George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant in Yangon?
Image Credit: Morgaine

George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant in Yangon?


A collection of George Orwell’s essays have recently been translated into Burmese for the first time. This follows on from a few years ago, when a new translation of Burmese Days won a translation award in the country.

Not so long ago, Kiwi bar manager Phil Blackwood and two Burmese colleagues were sentenced to jail in Myanmar for “disrespecting Buddha.” Myanmar is a country known for its deep religious sentiment.

Though hardly the same thing, it does make a person stop to think what those same religious authorities, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, or some of the Buddhist hardliners persecuting the Muslim Rohingya, might make of some of George Orwell’s most famous essays. Consider this, from Shooting an Elephant:

“With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”

Taken out of context Orwell’s sentiments may be upsetting to the religious but the author has had a following in Burma for some time. Though Animal Farm and 1984 were disallowed under the junta they were popular, as many apparently saw parallels between the worlds in his books and their real lives. His eponymous adjective – Orwellian – was oft-deployed by correspondents to describe the atmosphere in then-Rangoon’s junta days. Of course, it is not quite the same as photoshopping a picture of Buddha in sunglasses to promote your bar. The anger and confusion Orwell felt in the five years he served there are interesting to younger Burmese eager to learn more about the history of their nation and historical record.

A new translation of Burmese Days won a government-sponsored translation award in 2012. “Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese, too,” the translator, Maung Myint Kywe. told the Irrawaddy.

The book of essays, which doesn’t just include his work on Burma and does not seem to have anything from his excellent Critical Essays (his conclusion that the totalitarianism of the forgotten The Iron Heel “is a truer prophecy of the future than Brave New World” might not stand up as well now as it once did), is by Thurein Win, an artist who was inspired on a trip as a fixer for a New York Times correspondent to Moulmein, where Orwell’s elephant essay is set and which is now called Mawlamyine. The book is a cheap and affordable edition written in more formal Burmese in keeping with Orwell’s 1930s style.

“Not many people here know his essays are awesome,” Thurein told Coconuts Yangon.

What the Burmese are making of Orwell’s essays seems to be generally positive, though with a current print-run of 500 the sample group is not enormous. The site says, “Parts of Orwell’s generalizations about local life were deemed off-putting or offensive. But Thurein said he couldn’t show the entirety of Orwell if he cut out any passages.” That might be the bayonet to the priest’s guts, then.

Thurein hopes next to translate Down and Out in Paris and London, “I think here most of my friends, writers, poets, they find it difficult living here, just like they are down and out writers.”

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), TimeThe Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press

Please read our comments policy.
Note that all comments are moderated and your comment may not appear immediately.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief