Prominent arts figure William Phuan believes translation of literary works is a powerful tool for change. He tells Melissa Gail Sing how his personal experiences led to his co-founding a new not-for-profit entity that promotes interculturalism and an Asean unity.

Photography: Chew Chen Yang/Penoramic Publishing. Grooming: Benedict Choo.

Fifteen years ago, William Phuan left home eager to discover and contribute to New York’s charged arts and culture scene. But just weeks into his move came the atrocities of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “That tragedy so profoundly changed the world and heightened the polarities that we are still grappling with today: Us against them; faith versus faith; one culture clashing against another,” he says. 

Some in his shoes might have done a 180-degree turn, but William stayed for the next seven years as programme director of the New York Asian American International Film Festival that promotes Asian American film talents. As someone from Singapore’s dominant ethnicity, he’d previously never thought much about issues relating to minority groups. However, in New York, he was on the “other” side. The experience made him more cognisant of his cultural otherness—a foreigner, a non-white, Chinese Singaporean. The turned tables weren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“What was great about living in New York was that you felt empowered to change things and shake up the status quo, even if you come from the minority. You felt you deserved as much right as the next person to sit at the table and be heard. You could emphasise differences, but insist on equality. You could advocate diversity, but push for acceptance. 

“I found the openness and willingness among people from different communities to have a dialogue invigorating. They wanted to fix these fault lines together because they believed the diversity of cultures would be beneficial for the city,” he shares. His personal experiences affirmed two convictions: That Singapore’s multicultural identity is an asset, “the source of our nourishment and renewal”; and that cultural exchange is critical for the nation’s maturity as a country and a people. 

And if there’s one channel that hasn’t been fully tapped as a conduit for fostering intercultural connectedness here, he would say it is literature. It’s something he became acutely aware of while at the helm of The Arts House between 2009 and January 2015, which was also when the centre began to develop a focus on literary arts. 

“While showcasing local writers and their works was important, it became clear that there were lapses in understanding Singapore’s literary works. Many that were written in Chinese, Malay and Tamil were not translated, so if you do not know the language, you will miss out on a big chunk of what our fellow Singaporeans are writing about and the issues that they are dealing with,” says William, who lectures at tertiary institutions here and has been on various selection panels including the Cultural Medallion Award (Literary Arts) and Young Artist Award (Literary Arts) in 2014.

“The lack of translation means that we are unable to understand one another in a fundamental way. This creates serious impediments to us as a society trying to formulate a Singaporean identity. There is no dialogue as there is no means to access one another’s works. Translation is then an obvious but essential way to plug the gap.”

In 2013, together with Tan Dan Feng (owner of Southeast Asian books specialist Select Books and an active figure in the regional language, translation and publishing fields), he started the first Singapore International Translation Symposium. Held at The Arts House, it drew the participation of translators, writers, artists, publishers, academics, policymakers and other stakeholders. By then, the seeds for using translation as a tool for intercultural efforts were already sown.

When Tan asked if he would help to set up and run a not-for-profit entity that would help continue Select Books’ social mission of promoting understanding of Southeast Asia and putting the region on the global literary and intellectual map, William leapt at the opportunity. 

Soon after its launch in April 2015, The Select Centre rolled out a string of activities including readings, festivals, workshops, mentorships and residences, with some activities extending to the Asean region. Select’s co-founders are also looking for a space for its book room, which will be a treasure trove of literary gems from Singapore and Southeast Asia. Like any not-for-profit organisation, the span of their capabilities is somewhat limited by funding, but the two are optimistic that philanthropists who believe that they are doing critical work will one day come forward to offer them space.

Yet, nothing will stop William from dreaming: “I hope Select will be part of the whole ecosystem, not only of arts and culture, but the whole society as well. What we do is intrinsically linked to every strata of the country. Personally, I’m very excited to see how Select will evolve together with Singapore.” He adds, “Translation is a means to gain access to the different cultures and languages, break down cultural barriers, and gain greater understanding among all communities. 

“We are not just looking within Singapore, but also between Singapore and our Southeast Asian neighbours. There is not enough intra-Asean translation. Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has spoken about an Asean oneness and identity in establishing the Asean Community. Translation can play a key role in this aspect.”

William credits his working-class parents for his love of the arts. An avid reader, he was bred on a diet of books including Chinese translations of books by English authors like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. His family also shared a love for cinema. 

On his travels to places like Myanmar and Poland for his work with Select, he finds himself magnetically drawn to the museums and bookshops. Next, you might find him getting lost along supermarket aisles or the shelves of local grocery stores. “What they stock inside reveals a lot about the local habits and lifestyles,” he quips. And we just have to ask this of a man who always buys and hoards books before devouring them later: If a book were made about your life, what would its title be?

“I don’t think my life is interesting enough,” comes his humble reply. “But, I would not mind seeing my imprint on a notebook. It would be full of blank pages for people to write on—and perhaps translate a line or two.” 

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