Some of his works have been translated into English, Tamil, Mandarin, and German. In 1999, Uthaya founded Kavyan Writers Group and since 2009, he has been a columnist for various newspapers and online news portals.
With numerous literary awards under his belt, Uthaya has been presented the Ambassador for Peace Award by the Universal Peace Federation in 2008. In February 2023, The Hindusthan Art & Music Society (India) conferred him the Saraswati Samman Award.
Recently, he has taken 11 of his short stories in Bahasa Malaysia and translated them into English. For those who are interested to purchase his anthology of short stories, The Painted Cat, you may visit his website.
What motivated you to produce The Painted Cat?
The idea of translating or rather transcreating my stories in
English has always been at the back of my mind. When I go to literary events
abroad or when I meet non-Malaysian friends, they often say that they hope to
be able to read my stories. In September 2021, I asked my friends (who have
been supportive of my Bahasa Malaysia books) if I should publish a collection
of my stories in English translation. The response was very good and
encouraging – [read the responses here].
The book was supposed to be published earlier. What caused
The flood which hit Taman Sri Muda, Shah Alam (December 2021 and where I stay and run my writing
workshops) has hindered the progress. When I was arrested by Bukit Aman
for allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad (April 2022), people from foreign countries were
interested to know more about my writing and me. So, last February, I started
to concentrate fully on this project. I want my stories to reach larger groups,
especially those who have problems reading the original Bahasa Malaysia
stories. I am not looking for any recognition locally or internationally. I
just enjoy telling stories.
Give us a sneak peek at what kind of stories we can expect
from The Painted Cat.
Each transcreator was given the freedom to choose which story to transcreate. Only after the book was put together, I noticed that most of the stories highlight Indian characters, culture, myth, beliefs, etc. There are stories happening in the 1950s and 1960s, and some happening in the 1990s – a time when people still used public telephones to contact each other. The characters are simple, everyday men, women, and children. There is a story about a cat who wants to become the nation’s leader. A parrot who wishes to be able to communicate with its owner. A migrant gardener with a secret identity. A doctor who believes his son is the incarnation of Hanuman and an old lady who claims to have stolen the moon in the sky. I hope these stories will touch the readers emotionally and intellectually.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in
Money. That was and always is the only problem for a full-time
writer and self-publishing author like myself. Transcreating the stories was
not a problem. Getting people interested in this project was also not a
problem. The biggest challenge is getting enough funds to cover the publishing
cost. I am truly blessed with a group of friends who are always supportive of
my book projects. The names of the funders – I call them “social capital contributors” – are listed in the book.
Sometimes when you convert a short story from the original
language to a different language, you may lose the essence of the stories. Are
you worried this will happen to your anthology?
This has always been an issue when we talk about translation.
Two of my short stories – “Nayagi” and “Yang Aneh-aneh” – have been translated
into English in the past. I was not satisfied because it lost its essence. But
for this project, I was working closely with the transcreators. They were given
the freedom not to merely translate but to transcreate the stories.
From the very beginning, I wanted to make sure the stories read well in
English; not simply translated word by word. If you were to compare the stories
in The Painted Cat with the original stories in Bahasa
Malaysia, you would see the differences. That was done intentionally in the
process of transcreating. Once the transcreators have done their part, I checked their manuscripts and was
happy to see that their transcreation has stayed true to the original spirit of
each story. I must say that the transcreators and the editor did a wonderful
job. The Painted Cat contains the best English transcreation
of my stories so far.
What advice can you give to other Bahasa Malaysia writers
who are planning to translate their stories into English?
I would say that they should go ahead, but only if they are very
sure of the quality of the stories. At the same time, do not expect government-funded
agencies like Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) and Institut Terjemahan & Buku
Malaysia (ITBM) to do it for you. Even though earlier this year the government
allocated RM20 million to DBP, ITBM, and Yayasan Karyawan to handle translation
activities, everyone in the writing, publishing, and translation industry
already knows how they work. There are many online journals and magazines accepting translations. That is where you should try to get published. As for the
translation, get someone you are comfortable working with in tandem.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a writer in
I have been writing fiction and non-fiction in Bahasa Malaysia since
1991 and the biggest challenge I face is the bigoted Little Napoleans in the
literary scene. For example, in 1999, DBP tried to stop everyone from using the
term “Bahasa Malaysia”. Of course, I fought back to reclaim my right – [read here]. In 2021, DBP made it obvious that
non-Muslims do not have the right to use “Tuhan” because DBP claims that it can
only be used to refer to Allah – [read here]. DBP and the “Malay” literary scene
in general only want non-Malays who are average. If you are a “Pak Turut”
(yes-man), you can go places as a lapdog. If you outshine them, they will go
all out to “kill and destroy” you. I have already written about this in a story
titled “Fail Merah: Konspirasi Membunuh Sasterawan Pulau Cinta” (Dewan Masyarakat, September 2002). I
can gladly say that I do not face such challenges because I have self-respect
and I know my rights and my values. At the same time, I am aware that many
non-Malay writers are stuck in a vicious circle because they need DBP way more than
DBP needs them.
What is the next project you are working on?
For 2024, I am thinking of publishing a compilation of essays, especially those previously published in Utusan Malaysia newspaper. Then, in 2025, perhaps another collection of stories in English (transcreated). But everything depends on the support from my friends because I need the social capital contribution to enable me to cover part of the publishing cost.