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On Suap Lidah: The Translator is a Traitor
Sharing some processes behind the writing and making of Suap Lidah (commissioned by Singapore Unbound for their 5th Singapore Literature Festival in NYC).
Before reading this, it is best to view the work here.
1. The Hallway of Main Cakap Je: In language, we play and baku itu kaku.
Most of the visual stuff I put together are assemblages of various things; snatches from my dreams (sometimes recurring), little strands of scenes on the walks I take kid around the city, long conversations with my partner bani. When I say long I mean these same conversations last for years, multiple rotations around the same axis of our many scattered interests, usually coming to meet each other in between, and sometimes not meeting each other at all but just passing one another by on different tangents. That I guess is the joy of it all, not sharing the same thought processes or structures, often disagreeing, sometimes passionately.
Over the years, bani and I have been constantly coming back to the Malay language. When we first started going out as friends, I was amused when he spoke Malay the first time because it carried such a strange accent, as if it was never his Mother Tongue or his second language. (For readers not from Singapore, it is compulsory for everyone to take a second language, known as the Mother Tongue and is attached to your race. So if you are Malay, you take Malay in school but may also have the option of learning Mandarin). I was especially shook when I found out that bani’s mother teaches Malay tuition because his grasp of the language was really terrible.
One can say the same of the way I spoke (and write) English. Often with a telor Melayu, or a Malay accent. I don’t stick out my tongue and go -Th or enunciate my words in ways that make it easier for people to understand me. I have been corrected on my grammar so often and struggle to read heavily written academic texts (also because of my undiagnosed dyslexia). bani on the other hand, speaks perfect English, clear and punctuated at all the right spots. It was easily assumed that he was someone who attended some all-boys school. But like me, he was from a co-ed neighbourhood school. Until today our differences has been a bridge, or a kind of cute little hallway in which he proofreads my writings or I watch him get excited when I unpack an old Malay saying, like muka kena kicap which describes someone’s badly beaten-up face. Ketchup by the way, is derived from kicap and not the other way around.
Our differences aside, both of us loathed learning Malay in school. The Malay we learnt in school was not the spoken Malay we are used to. In school we were taught to read as we spell which made everything sound formal and awkward. This is known as Bahasa Baku. A simple example would be kita (or we) in which the right way would be Ki-Ta but we are used to saying ki- Ter (with a silent R).
The word “baku” is a Javanese word meaning true and correct. Sebutan Baku or standard spoken Malay was introduced in Singapore in 1993 by the Ministry of Education to be used in the teaching and learning of the Malay Language progressively beginning with the primary schools and followed by the secondary schools and junior colleges/centralised institutes.
But honestly this true and correct way feels kinda shitty on the tongue. Here’s a bit of why bahasa baku was implemented:
The main issue surrounding the spoken form has always been the determining of the standard spoken form or sebutan baku. Before 1956, the Johor-Riau spoken variation was regarded as the standard based on the fact that the Johor-Riau area was the centre of Malay language and development then. In 1956, the 3rd Malay Language & Literary Congress passed a resolution determining that the Johor-Riau spoken variation should cease to be regarded as the standard. More than 30 years passed before the Malaysian government formally announced their shift from regarding the Johor-Riau spoken variation as a standard replacing it with sebutan baku, and to be used by educators and the mass media. In 1993, Singapore’s Ministry of Education launched its standard spoken Malay Language program of Program Sebutan Baku Bahasa Melayu which is based on the Malaysian model. In the year 2000, the Malaysian government retracted its support for sebutan baku and returned to using the Johor-Riau spoken variation. In spite of this development, Singapore still maintains its support for sebutan baku till today.
It’s like somewhere down the line no one really cares anymore about the state of the Mother Tongue languages right now. Or maybe caring for it for the wrong reasons from the start. Here’s something that someone said:
“One abiding reason why we have to persist in bilingualism is that English will not be emotionally acceptable as our mother tongue. To have no emotionally acceptable language as our mother tongue is to be emotionally crippled.” (Speak Mandarin Campaign: 1984)
and again in 2004
We emphasised social cohesion, civic duty, the family as the integral unit of society. We had a bilingual policy teaching in English and learning our mother tongues to remind us of our roots and provide cultural ballast.
Guys, I had to search the meaning of ballast and had a laugh at the audacity of such a word next to CuLtuRaL. Anyways, the whole mother tongue shenanigans is really to get the Chinese people to keep on learning Mandarin (due to obvious economic reasons please) and by default, we minorities must learn our own mother tongues because apparently that’s where the ballast is at. So I guess, that’s where the gripe is isn’t it, this formalising of languages, or it’s implementations has taken away all the joy of the language, the bawah block Malay you pick up or make up with friends, that Melayu Pasar, a kind of pidgin language still used between older folks and its subtler and nuanced exchanges.
Anyway, back to that cute little hallway that bani and I spend a lot of time in speculating meaning of words, translations, the language itself. The hallway of main cakap ajer, to say it as it is but to also question why we are saying it this way and not that way. I love how main (translated as play) is attached to the phrase main cakap ajer, usually used for someone who say something recklessly, or in a somewhat accusatory tone, jokingly, not thinking or not careful with their words. It is so contextualised to how it is used.
