Knowledge, Piracy and Academic Development in Myanmar (Part I)

Mandy Sadan discusses the piracy of her work and tensions between academic publishing and reaching local audiences.  

[Editor’s Note: In this week’s set of two posts, Dr Mandy Sadan, Reader in the History of South East Asia at SOAS University of London, discusses recent experiences of the piracy of her work in Myanmar and reflects on the difficult and competing demands placed upon academics to publish their work in peer reviewed, elite university presses while also reaching a local audience. She also ponders in this essay on the unintended consequences of knowledge piracy upon Myanmar’s higher education sector in a so-called ‘digital age’.] 

Is mimicry the highest form of flattery?

For most of my academic career I have taken a serious interest in the illicit (re)production, circulation, and consumption of ‘things’ in Myanmar, especially ideas and photographic images.  I have also written and talked quite a lot about this interest in various publications and at conferences, and have even followed the progress of some circulations over two decades. I can hardly claim, therefore, to be an innocent bystander to such practices when I express myself so openly to be intrigued and fascinated by them.

However, in October 2017 I was alerted to a translation into Burmese of my book Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma (British Academy and OUP 2013). A young relative had sent a photograph showing the book’s cover and she commented that she was feeling proud that her auntie’s book had finally been translated into Burmese and that she would now be able to read it.  I was perturbed by the fact that the translator had not been in touch with me but was prepared to give him or her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they had done me a favour? Any work of translation requires time and commitment/energy and I would not be thoughtlessly dismissive of that effort.

I had considered having the book translated, but it was an enormous challenge to find (and pay) someone to do it. This is not an easy book, even for readers of English, and it was never really intended to be. It was written to be challenging and to highlight how rich the potential is for discovering the hidden histories of so many of Myanmar’s non-Bamar communities, who are often excluded from serious consideration in the history of Myanmar, even amongst foreign academic peers as much as within Myanmar itself. This was not written solely, or even primarily therefore, for a local audience. Making the ideas available, accessible, and usable for local audiences is something I hope to achieve through other strands of my work in the region, including the reuse of this book in teaching materials and in other ways. It is just one part of a broader project of researching, teaching, and writing about these issues that has been developed over many years and continues to unfold in new directions.

But the book itself is constructed in a very specific way that takes account of its physical/material format: it was always intended to be primarily a material object, ideally one of the highest quality, and not an online artefact, and this was done intentionally with a view to the local situation in the Kachin region. There are no significant works in English on the history of the Kachin (Leach’s work is a work of Anthropology and Scott’s work is a work of political theory, not history). I knew from experience of working on these issues (including observing the constant circulation and reuse of historical artefacts, both digital and physical) how important it was to have a physical object – a high quality book – that could also physically embody the importance of these histories, especially in a setting where those histories are marginalised. In reality, the publishing options open to me as an early career academic were not particularly extensive and I was relieved and delighted that the British Academy invested their confidence in the project. In addition to my own objectives, I also had to fulfil the requirements of my institution and meet academic criteria of quality assessment, and not just to write a book that would have an after-life that would be meaningful in local educational contexts within Myanmar. Balancing these conflicting demands required some creativity, as well as thinking through very carefully the way that the book could ‘live’ post-publication.

I wanted the intellectual framework of the book to be laid out as fully as possible. I am very committed to Open Access, but I am most committed to that part of it which many researchers find most difficult – open access of research data, not simply the circulation of my ideas detached from the materials that informed them. The extensive footnotes and the companion website that provides access to many of my references and sources are part of the broader framing of the book.

Yet, all of these very detailed considerations also made the issue of translation even more complicated. I didn’t expect this book to cover all bases at once, but I thought very carefully about the after-life of the book even while I was writing it, and am continuing to work on the material (and to make research data available). The issue of translation was always in the background but not necessarily a priority, mainly because it was difficult to see how it could be done without a major grant and a very dedicated translator with a passion for the text and the subject.  Translation was an aspiration, but not one that I thought could be realised easily, so I focused on finding other work-arounds to increase accessibility.

