Translating Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur into Singlish
Jerome Lim’s courageous transmutation of Tennyson’s elegant ‘Morte d’Arthur’ into this Singlish gem is the first of its kind for a Victorian text. His accompanying reflection draws out insightful and pertinent questions of language politics and propels us into a world where Singlish is taken seriously enough for it to be a vehicle of translation.
When my editor-in-chief, Chloe, politely suggested that I write for Margins, I agreed, because it seemed like a good break from grinding in Dragon Age. I briefly toyed with writing a Silas Marner parody where Singapore’s last rattan weaver struggles to get Parenthood Tax Rebates as a male single-parent adopter in Singapore, but the story never spun. Thankfully, inspiration came when OF ZOOS asked if they could publish my Singlish translation of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” alongside Joshua Ip’s response. This poem was part of a #makesinglishgreatagain campaign I started, half-in-jest, during this year’s Singlish Poetry Writing Month; I wanted to question the notion that “literature written in Singlish invariably is comic in nature informed” (Sharma). While poets (notably, Liren Fu) took on this challenge admirably, I did not further this discussion during the month. Writing this article thus proved to be an apt opportunity to revisit translating literature into Singlish.
The noble ideal of literary translation, metaphorically speaking, is building a linguistic bridge between cultures. But the act of translation is inherently politic: this bridge is always sloped, and likely gated at one end. Commonly, works from an established literary canon are translated from the cultural-dominant language to the peripheral language, but this centre-margin relation is upended when languages in diglossia—two languages within a community where one is used formally and the other is used in vernacular communication—are involved. Because they co-exist within one culture, the need to translate for understanding is almost non-existent. Furthermore, translating great literary works into a language viewed as or informal is deemed as mangling its literary merit; one simply has to look at the Bible’s translation history to get an idea: the outlawing of the Latin Bible’s English translation, or the debacle surrounding Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment. Translations between diglossic languages mostly occur for practical, not literary, reasons.
The Speak Good English Movement campaign was a visible part of my experience growing up in Singapore, and these yearly campaigns are reflective of Singapore’s practical approach to Singlish versus Standard English. Singlish, as a diglossic English-lexified creole, has long occupied the margin in the local linguistic power hierarchy. Despite Singlish terms being included in the Oxford English Dictionary’s lexicon, the government has long disapproved of Singlish, deeming it impractical and unprofessional. Indeed, Singapore even denies Singlish independent language status; the Media Development Authority (MDA) defines Singlish as: “ungrammatical local English [which] should not be encouraged” (MDA 10.3). But evolutionary linguists have argued that Singlish exhibits characteristics of a native language, with its own linguistic rules—on this subject, Grace Teng offers a great layman overview of Singlish rules, while Leimgruber offers a more scholarly one. This complicates the government’s notion of a universal, standardized English, with Singlish being an inferior version.
This notion of inferior Englishes has long been questioned by writers who are native speakers of creoles, such as Linton Kwesi Johnson, with “Inglan Is a Bitch” (1980) in Jamaican patois, or our own Leong Liew Geok with “Forever Singlish” (2000). But beyond such works that seem to be “writing back” against the idea of a standard English, there is a flourishing tradition of literature written in such languages, either entirely, or partially. Indeed, Faith Ng’s plays, Cheryl Tan’s Sarong Party Girls (2016), or Abdul Hamid’s poetry, stand as notable recent examples of literature in Singlish across genres. Despite this, serious translation of literature—especially canonical works—into Singlish, are almost non-existent—I can only think of Alfian Sa’at’s translation of his Causeway (1998) from Malay to Singlish; the Shakespeare in Singlish project by Assistant Professor Warren Mark Liew and Assistant Professor Angus Whitehead; or surprisingly, Acting Minister Ong Ye Kung’s translation of Li Bai’s verses into Singlish at the opening of the National Poetry Festival 2016. The majority of Singlish literature is created, not translated.
But is translation of literature into Singlish even necessary? Literature written in Singlish is burgeoning—we do not need to borrow from other canons to give ours legitimacy. If we seek to topple the notion that literature in Singlish is not always comic, then translation of canonical works into Singlish might be adverse; they are elevated, and usually written in an elaborate, literary language. In contrast, a Singlish translation, which by nature is efficient and conversational, would highlight glaring differences and perhaps viewed as a poor imitation—on top of the widely-held assumption that translation involves “loss”. Ultimately, translation itself is a creative act, and in attempting to translate a work, the translator engenders a non-pedantic debate on the language’s status and capacity for literary cross-fertilization. A translation culture is a definite marker of a stable language. Although this may be a distant ideal for Singlish, rather than “no action talk only”, I will attempt to translate a section of a highly canonical work into Singlish as a thought-provoking experiment.