When Jee approached me at the start of the year to create something under the theme of Archipelago Dreaming (a deepening of Édouard Glissant's Archipelagic Thought), I felt it was time we shared this hallway with others and reclaimed what bahasa baku stole from us by correcting the ways in which we use Malay.
2. “traduttore, traditore” and the writing processes of Suap Lidah
I came across the wonderfully written essay by Yoke-Sum Wong titled Bedbugs and Grasshoppers in which she looks at how a nation is shaped literally through translations, looking at the specifics words of negeri and negara and their evolution (of meaning and use) in tandem with nationalism.
One part that struck me quite hard with a big oh wow:
In Roman Jakobson’s well-known discussion of the Italian saying Italian traduttore, traditore or the “translator is a betrayer”, or translation as traitorous, he traces the word translation to the shared latin root of traditor, meaning traitor and traduttore, meaning to transfer, bring over, or/and surrender. But, asks Jakobson, “translator of what messages? Betrayer of what values?” There is implied wrongdoing here but also sacrifice, trickery and dissemblance. Other variations of the latin translation include: to ridicule, to parade, and to show up [as in a person]. In engaging with Jakobson’s discussion, Ortega y Gasset suggests that a wariness or fear exists of the translator who "will place the [original] author in the prison of normal expression; that is, he will betray him."
She then went on to look at the word tanahair in the context of transfer/surrender within the politics of sovereignty (in the case of Malaysia’s Bumiputera policies) and nationhood:
I want to return to the word tanahair, that is father/motherland or homeland, which, as stated before should literally be translated as land/soil and water. That tanahair is usually translated as homeland loses a certain geographical resonance, the spread of the seas and the lands which surround them if it must have universal intimations -- as well as local ones. Yet, if we now surrender to the mythological reverberations of tanah and air, and to the ancient landmasses of Tanah Melayu in present times when religious affiliations share tense juxtapositions with multiracialism, when sovereignty overwhelms historic ties, more would indeed be lost. Betrayal -- or surrender, is sometimes necessary.
And then there is this part of it:
For Maurice Blanchot, translation is the very play of difference – the act alludes, dissimulates, reveals, and accentuates it. Translation is, in fact, the very life of this difference. It does not crystallize meaning but shines upon the original but only to convey what is being communicated rather than to resemble it. Translating reflects the protean life of languages – and the restlessness of language in a restless world. Translation gestures towards other languages and awakens the presence of difference. In seeking out the original which is itself never immobile, translation evokes the foreignness of the other – and in this case, the foreign and colonial encounters in language which would have provoked mimeses as well as alterities.
I wanted to capture the restlessness of the language shifting through spatial and temporal realities,
breaking apart the cultural ballast, with regards to the un-translatable. From a different tangent, bani has brought up notions of time, several times in our hallway, as he identifies that the word for future is attached to time, time forward, masa depan. From masa depan, he departs from the word tempoh because of its relationship to time, a pause in time from one point to the the next or across all points. I however was coming from elsewhere, thinking more about the triggers certain words create, their sounds and shapes, the kinds of gestures attached to them.
bani wrote a long text, titled arah (direction) and in the spirit of translation (and collaboration), I went in blind and translated the meaning of the text (without asking him about it), to “awaken the presence of difference” in how we think through translation (and intention) pertaining to the Malay language. As reference to his piece, he shared with me a song by the Indonesian band Padi Kemana Angin Berhembus (Where the Wind Blows) as sort of a loose reference, a kind of vibe.
This is the first draft from bani:
ku, mengarah arahan
pengarah, ar-rahman nirrahim
syarahan berkumandang, arah
tujuan tak tentu, di
arahkan ke sana,
ke mana, ke
tak berarah, berkisar,
bersiar-siar, ku pandang
ke arah mana-mana putaran
bahasa yang tak terarah
manja dengan saya
arahanmu yang perintahi
muat turun ke khayalan
tempoh masa kini, tempoh
hari yang takkan jumpa
nanti, ke mana arah
masa depan kami dibuat
lupa lidah ini, kesat,
kesatkan mata, tanda
mata, tanda petanda
menandakan tanda tanya
tanda tangan ini ringan
nak ambil semula
apa yang dirampaskan
oleh sejarah saya
bahasa indah kerana
dengan lidah mereka,
dan jurubahasa yang idamkan
alam budaya seberang masa,
rasa, dengan berat hati, saya
rasa arah tujuan yang harus
diperiksakan adalah hasil
penjajahan yang merombakkan
nilai lidah saya
tanpa di tampah di
paksa di perintah
di halau dari masa
kini tempoh hari
hingga ke masa depan
ambil rasa suara
gemuruh yang biadap
beradat hanya dengan
dendam, benci berendam
muka bersenyum, niat
pecahkan mukamu terpendam,
maaf, jangan panggil peguam
bahasaku walaupun kesat,
aku cuma nak mengesat
apa yang kau lepaskan di kalangan
kerana takde arah, tak dijajah
secara biasa bergaol
mesra, berenang bergurau
senda dengan impian untuk
mengarah kisah-kisah kita
sehari, sentiasa, lidah
merantau dengan semangat
kita, arah, arahkan
ku, mengarah arahan
pengarah, jangan cuba
nak ternakkan jiwa
ini yang ingin kemana saja
angin dan maya
I don’t know why but I saw three different pieces and decided to break them up into three different texts and added on to them. I wrote one separate text as well and everything came up to four different parts of Suap Lidah.
