Why I Don’t Translate Non-English Words in My Writing

My novel The Great Reclamation had been out for a little over a month when I received the email. The woman said she was German and had lived in Singapore for a few years. She wrote that she thought my book was “wonderful,” but she “had some small points to nag about.” Like anyone who puts their words out publicly in the world, I am accustomed to unsolicited commentary; people have quibbles about endings and characters, typos and perceived inaccuracies. For the most part, these criticisms are minor annoyances that are outnumbered by lovely, thoughtful messages from appreciative readers. But I’d noticed a new kind of note lately, one that echoed comments I’d received from strangers at readings or even well-meaning acquaintances who’d read my book. The email from the German woman summed it up: “Really why no glossary?” She went on to say that she doubted anyone who hadn’t lived in Singapore would know the word “aiyo,” know what a kampong is, or be able to picture a cheongsam.

It’s a question I myself grappled with in writing The Great Reclamation. It’s the story of a boy growing up in 1940s coastal Singapore, living through the tumultuous 20 years as Singapore struggles to gain independence from British colonialism. Writing in English about British-colonized Singapore—where I am from, and where speaking ‘good English’ is a significant class marker—is a fraught act in itself, highlighting the ways in which my own life and personhood has been shaped by imperialist historical forces. And it has been even more relevant in writing this novel, which traces how the colonial legacy inflicts a violence both overt and invisible upon the Singaporeans who inherit it. So I chose to write in an English I recognized, one containing the words that Singaporeans would use to refer to things. Words like kampong (Malay for village), cheongsam (Cantonese for the form-fitting dress also known as qi pao in Mandarin), and Jipunlang (Japanese people in Hokkien). Characters in my novel speak in Singlish, with its unique syntax, rhythms, and vocabulary arising from the intermingling of English with different languages in Singapore, including Malay, Cantonese, Tamil, and Hokkien. I chose not to italicize, translate, or gloss, not wanting to position the language and world of my Singaporean characters as something foreign, something othered, that needed to be made legible for the white Western reader.

Such questions—about glossaries, in-text translations, italicizations—are really questions about implied audience. And while I, like any writer, hope for my novel to be read by a wide cross-section of people, my implied audience is Singaporean. That doesn’t mean non-Singaporean readers are excluded. For isn’t it one of the great joys of reading to encounter and appreciate literature that’s not explicitly written for you? How tedious it would be otherwise.

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Why I Don't Translate Non-English Words in My Writing

The demand for a glossary betrays the entitlement of someone accustomed to a world in which they are always the implied audience. Someone unused to having to look things up themselves, to infer based on context, or to simply sit with the discomfort of not fully understanding something, as the rest of us do. Growing up in Singapore, I spent most of my childhood reading British novels about girls who went to boarding school and ate crumpets—totally foreign concepts which I could not picture but understood well enough within the context of narrative. Decades later, when I found out what a crumpet really was, it was disappointing—a bit of bread could never live up to that delightfully melodious word.

I remain inspired by writers throughout history who have resisted glossing in all its forms. In his introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie examines his quest “to write in an English that wasn’t owned by the English.” He explains: “The flexibility of the English language has allowed it to become naturalized in many different countries, and Indian English is its own thing by now, just as Irish English is, or West Indian English, or Australian English, or the many variations of American English.”

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Indeed, I remember vividly the experience of reading Midnight’s Children as a 14-year-old girl in Singapore, the electricity of encountering its dynamic cadence, an English that evoked a rich linguistic environment, that, despite being very different from Singaporean English, felt familiar in the multitudes it contained. Other formative influences: Zora Neale Hurston’s uncompromising rendering of vernacular in Their Eyes Were Watching God; Edwidge Danticat’s representation of 1960s Haiti in The Dew Breaker and Min Jin Lee’s of colonial Korea in Pachinko, neither of which offer anthropological explanation but instead present each world as it is lived by their characters.

We encounter the unfamiliar in all kinds of fiction, from historical epics to sci-fi to small-town Iowa realism. Yet there remains a particular insistence on maximum legibility when it comes to books set in worlds that aren’t white, aren’t Western, aren’t lived in “standard” English. The desire to know more, to understand more, may seem harmless to those who demand glossaries. But in centering themselves as the primary audience, this desire reveals itself to be a colonizing impulse, an owning impulse.

A novel is neither an anthropological textbook nor a travel article, written to educate or explicate. It is art, and like all art, it asks to be taken on its own terms. Perhaps, before speaking up to demand glossaries, footnotes, or translations, we could first try to listen.

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