31 May 2023

Uthaya pivots from ‘Malay’ to English

Malay literature veteran brings his collection of transcreated stories to English-speaking readers for the first time. Theevya Ragu has the scoop.

Renowned Malaysian author Uthaya Sankar SB is embarking on a significant literary journey, breaking away from three decades of writing exclusively in Bahasa Malaysia.


In a recent interview with FMT, Uthaya expressed his long-standing desire to reach a wider audience with his stories.

“I’ve attended various international events over the years and had the opportunity to interact with authors from all over the world,” he shared.

“When I tell them about my stories, they’re impressed and say, ‘Oh, I’d love to read your stories one day’.”

Motivated by the growing interest for his work, Uthaya made the bold decision to switch to English for his upcoming book, The Painted Cat.

“It has always been in the back of my mind, so I thought, you know what, it’s time that I write in English,” he said.

To do this, he transcreated a selection of his already published works, giving them new life in English.

This unique approach, as Uthaya explained, involves more than a word-for-word translation.

“I call it transcreated because it isn’t translated word by word,” he clarified.

For this ambitious endeavour, Uthaya collaborated with a team of talented transcreators, including Lalita Sinha, Nanthini Muniapan, Pragalath Kumar, and Roshini Muniam – [biodata here].

Each of them handpicked ten of his previously published stories which they personally resonated with for his new project. The Painted Cat is the result of their combined efforts.

He said past translations of his works by other publishers were less than satisfactory as they failed to capture the essence of his storytelling.

“It was very much word by word, almost like Google Translate.”

Determined to avoid such shortcomings in The Painted Cat, Uthaya actively involved himself in the transcreation process.

“Now, I am very happy to say that the stories within this book, both the ones I have personally worked on and those crafted by my fellow transcreators, have kept true to my original intentions and the message I wanted to get across.”

Uthaya said writing exclusively in Bahasa Malaysia throughout his career was a conscious decision.

“There is a severe shortage of Indian authors who write in Bahasa Malaysia. The number is somewhere around 70 writers from 1930 until 2021,” he said – [details in Kavya Sastra].

Driven by a vision to empower minority communities and celebrate their stories in the national language, Uthaya established Kavyan, a dedicated group of Indian writers who embrace national literature [sastera kebangsaan] as a medium to enrich the diverse tapestry of local literature.

Despite writing in Bahasa Malaysia for most of his life, Uthaya said that his thinking process has always been in English.

“I always think in English and write in Bahasa Malaysia.”

This natural connection to the language, he said, made the transcreation process feel effortless.

When asked about his personal favourite, Uthaya responded with endearing sincerity.

“This is the toughest question,” he confessed. “It is going to sound cliché, but it is like asking a mother who her favourite child is. All my books are my favourite.”

However, Uthaya did reveal that it was always the book he was currently working on that became his favourite, at least for that period of time.

“So, right now, I would have to say that The Painted Cat holds a special place in my heart.”

Born and raised in Taiping, Uthaya said he has always been passionate about writing and exploring Indian communities and cultures although his real literary journey began while studying in Universiti Malaya.

His dedication to showcasing Indian culture within the context of Malaysian literature is a significant aspect of his work.

One story in The Painted Cat called “Nayagi, The Mistress of Destiny” received first prize in the Hadiah Cerpen Maybank-DBP competition in 1992.

“In this story I touched on the complexities and conflicts within a large Indian family, and the dichotomy between those anchored to their Indian heritage and those embracing their Malaysian identity,” he explained.

The Painted Cat not only marks Uthaya’s transition to English writing but also serves as a testament to his unwavering commitment to sharing authentic stories that delve into seldom-discussed topics, including culture, religion, race, language, and literature.

Through this collection, he said he hoped to captivate readers, both those who have enjoyed his stories in Bahasa Malaysia and those seeking literature that transcends language barriers.

[The interview was conducted by Theevya Ragu at the Free Malaysia Today office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor on 12 May 2023 and this article was published in Free Malaysia Today on 30 May 2023. The book cover was exclusively revealed in this article.]