Thursday, 12 May 2011

Bluntly Direct - A Review

I can vouched that there is easily a trillion books at the recently held KL International Book Fair 2011. Bookworms will be utterly lost in the maze of books, books and more books at the many, many booths on the - was it three floors? - of the PWTC building where the event was held last month.

So, how many books did I get? A miserly two for myself, actually. One on theology and the other, Usman Awang's Enslaved Soul; the National Laureate's anthology of poems written circa the late 1940s to early 1960's. The latter was in Bahasa and English, courtesy of the Malaysian National Institute of Translation.

I've of late taken an distinct interest in poetry, and was thus very eager to digest the book - far too much, in fact, as such I made the mistake of reading both the original penning of the late writer and the translated work one line to one line, Bahasa to English.

Midway through the first poem, Awareness (1949), I had the sudden realisation of the prose being lifeless, bland. You just cannot appreciate the nuances and beauty of poems by taking them on in such a robotic manner.

The life of a poem lie in the flowing, lyrical nature of its words.

Alone, the lines of a poetry will seem disjointed, meaningless. Together however, they resonate and capture minds, imagination. Vivid descriptions that rely wholly on words tied to provide the contextual scenes in the readers' mind eye.

I can therefore imagine the trepidation the author's daughter, Haslina ( and co translator Adibah Amin) had in tackling the task of translating some 35 deeply symbolic works of a bygone era.

It is simply next to impossible to capture the feel and flow of a poem no matter how beautifully etched the translation might be and in the case of Enslaved Soul, I must humbly submit that in most cases, they do not work.

Usman - popularly known as Tongkat Warrant - is quite direct in his language: a line from "Aku Sedar" - the aforementioned Awareness - goes: "baru bangun dari tidur mengantuk". The translation meanwhile goes "that I have just woken up from a heavy- lidded sleep".

You have to admit the lurid bluntness in the first is lost in translation (pun fully intended).

On their own - and read in context of the original poem in the back of one's mind - the translated versions do come out fairly well written if awkward in some places, resulting from - I think - the need to inject the patriotism slant of Usman Awang's work.

The majority of the poems in this anthology revolves around the Malays' struggle for identity, standing and independence, as well as reference to battlegrounds - I wouldn't say war, and death. The Emergency? Possibly, given the timeline of the writings.

His "Balada Langit Tua Manusia Sengketa" (1959) is a lengthy, theater sript-like poetry which is very, very explicit in its depiction of the horrors of the arm struggle of nameless (except for Si Kurus Lapar - The Thin Starving One) men.

The translation, entitled "A Ballad of Ancient Sky and Mankind at War" is nonetheless one of my favorite English read, the clunky title notwithstanding.

"Twin hills firmly enthroned
Like a pair of amorous giants
with thicket-like hair in the black night
at their feet nature's music whispers
song of a stream softly flowing
a cool breeze combs their summit."

How I wish I can write likewise. Read in its entirety, "A Ballad..." seems a standalone poem, especially if you don't have the original "Balada..." as a side by side referee.

As for the author's own work in this anthology, I love his "Pak Utih" (1954) best. The patriotic slants of his other efforts do come out too strongly for me, so the very easy going, laidback "Pak Utih" is a much welcome change in pace in very relaxed, easy reading proses.

However, "Pak Utih" only works in Bahasa, and not so effective in English, as the cynicsm (innocence?) is quite lost when translated.

I must admit that Enslaved Soul (Jiwa Hamba) is not an easy book to read in one sitting, due to the constant cross referencing of lines. While you do wish for a generally uninterrupted read, often times you find yourself curious as to the context of certain phrases, sentences, and use of words.

Unfortunately, this also takes away some of the enjoyment of discovering poems that just tugs at your heartstring and pummel your imagination with its descriptive prowess.

Enslaved Soul (Jiwa Hamba) is one of those book which requires several read and re read sessions to allow a fuller appreciation of the myriad of emotional outpourings within its covers.

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