On October 20, 2008, I received a message that all but knocked me over on my beam ends. It was from the distinguished American novelist, Robert Coover, author of The Public Burning and many other celebrated works of fiction and non-fiction, including the provocative 1992 essay The End of Books (Robert is a pioneer in hyper-textual fiction and I strongly recommend this essay to anyone who has an interest in the future of storytelling).
Robert was then running the International Writers’ program at Brown University and this is what his message said: ‘At Brown we run a freedom-to-write program called the International Writers Project. We offer an annual fellowship providing institutional, intellectual, artistic, and social support to published international writers facing personal danger and threats to their livelihood. … This year our Fellow is the distinguished writer and surgeon Ma Thida from Myanmar/Burma. We would be greatly honored if you could join us for a reading from your work …. I might mention that we have [also] invited Nay Win Myint, translator of The Glass Palace.’
This was how I learnt that The Glass Palace was being serialized in translation, in one of Yangon’s best known literary journals, Shwe Amyutay. I was delighted, for I had long assumed that the book’s themes and content would prevent its being translated into Burmese. Aung San Suu Kyi and her weekend meetings
figure prominently in the last part of the book, and in years past Burma’s censorship authority
(the notorious ‘Press Scrutiny Board’, as it used to be known)
Offices of the Press Scrutiny Board, Yangon, 1996
was completely paranoid about references to ‘the Lady’. So extreme was the Board’s sensitivity on this subject that it once banned the publication of a picture of a penguin on an ice floe for fear that the image would be interpreted as
a reference to the Nobel-prize-winning resident
of No. 8 University Avenue!
The ‘Press Scrutiny Board’ has now been re-organized and renamed, as a part of the reforms that are now under way in Myanmar, but it was very much in operation when the first instalments of The Glass Palace began to appear in the pages of Shwe Amyutay.
- signboard, Press Scrutiny office, Yangon, 1996
Undeterred by the risks, the magazine’s editor, U Myo Myint Nyein published the book in instalments, accompanied by illustrations by a noted Burmese artist, Wathone.
The translator, U Nay Win Myint, is a very well known writer in Myanmar’s, having published some two hundred short stories and several translations. He is among the country’s most distinguished critics and essayists and has won the Myanmar National Literature Award three times, most recently for his novel, Buffalo Festival. Like many Burmese writers, he has also faced much harrassment over the years: it is a tribute to his resilience and courage that he has continued to publish despite his tribulations.
On February 6 this I learnt, to my great pleasure, that U Nay Win Myint had again been awarded the Myanmar National Literature Award, this time for his translation of The Glass Palace. The award was presented to him by the President, U Thein Sein (who is widely credited with having initiated the current, extremely promising, processes of change in Myanmar).
I met both U Myo Myint Nyein and U Nay Win Myint in 2009, in Providence, Rhode Island, when they traveled there to attend the ‘Freedom to Write’ conference at Brown. As a part of the proceedings U Nay Win Myint presented a paper on The Glass Palace (his remarks were deeply meaningful to me and I’ve appended a few excerpts from his paper to the end of this post).
Later U Myo Myint Nyein published a brief account of our meeting in Shwe Amyutay (it is on page 12).
Also present at the conference was the distinguished and courageous Burmese writer Ma Thida. A doctor by profession, Ma Thida was sentenced to 20 years in jail in 1993, for her writing and her political activities: she was released on humanitarian grounds after serving 5 years six months and six days in Yangon’s notorious Insein prison.
from left to right: U Myo Myint Nyein, Ma Thida, AG, U Nay Win Myint
When I met her in 2009, Ma Thida was already optimistic about Myanmar’s future (the fact that U Nay Win Myint, U Myo Myint Nyein and she herself had been allowed to travel to the US was itself proof that changes were under way in the country). Since then her messages have grown steadily more optimistic. In 2010, she wrote: ‘I hope you follow some new news about my country and find both happy and sad news. And now I have to edit the last chapter of my book. This book will be published early next year.’
A year later she wrote to me about a book club meeting in Yangon (something that would have been unthinkable in the past). The book under discussion was The Glass Palace: ‘People of book club are very diverse, from teens to 72 yrs old. They all agree that the book is marvelous. They talked how much they appreciate your writing style and effort of research for this book. I also contributed what you talked at Brown…. Here things get a bit better and I’d like to expand our freedom bit by bit by some new (unusual) literary activities.’
