Singapore: Translation Gateway to SE Asia

A new arts non-profit wants to promote literary exchange between Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia, and between SE Asia and the world. The Select Center encourages and develops translation and other intercultural practices through a wide array of programs. Last October, it organized Singapore’s largest translation festival, TranslateSingapore. The festival featured a professional symposium for writers and translators, and public events for writers and readers. The Center is also developing translators by running a separate Translators Lab, an 8-week course that includes a creative writing workshop, on-line classes, and a 3-day bootcamp in Singapore. Literary Gateway Singapore, another initiative, aims to link SE Asian literature to the rest of the world, via the gateway of Singapore. Its first project was an international translation workshop in Yangon, Myanmar, in May. In that workshop, experienced translators led newer colleagues in translating the English-language works of Singaporean Alfian Sa’at and British Suzanne Joinson into Burmese. Translation took place in the other direction as well: the works of Myanmar writers Nay Myo and Min Khite Soe San were translated into English using the same workshop process.




Besides these signature events, The Select Center also builds understanding and support for intercultural practices by running regular programs held in Singapore and on-line. The Intercultural Reading Group gathers frequently to read writers working in different cultures and languages. A talk series, Writing and Society, aims to expose writers to a broad spectrum of social experience in order to stimulate socially engaged writing. The Center also hosts a regular gathering, with an on-line platform, called Translation Community SG for the purposes of networking and sharing. All these activities are held in the Center’s not-for-profit bookstore, which showcases works from Singapore and the region. You can like the Center’s Facebook page or email them at for dates and times.

This remarkable enterprise fills a gap that had been sorely felt for some time. The founders William Phuan (Managing Director) and Tan Dan Feng (Executive Director) have been involved in translation, publishing, arts management, and book-selling for many years. Dan Feng was for a decade the Director of renowned Southeast Asian specialist bookstore Select Books, after which the Center is named. William was the Director of The Arts House at the Old Parliament, a center showcasing the literary arts,  from 2009 to January 2015. William was kind enough to agree to an interview with SP.


SP. How was the idea for the Center born? In one head, two heads simultaneously but separately, or two heads talking together? How did you decide to work with one another?

WP: It was probably two heads separately first, and then talking and deciding to work together. When Dan told me about his plan to set up a non-profit to continue the social mission of Select Books, I was intrigued. We had already worked together to start the Singapore International Translation Symposium when I was at The Arts House. I feel the existence of an organisation like The Select Centre is long overdue, especially in a multicultural, diverse country like Singapore. Translation can be a powerful tool to connect cultures and languages, and facilitate intercultural flow of ideas. Furthermore, we should understand our neighbours in Southeast Asia better, especially now that we are talking about the identity and togetherness of an Asean Community. We need more intra-Asean translation, and to promote works by SEA writers and translators within and beyond the region.


SP. Literary Gateway Singapore aims to position Singapore as the gateway for the translation of Southeast Asian literature, effectively making The Select Center the gatekeepers. How will the Center decide on who and what will be translated? Will there be consultation with target countries, and in what form will this consultation take?

WP: This will take a lot of ongoing conversations with our partners, writers and translators in the various SEA countries. For example, in May this year we went to Yangon to organise a series of literary translation workshops and talks as part of Literary Gateway. The effort was spearheaded by PEN Myanmar, in collaboration with a number of organisations besides Select, including British Council Myanmar, Penguin Random House China and Writers’ Centre Norwich. We brought Singapore writer Alfian Sa’at there, as his short stories were translated by the Burmese translators into Burmese. This was the first time since 1969 that such translation workshops were organised in Myanmar. Because of this programme, a Burmese publisher is going to translate and publish Alfian’s book there. For Literary Gateway to be successful, we need such constant dialogue and collective effort to pool our resources together.


SP. The Translators Lab is an exciting short training course for new and emerging translators. In partnering Writers’ Center Norwich in providing this course, what strengths does The Select Center see in this partnership? How does the course complement existing translation studies in the local universities?

WP: Writers’ Centre Norwich has been at the forefront of literary translation efforts in the world, in particular through their summer programmes and international partnerships. What is unique about their methodology is that they focus on the creative writing process as an essential part of literary translation. This is something we have incorporated into our Translators Lab. Also, the Lab is innovative in that we have an online component. In fact, the participants spent seven weeks (out of eight) online, using a specially designed platform to work on their translations, their exercises, and share about their challenges with fellow participants in a forum. This afforded the participants the flexibility to take the course any time, anywhere. They then came together for a 3-day boot camp to work on their final translations, as well as attend a series of editing and writing sessions. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We will be offering a new round of the Translators Lab again in 2016.

The translation courses at local universities do not really focus on literary translation. Our Translators Lab highlights the craft of creative writing and editing in literary translation work, which may appeal more to writers and aspiring translators.


SP. How can American writers, translators, editors, publishers, and readers be involved in the Center’s mission to promote intercultural exchange in Southeast Asia?

WP: The American community is part of the intercultural fabric of the world, especially since the American society is becoming increasingly diverse culturally, ethnically and linguistically. American writers, publishers, translators, and readers can be as much participants/collaborators in our programmes as consumers of works that are coming out of SEA. For instance, writers and translators can take part in our online Translators Lab if they have a keen interest in SEA literature. With more translations, American readers can then more readily access noteworthy works by SEA writers.



William Phuan is the Managing Director and co-founder of The Select Centre. Prior to setting up The Select Centre, William was the Director of The Arts House at the Old Parliament from 2009 to January 2015. He oversaw The Arts House, which was turned from the former Parliament House in 2004 into an arts centre that focuses on writing, writers and ideas. The Arts House organises programmes and festivals that develop and promote Singapore literature and arts that reach out to all walks of life.

Programmes that William initiated at The Arts House included the Singapore International Translation Symposium; Singapore Writers Festival Fringe; Singapore Creative Writing Residency; Sing Lit 101; Cita Malay Literary and Culture series; Silver Writing; and Text in the City, a nationwide app-based campaign to promote Singapore poetry.

William spent seven years in New York as the Programme Director of the New York Asian American International Film Festival. He co-founded ContemporAsian at the Museum of Modern Art, a monthly film series that showcases independent films from Asia. He has close to 20 years of experience working in various sectors, including journalism, government policy, film festivals, and the not-for-profit arts sector in both the US and Singapore.

William has sat on various panels, including the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) Electronic Media & Film Panel; and National Arts Council Singapore Panel for Cultural Medallion Award and Young Artist Award (Literary Arts).



Tan Dan Feng spent a decade as director of globally renowned Southeast Asian books specialist Select Books and is active in the regional language, translation and publishing sectors. He chairs the annual Singapore International Translation Symposium and has been involved in the translation programmes at NTU, NUS and SIM University as course coordinator, lecturer, adjunct faculty and academic advisory board member.

He sits on several government committees, including the National Translation Committee, the NAC Arts Advisory Panel and the MCI Television and Radio Advisory Committee Panel of Experts. He designed the official iHuayu app of the Speak Mandarin Campaign and penned its official notebook for 2014, containing tips on the proper use of Mandarin. He has presented widely on issues relating to language and culture, including major conferences in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Penang.

Books that he has edited or co-edited include Singapore Shifting Boundaries (2011), Indonesia Rising: Islam, Democracy and the Rise of Indonesia as a Major Power (2009) and The Chinese in Indonesia (2008). Recently, he oversaw the production of the largest Singapore Chinese-English bilingual dictionary and a history of Malay poetry in Singapore.


About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: