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PETALING JAYA, Nov 25 — Malaysian author Ho Sok Fong’s book of short stories Lake Like a Mirror has been shortlisted for the 2020 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation award.
Ho is the only Malaysian to have her book shortlisted for the UK award among other international authors.
Established by the University of Warwick, the award presented is to address the gender imbalance in translated literature to increase the number of international women’s voices accessible by British and Irish readership.
Ho’s anthology of nine stories features the stimulating exploration of lives of women crippled by powers beyond their control and how they squeeze themselves between the gaps of urban urbanisation, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government.
The fiction offers an intimate exploration of individual lives while speaking broadly about issues on politics, gender, urbanisation, and other themes.
In an email interview with Malay Mail, Ho said that the short stories took 11 years to complete and was written at different times and in places such as Petaling Jaya Wangsa Maju and also abroad such as Singapore and Taiwan.
“When I was working as a journalist with Nanyang Siang Pau in Petaling Jaya, I spent time writing all kinds of short stories and gathered them together to string Lake Like a Mirror.
“The stories too, share a geographical connection to South-east Asia and Taiwan.”
The Kedah-born writer said that she wanted Lake Like a Mirror to be interpreted in many ways while allowing all these possibilities to hold together.
“Even if a reader does not pick up on all the clues between the layers, there should still be a story there to read.
“In my book, I incorporated open-ended stories that were grounded as much as possible in concrete events, settings, objects, and vocabulary but also expressed the paradoxes and ambiguities inherent to their context.”
Ho said that she was happy and grateful as the fiction means a lot to her.
“I am honoured that my book translated into English has brought meaning in another language through the process of translation,” she said.
Brings readers to the hidden meanings
Her translator, Natascha Bruce, described that she was “haunted” after reading the protagonist line from the first story in Lake Like a Mirror:
“Things hidden underwater should not be exposed to the air.”
She described that the line was in relation to how the protagonist, a literature professor who risks losing her job because she allowed a student to recite a poem — and has been worrying for years about where to draw the line on being true to herself and being safe.
Bruce told Malay Mail that Ho’s tone throughout the anthology of stories is able to drag readers underwater to the hidden things, forcing readers to feel tense and submerged — like her characters.
Bruce, a Chinese-to-English translator based in Chile said that the process of translating the stories from Chinese to English took about three years.
“In 2016, I translated the story The Wall and pitched the collection to the English PEN where PEN featured the book and eventually caught the attention of literary magazine Granta that wanted a longer translation sample.
“I submitted a translation of the fiction to my editor, Ka Bradley, and the fiction went through a process of editing and copy-editing before finally coming out at the end of 2019.”
Ambiguity allows stories with different possible interpretations
Ambiguity was the main challenge that Bruce had to overcome when translating the book.
“Ho likes to leave a lot of space — ambiguity most of the time.
“She once described her stories to me as connecting the dots as she wants different readers to connect differently, and to see different stories in their own perspectives.”
Bruce explains that in one of the stories March in a Small Town, a teen girl is helping out in her aunt’s guesthouse for the summer and every day the same man checks out and then returns to check in a few hours later, with no recollection of having stayed there before.
“The protagonist becomes fixated on him, and starts following him around — sometimes she creeps into his room while he is sleeping, or watches him board a train out of town only to find him back in the guesthouse half an hour later.
“Everytime I read the story, I come up with a new theory that the man is either a ghost, or a personification of unrequited love, of adolescent longing, of entrapment; the man and the protagonist have both been dreamt up by the aunt who is always either asleep or lamenting her lost youth.”
She admitted that while as a reader, she loves the sense of buried trails and possibility, as a translator she is worried about making sure all the dots are carried across and not just the ones that stood out to her.
“Accidentally amplifying or diminishing tiny details was my concern and in many ways it felt like an exaggerated version of the worry that comes with any translation process.
“As such, I had to make sure I was vigilant while translating into English.
“I have been reassured that since the book came out in English, there are still theories: readers continue to conjure different images from connecting the dots.”
Bruce added that another beauty of the book was not so much on its plot twists, but how it's able to make readers feel, even if the feeling isn’t comfortable or a familiar one.
Breakthrough in a male-dominated industry
Bruce, thrilled that the book made it to the shortlist of the Warwick awards as fiction translated into English is usually dominated by men.
“It's wonderful to see not only Lake Like a Mirror translated from Chinese, but another title White Horse by an author from China, Yan Ge, that was translated by Nicky Harman.
“While 31 books were translated from Chinese into English last year, only four of them were written by women according to Chinese translation activist Paper Republic,” she said.
The winner of the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation award will be announced tomorrow in an online ceremony.