Sunday July 1, 2012
Bonjour, Sang Kancil
By SHARMILLA GANESAN
A French academic with a passion for Malay literature thinks the comical and clever Sang Kancil deserves to be taken seriously.
IT all began with a version of this traditional Malay pantun (rhyming couplet):
Dari mana datangnya lintah (From whence comes the leech),
Dari sawah turun ke kali (From the padi fields down the brook),
Dari mana datangnya cinta (From whence comes love),
Dari mata turun ke hati (From the eye down into the heart).
This was the first pantun that Frenchman Georges Voisset learnt during his time in Singapore in the 1970s – he found it a good way to meet new people! – but it was certainly not the last.
Now professor of comparative literature at the University of French West Indies and Guyane in Martinique, Voisset, 64, is one of only a handful of European academics specialising in Nusantara (the Malay Archipelago) literature, particularly pantun.
After learning Arabic during his higher studies at the Sorbonne, Paris, Voisset found himself drawn to exploring the Malay language when he was posted to Singapore’s Alliance Francaise at the age of 25. (The Alliance Francaise promotes French language and culture with branches in countries that have diplomatic ties with France.)
He found fascinating similarities between French and Malay, he says.
“I wanted to use my time there to invest more in the Malay language, so I went to Indonesia and Malaysia for holidays,” says Prof Voisset, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to participate in the French Art & Film Festival 2012.
“And I already had an interest in poetry, which naturally drew me to pantun. It is so uniquely Malaysian!”
Over the next few years, he continued to study Malay literature, even while stationed in Japan for six years in the late 1970s, which, as he jokingly points out, wasn’t the best place to practise Malay.
His next posting, however, was in Jogjakarta in Indonesia for four years, giving him plenty of time to become fluent in the language.
“That’s why my Malay is rojak; sometimes I bicara (Indonesian for ‘speak’), sometimes I bercakap (Bahasa Malaysia for ‘speak’)!” laughs the jolly professor, who nevertheless has an impressive grasp of the Malay language, albeit with a charming French accent.
After Jogjakarta, Voisset went on to work in Africa, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire before settling down in Martinique in his current position.
As an academician and writer, his ambition is to bring the literary traditions of the Nusantara to the Francophone world, a topic he addressed in detail in his 2011 book Les Lèvres Du Monde (The Lips Of The World).
Having published a history of the poetic form, Histoire Du Genre Pantoun (History Of The Pantun Genre) in 1998, he also penned several anthologies of pantun translated into French, such as Pantouns Malais (Malay Pantun) and Le Chant À Quatre Mains (The Four-Hand Singing – Pantun And Other Love Poems).
His latest work, however, diverges into prose and focuses on a character that is no stranger to anyone even remotely familiar with Malay literature and folktales: Sang Kancil, the wily mousedeer.
“I initially had no intention of translating prose,” shares Prof Voisset.
“My interest in the Malay language and literature is a well-kept secret garden of mine, and my works have been a deliberate progression to present my passion to the French public. There is no point talking about things that people know nothing about, so that is why I started with translating pantun.”
It was his wife, a Malaysian of Indian ethnicity, who suggested that he try his hand at Sang Kancil stories, since he also had a keen interest in folktales. It was the starting point of a literary journey that was to span both miles and centuries.
It helped that the Sang Kancil character and stories have contemporaries in Western literature, such La Fontaine’s Fables Of France, or even the Renard The Fox and Brer Rabbit tales, where anthropomorphised animals use their mischief and cunning to get the better of others who are typically stronger or bigger than them.
There exists, however, another connection between France and Sang Kancil: the oldest known manuscript of Hikayat Pelanduk Jenaka (Comical Mousedeer Chronicles), dated between 1630 and 1635, is in fact housed in the National Library of France. Traced from the time of Louis XIV, it is also among the oldest manuscripts in the library. These connections convinced Prof Voisset that the Sang Kancil stories deserved to be shared with the French public.
The first difficulty Prof Voisset ran into was finding a definitive collection of Sang Kancil tales that he could translate.
“Most of the versions I found were either very simplified, or Disney-fied!” he says. “I didn’t want to present Bambi, I wanted to present this region.”
That was when he remembered an old book he had on his farm in Britanny, France: Hikayat Pelandok (Mousedeer Chronicles), a very rare edition published in 1929 in Singapore by the Malay Publishing House.
Funnily enough, Prof Voisset actually had obtained the book in a second-hand bookshop in Japan; inscriptions in it indicate that a local man owned the book while serving in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation of World War II, and had taken it with him when he returned home.
The tome includes Sang Kancil tales in their ancient, original forms, such as Pelandok Dan Anak Memerang (The Mousedeer And The Otter Babies) and Hikayat Pelandok Jenaka, without the simplifications and moralising that has been added over the years.
According to Prof Voisset, the stories in this book trace their ancestry to both sides of the Malacca Straits from the 16th and 17th centuries. Reflecting the social, political and religious mores of the time, they provide rich insight into the region’s past, and as such, are a far cry from the quaint children’s stories most of us know today.
When trying to translate the stories, however, Prof Voisset ran into another obstacle.
“I realised it was impossible to translate them as they were, because the language was very dry.
“The penglipurlara (travelling storytellers), from whom the stories were obtained, had told the stories in their basic forms to (the transcriber), with no jokes, no descriptions. So I had to recreate a lot of this, to give the stories more life. So, the translator became a bit of a creator.”
Prof Voisset further found that he needed to make some tough decisions on which elements to include wholesale and which to alter or adapt. One of the aspects he felt the need to change were instances of unnecessary cruelty.
“The original Sang Kancil stories are about the priority of survival, something that the rural folk of the region understood and related to. Unlike the (sanitised) Sang Kancil stories of today, the tales can be quite brutal.
“For instance, there is a story in which an elephant terrorises a colony of ants. To get revenge, the ants dig a huge hole in the ground and fill it with kerengga (weaver ants). The elephant falls into the hole and is eaten alive by the kerengga.
“I think there has to be a balance between what is fair and what is cruel. While morality doesn’t always have to be Bambi, there should be a sense of fairness. So I changed the ending of that story to make it less brutal,” he explains.
He also struggled with the religious and cultural satire within the stories.
“It is not that I was afraid of censorship. It was more that, when it came to the Islamic elements, the general French public would not be able to relate. Whereas the cultural elements were easier for me to universalise; for example, the stories being a metaphor for a race to power, which is similar to La Fontaine’s Fables.
“In the end, I secularised the stories but left in most of the cultural elements,” he says.
With his French-language Sang Kancil book now complete – entitled Contes Sauvages: Les Très Curieuses Histoires De Kancil, Le Petit Chevrotain (Wild Tales: The Very Curious Stories Of The Small Kancil) – Prof Voisset hopes to do an English version, and perhaps even one in Bahasa Malaysia.
“It is un-understandable to me that Sang Kancil isn’t a bigger part of the Nusantara literary tradition. I was dismayed that most people only know the Disney-fied children’s stories.
“Sang Kancil is such an important part of Malay culture. It is part of the region’s patrimony, and cultures should assume their patrimony. They can, and in fact should, be discussed and adapted, but never replaced altogether,” he concludes.