The Epic of Hang Tuah: A Welcome Translation

13 Feb 2010 - New Straits Times


By Umapagan Ampikaipakan

An intriguing age-old Malay legend has now been translated to English and UMAPAGAN AMPIKAIPAKAN has the lowdown. The Epic of Hang Tuah Translated by Muhammad Haji Salleh Edited by Rosemary Robson 600 pages / Institute Terjemahan Negara Malaysia A TRANSLATION demands justification. It requires a good reason for being. Either it is the first of its kind, or it is the best of its kind. Because only then will the reader be motivated enough to actually look through its pages; to choose it, above all others, and consider what it has to offer.

There is nothing more unfortunate than an unread book. For then it is merely a vessel, a hollow container; it is but a receptacle for words. A book that remains on a shelf is a wasted opportunity.

Therein lies the translator's dilemma. The text is merely the source. It is a conceptual starting point, one from which the translator has to make a choice — between form and function; between maintaining a truthful aesthetic and merely representing a particular vision.

It is a far more significant quandary when it comes to something as little read as the Hikayat Hang Tuah.

We are familiar with it, we refer to it, we imitate it, but alas, it is a tome that finds itself more on our shelves than in our hands.

Like so many great works of literature — for instance, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby and In Search of Lost Time — the Hikayat is just another book that we know but haven't actually read.

The Epic of Hang Tuah, as translated by Muhammad Haji Salleh, and presented to us by the Malaysian National Institute of Translation, is a truly beautiful volume.

Bound in brown and stamped in bronze, its pages are a pleasure to turn.

It is large. It sits well on a shelf. And it feels weighty in your hand, as any good epic should.

This translation of the Hikayat Hang Tuah, primarily based on the Kassim Ahmad editions of 1964 and 1975, is a welcome one. And as it is the first of its kind in the English language, it is also a remarkable effort.

Any attempt at rendition requires the translator to deal with more than just the words. He has to deal with ideas. He has to deal with cultures. He has to deal with a work that is so removed in both time and sensibility.

Here, Muhammad Haji Salleh excels. He is unflinchingly faithful to the original text. He does his best to maintain the oral tradition of the work.

He does well in dealing with the idiosyncrasies of both the Malay and the English language. Something that undoubtedly becomes far more apparent when attempting conversion.

While the language that he uses is somewhat ornate, it nevertheless carries its meaning forward effortlessly. Unfortunately, it is these same things that leave the work wanting. It suffers from that inescapable flaw of not being very readable. In many places it feels like reading Malay, but in English. It feels far too matter of fact. It feels far too functional.

It is a problem inherent in both languages and one that isn’t easily overcome.

Unfortunately, the words “Adakah perisai bertali rambut. Rambut dipintal akan cemara” just fall flat when translated into, “Is ever a shield carried on a rope of hair? Hair that’s braided into a pretty pennant.” It lacks the vitality and memorability of the original text. The original Malay felt alive. It felt contemporary. It was living and occurring at the same time. It had a certain musicality to it. It possessed a beat; a rhythm. There was a musical cadence whenever it was read out loud.

And it suffers for it. In attempting to make this translation both accurate and accessible, one can't help but fear it may have failed in fulfilling that larger responsibility; one that lies with generating readership.

New Straits Times.

The Epic of Hang Tuah: A Welcome Translation