature. Our classical dramas in court style gave way to plays for a less refined audience, and these, in turn, to popular novels based on Western models.

Read More