Cooler Lumpur : Day Three

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June 23, 2014 by Wayne.

I also attended (most of) day two, the blog entry is over here.

 

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Cooler Lumpur has been a truly wonderful, enriching experience – brings me back to the first few times I went for SEA Forensics. Very much looking forward to next year’s installment. Though hopefully by then, they’ll get a better trending-hashtag than #fast lolo

In this post, I’ll try to be as brief as possible when discussing each of the confabs I attended. The goal is to distill the key discussion points that were brought up, and to then take it slightly further (not much further, for the sake of brevity) and highlight where the discussion could have developed and delved into, plus what I felt were the unanswered/unasked questions. Also, to not take more than ~2 hours writing this up.

Broadly speaking, most of the panel discussions (well, those I attended, at least) revolved around the same central theme: the interwoven threads between language, identity (self- and cultural-/social-), and ‘the truth’. I found that pretty fascinating, since the official theme was #fast, and most of the talks were, I guess, supposed to be about exploring ways to move culture forward. As it turns out, figuring out our current position within the larger cultural landscape proved to be a difficult enough task in itself!

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I mentioned in passing in the previous post that I attended half of the talk on cultural identity. Allow me to talk a bit on the topic of cultural homogenization, since I find it a fascinating area of discussion.

Important point brought up: popular content / pop culture increasingly transcends geographical boundaries in today’s world. What does this entail for “global citizens” and notions of nationalism in this context?

Back in 2009, Monocle did a characteristically fascinating report on soft power (of countries) on the world stage. The main feature was on Berlin as the core asset in shaping Brand Germany among the younger generation (hi!). There were plenty of other cultural diplomacy efforts featured too; after all, which major country doesn’t try to forge an international identity via cultural missions? The Goethe Institut, NY400, Confucius Institute etc. all got their face time in the report, but what remained most memorable for me was the short interview with an Israeli desk officer, which resulted in this insightful statement: “Often, soft power may be less a real strategy than a side effect – for example of design, popular culture and art. Japan is really good at it.”

Well, the States isn’t too shabby at it either. To state the obvious, USA is the sole superpower in the world when it comes to cultural reach (amongst many other things). See, for instance, Balaji Viswanathan’s Quora response on how US brands shape entertainment, information, and pop culture across the globe. Quoting directly:

Nations exert power over others through culture. From Hollywood to sitcoms, McDonalds to Coca Cola, Apple to Gap, P&G to Google, US exerts an enormous amount of softpower over the world through its brands & broadcasting. These cultural artifacts would make a kid in Kuala Lumpur or Kingshasa relate more with US cities than, say, Chengdu.

Another interesting point brought up: the Quebecois attempt to maintain cultural identity, and whether culture is strong enough to sustain itself without active intervention? Consensus: No, not in the current climate where international/American culture shapes the national Zeitgeist of most countries.

Well, on to the actual Day 3 then. I managed to attend 5 confabs, some of which were remarkably rewarding. Much in the vein of Day 2, the first panel discussion I attended ended up being the most enriching.

Lost & Found in Translation

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Post-structuralism galore! With the change in location to Upstairs @ Ben’s came a pleasantly surprising uptick in rigorous intellectual content. Basically, pardon my French, these panelists are fucking smart. Wittgenstein was directly quoted by one of them and it really set the tone for the entire talk: “The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my mind”. Oh, and the moderator was great too.

Naturally for a talk about translation, much of the discussion revolved around languages and how many phrases etc. can’t be directly translated without losing sense of the cultural context, as well as time-dependent meaning. Consensus: it’s impossible to directly transpose from one language to another. In fact, making a perfect copy is not the point. Rather, translation creates a different interpretation (bit like classical music), while simultaneously ensuring that said interpretation doesn’t colour the content enough to give it a wholly different subtext.

Footnotes were talked about a bit, and I definitely agreed with the point that they’re necessary to preserve as much of the original intent as possible. For a simple example, Ciardi’s translation of Dante’s Inferno includes footnotes at the end of each canto, as opposed to the usual bottom-of-the-page. Typically they explain some of the more easily-missed references, but look at page 8 for a quick display of how footnotes can throw light on to translation. Ciardi describes the literal rendering of line 31, and defends the reasoning behind his slightly different translation.

Translation of poetry is a whole different beast. Maintaining meter, rhyme, intent and atmosphere together with all the various strands of meaning – makes me shudder just thinking about it. Brandon’s crush, Pauline Fan, talked briefly about Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations and how they stood as great individual works of poetry without necessarily being great translations (more on that here).

