Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ Wins Govt Literary Award

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 19 November 2013

RANGOON—Nearly eight decades after George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” first hit bookshelves, the book has won the highest literary award in the country where it is set: Burma.

The Burmese Ministry of Information announced on Sunday that the unabridged Burmese translation of the British writer’s first novel was the winner of the 2012 National Literary Award’s informative literature (translation) category.

The annual official award is given to books in 16 different categories. A translation of Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” won this year’s award for creative literature.

The translator, Maung Myint Kywe, told The Irrawaddy he considers “Burmese Days”—set in a small British colonial outpost in Upper Burma—a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of both the British and Burmese.

His intention in translating the book, which was first published in 1934, was partially for young people to learn about how the Burmese were discriminated against under British rule, he said. “But Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese, too,” said the translator, whose other work includes translations international best-sellers and self-help books.

“I thought the Burmese should read it, and so I translated it,” said the 79-year old translator, who is as old as the first edition of “Burmese Days.”

Htay Maung, the leader of the 10-member panel that awarded the prize, said the “Burmese Days” translation was picked from a field of almost 170 entries. The entire panel voted for “Burmese Days,” he added.

“Because we all believed that, contrary to other books on Burma by the British, the novel is quite balanced,” he said. “Plus, the Burmese translation style is OK and conveys the meaning of the writer well.”

George Orwell spent five years in Burma from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police.

“Burmese Days” is a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj, as well as a tale from the waning days of British colonialism. The book tells a tragic story of a British teak merchant who is disenchanted by the superiority of British officials to local Burmese, as well as Indians.

It takes place in Kyauktada, a pseudonym for Katha in Sagaing Division—a riverside town where Orwell served as a police officer that now draws tourists following in the footsteps of the writer.

Orwell is not unknown among Burmese readers. His 1949 masterpiece “Nineteen Eighty-Four” has long been famous in Burma thanks to its descriptions on official deception, secret surveillance and the manipulations of an authoritarian state, which are considered a vivid reflection of Burma’s military dictatorship. Burma’s former dictator, Snr Gen Than Shwe, was also frequently referred as “Big Brother,” the name given to the party leader in the novel who is the subject of an intense personality cult.

Burmese versions of the British novelist’s internationally famous works have been introduced in Burma since the 1950s. “Animal Farm,” a satirical retelling of the rise of Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union with farmyard animals, was translated and published in Burma in 1951.

“Burmese Days” was also translated in the 1950s and 1960s. But, according to Maung Myint Kywe, all editions were pulped. Last year, a new Burmese version of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” hit bookstores.

“I wanted to publish those books for a long time but I could only do it in the last year,” said Win Tin of Law Ka Thit publishing house, who published the translations of both “Burmese Days” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in 2012.

He said the easing of literary censorship last year allowed him to publish those books, since criticism of the Burmese in “Burmese Days” and the satirical view of dictatorship in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would not have made it past the former regime’s censors.

“I feel glad one of the books I’ve published has won the highest prize in the country,” he said. “But I’m wondering: what’s wrong with ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’?

“They both are good books.”