Meet the woman behind the first Burmese translation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’

The front and back covers for the Myanmar translation of We Should All Be Feminists. Photo: Mote Oo Education
The front and back covers for the Myanmar translation of We Should All Be Feminists. Photo: Mote Oo Education

For the first time since its publication in 2014, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists will be translated into Myanmar language.

Adapted from Adichie’s 2012 TedX talk of the same name, We Should All Be Feminists is a book-length essay. Through personal anecdotes and societal analyses, Adichie explores what the word “feminism” means, and asserts that the word “feminist” is not a negative term and that in fact, it should be embraced by all. The book garnered positive reviews from critics and scholars worldwide, and spent months on the New York Times bestseller list.

In 2015, Sweden announced that a copy of We Should All Be Feminists would be distributed to every 16-year-old high school student in the country. In it, Adichie writes, “My own definition of a feminist is a man or a woman who says, ‘Yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better.”

For the woman behind the Myanmar translation, Nandar Gyawalli, the book, which serves as her translational debut, holds a great deal of personal significance. “I remember sitting on the floor and reading the book [for the first time], and I could relate to most of the things the author described. For a moment, it felt like I was reading about myself or something I have longed to express,” Nandar told Coconuts.

Growing up in Myanmar, Nandar encountered a number of people who didn’t believe that gender issues even existed in the country, and consequentially, that feminism was a topic worth discussing. Frustrated, Nandar took the initiative and began translating Adichie’s book last December while she was still a student.

“It is quite frustrating when people, especially people you love and care about, don’t see these problems as problems,” she explained. “I was determined to translate it into Burmese language because I personally believe that this book will help many people to become aware of different forms of gender discrimination and think differently.”

The translation took around four months to complete, and afterward, Nandar was stuck with the problem of getting it published — an area in which she had little expertise. Through a post in the “Yangon Feminists Bookclub” Facebook group, Nandar connected with May Htut Pan Moe, the publications manager at Mote Oo Education. May read a copy of the translation for the first time during her Thingyan holiday and decided it was worth publishing.

Nandar’s translation of We Should All Be Feminists is clear and accessible — a conscious decision on the translator’s part. “The author wrote the book in a very personal and simple way, so I tried to make the translation as simple as I could. I want everyone who can read Burmese to read the book,” Nandar explained.

Despite the simplicity of Adichie’s language, there were still certain words and terms that proved tricky to translate. Nandar pointed out that translating the historical context and “jargon” of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was particularly difficult.

The translation of the word “feminist” — which is obviously central to the book’s message — also prompted debate. In her essay, Adichie writes, “Some people ask: ‘Why the word feminist? Why not just say you are a believer in human rights, or something like that?’ Because that would be dishonest.” Keeping the author’s message in mind, Nandar contemplated how exactly to translate such a key and loaded term.

“Before I decided to use the words “feminist” [and “feminism”], I talked with different authors and poets about the word,” Nandar said. Unable to locate a Myanmar language term that was the perfect equivalent of the word “feminist” and unhappy with making a literal translation of the term, Nandar finally made the decision to simply spell out the word in Burmese.

As for her next project, Nandar hopes to translate another Adichie work that she believes is “another important book that should be introduced in Burma.” She said: “If I get the chance, I would really love to translate Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions.”

The official book launch of the Myanmar-language edition of We Should All Be Feminists will take place this Friday (August 18) at Myanm/Art Gallery from 6-9pm. Nandar will also moderate a panel discussion between Peter Chan Min Sang, a philosophy teacher at the Pre-Collegiate Program of Yangon; Htar Htar, the founder and director of Akhaya Women; and Dr. Thet Su Htwe, the founder of Strong Flowers Sexuality Education Services.

Copies of the translation will be available for purchase at the event.

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