Ma Thida’s new book, a memoir of her prison experiences, has recently been published in Myanmar. I await a translation with the greatest eagerness – I can’t wait to read it!
To return to U Nay Win Myint’s and his translation – soon after I learnt of his award, I discovered, to my utter amazement, that his was not the only Burmese translation of The Glass Palace. Myat (Emma) Arrowsmith, who is from Myanmar (and is married to the brilliant British art historian, Rupert Arrowsmith; see my post of Oct 11, 2011) told me that another translation had been published at almost the same time. The translator is U Hteik Tin Thet, a forestry officer with no previous experience of publishing. Forestry was what brought him to the book: ‘I am crazy about the timber industry and also interested in elephants,’ he has said in an interview. ‘That’s why I translated The Glass Palace. Timber and elephants are important parts of the story.’
These words of appreciation, coming as they do, from someone with an intimate knowledge of Burma’s forests, are of inestimable value to me. I look forward very much to meeting U Hteik Tin Thet when I next visit Myanmar, which I hope will be in November this year.
Recently Myat sent me an article by Moh Moh Thaw on the two translations of The Glass Palace. It was published in the in-flight magazine of Air Mandalay. Here it is [text appended below]:
[Pointing his thumb at his chest, U Hteik Tin Thet says forcefully, “I’m a former forestry officer – can’t you see?” I follow his gaze to a painting of the Department of Forestry logo hanging on the wall of his house. I had asked the former government officer what was his motivation for translating bestselling novel The Glass Palace from English into Myanmar.
“I am crazy about the timber industry and also interested in elephants. That’s why I
translated The Glass Palace. Timber and elephants are important parts of the story.” He
says he got a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s popular work from a friend in his neighbourhood.
He then read the whole book from cover to cover, without taking so much as a break.
“The book starts with a burst of cannon fire by British troops arriving in Mandalay.
People in a small restaurant, when they heard the loud noise, became nervous and
whispered to one another, ‘What was that? What’s happened? What could make that
sound?’ At that time, a 10-year-old Indian boy suddenly says to the people, ‘It is from a
British cannon. They are shooting from the river because they want Myanmar timber.’
When I heard that phrase it immediately sucked me in and I read the whole book
through to the end,” U Hteik Tin Thet explains, taking the original version of The Glass Palace. “Actually, the friend who gave me the book does not really like reading fiction but he was hooked by The Glass Palace. When he finished reading it, he gave it to me because he knew I would definitely like it. Once I finished, I started translating it,” he added. Five months later, U Hteik Tin Thet completed Mhan Nandaw (The Glass Palace) and it was released in 2009
by Yangon-based publishing house Arlinkar Wintyee. It marked his first foray into the
publishing world, and he has since published two more novels.
“I didn’t have any difficulty translating the book. I have had articles published in some local magazines, like Cherry, in the past, and the writing style of the original version is very clear and easy tounderstand,” he said. However, the ex-forestry officer admitted he developed reservations about publishing his novel shortly after finishing the translation. Famous writer and translator U Nay Win Myint had begun serialising sections of The Glass Palace each month in Shwe Amu Tay magazine, under the title Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye. However, he felt the different translation styles of the two authors made it worthwhile to push on with publishing the book. “I have read Nay Win Myint’s translation in that magazine and I like it because he tried to translate in his own style,” U Hteik Tin Thet said. “My book is more like a direct translation – that’s my style.”
This difference is evident even in the titles. Mhan Nandaw literally translates as “The Glass Palace”, while Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye is a reference more to Nay Win Myint’s translation style than the content. Yaykanthar Kyartine Aye was published over a period of twoand- a-half years in Shwe Amu Tay. The popular series was then released in book form by Bagan book publishing house earlier this year. “I have seen sometimes three or four people translate the same book at the same time because it is difficult for us to know what others in the industry are working on,” said the 58-year-old U Nay WinMyint. “That’s why I didn’t think it was a problem that we both released translations of The Glass Palace; we translated it in our own styles and we have our own readers.”
Like U Hteik Tin Thet, he got the original English version of The Glass Palace from a friend and decided he would translate it soon after he finished reading the first chapter. The Glass Palace was U Nay Win Myint’s third translation book, after bringing two works by Russian author Turgenev to Myanmar readers.
