Sunday September 9, 2012
Preserving our stories
By DAPHNE LEE
A publisher produces a series of books with ‘stories about us’, stories from the roots of our literary traditions.
SILVERFISH Malaysian Classics is a new series produced by independent Malaysian publisher, Silverfish Books. So far, four titles have been released, namely Marong Mahawangsa, Sejarah Melayu, The Epic Of Bidasari and Malaysian Fables, Folk Tales & Legends.
The books are in English, transcribed (and translated) from Jawi texts, or, in the case of Fables and as described by the book’s transcriber and translator Walter Skeat in his introduction, “from the lips of the Malay peasantry”.
Because Silverfish did not have to pay for publishing rights for these old stories that are in the public domain, the books are priced most affordably at RM30 each. That’s great news for readers who used to have no choice but to fork out RM165 for the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society’s (MBRAS) box set of the Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu).
We learn more about the series from Raman Krishnan, owner of the bookstore and the publishing company.
How did you come up with the idea for Silverfish Malaysian Classics?
I have been interested in history since I was in Standard Four – I had a very good teacher. Later, I became fascinated with the intersection of history and myths. The latter is often dismissed as something untrue while history is all about the truth. Unfortunately, the more history I read, the more untruths I uncover and, conversely, the more myths I read, the more I wonder if some of them are based on truth.
History and myths are like first cousins. Myths feed off history and create stories that people like to hear, and some of them then become irrefutable historical facts even if they’re not true. We see this happening all over the world, all the time, often in real time.
Far too many discussions – arguments – in this country take place from positions of total prejudice and ignorance. These are books with some stories about us. Malaysia, the country, is like a tree which has had all its roots cut off, and is currently buttressed by prosthetics. Few seem to remember these stories. These books are tiny bits of root material that have been salvaged in the hope that they will regenerate and create a stronger, more organic foundation, and the basis for more meaningful debates about our culture.
But these books give only us one version. One hopes they will become the catalyst for more discoveries.
The four books that have thus far been published are all translations. Did you consider rewriting the material to make the books more accessible, in terms of language, to modern readers?
Yes, I did consider a re-telling, but decided that it’s more important to preserve the primary source (albeit in translation). Others are more than welcome to use them for re-telling and reinterpretation, hopefully from the original Jawi text. All versions are subject to the translators own interpretations and prejudices; hence, the more there are, the better.
There are two English translations of texts from Sejarah Melayu currently available (both are included in the MBRAS box set). Why did you choose Leyden’s translation over C.C. Brown’s?
I found many omissions in C.C. Brown’s. When in doubt or there was contradiction or conflict, he left it out. Whereas Leyden translated everything as it was.
Why did you decide not to provide an index for this book?
We have produced the books as they appeared originally, and the version of Sejarah Melayu we worked on didn’t have an index. Our aim is to preserve the original as far as possible – warts and all.
Do the Jawi texts for Bidasari and Marong Mahawangsa still exist? Would you consider publishing a romanised Malay version of these two titles? Would a Malay version be a case of translating the English back into Malay?
I have not seen the Jawi version of either, but I hope that after publications of this series, there will be some interest in retrieving them from a Borgesian cemetery of lost books! As for retranslating them back into Malay, why not? Stranger things have happened.
How important do you think these books are as reference material for those interested in regional literature and history?
These books have been produced with the lay reader and student in mind, considering the dearth of books about classical Malaysian literature and history. Academics could use them as starting points. They’ll know what to do after that.
For someone coming to such mat-erial for the first time, which book would you recommend they start with?
Folk Tales is the most accessible. My favourite is Marong Mahawangsa for its Homeric scope – one can almost sense the presence of Odysseus. Bidasari is a charming fairy tale without pretensions or hidden meanings.
The books are numbered on the spine. Was this done as a means of compelling completists to buy the whole series?
The books are aimed at the collector who is also a serious reader, and libraries, universities and colleges. Is it a way of making one buy all the titles? Maybe. Still, I think people are smarter than that. We have also chosen the same black-and-white theme throughout for differentiation, and to make them look handsome on the shelf.
What other titles can we look forward to in this series?
We have a few in mind, but if we come across something more exciting, they could go onto the back burner. So it’s better for me not to mention any titles now.
What else can we look forward to from Silverfish Books?
Frankly, I have no idea. I like serendipity. Let’s see what comes up. We often surprise ourselves as much as the public.
Do you like the way our local publishing scene is developing? What would you like to see more of in terms of the kinds of books and writing being published?
Our local writers are developing, and that’s good. Whether I like it or not, is not important. I’d like to see as many different types of books written and published as possible – both great literature and trash. I believe, going back to the original metaphor of roots, a beautiful tree only grows on manure.