Singaporean writer Josephine Chia read from her book Kampong Spirit in Poetry in the park part of AL

Singaporean writer Josephine Chia read from her book Kampong Spirit in Poetry in the park part of ALF 2015. (Photo: Ignatius Dwiana)

South Asian writers particularly novelists from India and Pakistan are read widely around the globe.  But only a handful of writers from South East Asia have made it outside of their home country. At the second ASEAN literary festival held this year in Indonesia the idea of a regional translation centre was discussed as a way to expose local writers to the world.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon a dozen people have turned out for a poetry reading in Menteng park in Central Jakarta. The event is part of the second ASEAN Literary Festival held this year in Jakarta.

Festival organizer Abdul Khalik says the festival is becoming a platform for local writers to promote their work internationally.

“They are now seeing the festival as a very good gathering to promote their work. We are also going to discuss about translation and how to globalize the literature of this region. They are very keen because by joining the ASEAN Literary Festival they can be globalized or at least they can become better know in our region,” said Abdul.

The Indonesian Foreign Affair Minister, Retno Marsudi opened the festival at a gala dinner.

“I believe that this festival not only will enrich ASEAN Literature but also contribute to the development of global literary works,” she said.

Compare to South Asia writers from ASEAN countries struggle to make it abroad.

 “India and Pakistan were occupied by the British. So they naturally speak English and can write well in it.  But in Indonesia we have to admit that very few people can write well in English,” said festival organizer Abdul Khalik.

He wants to see a regional translation centre set up.  

“We are starting to think about making like ASEAN translation center. Where all works from ASEAN, from Indonesian to Thai or Thai to Indonesian, or to English,” he said.

Ma Thida is Burmese writer, activist and surgeon. Her novel ‘The Roadmap’ received the Norwegian “Freedom of Speech Award” in 2011. She has published nine books in English and Burmese.

She says her generation can write well in English but she says the education system in Myanmar has suffered due to years of neglect.

“Many of our writers can easily read in English but they cannot speak in English, or their English is quite much limited. For that reason it’s very hard for us to reach out to the world. That is why PEN Myanmar is going to host a big symposium on translation in May in Burma to train the young generation writers to translate either from Burmese to English or English to Burmese,” she said.  

Singaporean writer, Josephine Chia’s book Kampong Spirit, Gotong Royong, Life in Potong Pasir won last years Singaporean Literature Prize.

She says even though she writes in English she always uses some of her mother tongue.

“To the world to recognize ASEAN writings we have to write in English. But what I try to do my book is to use some Malay words like you’ve heard ‘P. Ramlee datang, P. Ramlee datang’. And in paragraph I try to translate and give some meaning. So if the person is totally an English reader, they will know that P Ramli is coming. But it gives the flavor of my race and my local language,” she said.  

Chia says this will make international readers know how rich the culture is in ASEAN countries.

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