When it comes to books, we usually refer “classics” to Western literature; Austen, Fitzgerald, Bronte and so on. Asian classics are hardly been heard of. No, Murakami is considered modern literature, if you’re wondering. Even if the topic of Asian literature comes to light, only China, Japan and India that emerge to the conversation immediately. Sometimes India as well, for its famous masterpiece of Kamasutra. But classic literature in other Asian countries are still in haze, let alone Southeast Asia.
One of the reasons to the lack of literary masterpiece in Southeast Asia is due to colonialism. Back in the days, Southeast Asian natives are exploited and had very minimum to no access to education. Furthermore, traces of any literary works from their ancestors that may ignite rebellion are destroyed or stolen for their historical value. It was only after centuries of colonialism that the invaders let natives to access a little bit of knowledge, so they could work more effectively for the colonial state. Yet, they were still very strict as to not let the natives express their thoughts freely, for the fear that it could threaten the sovereignty. Even when Southeast Asian countries are freed, the turbulent political conditions let some countries to go as extreme as to destroy free thoughts in order to, again, protect sovereignty.
However, Southeast Asia is not completely out of classic literary works. Although, not many of them have been internationally acclaimed as Chinese or Japanese literary classics. A notable Southeast Asian archipelago, Indonesia, has had many writers participated in international awards. For instance, since 1979, more than 30 Indonesian writers became nominees in Southeast Asian Writers Award. Also, Indonesia’s controversial writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer has been nominated several times in the Nobel Prize for Literature. Besides Indonesia, other Southeast Asian countries have also had its literary works nominated or won international awards, such as Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
These numbers and facts aren’t much, but it shows how the quality of Southeast Asian Literature could potentially compete with literature from other parts of the world… If only everyone can read them. Southeast Asian literature are not popular (even modern ones) in the global market, let alone their classical works. Most of them are written in native language, so in order to reach international readers, they have to be translated (at least to English).
Translating is not merely transcribing one language to another. It is a process of interpreting ideas, culture and history of mankind. The greater the spread, the less likely for history and culture to wear away. Most importantly, translation could free Southeast Asian literature from inclusivity and give the world a chance to enjoy Southeast Asian literary masterpieces and be aware of issues that might still occur in the originating countries.