Editorial – January 2018
TREETOP BABEL

Biculturally or multiculturally, the deeper you go you actually find that all these recesses are connected. The deeper you go, the more connected you are. The shallower you become, the more separated they are. Or to put it another way, the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated. This is where our level of art is. They are very separated. But if you go deeper, the roots touch. You go higher, the branches touch, the leaves touch. And of course the cross-pollination is done up there. And you absorb the same nutrients, deep underneath. And this is the beauty of multiculturalism.

—Kuo Pao Kun. (Excerpt from “Between Two Worlds: A Conversation with Kuo Pao Kun” in 9 Lives: 10 years of Singapore Theatre (1987-1997). The Necessary Stage, 1997.)

No one person, on setting foot in a tropical rainforest, can expect to understand everything they hear there; from the creak and rustle of the trees to animal calls and birdsong from high above, the aural palette of a rainforest is rich in its diversity. Nor could any single person hope to make themselves fully understood to any one inhabitant of this lively, cacophonous environment.

Even in the world beyond the rainforest, such an experience is familiar, even commonplace. In a global society, we interact freely with people from all sorts of different cultures, backgrounds, and outlooks. These connections can give rise to tension, confusion, and even conflict. Language barriers can be frustrating enough. Add on difficulties in understanding each other’s most basic perspectives, and it becomes tempting to think that we are doomed to live in Babel, where our differences can only divide us and make it impossible to achieve our goals.

Yet a rainforest does not thrive in spite of its diversity, but as a result of it. The confluence of a myriad different inhabitants, each with their own way of existing as part of the wider world and interacting with it, is what truly brings a rainforest to life and keeps it healthy and functioning. This treetop Babel is not a curse, but a state of joyous celebration. Cross-pollination, and interactions between even the most disparate creatures, serve to strengthen the life of the forest as a whole, and those who live within it.

No one person can hope to understand the whole world, just as no single perspective can or should be the definitive approach to life. Rather than detracting from the value of each outlook and mode of living, this makes every individual and experience more valuable in its contribution to an ever-richer and more holistic understanding of existence. Our existence in Babel is thus less a curse, and more a cause for celebration of the rich diversity of our cultures and outlooks.

To start off our celebration, we will be featuring pieces that result from that particular kind of cross-pollination we call ‘translation’. Some of these are the culmination of conversations between not only the author and the translator, but the author with a team of translators. One such work is the English-to-Myanmar translation of renowned Singapore writer and playwright Alfian Sa’at’s short story The Hole, which was translated by no less than ten accomplished translators under the guidance of leading Myanmar translator Moe Thet Han. Another such work is the Chinese-to-English translation of Lee Hui Min’s essay Growing Up In Babel, translated by five young people as part of The Select Centre’s Mentorship Programme. The essay itself highlights how everyday acts of translation can enrich our lives.

We are also delighted to feature a piece of great significance to the Chinese community in Singapore: Little Sparrow Found a Twig, a classic xinyao song by Dr Liang Wern Fook. It was banned from broadcast for 23 years after its release in 1990 for its inclusion of one line in Cantonese alongside the rest of the Mandarin lyrics. On being un-banned, the song was broadcast simultaneously by Singapore’s three largest Chinese-language radio stations. It is a great joy to be able to share in the transmission of this work, newly translated into English by Tina Sim.

We hope you will enjoy this celebration of the diverse world we all share.

*****

Margaret Devadason is the Associate Editor of Canopy. A Singaporean of mixed descent, she is currently pursuing a degree in Linguistics and Multilingual Studies with a minor in Creative Writing at Nanyang Technological University.