Having Fun With Literary Translation!

Me and my siblings have Whatsapp Group  just for the five of us sisters (without the parents).

Sometimes, we talk of silly things. Sometimes we gossip about the parents (in the most lovingly exasperating way… or… exasperatingly loving way, of course).

As siblings, we are quite close. When some of my friends told me that they were not very close with their brothers and sisters, I could not relate to that. I cannot relate to distant relationship between siblings. I cannot relate how when I took family history from my patients, some patients said that they haven’t been in contact with their siblings for years and therefore did not know what their siblings are currently up to.

In my mind, I went, what the hell kind of relationship did you have growing up?

Me and my siblings have a lot in common, growing up. Because our parents brought us up with the same formula and tradition (even though my elder sister and I still think that our younger siblings had an easier time of it. hahah).

One of the traditional task we were subjected to as daughters of Azmee was translating. All five of us were trained in English and Malay through article translations. Everyday, my father would assign us one article in English to be translated into Malay. Every day! That daily task was the bane of our existence! I had homeworks to do some more! I had Kelas Mengaji Quran to go to!

I really hated the translation task!

Sometimes, while waiting for my turn to recite the Quran in front of the ustazah, I would use the free waiting time to complete my article translation. So, I  had to bring the thick Cambridge Dictionary to surau.

Translation was tough work, guys. Because it was not enough for me to just get the meaning of the English phrases, I had to preserve the beauty of the sayings in its original language as well.

My father often complained that while I got the meaning correctly, my Malay translation did not capture the beauty of the sentences.

For example if I want to translate:

“I care nothing for the poverty of her purse, so long as her heart overflows with affluence.”

My 11 year old brain probably could only come up with “Saya tidak kisah dengan kemiskinan dompetnya, asalkan hatinya melimpah dengan kekayaan,”  (ugly isn’t it? The original English sentence sounds better, less awkward, definitely beautiful!)

My father would then read my translation and would probably frown and say, “While the direct translation itself is correct, you do not preserve the beauty of it at all. How about “Saya tidak hirau akan kesempitan hidupnya, asalkan hatinya kaya dengan kebaikan “ Tu lebih okey.

“Tapi ayah…kenapa nak translate jadi ‘kesempitan’ hidup pula? Ayat yang dia guna adalah ‘poverty of her purse’. Bukannya ‘poverty of her life’. Purse tu kan dompet. Tu pasal angah tulis dompet. At least, angah tak tulis ‘beg duit’. hahah. Sedap juga apa!” I would be trying to defend myself that way. (I could get really defensive when I am criticized, you know. I have that much insight about myself.)

“Lagipun ayah cuba tengok…‘overflows with affluence’ tu memang melimpah dengan kekayaan maksud dia. Kalau nak translate macam yang ayah kata ‘kaya dengan kebaikan’…mungkin ‘overflows’ boleh translate sebagai ‘kaya’ instead of ‘melimpah’. Tapi ‘affluence’ tu bukan kebaikan.” I would go on and on to defend what I had written. 

My father would then try to explain “Tapi itu yang penulis nak cuba cakap, sebenarnya. Tengok konteks juga. Dia nak cakap yang dia tak kisah perempuan tu miskin sebab hati dia baik. Faham tak?”

 I would insist, “Tapi…bila angah translate ‘hatinya melimpah dengan kekayaan’, secara tidak langsung memanglah angah cakap dia baik, kan? Sebab hati yang kaya adalah hati yang baik. So sama ja maksud macam yang ayah nak. Cuma perkataan lain saja.”  (Aku memang suka menjawab. Sabar sajalah parents aku. Hahah)

My father wanted me to translate according to context (rather than just direct translation) and at the same time I was expected to modify the direct translation to the normal Malaysian way of phrasing it. While doing all that, I was also required to make it beautiful.

So, in my translations, I had to find the balance between meaning, context and beauty.It was NOT easy…for an eleven year old brain. 