So what was it exactly in Amitav Ghosh’s novel that caught U Nay Win Myint’s imagination? The mixture of historical fact and fictional protagonists, he says. “The first chapter, ‘Mandalay’, starts with a barefaced challenge by the British to the Myanmar throne; it meant that they were going to colonise all of Myanmar. The Myanmar troops in Sagaing, Nyaung Oo and Myingyan around Mandalay were trying to stop the British and King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat were about to be taken away, together with their retinue, but the Myanmar people were wavering in the face of the war,” he says. “It was a historical moment; the fall of Mandalay broke the feudal system, which was the dawn of a new world for Myanmar people. I was so excited when I read the book I began translating it in my mind before writing it down on paper,” he says. “It was so interesting to read about this time, particularly because the characters in the book are blended with the historical facts.”
“King Thibaw in Madras, his exile to Ratanagiri. The Myanmar forest, the nature of elephants, Indians who migrated from India to together and are fascinating topics so it is difficult for me to say which chapter I prefer.” To complete the translation, U Nay Win Myint said he had to read many history books, theses and political history journals to learn about the royal customs and formal language of the Konbaung era, which he then used in his translation.
“I think doing translation is often like seeing a carpet laid upside down; we can sometimes lose or change the meaning when we translate from one language to another. But I tried to catch the spirit of the original novel and infuse it with the smell of Myanmar,” Nay Win Myint explained.
U Hteik Tin Thet also praised Amitav Ghosh’s efforts in researching Myanmar history for The Glass Palace and said he would like to meet the man if he had the chance. “I was really impressed that he did five years of research before he started writing the book. He had to read a lot of reference books and to make many research trips as well. That is why his book is so good
and has been translated into nineteen languages,” he said.
In that regard, U Nay Win Myint has been luckier than his counterpart; last year he met Amitav Ghosh while attending a Southeast Asia culture and art festival at Brown University in the US state of Rhode Island.
“He was so happy when he knew I was translating his book and he presented me with some of his other works. That was a very rare opportunity for me to see the author whose book I was
translating,” U Nay Win Myint said with a satisfied smile. “Then, when I apologised
to him for translating The Glass Palace without asking his permission, he said he understood the situation, that we [Myanmar writers] cannot ask his permission. And he even said he was proud that I translated his book.” ]
Here are a few paragraphs from U Nay Win Myint’s presentation at the 2009 conference:
“The Glass Palace reflects the evil consequences of evil deeds of kings. King Thibaw detained and killed some fifty cousins in order to get the throne. He himself was later detained by the British. In Burmese we call this kind of similar retribution as ‘Wut’. Every evil act is followed by evil reaction. I notice ‘Wut’ in this book …(and) I am sure our Burmese readership appreciates the concept of ‘Wut’ in The Glass Palace.”
“In the era of last Burmese kings, we already had newspapers, telegraph, diplomatic and economic relationship with foreign countries. As you all know, this novel is somewhat related to the last days of King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar before the British annexation. In the year 1885, King Thibaw was extradited to India, then a British colony also. The king along with the Queen and her royal entourage had to leave Mandalay on the fateful day of 29 November, 1885.
“Among the unfortunate few who had to go along with the Royal Family were some ladies-in-waiting. The dethroned King and his family took their residence first in Madran and later were forced to settle in Ratnagiri. Nearly one-third of the novel deals with the life of the Royal Family in Ratnagiri. As expected in an historical novel, there are facts and fiction intermingled but ‘facts’ were not much distorted or compromised by the writer’s imagination. Some of the facts are ‘revealed’ to me only after I’ve read the novel. During the translation I’ve to check some of the works by Myanmar historians and one of the works happened to be the ‘Glass Palace Chronicle’, a well-known reference book of Myanmar history. It is to be noted that there are some historical incidents described in the novel which are not in accordance with those of Myanmar sources. However I’ve to say that is of too little importance to make this great work less significant.
“The remaining two-thirds of the novel dealt with the love story developing between a lady-in-waiting and an Indian boy who came to Mandalay to seek his fortune. Each chapter was alive with colourful events, made more interesting by the author’s skilful weaving of historical facts into the story. The author has also demonstrated that he is able to capture the ‘air’ and ‘atmosphere’ of the day, which is actually over 100 years distanced.”