Translation in Myanmar: A Struggle in Today’s Market

In News by Dennis Abrams

One legacy of pre-publication censorship, even as Myanmar moves toward more contemporary values, is a stubborn lack of translation from English.
A street bookseller in Yangon. Image - iStockphoto: Camerado

A street bookseller in Yangon. Image – iStockphoto: Camerado

By Dennis Abrams | @DennisAbrams2

‘A Break in Generations of Publishers’
As Thi Ri Han writes in Frontier Myanmar, there was a time in Myanmar’s not-so-distant past when books translated from English were “widely available.” But because of censorship during the days of military rule, those days have come and gone.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, translators including Shwe Oo Daung, Thakin, Ba Thaung, Dagon Shwe and others, helped introduce Burmese readers to works originally written in English. But when the Ne Win dictatorship took power in 1962, it “established the Press Scrutiny Board (renamed the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division in 2005),” writes Thi Ri Han, and the number of translated titles went into a steep decline.

Fifty years of government censorship have taken their toll. And even after President Thein Sein abolished pre-publication censorship in August of 2012, the translation sector “has barely recovered.”

U Aung Thura, who is not only a publisher at Walie Society Publishing House in Yangon but a noted translator of philosophy texts, tells Frontier that there are virtually no translators left with the skills needed to translate philosophy books from English.

U Moe Thet Han, who translates fiction, agrees in comments for the article, adding that “The slowdown in literary translation is mainly due to the PSB (Press Scrutiny Board).

Referring to his translation of Norwegian Wood by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, he says, “It’s been very bad, almost half of this book was censored, so it was not published. Indiscriminate censoring has made translators reluctant to do their job.”

Writer and publisher at Ngar Doh Sar Pay Publishing House in Yangon, U Myae Hmon Lwin, says that “PSB was unnecessarily very strict in the case of sex and politics, so there was a break in generations of publishers.”

U Thurein Win, known for his translation of Burmese Days and other books by George Orwell (who remains popular in Myanmar), says that problems in the education system have also played their role: “In Myanmar, most translators translate from English into Myanmar, and there has been a considerable decline in the number of people who can read and understand English well due to the deterioration of the educational system. So the number of competent translators seems to have decreased.”

Publisher Myae Hmon Lwin agrees on the educational factor, and says:

“Myanmar’s poor education system has had a bad effect on [the country’s] world of books. It has made the people shun reading, rather than making them love books. Without reforming the education system of learning by heart,” he says of rote-learning in government schools, “it is difficult to improve this in Myanmar, [and] not only the translation sector.”

Fewer translations means it has become impossible for translators to make a living translating for publishing houses. Most now work in media, translating news reports from English to Myanmar.

As a case in point: Aung Thura said it takes three years to seel 500 copies of books he has translated.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.