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How translation can help us love strangers

Has the Singapore Story degenerated into a nightmare? Six years ago, Singapore was christened a Garden of Eden state for our exemplary social harmony. These days, strangers are the talk of the town. Strangers want to steal our jobs, destroy the traditional family unit and threaten our Asian way of life.

How translation can help us love strangers

A man carries a poster which translates from the Malay language to English as "Singaporean can't take it!" as he gathers at a protest, on May 1, 2014 in Singapore to call for tighter curbs on the influx of foreigners into the city state. Photo: AP

Has the Singapore Story degenerated into a nightmare? Six years ago, Singapore was christened a Garden of Eden state for our exemplary social harmony. These days, strangers are the talk of the town. Strangers want to steal our jobs, destroy the traditional family unit and threaten our Asian way of life.

The desire to purge this Garden of Eden of its outsiders has seen some citizens embark on a series of social crusades that include opposing a Philippines national day celebration in town and likening lesbians to cancer.




If we let this cultural narrative play itself out to its rational end, it seems like Singapore is heading towards an epic battle between crusaders and strangers, one that could unravel whatever real and imagined harmony is prevalent here.

There is, however, a way that Singaporeans can transcend such a simplistic good-versus-evil view of the world. To do this, we need a new social imaginary.

The philosopher Charles Taylor said the social imaginary refers to “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met and the deeper normative notions and images that underlay these expectations”.

As it stands now, our social imaginary is premised on the view that people can be classified into neat categories. Our “strangers” are then those who do not fit into such categories or wish to overstep their boundaries.

For social harmony to thrive in a global city such as ours, Singapore would do better to embrace a social imaginary that does not limit identities to a select few. We need to imagine other worlds.




Our new social imaginary must answer this question: How can the strange become familiar?

This is the perennial dilemma faced by translators, especially those working in the literary arts, where meanings are elusive. Such was my experience translating into English the Malay play Muzika Lorong Buang Kok, by the local playwright Nadiputra, which explores issues of heritage and ethnic relations in the last Malay village in Singapore.

I cringed at the text’s ethnic representations, such as the lowly-educated Chinese landowner and the Malay youths sniggering at the mere mention of dark skin.

Yet, I came to see the text as not straightforwardly racist, but as a creative expression of our society’s uncritical stance on race. By the end of the translation, I began to empathise with what I would normally hold to be loathsome.

Translation has changed my views of something strange, even abhorrent. This process of change from hate to empathy is what should fuel our new social imaginary if we wish to love the strangers that walk among us.

To begin to articulate a translation culture as our new social imaginary is to consider a recent development in translation studies — the idea of translation as culture. Theorist Susan Bassnett says translation is more than a matter of languages. It can shape social hierarchies, ideologies and politics.

For instance, my study of the Malay and Indonesian translations of Syed Hussein Alatas’ The Myth of the Lazy Native revealed that his Malay translator had left out entire chunks of passages critical of the ruling United Malays National Organisation party in Malaysia. This was a political move.




A translation culture can be formulated philosophically, where translation refers to any human act that requires a person to comprehend the “grammar”, or workings, of another person or culture that is foreign. That translator is then tasked to “inhabit” the essence of this foreign subject and reproduce it in a familiar way.

Metaphorically speaking, it necessitates that we speak in tongues. How might this sense of translation ethics be practised in Singapore?

Consider the hypothetical case of a Singaporean who, having studied in the United Kingdom, comes home to lament homophobia here. Our zeal to defend Singapore might lead us to bedevil this person as Westernised or bourgeois.

To translate such a stranger is to first consider the coherence of that individual’s argument, or to understand his or her “grammar”, so to speak. A more difficult task is to “inhabit” the person’s motivations, which requires empathy.

If we manage to do both, we might begin to picture that individual in a less demonic way. We might possibly see that the person is motivated by a wish to distance Singapore from the sort of far-right polemics propagated by the British National Party or the English Defence League in the UK. Thus, we have translated critics as patriots.

But a translation culture should not come as a shock to our way of life. Singapore is already a nation of translators, whose multicultural denizens are interpreting each other along a “vocabulary” of cultural codes on a daily basis. All we need to do now is expand that register to include a greater array of human identities.



Dr Nazry Bahrawi is a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, and research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore. This commentary is adapted from his presentation at the 2nd Singapore International Translation Symposium on May 17.

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