Translation panel session with Alfred Birnbaum, Zeyar Lynn, Lucas Stewart and Moe Thet Han
Translation panel session with Alfred Birnbaum, Zeyar Lynn, Lucas Stewart and Moe Thet Han (Image credit: Han Zaw)

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.

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’.