top of page
  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Word and the World (Part One)

The emergence of a flourishing independent publishing industry in the last few years has gone hand in hand with a renewed interest in the art and craft of translation. Penang has an important place in the history of translation in South-East Asia and is well positioned at the forefront of a new wave of literary creativity.

By: Gareth Richards and Izzuddin Ramli

Thomas Bowrey’s autograph draft of his Malay-English dictionary.
Thomas Bowrey’s autograph draft of his Malay-English dictionary. Photo by Penang Monthly.

Transmitting Culture through Translation

Translators are the unsung heroes of the literary world. Their products are widely enjoyed and consumed but their names are, perhaps for obvious reasons, less renowned than those of writers. And yet literary translators help write the world’s books for new readers. They do not just craft changes from one language to another – though this in itself requires great skill and sensitivity. Rather, they bridge cultures from different parts of the world. They are the transmitters of thoughts and ideas that connect and move human civilisations. And for that alone their work should be recognised and celebrated. Located where the monsoons meet, the Malay peninsula has long been at the heart of global history and long-distance connectivities. Initially the peninsula was a meeting point for seamen and sojourners, troops and traders, migrants and magnates, arriving (and departing) from the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. By the beginning of the sixteenth century European states and their armed chartered companies were also expanding into Asian waters. The peninsula and the wider archipelago became a crucial arena for competition and, sometimes, cooperation. This was the world in which modern Penang was born. It is arguable that the port cities of South-East Asia were as plural as any on earth at that time, and more so than most. It is well known that Penang’s early development was driven by trade (in spices, opium, textiles, tea and tin) and imperial competition. But the island also quickly established itself as a regional cultural centre. As the historian Sunil Amrith puts it: “A rich exchange of ideas and language was the result of transient encounters or cross-cultural relationships.” And the word – spoken, in manuscripts and printed – played a vital role in absorbing a wide range of cultural influences, acquiring new languages and spreading novel ideas. Above all, “command of language” was crucial for the consolidation of new communities and identities.

An Emporium of Languages: Devotion and Commerce

In fact Asian translation traditions were already established long before the various East India companies gained footholds and fortresses on South-East Asia’s littorals. After all, translation was vital in this world of strangers. Countless translations left their traces in one way or another, from the outside but equally importantly within the region itself. As the lingua franca of much of the archipelago, the role of translations from and into the Malay language can be best illustrated in two complementary ways. On the one hand, translations of Arabic texts,including the Quran, helped disseminate Islam through the region and Malay became the mediating language of devotion. Equally importantly, key religious works, royal genealogies and semi-historical epics originally written in Malay criss-crossed the archipelago and influenced other languages with a long writing tradition of their own, such as Javanese and Sundanese.

In analogous ways, European travellers observed of the Tamil Muslims that “the Chulyars are a People that range into all Kingdoms and Countreys in Asia.” As a result, they “doe learne to write and Speake Severall of the Eastern languages.” Similarly, Chinese merchants had been trading down to South-East Asia for centuries, sojourning – and sometimes settling – during the course of their voyages. In contrast to some other languages, however, it is striking that very little Chinese written culture was introduced to the region. The Qing government had forbidden its subjects to teach Chinese to foreigners. As Lucille Chia notes, “Indeed, of the myriad commodities carried by Chinese junks in the Nanyang trade, books may have been the one item that was largely missing.” This would change with the large-scale arrivals of immigrants in South-East Asia in the nineteenth century when, as we shall see, a major local publishing and translation practice did emerge. The study and translation of Malay in Europe date back to the very first voyages to South- East Asia. As Annabel Teh Gallop – who as lead curator for South-East Asia at the British Library has done more than anyone else in recovering and interpreting early manuscripts – says: “Command of languages was an essential business tool for both merchants in search of spices and missionaries in search of souls.” The earliest Malay book printed in Europe is a Malay-Dutch phrasebook by Frederick de Houtman, published in Amsterdam in 1603, and an English version of this Dutch work became the first Malay book printed in Britain in 1614. It was only in 1701 that the first original Malay-English dictionary was printed in London, the work of Thomas Bowrey (1650-1713), an East India Company sea captain. He explained in the preface the urgent need for such a publication: “I finding so very few English Men that have attained any tollerable Knowledge of the Malayo Tongue, so absolutely necessary to trade in those Southern Seas, and that there is no Book of this kind published in English to help the attaining of that Language; These Considerations, I say, has imboldened me to Publish the insuing Dictionary.” After Bowrey’s pioneering work, it was not until the early nineteenth century that British studies of Malay developed in earnest, through the efforts of colonial scholar-administrators. This endeavour had a direct connection with Penang through the efforts of Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Crawfurd, who both worked for the East India Company and first met on the island. For his part, Raffles collected vocabularies from all over the archipelago, including a Malay wordlist which appears to be in the hand of his Penang scribe Ibrahim; this volume is especially valuable for also containing an early register of inhabitants of Penang, listed by street name, with details of origin, occupation and family members.

The Print Revolution

If the early efforts at translation belonged largely to Asian oral and manuscript traditions, and printing in Europe, colonialism helped create print centres in South-East Asia itself. Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies was the first. But given what Rachel Leow calls “the unusual linguistic diversity to be found in Penang,” it is not surprising that the first print centre on the peninsula emerged there, more or less at the same time as in Malacca. Early pioneers systematically experimented with various printing technologies – xylography, lithography and letterpress – and acquired roman, Arabic and Siamese fonts as they geared up for ambitious publishing projects.

Chan Kim Boon.
Chan Kim Boon. Photo by Penang Monthly.

The first printing facility was set up by an independent printer, Andrew Burchett Bone, who brought his own press to Penang in 1807; it was used in the service of the East India Company to publish governmental and commercial materials for traders and administrators. The following year, the French Catholic Missions Étrangères de Paris also established a printing press to disseminate its religious materials, and Protestant missionaries followed in their footsteps in 1819. Since the missions ran schools, they printed elementary texts on spelling and reading, in both Malay and English, as well as biblical translations. The new demands for Chinese printing in Penang offered an opportunity for another missionary, Samuel Dyer, to pioneer and introduce Chinese t y p e - f o u n d i n g in the Straits Settlements in the 1830s, which offered a cost-effective alternative to existing xylographic practices.1

From these modest beginnings, the print revolution – and the attendant explosion of translated works – took hold through the course of the next century and beyond. Printed materials were produced in every conceivable form: books of all kinds, religious tracts, reference works, pamphlets, periodicals, reports and newspapers. Printing technologies also had a direct impact on language itself. Malay was printed in both the modified Arabic script, Jawi, as well as romanised script, Rumi, and the medium encouraged the move towards the standardisation of orthographies. Similarly, printing technologies had a long-term impact on Chinese typography – a process that persists today with the variety and refinement of Chinese character systems in use.

Two Exemplars of Early Literary Translation

A rapid flowering of the publishing industry took place as a result of the print revolution. Ian Proudfoot distinguishes three streams of print publishing in Penang and the other Straits Settlements for the century or so beginning in 1820. These are the European presses, Straits-born Chinese (Peranakan or Baba) publishers and Muslim publishers. One characteristic feature of printed material that was produced and circulated in abundance in Penang and elsewhere was the sheer variety of genres and subject matter, including both fiction and poetry. And much of this material appeared in translation. This is best demonstrated in two fascinating exemplars of this eclectic publishing world: the development of literature in Malay by Chinese Peranakan, illustrated in the literary translations of Chan Kim Boon; and the work of the Muslim intelligentsia, led by Syed Sheikh al-Hadi, who would be the harbingers of later nationalist struggles.

The emergence of a distinctive Peranakan translation tradition can be traced to the last decades of the nineteenth century, when a significant proportion of educated Chinese were reading romanised Malay. A very interesting figure among the early Peranakan translators was Chan Kim Boon (1851-1920), born into a merchant family in Penang and who went by the pen name Batu Gantong (Hanging Rock). He attended Penang Free School, where instruction was in English, and also had a good command of Malay and Chinese. After moving to Singapore to work as a bookkeeper, he began publishing his monumental Sam Kok (Sanguo), a 30-volume translation of the Chinese classical masterpiece Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 1890s. It is not just the sheer scale of the undertaking – at 4,622 pages – that is impressive. He also offered telling insights into the very process of translation: he included lists giving Chinese expressions in the Malay version, with a translation in Malay and sometimes in English; he provided footnotes for explanations; and for the later volumes specified the Chinese characters for proper names, titles and functions. And the books were beautifully illustrated by drawings rendered in the style of woodcuts to complement the story and heighten the visual appeal. Chan evidently had an appreciative audience. A Malay scholar, Mohamed Salleh bin Perang, wrote in 1894: “I was very fond of reading Chinese tales, my favourite being the story entitled Sam Kok for this work contains much that is of value, including allusions and parables which should be heard by officials in the service of kings.”