I could spend almost 10 minutes just perfecting one sentence alone. Just ONE sentence. Usually, the article that was assigned by my father for me to translate contained a heck of a lot more than just one sentence. It was that difficult. I was in agony! Especially when I knew a fussy perfectionist was going to mark what I had translated.

By the time I was 12 years old, my father declared that I was competent already and I was no longer required to do the blasted translations. I was sooo relieved. Of course one of the reasons I was no longer required to do those translations was because he wanted me to focus on my UPSR that year. (Yes…I could read his mind. If there was no UPSR to face, I might still be stuck at translations. This is also a tradition. We all couldn’t reach 12 years old fast enough! Better to deal with UPSR than daily translations.)

So whenever we siblings got together during raya or long holidays, we would reminisce on our hectic-torturous-but-fun childhood growing up with our parents. We were thinking of passing down the traditions to our own kids.

“Mesti depa pun rasa terseksa nanti.” We broke into laughter of evil glee.

Looking back, it was childhood experience like this that bonded us. Because our parents were very strict, we bonded over the many ways we had broken the rules (and hide the evidence)


One day, I was going through quotes after quotes that I could include in my essay. (I write essays of my thoughts as a hobby, though I never published them here).

I had this beautiful quote that I had wanted to translate into Malay for a long time.

It was a quote by Francois de la Rochefoucauld:

“absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires”

Today, I tried translating it into Malay on my own:

“Ketiadaan seseorang menghapuskan terus cinta yang lemah, dan menghebatkan lagi cinta yang kuat, sebagaimana angin memadamkan lilin dan memarakkan api.”

(really…langsung tak sedap. The original English words are so much better. Why do beautiful phrases in English just sound so off…when translated.)

Slowly, the old childhood frustration resurfaced, as it always did whenever I couldn’t get my translation right.

But of course I could not allow myself to be frustrated alone. I posted the quote in the Siblings Whatsapp Group and challenged anyone to beat my own (not so beautiful) translation.

Me: Siapa boleh translate dalam BM bagi sedap, aku  akan acknowledge dia bijak sampai bila-bila. (ingat senang aku nak mengaku depa bijak. Hahah)

Izati: Acknowledgement ja ka? Bagilah hadiah. (yes….my mercenary, money hungry younger sister)

Me: Aku belanja. Coffee at Blackwood.

Kak Long: Aku nak join the contest.

Alida: Aku tunggu husband aku balik…dia cikgu BM.

Wani: aku akan fikir dan try jawab lepas habis kuliah. (my youngest sister was in class and whatsapping? Naughty, naughty girl!)

Me: Nih, cuba lawan apa yang aku dah translate: “Ketiadaan seeorang menghapuskan terus cinta yang lemah, dan menghebatkan lagi cinta yang kuat, sebagaimana angin memadamkan lilin dan memarakkan api.”

Kak Long: I think your translation is already nice. 

Izati: “Kehilangan seseorang memadamkan cinta yang pudar dan menyemarakkan cinta yang jitu sebagaimana ….(sambung balik ayat hang)”

Me: Jitu? Cinta yang jitu??? Hahahha.

Kak Long: Cinta yang jitu tak sedap. Cinta yang teguh laaa.

Me: Yes, I like ‘teguh’.

Izati: Okey…second try. “Kehilangan seseorang menghapuskan cinta yang pudar dan menyemarakkan cinta yang menyala, ibarat angin yang bisa memadamkan lilin dan menyemarakkan api.”

Me: Berapa kali hang nak guna perkataan ‘menyemarak’ dalam ayat yang sama? And one more thing…’absence’ bukan ‘kehilangan’. ‘Absence’ tu lebih kepada ‘not around’. Macam long distance relationship. Out of sight, out of mind, gittew!

Alida: Yes. ‘Kehilangan’ tu macam tak ada langsung dah. ‘Absence’ tu tak dak kejap ja.

Izati: Absence = ‘hilang for awhile’ pun boleh juga! Ayat kak ngah yang ‘ketiadaan’ tu lagi x sedap. At least, ‘kehilangan’ lagi sedap.

