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22 January 2024

Accountability, Liminality, and (Mis)Representations in Translation: Khairani Barokka Interviews Tiffany Tsao

Khairani Barokka, author and former editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, corresponded with Tiffany Tsao, fiction writer and translator of Indonesian literature, for Wasafiri 116: Shorelines: South East Asia and the Littoral, our winter special issue co-guest edited by Nazry Bahrawi, Joanne Leow, and Y-Dang Troeung, which focuses on a range of creative, critical, and artistic work from Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar and their diasporas.

The two spoke about their separate and shared experiences as Southeast Asian writer-translators. During the course of the interview, Tiffany received the news that one of her translations had been shortlisted and then awarded the PEN America Prize, so the conversation explores those moments and their impacts, as well as ranging from the knotty ethics of translation, to diasporic guilt, communal support, and the right to liminality.


Khairani Barokka for Wasafiri: An honour and a pleasure to speak with you, as always. Perhaps we should begin with the theme of the issue that this conversation will be in – Southeast Asia and the littoral – in the context of your work. To what extent do you feel a geographical affinity that is region-wide in your translations as well as your solo work, or your community work with the seams translation collective? Your creations are very beautifully specific in terms of social locales, whether the world of high-class Indonesians in your fiction, or in a kos environment in a piece you translate by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, for instance. How do we define ‘region’ for ourselves in terms of our work?

Tiffany Tsao: Speaking for myself, I’ve always felt my work to exist in the context of a wider Southeast Asian region, even when I’m translating or writing work set in a specific Southeast Asian country or a specific environment within a country. Maybe it’s due partly to my background: I spent my formative years growing up in Singapore, then Indonesia, then, briefly, Singapore again. So maybe I feel bodily the possibility of existing across countries in the region. In my fiction-writing journey, I’ve certainly crossed countries: my earlier fiction was more based in Singapore, and my later fiction has migrated to Indonesia as I’ve started translating Indonesian literary works and embracing my Chinese-Indonesian heritage more. A shared region-wide affinity certainly fuelled the formation of the seams translation collective in its current humble state, along with a sense that there was something to be gained by pooling our country- and language-specific experiences and knowledges — for example, our evolving database of Southeast Asian literature in translation.

I’d love to hear more from you about how a region-wide awareness informs your own work, which is incredibly extensive and diverse: your work as a writer, artist, and translator; your work as a mentor and editor. Speaking of which, I’m so excited about the upcoming Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT) issue focused on Vietnam!

That database is such a gift. Yes, we’ve been blessed with a wealth of incredible Vietnamese poetry for the upcoming MPT issue, thank you for mentioning it! My suggesting the issue focus in the first place certainly came from a place of regional solidarity … being fortunate enough to connect with Vietnamese writers doing astonishing things with poetry, and wanting to spread the word about them. (Vietnam has been a gracious host in the past for literary work, and I’m proud that my first book Indigenous Species was translated into Vietnamese by Red (Yen Hai) for Ajar Press.)

One thing that really inspires me about the seams: you’re building on regional solidarities at a time when we as South East Asians are still being (mis)represented by others, amidst the capitalist pull in anglophone worlds that doesn’t prioritise work with and the views of our closest neighbours. I’m even thinking about, for instance, our Singaporean colleagues’ take on Crazy Rich Asians (see, ie, Nazry Bahrawi’s take in Al-Jazeera, Kirsten Han’s piece in Vox, or posts on social media by Jeremy Tiang et al) and those important regional contexts and social hierarchies being scuttled in favour of Western conceptions and flattening of categories. It makes me think about different regional and transnational rubrics for ‘community’ — how these lines are demarcated, and why. I think a conversation you and I have been having for a while now is how we bump up against misrepresentations in literature, and our actual power as Southeast Asians to push against them within literary infrastructures. Drawing our own boundaries. How have your thoughts on this evolved?

I’m not sure my thoughts on this have evolved into any recognisable organism. Or, to switch metaphors, there are so many threads to unpick when it comes to talking about misrepresentation! There’s misrepresentation by Western writing about Southeast Asia. There’s the fact that Southeast Asians themselves are prone to racist misconceptions about their neighbours (Singaporeans are infamous for this). The movie Crazy Rich Asians is such an interesting and complex case because it exposes the very real differences that exist between Asian American perspectives, East Asian perspectives, and Southeast Asian perspectives, and also highlights how impossible it is to expect accurate representation simply because the directors, writers, actors, and others involved are all Asian in some way, even though they’re Asian in extremely diverse ways.

I’ve been thinking lately about the power of accountability in ensuring accurate representations. The fact is that more egregious misrepresentation is liable to occur when the readership or audience for a work is perceived as separate from the people or culture being misrepresented — therefore, you don’t have to worry whether your representation is accurate, whether it’s offensive, and such. I suppose this is the upside of separate artistic and cultural production spheres becoming more enmeshed, of there being more global exchange happening in all directions, not just in one.

Perhaps I say this partly to assuage my own conscience: every now and then I wonder if I am too Western-centric in my career focus. I moved to Australia in 2011, which is, unfortunately, basically a Western country since it functions as a Western cultural output in the Asia-Pacific. US and UK publishers do hold an appeal for me when placing my writing and translations because I know they have an undue influence on anglophone literary tastes around the world. (Why else do we have book reviewers and bookstagrammers all over the world reviewing the same books by, say, Sally Rooney and Jennifer Egan?) And I know that, ironically, my chances of having my work stocked in English-language bookstores in, say, India, are higher if I publish with a UK publisher than with a Singaporean or Australian one. I wonder, am I feeding the problem?

Probably. But I guess another way to look at it is also that maintaining one’s boundaries, to use your term, when it comes to refusing to capitulate to Western aesthetic standards and Western expectations of what Southeast Asian literature looks like, while infiltrating the Western publishing industry and readership is also a step towards changing standards — being there and in the thick of it so they can’t just ignore your presence or the benchmark you set. I also imagine that’s what your editorial work for MPT was doing. We are participating in the system so there is at least some accountability to Southeast Asian writers and readers ...


Continue reading the full piece online, free to download for the month of January, or in Wasafiri 116.

Khairani Barokka is a translator, editor, writer and artist from Jakarta, with over two decades of professional translation experience. In 2023, Okka was shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards.
Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the novel The Majesties (originally published in Australia as Under Your Wings) and the Oddfits fantasy trilogy (so far, The Oddfits and The More Known World).
Winter 2023
Wasafiri 116: Shorelines - South East Asia and the Littoral

Wasafiri 116: Shorelines: South East Asia and the Littoral, our special winter issue guest edited by Nazry Bahrawi, Joanne Leow, and the late Y-Dang Troeung, features a range of creative, critical, and artistic work from Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar and their diasporas, exploring the littoral encounter of existing on the shoreline.

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