One Small Voice: Annaliza Bakri

Published on 7 July 2015

The art of translation can promote cross-cultural understanding, says educator and translator, Annaliza Bakri.

When Singapore gained its independence in 1965, few considered how it impacted the Malay community and language: from majority to minority, first language to second language. During that period, many Malay literati moved to Kuala Lumpur.

But those who chose to stay, fought on. One of them is Muhammad Ariff Ahmad, who was conferred the Cultural Medallion in 1987. He has written many books, short stories and poems and continues to write even after retiring from teaching in 1979. Other Cultural Medallion recipients include poets Mohamed Latiff Mohamed and Isa Kamari.

They are very well-respected writers and culture-bearers within the Malay community but because they write only in Malay, their works are not accessible to a wider audience. As a bilingual Malay Literature teacher, I felt these works needed to be read. So I started translating Malay poems in my free time and shared them on Facebook.

Singaporean poet Alvin Pang, editor of TUMASIK: Contemporary Writing From Singapore, asked if I’d like to come on-board to translate a few poems from Malay to English. I agreed and have since done translation work for Koh Jee Leong’s SingaporePoetry.com and The Arts House’s Text in the City mobile application feature.

To me, a good translator must be proficient in both languages to accurately capture the essence of what the poet is trying to say. There is an art to translating literary works. It’s not a simple Google translate. Well-translated poems will give you that tingle to your soul. It has what we Malays call semangat or the spirit.

That process takes time. For me, it begins with a very loose translation, with different versions of a word. To try and ascertain what the writer was thinking when he wrote it, I sometimes turn to historical records. I check the year the poem was written and find out what was going on during that period.

It’s also important to know the background of the writers. For example, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed focuses on Malay nationalism and issues in the Malay community, while the late Masuri S.N. lived through the Japanese Occupation, so he has included some of his experiences in his works.

I also make it a point to spend time with these poets and chat with them over coffee or tea. If I don’t understand anything, I’ll ask them. But I’m also aware they are now very old, and I feel the need to translate their works because it’s now or never.

In Singapore, we have many good writers in Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Our concerns may be different, but they’re all Singaporean concerns. We need more inter-language collaborations to tap into this reservoir of Singapore stories. There’s so much to learn from each other about Singapore’s shared history and culture. We can’t afford to say, this is mine; that is yours. It’s as much yours as it is mine.

If I had the resources, I would publish an anthology of translated Malay poems — from Masuri S.N.’s era to Juffri Supa’at (1940s to present). My aim is to present the works of as many Malay poets as I can. So far, I’ve managed to get 18 poets and translated 36 poems. But I think if we pulled our resources together, we can do much more.

Annaliza Bakri obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree from Nanyang Technological University’s Asian Languages & Cultures Department, and her Master of Arts degree from the Department of Malay Studies, National University of Singapore. With a strong grounding in Malay Literature, she led a cultural-literary seminar series, [email protected] Arts House (2012-2013). Her translation work has been published by US-based journal, Prairie Schooner, and Text in the City, an Arts House-organised campaign promoting Singapore poetry via a mobile app.

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