On Language and Translation

Asia What?: Writers Across Borders – Melbourne Writers Festival

‘One of the most valuable things about coming together is talking about poetry, returning to poetry,’ Christos Tsiolkas says picking up a book by Australian poet Andy Jackson, loaned to him by Vietnamese poet Nha Thuyen, one of the glut of poets sharing this stage.

Ellen van Neervan (Mununjali writer from South East Queensland), Nha Thuyen (Vietnam), Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Indonesia), Martin Villanueva (Philippines), Steven Winduo (PNG), and Daryll Delgado (Philippines) are also on stage, a panel carefully crafted by Francesca Rendle-Short and David Carlin, award-winning Australian writers and founders of the Wrice program.

This lush pan-Asian panel is enjoying the final stages as a whole, completing the Wrice residency, a program that comprised a trip to the Philippines and a second leg to Australia for a mini residency on the Great Ocean Road, and the Melbourne Writers Festival. There’s a rare delicacy in the melding of these voices, each respectfully listening and responding like singular birds, giving inklings of longer conversations played out in private.

Francesca Rendle-short, Martin Villanueva, Steven Winduo, Ellen Van neervan, Nha Thuyen

Asia What? Wrice panel at MWF

Winduo says that ‘being on a residency, coming together, the connectivity has allowed me to find the ‘us’. It’s the ‘us’ versus the ‘me’. Finding the commonality has allowed me to reconsider how I write.’

There can’t help but be discussion of universality when people from disparate backgrounds are brought together to write and to talk. But the danger of overreaching this commonality of experience also plays on the minds of Filipino writers, Delgado and Villanueva.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Daryll Delgado and Christos Tsiolkas

Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Daryll Delgado and Christos Tsiolkas

‘As a new writer you tend to write from your immediate world, your characters come from your immediate world. Writing in English, I don’t want people to be mistaken that I am representative of all Filipinos and their life experience,’ Delgado comments. Likewise, Villanueva doesn’t want Filipino people to be seen as uniform, or himself as an ambassador.

The question of translation at every level is a constant issue in writers’ minds but especially those who are multilingual, and who choose to write in a language other than their own tongue.

‘Must I feel guilty for speaking and writing in English?’ Villanueva asks.

Nha Thuyen who often employs a mixture of English and Vietnamese in her performance says, ‘I start to become polyamorous when it comes to language.’

Van Neervan describes English as a ‘technology’. ‘Since the earliest days of colonisation Aboriginal people have been using English as a tool to convey their needs and to try to make a better future for their people.’ She explains that Aboriginal women as early as the 1830s were writing in English to government officials to try to locate and bring back their children.

With PNG home to an almost unfathomable number of languages and spanning many islands, Winduo describes English as a ‘vessel’. Whereas Delgado sees English as a way of transgressing borders. ‘Within the Philippines there are so many borders.’

The experience of spending time in another country, core to the Wrice journey, is reflected upon, the sense of otherness that can come about.  ‘Being a stranger nurtures a curiosity in a place,’ Van Neerven says.

Asia What? Writing across borders panel

Nha Thuyen says, ‘I didn’t know I was Vietnamese until I went abroad.’ Some reflected on the feeling of otherness experienced by nationals in their own country, even in their own community. How trust and deep connection can transcend spatial and cultural divides, an idea summarised by Van Neervan

‘It’s more than land that connects people.’



Jennifer Porter