Being Unseen’s Victorian editor, I was compelled to translate Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur (1838), which stood out because of its history. The Morte d’Arthur is a transcreation of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485), which itself is a reworking of French and English Arthurian legends. Tennyson wrote the Morte d’Arthur in a time where chivalric legends were seen as “a mere ingenious exercise of fancy” (Sterling 401); a pioneer in a time when its particular transcreation seemed unwarranted—something that resonated with my mission. However, translating Tennyson into Singlish presents its challenges. Firstly, the direct nature of many Singlish expressions render it challenging to carry Tennyson’s elegiac tone. Also, the Morte d’Arthur is written in blank verse, which relies heavily on meter. Unlike Standard English, which is stress-timed (equal intervals between stress), Singlish is syllable-timed (each syllable takes equal time). This means that traditional English meter is near-impossible to replicate in Singlish, although Singlish does have its own rhythms; I attempt to take into consideration Tennyson’s plosive rhythm.
Overall, my guiding principle for this translation was, as Eugene Nida puts it, to focus “on the sense, less on the syntax” (162). As a start, I selected lines 118–132: a dying King Arthur’s rebuke to Sir Bedivere when he fails twice to discard Excalibur. The translation, together with my notes, are presented below:
|Excerpt from Morte d’Arthur
||Excerpt from Arthur Bo Pakeh
To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath:
“Ah, miserable and unkind, untrue,
Unknightly, traitor-hearted! Woe is me!
Authority forgets a dying king,
Laid widow’d of the power in his eye
That bow’d the will. I see thee what thou art,
For thou, the latest-left of all my knights,
In whom should meet the offices of all,
Thou wouldst betray me for the precious hilt;
Either from lust of gold, or like a girl
Valuing the giddy pleasure of the eyes.
Yet, for a man may fail in duty twice,
And the third time may prosper, get thee hence:
But, if thou spare to fling Excalibur,
I will arise and slay thee with my hands.”
King Arthur super angry. He said:
“Eh, you liar, pattern more than
Badminton, sabo kia! I damn suay!
If king going die, bo pakeh liao la,
No more power stare then people
Auto sedia. I see you no up,
My knights all only left you, liddat
Confirm-plus-chop can do their job what,
For this kilat sword you want tekan me;
Isit lagi greedy, or like gu niang,
See diamond then eyes big big.
Gabra one time two time still okay,
Third time still got chance sui sui, go fly kite:
But if you neh throw Excalibur,
I get up ownself kill you.”
Title: While I considered a more straightforward Arthur Mati or Arthur Si Liao, I felt that “bo pakeh” (adj. person without sufficient influence) would more succinctly capture the fading of Arthur’s power (cf. 240: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new”). Also, bo pakeh, compared to the other choices, is a native Singlish term (having its etymology in both Malay and Hokkien).
Line 1: The passive construction is less common in Singlish (unless “kena” is used) and frequently, the known subject (in this case, Sir Bedivere) is omitted. Hence the pronoun phrase “to whom” is unneeded. Topic prominence in Singlish sentences means “anger” comes before “said”.
Line 2-3: My initial selection made Arthur sound like a disgruntled ah beng, so I settled for “pattern more than badminton” (implying “deviousness”, which suits how Bedivere has lied twice in succession) to replace the tricolon “unkind, untrue, unknightly”. This also has the added bonus of maintaining Tennyson’s plosive rhythm. I considered “du lan” or “buay tahan” for “Woe is me” but they lack the metaphor’s lamentory quality compared to “suay”.
Line 4: See Title. Considered “limpeh” (pronoun), but this made the implicit self-reference explicit.
Line 5-6: Toyed with “eye power” for “power of the eye”, but “eye power” lacks the connotation of command. To convey this, I translated “bow’d the will” into “sedia”—the ubiquitous military command, combined with “auto” and “stare” to keep meaning and plosive rhythm.
Line 6 (cont.): To convey the implied meaning—I see your true colours (in a negative manner)—I selected the expression “see you no up”, which also sounds similar to the original line.
Line 7-8: The collective “jin gang” was considered too informal here. “Liddat … what” carries the implication of “should”, and is also typical Singlish pronunciation (reduction). There is added emphasis from “confirm-plus-chop”, and it retains the alliterative quality of “latest-left”. “Chop” and “job”, (both near-rhyme with “sword”), carry the connotation of duty from “office”. Although this makes line 8 sound more direct, I feel this replaces the direct address “For thou”, which was removed in line 7 in favour of a natural Singlish syntax.
Line 9: Considered “sabo”, but felt that the plosive “tekan” (v. treat harshly, cause pain to) would better carry the gravity of betrayal. “Hilt”, which is uncommon in layman Singlish, is replaced with “sword”.