I didn’t necessarily agree with a point brought up by the moderator about “English being arrogant”, and I don’t think the panel did either in general. Essentially, he stressed the point that only about 2% of English works are translated into other languages, whereas those originally written in various European languages tend to have much higher rates (20-30% in some cases). As elucidated by Dr. Sarah Meisch, it’s pretty natural for other works to have larger translation rates since English remains the prevailing lingua franca of our age. If I had the time, I’d love to check the data on raw quantities too instead of just percentages: 2% of a much larger volume than the individual European outputs may very well mean that there are still more English works being translated than any other.

Interesting, however, that Pauline Fan didn’t bring up Franzen’s recent project on Kraus. Fairly sure Kraus’ work falls within the time period she’s interested in, and Franzen’s book got discussed quite a bit when it came out. The prevailing view was that Franzen took the translation and footnotes as a platform to expound his own technophobe, the-apocalypse-is-now views and in doing so diluted the work of Kraus itself. I personally love Franzen’s novels and cringe at his non-fiction outbursts, but I’d have loved to hear some discussion over where this type of “more-than-translation” stands in today’s world. Could it be something we should embrace, rather than having translation being an anonymous transposition?

Back to the panel, the two other key points that were brought up were:

  1. Politicization of language (see previous post for more on this) even extends to translation efforts. For instance, the Indonesian translation of Origin of Species is banned in Malaysia. Again, language is exploited by various authorities/groups to impede, influence, and subjugate.
  2. Language as a reflection of societal weltanschauung and current culture

Corollary to the point of politicization, the panel talked briefly about some recurring topics from Day Two, namely censorship and the dearth of translated works in Malay. Institutions have been tasked with the translation effort, but this dearth persists for various (political) reasons.

As a side note, I think it’s worth looking at the debate over Tolkien’s recently released translation of Beowulf. And bear in mind what Pevear and Volokhonsky said about their translation of Anna Karenina: “To apply general notions of natural, idiomatic English and good prose style to Tolstoy’s writing is to risk blunting the sharpness of its internal dialogization. The narrator’s personal attitudes often intrude on the objectivity of his discourse. Sometimes the intrusion is as slight as a single word, a sudden shift of tone…at other times the intrusion is not so slight.”

To wrap it up, I’d like to look at Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, if only because of the valuable insight provided by the extensive notes, introduction, interviews etc that are included. For what’s widely considered the definitive version/translation, Grossman’s work has surprisingly few footnotes. They’re mostly limited to obscure/ambiguous references, and are commonly in place only to give cultural context that’s lost in the translation.

According to Grossman, “translation is very solitary work and there is a great reluctance in the U.S. to publish translations”. Additionally, “In English, there isn’t a model in prose that operates in the way Cervantes does in Spanish. So I decided to use a kind of a nineteenth-century voice by way of William Faulkner. I didn’t use any contractions in the narration, and I used Latinate words, polysyllabic words, instead of German monosyllables. Any time I could, I chose a longer word rather than a shorter word, as if Hemingway had never lived”. She further goes on to assert that translation is overwhelmingly an artistic process more than one of grunt work, and that translating is more about the love of the literature and language than it is for money.

Additionally interesting is how her version of Don Quixote comes with a timeline at the end of the book, positioning Don Quixote in a historical context starting with the birth of Cervantes up to his death. Best of all is how they include 5 different translation versions (Rutherford, Grossman, Putnam etc) of a selected passage for the reader to see the difference in style and intent. It’s quite fascinating to see how different translators approached seemingly simple phrases, with the result being subtly but noticeably different when stood side by side.

Anyway, the panel was great and I highly enjoyed it. Was a perfect start to Day 3 for me (I missed the one on fringe voices).

 

The lost art of storytelling

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We came in a tiny bit late for this one, due to Red Beanbag taking ages to serve up baked eggs. Weighted down by all the hype, perhaps.

This particular panel discussion was pretty decent but I thought it could have been better. I suppose I was mainly disappointed since I had really high expectations going into it.

What is a story? A see-saw between stability and conflict? A derivative of the seven Jungian archetypes? Or, to distill it even further, the ever-popular Campbell monomyth? No consensus on this question, and it’s unlikely there ever will be a definitive answer to it. Rather than get caught up on in an intractable (and pointlessly abstract) debate, the panelists moved on to several intriguing topics.