Me: Okey. Instead of ‘ketiadaan’ atau ‘kehilangan’….kita ganti dengan ‘berjauhan’. Berjauhan menghapuskan terus cinta yang lemah dan menghebatkan lagi cinta yang teguh, sebagaimana angin mematikan lilin dan memarakkan api.” Sedap kan?!

Izati: Maksud ‘absence’ bukan berjauhan! (Adik aku yang ni banyak cekadak sikit)

Me: Aarrrghhhh! Mana boleh direct translation. Konteks, meaning, beauty semua nak kena jaga. Berjauhan lagi sedap!

(see how we siblings can argue over words)

Suddenly, my youngest sister (Wani) came up with something out of this world (mungkin dia dah habis kuliah. haha)

Wani: “Kala berjauhan menjadikan cinta layu, ia juga memekarkan cinta menjadi teguh; sebegitulah angin yang memadamkan sumbu lilin, ia boleh merebakkan api.

Perrrrgghhhh!! I was speechless. Even though I think the meaning was not quite accurate, but she came up with it beautifully.


So at the end of the day, for the quote “absence diminishes mediocre passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans fires”….

I  shortlisted these three translations to choose from:

1)Berjauhan menghapuskan cinta yang lemah dan menghidupkan cinta yang teguh, sebagaimana angin mematikan lilin TETAPI memarakkan api. (This one is my translation. I think my style of translation is: ‘meaning and context over beauty’. I would compromise beauty for the sake of meaning and context.)

(you would notice that I used ‘tetapi’ memarakkan api. Even though, direct translation of ‘and fans fires’ adalah “DAN memarakkan api’. I just think that in the Malay language, ‘tetapi’ is more appropriate than ‘dan’.)

2)Berjauhan menghapuskan cinta yang lemah dan mengukuhkan cinta yang teguh, bak angin yang memadamkan sebatang lilin tetapi menyemarakkan api. (This is Alida’s translation. Like mine, her style is ‘meaning over beauty’. But she replaced my ‘menghidupkan cinta’ with ‘mengukuhkan cinta’, and used ‘bak’ instead of ‘sebagaimana’, used ‘memadamkan lilin’ instead of ‘mematikan lilin’ and added the word ‘sebatang’ to the lilin. Hahah.  Like me, she also used ‘tetapi’ instead of ‘dan’.)

(Don’t tell her, but I think her translation is better than mine. But then, she is a TESL teacher. Kira okeylah juga aku punya translation considering that I have left languages since medical school)

3)Kala berjauhan menjadikan cinta layu, ia juga memekarkan cinta menjadi teguh; sebegitulah angin yang memadamkan sumbu lilin, ia boleh merebakkan api.

(This is Wani’s translation. Her style, as you can see, emphasizes more on beauty than the actual meaning. Considering that she is the youngest among us, her translation ability is not too bad).

So readers, if you think translation is easy work, think again! Think of me when I was eleven years old! I wanted to cry!

Nowadays, as we have grown into our language, translating becomes relatively easy compared to before. But it is still a challenge if you are translating metaphorical, literary sentences instead of say…a newspaper article.

I have yet to make up my mind which one I would end up using for my essay. But my sisters have been a lot of help.

And we had fun.

So there you go. Arguing about language and usage of words are one of our top five favourite pastimes. This is how we have fun. Having fun the Azmee sisters style!


I leave you with another quote I would love to be able to beautifully translate into Malay. (I am still trying). This is the quote by Kahlil Gibran:

And ever has it been known that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. 

-Kahlil Gibran –

The quote is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. It really is a simple quote. “Kita tak tahu betapa dalamnya perasaan sayang sampailah nak kena berpisah”. That’s the basic direct translation meaning, kan?

But try to translate it while capturing the essence of its beauty as well. What words would you like to add? What would you omit? Which would you replace? What interpretative privilege would you use as a translator in order  to translate this sentence into beautiful but simple Malay?

You may contribute your translations in the comment section if you wish. I will be very interested to read it.

Until next time. Ciao!

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