Physics and English undergraduate and translator Aisha Down (L); Cambodian writer, poet and former Nou Hach literary project editor Tararith Kho (R). Photograph supplied
Writer and poet Tararith Kho, 39, was editor at the Nou Hach literary project from 2003 until 2009, publishing six editions of the organisation’s contemporary fiction journal. In 2012, he and his wife and two children relocated to the US, where Tararith entered the Scholars at Risk program at Harvard University, for writers and intellectuals at risk for expressing – among other things – their political opinion. At Harvard he was paired with 21-year-old translator Aisha Down, a Physics and English undergraduate who had spent seven months in Cambodia as a voluntary English teacher and learned to speak Khmer. The pair is working on translating a collection of Tararith’s poetry, for which they hope to find a publisher.
Aisha Down, 21
I was younger than the normal expat crowd in Cambodia. I was 18, and I guess I just didn’t socialise very well. I spent most of my time with my students in Steung Meanchey and then I lived in this apartment with my Cambodian landlady, far away from other foreigners, and so I just learned the language. When I left Cambodia, I didn’t think I’d have any use for it ever again.
Then I won a writing award – there’s a writing award offered every year to freshman in my college and I was at the reception for it – when I met this woman who ran the Scholars at Risk program. She was talking about her scholars at risk and she told me about this Cambodian poet. I said, “Well great, I could use some language practice!” and she said, “Well, actually, if you can speak the language we can use you for a lot more than that.”
It took a while for the translations to be good. He really challenged me. When you hear a Khmer phrase in English it’ll sound really strange and ungrammatical. Some kinds of translators will try and replicate the ungrammaticality of it; catch the essence of it. Initially, I tried to make his poems like English poetry... it came out just sounding like this jumble, a whole mish-mash at attempts at poetry. It was pretty awful!
One day I was translating one of his poems and the way we read it made me really think and remember the time I’d spent in Cambodia. I translated it by really thinking about where he was when he wrote that poem. And it was then that I think I figured it out.
Working with him has taught me a lot about writing, I’ll tell you. The more I read his writing, the more subtle it seems to me. He addresses problems in Khmer society and he addresses issues about the government, sometimes very directly and sometimes with these beautiful metaphors.
This is a principle that’s really true in his poetry: a poem isn’t a game you play with language. It’s not synthetic: it’s a unified thing and a unity of feeling. To get the kernel of a poem you have to move beneath the language in a way.
Every day I’d go into his office and there’d be a news article waiting for me and he’d be like, ‘This is what’s happening in Cambodia’. It made me angry and it stirred me up – but it also awakened a lot of emotions that I’d kind of shelved.
I would consider him one of the best friends I have, and kind of more than a friend – truly a mentor. He really helped me with my writing, and I guess he feels like family.
Kho Tararith, 39
I came to be in the Writers-at-Risk program because I wrote about contemporary issues in Cambodia, like corruption, deforestation, injustice, poverty, land issues and border issues. What I wrote made some high-ranking people unhappy, and I started receiving anonymous threats. They tried to stop me from writing – I got warnings, again and again.
I was also threatened because of my work with a literary journal, which worked to support young writers, and to promote their writing – even criticise.
I was nominated for the Writers-At-Risk program – first at Brown for the international program, then at Harvard for the Scholars at Risk program.
The first thing I thought about Aisha was that she was helpful. Her English was very good and she knew my country and culture.
Aisha spends so much time trying to understand the concept behind the poem: we go online and check the dictionary, trying to find the correct English word, and sometimes when a Cambodian word and an American word don’t translate, we look up an encyclopaedia... again and again, I try to ask other people and to find the new words and Aisha tries to understand and check the word. She is very good.
Aisha and I are like family – like a brother and sister. I always send the news from Cambodia to her because when I arrived, the news was a connection to my poetry and my fiction.
If a Cambodian writer follows the law and doesn’t criticise, it’s fine, but if you write criticism, it’s not safe. You will [see that occurring] now, like how lawyers in Cambodia must have permission from the lawyers’ body if they want to talk to journalists.
When I was at Brown college, I wrote my poetry and I’d send it to my friends and students, and sometimes they’d post it on websites like KI Media – and there were comments that weren’t so good.
It’s difficult to find success in Cambodia as a writer. I see that some writers have success, but they agree with the government, they never criticise it. I am a writer that may be different to those writers. I want to show to the reader what my country is doing right now because a new generation must be thinking about that. If they agree, that’s okay, but if they don’t, they must speak.