There was significant disagreement about the act of storytelling in itself. The memoir writer talked about the difference between writing as a solitary pursuit and writing pieces that may potentially be shared in the future – even in the latter, though, the audience comes into consideration only after the work has been written. In other words, there is no conscious act of pandering or adjusting to the desired recipients.

Understandably, the oral storyteller pointed out the contrast between that approach and the one she adopts, where the audience becomes as much a part of the story as the content itself. The audience’s responses and other considerations such as time constraints need to be actively taken into account, with stories then condensed or adapted accordingly. This fits well with Kamini’s view that “plot is what happens, story is what we take from it”. After all, in oral retellings, the sequence of events and central idea are the only things that remain constant. All other details eventually change over time.

Another point: ancient stories/myths typically ended abruptly without a neat “lesson” packaged to-go. The excessive moralization of myths such as Aesop’s fables effectively removed any conscious effort on the part of the reader to seek meaning, diluting the tales significantly. Contrast too the whitewashing of the modern Grimm tales and the grittiness of the originals. Philip Pullman’s Grimm tales dish up an effort much like that of Franzen and Kraus – splashing notes liberally over the text, elucidating the thought process as well as offering context and insight into the intent of the original tales.

Kudos to the panel for addressing the huge issue of gender relations in stories. In the oral tradition, for instance, plenty of women-centric fables existed but they eventually lost out to male-dominated tales for various reasons. Incidentally, Pauline Fan wrote an excellent article about the deteriorating position of women in the state of Kelantan, with several references to the matriarchal (I hesitate to use this word since it very much dilutes the significance of its counterpart “patriarchy”) mythological landscape. This problem, of course, extends far beyond the oral tradition and into written literature too. Gender imbalance in children’s stories plants the first few seeds of the propagation of the patriarchy (well, okay, holding constant the massive role that parental figures play).

Surprisingly, the discussion veered into that of the nature of truth.

In a way, it was the classic clash between Chomsky and Foucault. The debate revolved around whether truths are time-/geographic- specific, or if there exist certain universal truths. It should be noted here that the panelists graciously avoided a drawn-out philosophical battle by neglecting to directly answer the finicky question of “what is truth?”. In the end, though, their thoughts on the nature of truth somewhat revealed what each panelist felt about the problem. There was a bit of William James floating about (truth isn’t what is timelessly, unchangingly correct but whatever satisfies the requirements for reliable knowledge!), a splash of the post-modern pragmatist Richard Rorty (echoing post-structuralists’ claims of the slipperiness of language and the inability of it to refer to a reliable truth, while simultaneously decrying the need for society to then be overhauled and made to conform to some philosophical plan), even dollops of Derrida’s differance and Lacan’s chain of signification. Exciting stuff.

Mr. Barr further reflected on the nature of truth in a memoir. Now, truth in the context of memories is an incredibly deep subject matter, but I thought he did a pretty good job of articulating some of the key areas of discussion pithily. For instance: the time gap between a memory and the point of recall affects the “truth” of said memory. Cog-sci has exhaustingly extensive literature on the various memory biases we’re all prone to (consistency bias, various forms of misattribution, egocentric bias, source confusion, post-event misinformation etc). When memories are so unreliable – and so easily misattributed and even fabricated in extreme cases – we have to accept that the truth is necessarily coloured by our perception. And the further away you get from a memory, the more different the perspective. On a personal note, I’ve been trying to keep a personal memoir of my time in Edmonton and cutting through all these biases have been a real struggle.

This isn’t to say that the time-morphed truth is a foe when it comes to memoir writing. As elucidated excellently by Barr, it’s essential to get far away from a group of memories to be able to discern patterns and connections. In that sense, the personal truth exists only when observed from the future. Again, this is personal truth in the context of memories, not the regime of truth linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it etc etc.

Barr went on to support the view of history as an interpretation of the truth, and the various complications that come about due to this inevitability. Would like to draw parallels between this and comparative mythology 101 but am pretty tired at the moment, so google it or something.

Corollary to that point of comparative mythology, the oral storyteller primarily championed the universality of the core ideas behind myths (as stated previously). This can, superficially at least, be seen as a reflection of Chomsky’s insistence on the fundamental bio-physical structure of human nature and, well, his mathematically testable universal truths. Contrast this with Foucault’s “everything is a social construct” approach, and how external positions of certainty and universals are “historicized”.

Conclusion: it was an engaging discussion. Not the best of the festival, but one of the better ones.

