From the Translator: On Clara Ng’s “The Moon and the Magician in the Red Jacket”

In Clara Ng’s story “The Moon and the Magician in the Red Jacket,” the main character Husin is a rather hapless fellow, but it was important for me that he retain his dignity in translation, as he does in the original text. The elements are all there for a figure of mockery—uncontrollable dandruff, a house that he can never seem to fortify against the rain, a scolding wife, disappointing children. Yet I believe it was Ng’s intent to paint a picture of a storyteller, a man capable of taming rowdy children and captivating their parents with the imaginary tales and flights of fancy that so readily pop into his head. It is important to convey in translation the richness of Husin’s imagination in order to create the right impact on the reader when that imagination deserts him, when he sits staring at a blank piece of paper unable to summon a single idea.

The total absence of dialogue in this story imbues it with a strong sense of interiority: it is as if we are living inside Husin’s head, even though he is not the narrator. There’s a need for the translator to maintain the somewhat dream-like quality of that interiority.

Another challenge was translating the numerous similes. Sometimes a literal translation works (stories “popping into Husin’s head like mushrooms in the rainy season,” for example), but at other times they feel awkward in English. I still don’t know if I nailed all of them in the final version. Can droplets of rain be likened to a swarm of termites? Is it too clunky to liken dandruff to snow? Too obvious? What about the description of the shape of Husin’s back being “like a crescent moon”? Should I have let that simile go and simply described his back as being curved? My translation of Husin’s thoughts about retirement going by “so quickly and in such a blur, like water gushing down a drainpipe” doesn’t encapsulate the full simile of the original, which refers to “black water” (air hitam) being sucked into a drainpipe.

One simile that I loved was the reference to Husin’s son, with his grandiose plans, being “like grass aspiring to be broccoli.” To my knowledge, it is not a recognized simile in English or in Indonesian, but I thought it was so apt that I didn’t even consider fiddling around with it. When Husin’s imagination is on fire he comes up with some delightfully eccentric storylines. But does it work in English to liken the gait of the woman with one huge ear to the angle of “a boat battered by a storm”?

In the translation of this story, as indeed in most translations, I had to grapple with the culture-specific items. It’s almost always the little things, the practicalities like food and transport and daily routine that pose challenges for the translator. How much should be explained? How much left to the reader’s intelligence to figure out? Should I explain that “five thousand” is “five thousand rupiah”? Should I convert it into US or Australian dollars? In this story, the context tells us that it is currency, and the reader immediately knows that it is enough to buy cigarettes and coffee morning and night. No further information required. What about the muezzin calling the morning prayer? Does this need to be contextualized in a broader description of Islamic practices? I shun footnotes in fiction, I also shun parenthetical explanation. Sometimes “domesticating” the text robs it of its essence. Better to ask the reader to figure out what a dangdut singer is, for example.

The measure of my success in translating this story is the extent to which the reader feels a sense of pathos at the plight of Husin, the once-proud school teacher and storyteller extraordinaire who feels his skills in both occupations slowly slipping away from him as he waits, like a lonely busker, for the children’s parents to drop a few coins in his plastic cup.