Line 10-11: “Isit … or” used to express choice here. Considered “sarong party girl” but felt that “lagi greedy / like gu niang” keeps the parallelism in “lust of gold / like a girl”.
Line 11 (cont.): This line—an adaptation of Horace’s “oculus et gaudia vana”—proved particularly hard to translate. Thankfully, I studied Latin, and in comparing this to Tennyson’s I felt that the main essence resided in “oculus” (n. eye) and “vāna” (adj. vain, superficial). The diamond was a materialistic way of translating “giddy pleasure”, but is valid in the context of the poem (cf. 152: “Sir King, I closed mine eyelids, lest the gems / Should blind my purpose”).
Line 12: deemed “Cockup” too crude in tone; “gabra” (v. panic, mess-up) was a better option, although it might connote blur-ness.
Line 13-15: Translating these was quite straightforward. “Go fly kite” is a good analogue to “Get thee hence” (get lost). “Neh” is a typical Singlish contraction.
Upon reflection, I felt that the main challenge was maintaining a certain degree of Singlishness, while striking a balance between the different Singlish sub-varieties. Singlish and Standard English are not clearly bounded; Lionel Wee points out that their lexicogrammatical constructions are often mixed (14)—any translation thus rests on an indefinite Singlish-English continuum. Simply put, at what point does a sentence count as Singlish? Furthermore, within this continuum of Singlishness itself, there exist differing, equally valid sub-varieties, due its rich linguistic heritage. For example, a Malay native speaker might gravitate towards Malay-rooted expressions and syntax, and a Hokkien speaker towards Hokkien. A large onus thus rests on the translator’s lexical selection. This may perhaps be an advantage—two Singlish translations of the same piece can sound vastly different—however, many Singlish translations tend to gravitate towards Hokkien (for example, the Singlish Bible). I tried to avoid leaning towards one root language, but also wanted to avoid simply applying Singlish grammar to Tennyson’s lines.
Like how Tennyson’s Arthur coolly quips on his deathbed: “I pass but shall not die”, interest in Singlish literature will always remain as long as we continue to speak Singlish. For those attempting to translate into Singlish, the challenges of lexicon and boundary are challenging, but not impossible to overcome. All in all, while I do not claim my translation to be good or authoritative in any sense (being an English teacher I may be least qualified in Singlish!), I hope that this experiment will play a small part in pulling both Singlish and translation studies—which James Holmes, noted poet and translator, referred to as “an underdeveloped country in the world of literary scholarship”—out of the literary and linguistic margins. Indeed, Singlish experts such as Dr. Gwee Li Sui, Alfian Sa’at, or Abdul Hamid would do a better job translating texts into Singlish; we can even look towards our own literary canon (perhaps translating Joshua Ip’s Sonnets from the Singlish into well, Singlish?), the question may not be whether serious translation into Singlish should occur, but rather, whether serious translation into Singlish can occur. I think yes, we can lah.
JEROME LIM reads English Literature at the University of York. His poems are upcoming in Rambutan Literary, OF ZOOS, and ASINGBOL. His dream is to write an NYT op-ed on Singlish that will be rebutted by the PM’s press secretary.
Photo credit: Leonard Yip
References About Singlish:
Why don’t Singaporeans speak proper English?: layman introduction to Singlish by Grace Teng
SinGweesh on Wednesday: informative Singlish column by Gwee Li Sui.
A Dictionary of Singlish and Singapore English: comprehensive Singlish dictionary and etymology.
Shakespeare in Singlish: Warren Liew and Angus Whitehead interviewed about, and performing Shakespeare in Singlish.
The Singlish Bible: Read on a dull day (although this is quite Hokkien-centric).
Leimgruber, J. (2011) Singapore English. Language and Linguistics Compass 5 (1), 47-62.
Lindsay, J. (2006) Between Tongues: Translation and/of/in Performance in Asia. Singapore: NUS Press.
Media Development Authority, Singapore. (2004) Free-to-Air TV Programme Code. [Online] Available from: mda.gov.sg.
Nida, E. (1997) Language, Culture and Translating. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education.
Sharma, G. (2013) Singlish: Leave it Alone” NewZZit. [Online]
Sterling, J. (1842) Rev. of Tennyson’s Poems (1842). Quarterly Review, 385–416.
Stroud, C., and L. Wee. (2011) Style, Identity and Literacy: English in Singapore. Vol. 13. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Tennyson, A. The Epic [Morte d’Arthur]. In: C. Ricks (ed.), Tennyson: A Selected Edition. Harlow: Longman, 146–164.
Weissbort, D., and A. Eysteinsson. (2006) Translation – Theory and Practice: A Historical Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.