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Annaliza Bakri On Translation And The Power Of Words


Hello Annaliza! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us! What have you been up to of late?

It's a real pleasure to share some of my thoughts. My thoughts are rather convoluted, no thanks to my existence in a multitasking world. To begin, well, I just got back from a poetry translation symposium organised by The Poetry Translation Centre. It was held at SOAS, London and I must say that I feel very empowered (and rejuvenated!) after the earnest and engaging conversations and discussions that took place during the 2-day symposium. In my presentation, I shared about Singapore Malay poetry and how important poetry translation is for a multi-cultural and multi-lingual (no wonder we are multi-ish beings) nation like Singapore who places much emphasis on racial harmony. In addition, one of my latest translation projects is co-translating Alvin Pang's What Gives Us Our Names. I believe it's the first chapbook by Math Paper Press to be translated into our national language and I am proud to be a part of this beautiful initiative.


As a translator, what do you feel gives you the most satisfaction?

Language is a very important part of my identity. In fact, I think it's the blood that runs through my veins. I say this because as a translator and educator, I play an active role in the development of the Malay language and how it can continue to live on and progress in the literary realm. But in all honesty, it keeps me alive too. I believe that every translation completed is a renewal of hope and faith. It deepens my sense of being in this world as I know that a work I have translated would unlock doors for many individuals, not just for fellow writers and translators. I have seen how my translations have been used to understand minority communities in Singapore, unravel alternative historical narratives and encourage people to question their perceptions and assumptions. Every piece that I have translated contributes to the kind of society I hope to we can have, at the present and in the future, as these works form a bridge that allows us to negotiate between text and context. In my early days as a translator, I was very adamant in getting platforms for Singapore Malay writers. With the birth of the poetry anthology Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit, I thought I had done my small part to give them the recognition they so rightly deserved and that is to be known as Singaporean writers, regardless of the language they write in. It was very humbling and heartwarming to see the gallery packed to the brim during the launch. What struck me on the day of the launch is the gathering of like-minded souls. I received tremendous support from many individuals and strangers. We had our Singaporean poets (both English and Malay writers) reciting poems together, encountering the mind and articulating the voice of a Malay writer for the first time. It was a beautiful evening. I wanted to call it a day but one thing led to another and I realised that there's a lot more that I can do, not just for the Malay literary community but the Singapore literary ecosystem. So, answering your question, I will be over the moon if the works I have worked on make people think with more empathy, sensibility and sensitivity.


As translation flexes your creative muscles, I believe you have had to reconcile your own notions of the text with the author's idea of the text. Have you had any artistic clashes with authors you have translated? 

'Clashes' are a crucial part of the translation process. For me, a good translator needs to believe in the state of incompleteness. A translation is never perfect, and the 'clashes' help to disrupt, disengage and distort a translation. The translator gets to break away from his/her train of thought or thought-process and review the translation from a different angle to see what will work best. My usual practice is to understand the writer and the ideology he/she adopts. This will give me a sense of how he/she thinks and what will influence his/her imagination and vocabulary. I would also pay close attention to details such as the period in which the original work was written and the significant episodes. For instance, STOP at TWO, a poem written by Mohd Gani Ahmad (Megadona) highlights concerns when a family planning campaign was introduced by the government and how women were urged to get sterilised after their second child. When translating this poem, I had to do some research to see why this issue had a significant impact on the Malay community and Singapore society at large, who was most affected and how they negotiated between their personal beliefs, desires and that of the government. Another example would be Yatiman Yusof's poem, Geylang. He mentions the presence of red dust in his poem. Without prior research, I would not have known the importance of this description and discover the lesser-known history of Geylang. I dare say my writers know what to expect as I am known to be a perfectionist. And I would think that the editors get the worst hit. I can amend a translation 15 times!


As a translator, you deal with language all the time. As compared to other art forms, do you consider words to be the most powerful medium?

I think it depends on how we define language. Language is a tool for consciousness and empowerment, a vehicle to carry our emotions and hopes, to not merely tell a story but to share these stories intimately. It goes through periods of darkness and then illuminates and enlightens the mind, body and soul. In my opinion, words carry a lot of weight. The very presence of a narrative, oral or written, encapsulates the worldview of a community, shedding light on its imagination, beliefs and aspirations. In short, language defines man and his way of life, while possessing the ability to grasp and change the world. I would say that words seems to be a powerful medium to get things across, to transcend realms, to bridge gaps and differences. Is it the most powerful medium, well, it could be because words are depicted and often regarded as the most accessible medium at the moment. I think it is also because words can instantly make or break a person's soul as soon as they are uttered. Personally, I do get very affected by what I read. I remember how I cried buckets after reading Hamid Dabashi's Brown Skin, White Masks. He dedicated his book to Abeer Qassim Hamza al Janabi and Moshe Holtzberg. I am always very intrigued by words and people. And so, I went to read up more on the 14-year old Iraqi girl and it took me awhile to calm myself down after reading up on the Mahmudiyah rape and killings. And how did my friends, Cyril and Ian, comfort me? With words, yes, words.


"Good literature should see into the heart of society." What constitutes good literature for you?

Literature engages. I believe a good literature must recognise its obligation and responsibility towards his/her audience, to respond and react to pertinent issues and predicaments, to take sides and not remain neutral to issues of oppression, alienation and marginalisation, to have the moral courage and speak truth to power and yes, it should make us truly human. It can be a story of love but the story must speak to the reader. A good narrative should make the reader more conscious of him/herself and the larger society. It should make people want to aspire to be a better human being.

When I was 17, I took Malay literature in junior college and the novel we had to study was Salina by A. Samad Said. I remember it was not an easy read because it was set in a post-war period and history lessons back then...hmmmm, I shall not comment further. In any case, reading the book was depressing and yet enlightening. We are often taught that people are good or bad, it's a very black or white kind of dichotomy that has been imposed on various aspects of life. But this novel questions every notion of good and bad, the way in which things are defined and polarised. Is a prostitute who is willing to sleep with a stranger just so she could pay for her neighbour's child school fees a bad person? What about the religious teacher (ustaz) who only laments and condemns the sins committed by his neighbours instead of taking the initiative to reach out and understand the situations they are in? This novel made me question those in power and how they choose to act based on their vested interests, the notion of capitalism, the importance of human dignity and sadly, the cruelty of silence. Not sure if I should say this, but I am someone who questions (some things never change!) and I'm very blessed to have a patient and caring teacher, Cikgu Aisah. We had a number of one-on-one discussions and even though I sense that personally she did not agree with my views, she let me voice my thoughts. Not only did she listen to my arguments, she marked every essay I wrote. It didn't help that I could not bring myself to skip literature class since it was a safe space for me, so she had no break from this student of hers. But this is how it started for me, from literature class in college... where I learned to read text and context, where I immersed myself in the sublime world of communities, cultures and contestations.


Thank you for doing this interview with us! As a closing question, what do you have lined up for yourself?

I will be involved in 4 panels for the Singapore Writers Festival 2019. I also have a bilingual poetry anthology that requires my undivided attention before it gets published. Personally, I think this poetry anthology will be breathtaking as it seems to be my most challenging project so far. As of now, it's been nerve-wrecking!


Photo credit: Carli Teteris

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