Though there were a few other notable translators during this period, such as Tan Beng Teck and Lim Hock Chee, there is little doubt that Chan Kim Boon became the dominant figure in the small Peranakan Malay publishing industry. Apart from Sam Kok, he also translated two other Chinese classics: Song Kang (Water Margin)and Kou Chey Tian (Journey to the West), and other texts that have unfortunately not survived. After his death, the translation of Chinese stories into Malay declined, due in part to the Peranakan community’s increasing preference for English-language books. In exactly the same period of the late nineteenth century a vibrant Muslim press and publishing industry also flourished in Penang. It is more accurate to describe this maturation as Muslim rather than Malay, since many of the leading personalities in the publishing world had mixed ethnic backgrounds, including Jawi Peranakan with Indian and Arabic antecedents. The sheer number of printers and publishers is quite astonishing. They included the Freeman Press (Acheen Street), Muhamadiah Press (Hutton Lane), United Press (Dato Keramat), Persama Press (Acheen Street), Bahtera Press (Acheen Street), Al-Zainah Press (Pitt Street), Percetakan Sahabat (Penang Street) and Al-Huda Press (Dato Keramat). All these presses were integrally involved in the production of religious texts, including translations that found a ready market in Penang’s local Muslim population as well as among hajj pilgrims, in addition to historical texts such as Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa and Al-Tarikh Salasilah Negeri Kedah. Even more significant was their role in circulating the ideology of Islamic modernism and reform that would lay the foundations for the later emergence of Malay nationalism. As Abu Talib Ahmad describes them, they were “forward-thinking” and became “crucial agents of change” in pre-war Malay society. Perhaps the leading carrier of the modernist message in the early decades of the twentieth century was the iconic figure Syed Sheikh al-Hadi (1867-1934), author, translator, educator, publisher and founder of the Jelutong Press. Born near Malacca, al-Hadi’s early life illustrates just how cosmopolitan the experiences of early Muslim reformers could be: he spent formative years in the literary centre of Penyengat, Riau, having access to a wide range of Arabic and Malay texts, books and newspapers in the royal library; he received a religious education in Terengganu; he travelled to Egypt and is reported to have met the leading reformist intellectuals Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, whose work he later translated; he was in Singapore as an editor of the modernist journal Al-Iman and as a teacher in a madrasah; and moved to Johor Bahru where he worked as a religious lawyer for private clients. Al-Hadi was, in short, a true organic intellectual.

Syed Sheikh al-Hadi and his family in the compound of their home at 410 Jelutong Road, Penang.
Syed Sheikh al-Hadi and his family in the compound of their home at 410 Jelutong Road, Penang. Photo by Penang Monthly.

All this was a prelude to his time in Penang.

In the mid-1920s he established the Jelutong Press, started his own monthly journal, Al-Ikhwan, the leading voice of Islamic modernism in Malaya, and then the weekly newspaper, Saudara. In an echo of an earlier age, its news reports, serialised stories and articles on religious reform – including translations of Abduh’s religious exegesis of the Quran – were read throughout the peninsula, southern Thailand and the Dutch East Indies, and by Muslim students in London, Cairo and Mecca. Translation activities were in large part motivated by the fight against orthodox Islamic teachings and were thus a means of influencing the wider reformist debates in Malaya.

What is less well known is that the Jelutong Press also published a large number of works of fiction, including those of al-Hadi himself, which ranged from romantic stories to his monumental Hikayat Faridah Hanom, which was “read from one end of the Peninsula to the other”, and his series of Rokambul detective adventures. Hikayat Faridah Hanom, adapted from an Egyptian love story and characterised as the first “new hikayat”, is a fascinating and daring treatment of the quality of “human-ness”, the basis for a compassionate concern for others and a new morality. It became a benchmark for what came to be known as “cherita saduran”, with saduran implying not just translation but adaptation to the context of the Malay society of the time.

Detective fiction was one of the most popular genres with the early reading public. And the most famous crime stories were al-Hadi’s Rokambul series. He took on numerous episodes of the intrepid criminal-adventurer-detective hero, Rocambole, created by Pierre Alexis Ponson du Terrail, most likely from Arabic translations rather than from their French originals. It has even been suggested that the portrayal of outsiders in detective fiction was an attempt to instil a culture of resistance in their readers, albeit on an imaginative level – a kind of “hidden transcript” as a critique of power. As an interesting aside, numerous Rocambole stories were also translated into Malay by Lie Kim Hock in Batavia and published in the early years of the twentieth century. It remains an open case whether al-Hadi – working some 20 years later – perhaps knew of Lie’s translations.

Communities of Imagination

The literary output of Chan Kim Boon and Syed Sheikh al-Hadi in the transformative decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates just how important Penang was in the dissemination of the written word, in sustaining nascent publishing industries and in bridging different languages. Of course, Penang was by no means alone in this domain. The other Straits Settlements – Malacca and Singapore – also supported thriving print centres, while the Sultan Idris Training College became the leading incubator for Malay writers and work in translation. As we have seen, all this activity was grounded in much older practices of literary production – in which the archipelago made extensive use of and was in turn shaped by Arabic, Indian, Chinese and European source texts of all kinds. These provided the materials for a sophisticated Asian translation tradition. Nonetheless, the impact of European colonialism – accompanied by modernising dynamics such as formal education and the print revolution – initiated a qualitatively new phase of literary production and translation strategies. The print revolution was, of course, a necessary precondition for this flourishing. But more important than the technology itself was the profound impact that print had for moulding people of disparate linguistic traditions into “deep horizontal comradeship” and communities of imagination, as Benedict Anderson memorably puts it. In the period leading up to the Second World War, translated work – both fiction and non-fiction – found a new readership in the rapidly changing world of Penang and the Malay peninsula. It represented a process of acquisition, incorporation and adaptation – one that would help form the post-war cultural milieu.

*This article first appeared in Penang Monthly, November 2016.


bottom of page