 

#fastads

 

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Charismatic moderator (Harmandar Singh), and a standout speech from Alvin Teoh (contender for speaker of the festival, if the competition existed). The panel did mostly avoid the tough questions though. Far from being a platform to plot the future evolution of Malaysian advertising, it was mostly an opportunity to circlejerk over existing (and in some cases, 20-year-old) ads.

Obvious point: advertising plays a role in pop culture. General consensus: that role is one of reflection of the zeitgeist. Unexplored point: what about its key role as a shaper/propagator of the zeitgeist itself?

Also touched on: advertising moving on from trite appeals to emotions. Or trying to, at least. No more of the ad-equivalent of Buzzfeed linkbait (in theory).

Interesting point: the difference between “iklan pontianak” and “iklan cermin” where the first is supposedly too dense and the meaning goes over the head. For the latter, the viewer sees a reflection of themself in an ad. Although this false dichotomy isn’t a terribly progressive way to approach advertising, if you really think about it.

Quote of the discussion: “…and the copy’s a bit wanky now that I look at it”. Although I won’t be uncharitable and say this summed up the entire thing, there were some good parts. Just disappointed it didn’t go into any real depth.

Guess I might as well end this with some examples of ads (traditional print/static ones) that I like (tried to avoid obvious, popular ones as much as possible):

The last one was featured during the confab, btw.

 

Cultural Censorship 

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I…will be as brief as possible for this one. Mostly because I’m tired, but also because it was slightly disappointing. Although there were several very important points brought up, as you’ll find below.

Point: Laughably inept and inconsistent censorship in Vietnam meant that it could/can be circumvented via satire, humour etc (eg: the translated Animal Farm seen as children’s fiction by the relevant authorities).

Point: censorship as a control mechanism to propagate exploitation and fear. Even worse, the eventual institutionalization of the mindset that ferments (self-)censorship. References were made to Ai Wei Wei’s piece on self-censorship. Free thinking is stifled when both state-instituted censorship and self-censorship coexist.

“Censorship doesn’t really exist in Malaysia, just the art of obfuscation” (see: mainstream media omitting/downplaying certain events).

Point: censorship in the context of power relations and the lack of open dialogue between the various stakeholders in Malaysia.

Point: the regression of “English as a second language” into “English as a foreign language” (outside of the tiny % of affluent urban dwellers) did not occur by accident. It was a concerted, long-running effort by the authorities (see all the previous discussions on the exploitation of the concept of language as a core part of self-identity).

Massive point, which pertains not just to the discussion, not just to the Cooler Lumpur festival at large, but most crucially to the various social threads in Malaysia: there is a bubble of plateaued middle/upper-middle class citizens with English as a mother tongue and generally liberal-leaning sensibilities. Within that bubble is a smaller bubble of literature, culture, and progressiveness. For the most part, this enclave is left untouched and unchecked by the ruling class due to its utter ineffectiveness – not just because it’s tiny, mind you. The more pertinent takeaway here is that this sub-bubble can at times be completely divorced from the larger context, and this is the real reason why the authorities pay it no heed. The would-be Adbusters aren’t about to spark a Malaysian Occupy movement because we are so utterly disconnected from the rural voting base. To be actual agents of change, we need to have an actual effect on the Malay consciousness (Dain Said’s words, not mine).

 

Marc de Faoite graciously followed up on the event page with links to several articles on censorship – some will no doubt be familiar to the more well-read amongst you. Anyway, here they are:

Colm Toibin

Salman Rushdie

Charles Bukowski

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I also attended the confab on Malaysian cinema but I honestly don’t know enough about the local film industry to talk much about it. I’ll say this, though: it was the most debate-like confab I went for. Very stark, differing views from all the panelists (and audience members!).

 

 

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In conclusion (ah, what a word): Cooler Lumpur was beautiful. An incredible event, and such an important one too. We need many more of these to sow the seeds of activism and cultural betterment, but most of all we need to realize that true change depends on engaging the massive majority of Malaysians that were (unintentionally) left out of these discussions. I know I mock the general populace a lot, but ultimately I do want Malaysia to be a “better place” (look at me, resorting to meaningless catchphrases). One where language, culture and the arts are seen as crucial components of the human experience. One where literature is respected – and by that I mean dilettantes and cognoscenti alike readily debate the merits and possible subtexts of works.

Cooler Lumpur was beautiful and necessary, but it must not become the annual circlejerk of a fringe minority. Here’s to hoping that next year’s installment will see a brighter, more engaged Malaysia. Hashtag hope.

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