Tuesday, July 02, 2013


I saw this story in Authors and Translators after I had finished translating Isa Kamari's three novels from Malay to English, and I was surprised how close my experience was to theirs. I had always thought that my Malay was not good enough, but after reading some of the dreadful translations we had to edit, I was convinced that I'd do a much better job. The thing about translation is that you can (and, according to MacLehose who gave us Harvill, you should) treat the translation as you would an original. What often happens is that very soon the novel you are reading becomes very much your own, and you feel obliged to give the reader the best experience possible.

Translating a novel line by line and word by word is not possible. So all such works are either a rendering or an adaptation. You'll have to read the entire novel first to understand what's going on, and then plan your strategy. I fumbled about in the beginning, and decided that I preferred to work on one chapter at a time. The trick is to retell the story to your readers with all the tensions and emotions intact, and this can often be done only if you are not a hundred per cent faithful to the text. For example the Malay language works best in the passive voice, while English is certainly far more comfortable in the active. (I'm uncertain if this is due to the evolution of the language or due to other inherent qualities.) So it's important to read the entire paragraph before deciding how you'd phrase it. Sometimes, it would sound better for later sentences to be brought forward, because it sounds better that way in English. Another thing I found is that English thrives on an economy of words, whereas Malay language likes elaborations and repetitions. Again, I'm not qualified to say if it's due to evolution or some other reason. Maybe it's purely stylistic.

It was tempting to tweak the story a little to give it a better zing, but fortunately for me, Isa Kamari (who reads English) was on hand to curb my over-enthusiasm. I wonder what happens when a work is translated into a language the author does not read at all. I guess it's better not to know. Just keep the cheques coming!


Showrooming happens when people browse a brick-and-mortar bookshop, compare prices and then buy it online at Amazon.

A story in City AM says that almost two thirds of shoppers in the UK admit to showrooming. As for the other one third, one can only guess if they were lying. The advantage transnational book stores have had is in the touch and feel of the books. Comparative shopping is not a crime, nor is it unethical, but what happens when traditional bookshops become mere showrooms for Amazon? Is it unfair? It certainly is not fair. Is the government going to do anything about it? Maybe in France!

"Today, everyone has had enough of Amazon which, through dumping practices, smashes prices to penetrate markets only to then raise prices again once they are in a situation of quasi-monopoly,” said AurĂ©lie Filippetti, the culture minister in a story in The Telegraph

It appears that in the US and in Britain they are already in a position of quasi-monopoly. The interesting point is, what happens when there are no more shops to showroom off? Will Amazon be able to support the entire industry by itself? Or will publishers set up their own bookshops (like Apple does with its Apple store), or publisher authorised stores, and control the entire experience? One may soon find Penguin stores, Random House store, Faber stores and so on, all over the world, discounting the hell out of Amazon. And why not? It's either that or apocalypse of the book industry. No one seems to be interested in the return of the Net Book Agreement (NBA), or have I missed some threads in the argument?

At Silverfish Books, we opted out early when we saw the madness and predicted the carnage. We sell mainly Malaysian books, many of which are self-published or short print-runs, that Amazon and other big bookstores don't carry, although we can't say we are totally safe. The only way to survive now is to go small and local. That is, very small and very local, and wait for something to happen. It certainly will.