Myanmar Literature in Translation

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If you were planning a trip to Myanmar, one of the first things you would do would be to read up on the country, right?  Go onto Amazon and see how many books there are on Myanmar now.   Thanks to renewed interest in the country, the list is growing monthly.  Now have look at the authors’ names and see how many of those books were written by a Myanmar author.

The majority of books available on Myanmar are written by foreign ‘country experts’, such as Rory Maclean’s Under the Dragon, or by exiled Myanmar nationals who left the country 25 years ago, like Thant Myint U’ River of Lost Footsteps.  Rory Maclean’s May Guardian article on the top ten books on Myanmar is a pretty good summation of where readers turn to when they want to read about Myanmar.  6 of his top 10 were written by foreigners, 2 by exiled writers, one by Daw Suu and his last pick, Zarganar, who, at the time MacLean was writing, had not written a book.  (Zarganar has since released an autobiography of his time in prison and it is currently in the process of being translated).

To be fair to Rory MacLean, his list is hardly surprisingly considering the dirge of English language works written by writers in Myanmar, either in the original English or in translation.  The reasons for this can be traced back to Ne Win’s coup in 1962.  Prior to this, state high schools and missionary schools were still staffed by  foreign teachers with an emphasis on English Language instruction, which is why you see the dominance of great English language writers such as Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay and Daw Khin Myo Chit between the 1940′s and 1960′s.  After Ne Win expelled the expat community and the subsequent drop in government spending on education, two generations of future novelists in Myanmar have limited English language capability,  Which is why the rise of of the few in Myanmar who do write in English often have a secondary career in Medicine or Architecture, such as Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung).

For translation, we can again point the finger of blame at Ne Win – and Than Swe for continuing Ne Win’s policies – who instigated the 1962 Printers and Publishers Act, which apart from binding the writers of Myanmar to some of the most draconian censorship measures of the 20th Century, also curtailed the efforts of the Myanmar Translation Society, which up to then had been at the forefront of successful efforts to translate Myanmar works in English.  Deemed harmful to the peaceful state of the nation, the Myanmar Translation Society was renamed Sarpay Beikmann and limited to translating academic treatises from English to Myanmar.

5 decades of a national literature struggling just to survive and a global literary community unable to access the literature produced from this preservation era has left Myanmar, relative to it’s size and literary lineage, with one of the least recognised and appreciated narrative forms in the world.

To help correct this, in a very small way, below is a list of texts written by Myanmar authors either in English or translated into English.  The list is not exhaustive but represents a fair compilation of English Language works by Myanmar authors available in bookstores in Yangon over the last two years.  Several of the works have been published overseas (to circumvent the old Press Scrutiny and Registration Board) and and such are available in foreign countries through the internet.  The remainder are unlikely to be available outside of Myanmar.

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