Looking carefully at the translated book’s cover, I realised that there were problems. The cover had been changed. Rather than showing the original from the book (a civil demonstration of Jingpo people at a border post in China protesting the attacks on Kachin villages by the Myanmar army since the collapse of the ceasefire in 2011), it had been swapped with the cover of my recent edited volume War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire 1994 – 2011 (NIAS Press, 2016; with companion website). This shows a group of KIA soldiers silhouetted at the top of a mountain. The change seems small – but it is significant. By using this latter image, the title Being and Becoming Kachin seems to suggest a wholly military notion of what ‘Kachin’-ness means. The book’s original image does not shy away from the militarisation of ethno-nationalist sentiment and action, but it tries to suggest an important civilian, cross-border, trans-local and trans-national dimension, which is subtler, and better reflects the overarching themes of Being and Becoming Kachin. Mixing cover images from two different books published by entirely different publishers creates a confusing conflation, which in the end may also limit the circulation of one or the other volume locally. It is highly likely that a Burmese-language reader encountering the volume War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar (which is a book with a different anticipated audience and more straightforward use of English, accessible to many) would assume that they had already read that book in Burmese and therefore not read this valuable addition to the literature on the contemporary history of the region, which picks up where Being and Becoming Kachin finishes. It is a damaging juxtaposition. 

Wider circulations

To my surprise, at the end of October 2017 a review appeared of the translation in The Irrawaddy. Again, I was in some ways flattered and pleased that someone had taken the trouble to identify the book as worth reading and to write about it in a leading media outlet for the country. However, the review was not a review but rather a summary and, most worryingly, it suggested some serious errors with the translation, which I still had not yet seen so that I could ask fluent Burmese speakers to comment.

From the outset, there were significant errors in the review. The author of the review had entirely misidentified me. He or she stated that I was an academic from India. I was confused at first as to where that idea had originated (leaving aside the bewilderment that someone could possibly write a review without Googling the author for information about their other work or their affiliation). Then I realised that probably the misidentification had arisen from a mis-reading of the first page of the book, in which I discuss a conversation with an affinal kin relative in India (affinal kin through my marriage to a Jinghpaw man and my own adoption into a Jinghpaw lineage). The book’s first sentence is: “It was a hot day in May and I was in the bamboo hut in the garden of my Agu’s house in Assam in northeast India” with a footnote that Agu was a kinship term that might be translated as broadly equivalent to ‘brother-in-law’. There is no other explanation, as far as I can see, of how this particular misidentification could have occurred.

The review also revealed a host of mis-transcriptions, especially of Jinghpaw terms, even from and into Roman script. Hkun Du Jan, for example, the name of an important local spirit, is transcribed as Hkun Du Fan. Jan (wife, in this context), is the key term and gives the name its significance as the female identity of the spirit is critical.  Hkun Du Fan is meaningless.  The translator never (and still has not) contacted me. I could not imagine before how anyone could achieve a good translation without consulting with me and discussing the core ideas, and especially having some insight into the Jinghpaw cultural framework that is so important in underpinning the work. The review errors seemed to confirm those fears. 

The Irrawaddy also needs to be called out as a publication with a tradition of serious journalism to ask how they could publish a so-called ‘review’ in which there has not been any effort at all to identify correctly who the author is and their institutional affiliation, let alone any other details.  A review of a translation must at least refer to the original, the author and the context; and in this case, it should make it clear that the translation is a rather poor summary of that original. These are simple rules of academic and journalistic integrity of what a ‘review’ should be. Given that the framework of the footnotes and companion website are also critical to the intentions of the work, the detachment of this translation from that context, and the lack of awareness of these other outputs in the review, is a very important omission. A simple Google search would have turned up my companion site. To say the review is ‘lazy’ is an understatement. It is not my work that is reviewed; it is the work of someone else with my name on it.

Backlash

I asked colleagues visiting Myanmar to bring a copy of the volume back with them. A local friend had some trouble purchasing it as many sellers reported to them that it had ‘sold out’. However, eventually a copy was purchased, and the translation could be compared with the original. The key findings of those who have checked the translation for me are as follows:

  1. The book mis-transcribes important Jinghpaw/Kachin terms into Burmese such that they become unrecognisable and, in some cases, unreadable and bear no relation to the original terms.
  2. The translation is so bad that I am assured that if you did not know the book in English, you would have problems understanding the argument. It is poorly written, with many sentences following on without connection, creating a confusing and disjointed read. Some sentences are entirely incomprehensible. It was suggested to me that this may have been due to rather random cutting of the text to bring it to a correct length for publication for sales purposes.
  3. It is a summary in Burmese (and a poorly written one at that), not a translation, and should therefore be attributed to a named translator/author as their attempt to summarise my work, not as my work in translation
  4. There are no references or footnotes anywhere in the book, so this critical intellectual framing is entirely lost (and detachment from the website compounds the problem).
  5. The extensive bibliography from the original is completely removed so there is no way to show how the ideas behind the book have been developed or to seek out further references for research or further reading. It therefore provides no support for those who may wish to learn more about these ideas in Myanmar, who could find many of these materials online.