Here are my additions with notes:
(Notes: When I read arah at the start, it has a kind of spell-casting quality, a warding off against the evils of directing the tongue too harshly and I added an interruption mid-way, boldly claiming that there’s many ways to say one thing and there’s many things that remains unsaid before stating proudly that lidah aku tak pernah bertulang, playing off the proverb lidah tak bertulang as someone who easily makes promises but never keeps to them. I ended my part with a Malay word game I used to play as a kid where the end of one word begins another and it goes on until one person runs out of words. I segue back into bani’s text, with in whichever direction, language yang tak terarah (can mean to be with no direction but also can mean, to be without meaning) berjelingan manja dengan saya (translates to rolls its eyes with affection towards me or flirts with me)
(Notes: This is a standalone piece based on an actual conversation bani and I had that was redacted. I wrote this as a reference to our main cakap je hallway, accepting that all translations are a compromise. Of course, I also had to pay homage to my favourite word in Malay, terima kasih.)
(Notes: I wrote this first part of the response in a twin cinema form (which originated from SINGAPORE btw, i didn’t know that till today) which is:
“Twin cinema is a poetic form written in two discrete columns. Each column can be read individually from top to bottom, often present correlating or contrasting images, or viewpoints at odds with each other. It's beauty lies in its ability to be read also across.” More about it here
I took the last sound of the last word from the first column to form the first sound of the first word in the second column. This part in bani’s arah sounded like a love letter of sorts and I was responding to the word rasa as being a hyper malay word that means so many different things, feeling, taste, premonition, instinct, foresight. Deriving from the sanskrit word rasa which means
“In Indian aesthetics, a rasa (Sanskrit: रस) literally means "nectar, essence or taste". It connotes a concept in Indian arts about the aesthetic flavour of any visual, literary or musical work that evokes an emotion or feeling in the reader or audience but cannot be described. It refers to the emotional flavors/essence crafted into the work by the writer and relished by a 'sensitive spectator' or sahṛdaya, literally one who "has heart", and can connect to the work with emotion, without dryness.”
Also this was my favourite from the series.)
(Notes: This last piece is a standalone from bani although in the finalized version of the video where he wanted us to improvised these text, I read the text in reverse and it came out, not necessarily as the opposite of the original text but more like a paranthesis or bracket to the piece.)
3. Tiada kata secantik bahasa
The final parts of the making of Suap Lidah came too, in separate tangents: bani did the sounds without the knowledge of what the visuals were going to be. He had an idea of how the voices would be like but musically he was riffing off the text and what he thought the voices sound like and what sort of music that would work well with it in terms of pacing. I shot a few scenes for each parts with some ideas in mind; a kind of visual poetry, not necessarily a direct response to the text. We recorded us reading the pieces at the last parts.
Here’s a little bit on the visual parts of the work:
In arah for example and even with the latex masks in sesama and sentiasa and hands in tempoh, I was exploring notions of disembodiment. How meaning bears the most weight and then one loses all the details in these exchange, the way these mouths in arah, stretch the words out, forming them into sounds, the little hesitations, the curve of a smile forming, the silence. I wanted that disembodiment to be felt not as a way to misdirect, with reference to arah but a kind of redirection, an invitation of sorts to look deeply into these small gestures, to feel them and hold them as close as the meanings that they carry.
In sesama, a conversation between two people, there’s close-ups of these masks with unmoving lips and eyes shut tight. There is movement, but these faces remain still. I wanted to capture a sense of unease through the same disembodiment, this time in spirit rather than through gestures. Momentarily though, these masks seem to come alive, only when nothing is being said at the end.
In tempoh, there’s a kind of picking at, or picking apart, cucuk or to provoke. Using the squid as play on the tongue with the ability to camouflage as a mode to survive. The second part are montages of tender exchanges between bodies at sea. The lines taken from a P Ramlee song (also its title), tiada kata secantik bahasa, there are no words as beautiful as language, in praise of you my love. There is no image as beautiful as a painting for me to show my feelings. </3
Lastly in sentiasa, I wanted the images to be a part of the spell. The spell that was at the start of the piece. Also, this is the only piece that had the words translated with Google translate so it is super janky. Due to this, there is that restlessness that was mentioned earlier. (If you want to know more about these pieces, you can catch the panel we did for the festival here)
I hope this spell continues to keep our tongues restless and adrift, moving wherever the wind blows, sentiasa.