(NOTE: Some sentences did not appear in the paper).
The second reprint of the fourth edition of the venerable door-stopper Kamus Dewan (2007) is out. It no longer contains a few words considered derogatory to some Malaysian Indian associations. So you can search for Keling karam (a noisy person) and Keling mabuk todi (someone fond of talking nonsense) but you will not find them.
This journey to shorten the dictionary began four years ago with protests against the publisher, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Then came the police reports and lawsuits. It looks like the pressure succeeded to a certain extent. Since they are no longer in the official dictionary, does this mean these words will no longer be uttered? Who knows?
My own view is that a dictionary should compile rather than proscribe. This was in fact the view taken by those who didn’t see what the fuss was. It seemed like a case of political correctness run amok. And yet, no one seemed to notice that the dictionary was silent on arguably more popular terms, such as janji Melayu (unreliable promise). But memelayukan (to make Malay) and meyahudikan (to make Jewish) are both reassuringly there, albeit with rather different value registers.
I say, let all the insults and stereotypes be displayed, at least for sociological reasons. Of course, if someone were to use the words in polite company or in a less polite place like the Parliament, then they are merely advertising aspects of themselves that will be to their own detriment, or so we hope.
But a gamelan performance, of all things, that I saw a few months ago did something interesting with the gender terms in the same dictionary. The women in this show simply read out the definitions of laki-laki (man) and perempuan (woman). A good actor is supposed to make the phone book seem like riveting material when reading it; but our dictionary doesn’t require much of an additional push.
The usage examples of laki-laki (on page 870) uniformly describe positive values: hatinya memang laki-laki (he has a manly heart). There’s also a bloke who sounds like the best catch since Raja Nazrin: Alias memiliki sifat kelaki-lakian yang tulen, jujur, ikhlas, berhemah tinggi serta berupa kacak. (Alias has true masculine virtues, he’s honest and trustworthy, polite and dishy too).
Contrast this with the distaff side on page 1182. You get penyakit perempuan (female disease, i.e. syphilis), perempuan gatal (‘itchy’, lascivious woman), perempuan jahat (bad woman), perempuan jalang (prostitute), perempuan joget (dance-hall girl), perempuan jungkat (another lascivious woman) and perempuan simpanan (mistress).
Check ‘em out! With all these bad girls in our midst, it’s a wonder how anyone can get any work done, in between partying away at dances, registering new phone numbers so the wife won’t find out, and of course checking into VD clinics.
“Frailty! Thy name is woman,” said that dithering boy Hamlet. But it looks like he could have used a few other choice names as well, although perhaps not directly to his mother’s face.
I wonder if any women’s associations will take up this issue with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. But wasn’t it recently women leaders who were up in arms at the thought of “little dragon ladies” from China coming over here to steal their husbands? So perhaps they have other concerns.
We were mooching around a bookstore last week and one of us picked up the newly-launched Malay translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922). While flipping through it, he said “This translation is so funny.”
I expected the usual howlers along the lines of movie subtitles that say “Itik!” when a cop tells someone to “duck”. But instead there were footnotes which said things like “Amalan ini bertentangan dengan agama Islam” (This belief is against Islam). This is the first instance I have come across of footnotes, presumably from the translator, cautioning us against the text.
Why choose this book to translate in the first place, then? Wouldn’t the title alone give an inkling that it deals with a religion of the Other? The novel is set during the time of Buddha although the protagonist is someone else, but it’s about a process of spiritual enlightenment too.
And yet, and yet. Perhaps there was pressure from some kind of third party, as they don’t just exist in court trials. If some people can discover this German Nobel laureate through this book, then so be it. It’s better than nothing.
Actually. the most offensive footnote I have ever read comes in a translation of Kama Sutra, of all things. But it’s so outrageous I’ll get into deep trouble for reproducing it here. So I will just think of it now and gasp anew.
Bestsellers at last?
Two recent books, in English, by Malaysian writers have been spending months on our best-seller lists, and I am frightfully jealous.
Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim and Kam Raslan’s Confessions of an Old Boy are both enjoyable reads. Sure, they cheat a bit by putting together previously published pieces (in Malaysiakini and Off the Edge respectively) but it’s good that they are reaching a new audience. Stylistically they are rather different (where Dina is saucy and dishy, Kam is droll and ironic) but both books are slices of the Malaysian pie to be savoured.
I am sure there is another local bestseller out there; it has a red cover but I can’t recall much about it at the moment, though.
For years, publishers have been moaning that local readers do not like to read local books – in English, that is. Well, perhaps the time for moaning has passed although perhaps we shouldn’t break out the sparkling grape juice yet.
True, most local books in the past were packaged in a very boring way; they had all the sizzle of text-books without any of the exam-boosting potential, so why bother? Placed there on the shelf next to some sexy foreigner, they looked doubly sad. It was like the way some opposition parties campaign in elections; they are so used to losing that they don’t even make an effort.
But these new books have a shiny, cosmopolitan confidence. The writers have been toiling away in the print media for years. Rather than hacking their lives away, they have honed everything they needed to hone. And although some of the best Malaysian writing these days take place in blogs (not necessarily the most newsworthy ones), it is always reassuring that honest-to-goodness books are still being published and consumed.
Their success has made me think many things, chief among them “Me, me!” Yes, dear reader. I plan to come out with my own volume later in the year; it’s called Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things. It is a compilation of 100 quotes that have gobsmacked us over the years, accompanied by some charming drawings. I am almost done with the selection but if you have urgent suggestions, do let me know!