The result was the realisation that this is a rather shocking kind of mistranslation, one that takes such liberties with the original text that I feel that I have to respond and put on record the precise nature and origin of this translated volume. This kind of translation is not flattery – rather it feels more a form of cynical opportunism carried out by a group of people who have their ear to the ground about which academic texts may be of wider interest, and who appear to be strategically selecting them for ‘translation’ and selling them for their own profit (I am aware of other authors who have written on the ethnic politics of the country to whom this has happened recently as well, suggesting that there may be a group of people possibly working together on this).

Rather than supporting the knowledge base in Myanmar, they are disregarding the original works, meanings, and intentions of the authors, and embedding serious weaknesses in academic life in the country as it struggles to rebuild its higher education system as they do so. This translation both reflects and entrenches a culture of plagiarism that greatly undermines the academic potential of the country’s higher education system. More is written about this in Part 2 of this essay, but the argument that has been presented — that because my name is on the book means that this is not plagiarism and there are no issues of intellectual theft — is incorrect. Plagiarism is academic theft and fraud. This is theft because my permission has never been sought, and it is fraud because it places my name on a book that does not at all represent my thoughts and intentions, and it uses that name to sell a book that is not mine. 

Appropriation and lack of knowledge of non-Burman cultures and languages 

In the social media conversations that developed among some Kachin Facebook users relating to this review in the days that followed, a more worrying lack of comprehension of the significance of such piracy in undermining academic growth in Myanmar became apparent. A rather bemused response from a non-Kachin man who ventured bravely into the social media fray, was that, because the writer of the review had not claimed the work as his or her own, there were no problems of intellectual copyright at all. This person simply could not understand what everyone was so angry about.

In addition to the issues above, it is also important to understand this other context of what has infuriated so many people about this translation. In many respects, the most damaging and potentially significant issue relates to the fact that the translation into Burmese takes no account whatsoever of Jinghpaw language and culture terms, providing Burmese transcriptions that take no heed of pronunciation issues or even of making them legible to people who know these terms. As a result, the translation fails to communicate core ideas about ‘Kachin’ historical issues and experiences in a way that does not Burmanise them; they are incomprehensible to Jinghpaw speaking people who should be able to relate to the contents very directly. In sum, therefore, the main reason so many Kachin people have expressed their disgust at this translation is that it symbolises to many of them yet another act of cultural appropriation of ‘Kachin’ (and therefore other non-Burmese) histories, cultures and traditions. This mis-rendering is seen as a lack of respect, not only to me as author, but to the experiences and knowledge of non-Burmese people. It is clear that the translator and his/her colleagues have significantly misjudged and misunderstood the wider context and significance of what they are doing, and have shown a lack of appropriate sensitivities. Within such a politicised setting, these are not seen as minor errors but rather as something indicative of a more general attitude, including that of some Burmese intellectuals, who frequently underestimate the extent to which they need to develop their own knowledge of these cultures, traditions and languages first before appropriating them to a Burmese world view and perspective.

This, of course, is a politicised stereotype of the process of Burmanisation expressed by those who feel oppressed. This translation, therefore, also shows a lack of respect to those in Myanmar today who are indeed very serious about wanting to learn more about some of the critical social, economic, and political challenges that the country is facing – and the historical origins of these issues. There are many Burmese academics and national scholars working in NGOS and think tanks who really want to learn more and who struggle to understand deeply challenging alternative views. This translation does not, in fact, contribute significantly to that desire for understanding, as it does not make the ideas of the original any more available or accessible because it misrepresents them so badly. This may not have been the intention – but sadly, it is the result.

Continue to Part 2

Mandy Sadan is Reader in the History of South East Asia at SOAS University of London. She has written extensively on the culture and history of the Kachin region of Myanmar but also has interests in issues relating to borderlands, conflict, identity and social memory, and war to peace transitions more broadly. She can be contacted at ms114@soas.ac.uk