Frankfurt on the Horizon

The Lontar Foundation traveled to Hobart, Melbourne and Perth to promote Indonesian literature translated into English. The trip was a warm-up for the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which Indonesia will be featured.


THE city of Hobart at the foot of Mount Wellington was introduced to Indonesian literature. Lontar Foundation director and translator John McGlynn traveled to this city, on the island of Tasmania off Australia’s southern coast, 25 books of Indonesian literature that had been translated into English in tow. He presented them during his talk, “Why Translation Matters.” “Translation has always been an important communication tool for spreading ideas,” McGlynn said in July, speaking to hundreds of participants at the Indonesia Council Open Conference (ICOC), a biannual event held and attended by Australian academics researching Indonesia. McGlynn, who has lived in Indonesia since the 1970s, established Lontar with Umar Kayam, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Goenawan Mohamad and Subagio Sastrowardoyo 25 years ago as a nonprofi t organization to translate Indonesian literature into English. Since it began, Lontar has published dozens of novels, poetry collections, short story anthologies, play scripts and a literary journal series titled Menagerie. Without translation, Mc-Glynn said, understanding another country’s literature would be impossible. He spoke before hundreds of Indonesia scholars, including well-known Indonesianists David T.Hill, Pamela Allen, Barbara Hatley, Greg Fealy, Adrian Vickers and somewhat younger ones like Stephen Miller, as well as dozens of PhD candidates doing research on Indonesia.

One of Lontar’s goals is to bring this book collection, called the Modern Indonesian Library, to three cities in Australia. “This is still the fi rst group of Indonesian literary works translated into English. Later these will be followed by further works, up to more than 100 books,” McGlynn said. This promotional tour of literary books, which began in Hobart, is aimed at raising awareness of Indonesian literature translated into English. It is a kind of warm up to the “Road to Frankfurt Book Fair 2015,” in which Indonesia will be the guest of honor. For this program, Allen, a lecturer and researcher in Indonesian studies at the University of Tasmania, coordinated the fi nancial support and facilities from the Australia-    Indonesia Institute, the University of Tasmania and Murdoch University. “As an academic in literature as well as a translator, I regard literature as stating truth as does history and science,” Allen said in her presentation “For that reason, translation is a vital process so literary works can penetrate national boundaries.” Meanwhile, the 25 books brought to Australia and packaged as one series consist of the classic novels Sitti Nurbaya by Marah Roesli translated by George Fowler; Belenggu by Armijn Pane translated by McGlynn as Shackles; Senja di Jakarta by Mochtar Lubis translated by Claire Holt and McGlynn as Twilight in Jakarta; Para Priyayi by Umar Kayam translated by Vladislav Zhukov as Javanese Gentry; and a series of fi ction and poetry anthologies by younger writers such as Dorothea Rosa Herliani and Lily Yulianti Farid. “The 25 books which have already been published does not mean that they are more important than the works to come which are being and will be translated,” McGlynn said in response to a question from Vedi Hadiz, a lecturer and researcher at Murdoch University, who asked why Chairul Anwar was not on the list. McGlynn acknowledged that names like Anwar, Rivai Apin and younger writers like Joko Pinurbo were on the list, “but they are all still in process. There are problems of permission, technical problems, lack of funds and lack of translators, so that the 25 books which we have brought now are those which are completed.” Also the works of internationally known writers such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer have already been published by big international publishers, so including them in the Modern Indonesian Library collection requires a long process of permission for cooperation.

“In the meantime, we had to take this tour because the Frankfurt Book Fair program will be held in a year and a half,” Mc-Glynn said. When asked about the greatest challenge for a publisher of translated books, McGlynn talked about gaining permission for work by someone who has passed away. Indonesian law requires permission from all heirs. “If there are eight heirs, then permission must be granted by all of them,” he said. There was a long list of literature that Lontar hoped to see translated, McGlynn said, but because doing so was costly—translators must be paid, publishing costs taken care of—the Modern Indonesian Library was being introduced in stages. “Right now we do not have the funds to recruit translators with the professional standard of payment, so Lontar Foundation is deeply indebted to translators who work just because they have fallen in love with a certain piece of literature,” he said.

McGlynn said he hoped that with the motivation of the Frankfurt Book Fair that translation of literature into English would be done professionally and not just as a labor of love. Besides being translated into English, Indonesian literature needed to be translated into German for an event as important as the Frankfurt Book Fair. “Besides our having to search for donors, the Indonesian government should already be active starting now to prepare the books that will be brought there,” McGlynn said, referring to countries like China, which was guest of honor at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair and whose government supported the preparations for three years prior to the event. While waiting for Indonesia’s Education and Culture Department to act, the Lontar team, working with various Australian universities and institutions, wants to take preliminary steps.

“Literary translation is not only the main key to revealing the wealth of Indonesian literature, but also to relating the history and political reality of the country,” said Allen, who translated Ayu Utami’s novel Saman, published by Equinox. What the Indonesian government might not realize is that translating literature requires time, money and energy. If the government is serious about the book fair, the work should be underway by now. The translation of a piece of literature requires a good translator, someone who can do more than simply exchange one word for another. The challenge of translating Indonesian into English is that it is also a job of “translating culture,” said Harry Aveling, lecturer and researcher in Culture and Linguistics at Monash University, Melbourne. Aveling is known as one of the fi rst generation of translators of Indonesian and Malaysian literature. “Indonesian, for example, does not diff erentiate gender for the second person singular; there are no past or future tense forms. But the complexity of Indonesian language is found in the prefi xes, suffi xes and various unique terms,” said Aveling, who has translated into English about 50 Indonesian literary works, from Rendra and Iwan Simatupang to Dorothea Rosa Herliany. Aveling’s comments were in line with Allen’s. For Allen, translating’s greatest challenge was how to make a text with a ‘domestic’ feel carry over into another language.

Indonesian texts with elements tied to its own sociocultural tradition, perhaps with words such as becak (pedicab), saweran (to give money), kiai (Muslim scholar) or abangan (nominally Muslim), might nottranslate so easily into something foreign readers, especially those who have never been to or do not know about Indonesia, can understand. That could be seen at The Tasmanian Writers’ Center, an arts center in Hobart located not far from the Derwent River, in the audience’s response to a reading of The Kitchen, a short story by Lily Yulianti Farid. The piece is part of Lily’s anthology Family Room, translated by Mc-Glynn, which tells about a family using the kitchen and food as part of the expression of family, social and political problems. Before reading her story, Lily briefl y explained the plot and context of what she was about to read. The character Kalyla is the protagonist and narrator. The story is a humorous tale of how her mother and Ruth, her sitter, were the two women who became her role models. The kitchen is not just the place where they process food, but also where they process feelings and emotions.

“You’re becoming an expert at making rubber bread,” Mother commented, describing in simple terms Ruth’s reaction to her sadness and anger. Lily read it in the nagging tone of a mother. The audience who fi lled the small space chuckled. The story is poignant as well as funny. As literary critic Melani Budianta Wrote in the foreword to Lily’s anthology, “this is a sad page in Indonesian history in the l ate 1990s when the people of Ambon were involved in confl ict.” “The bread and doughnut that Ruth produced in the kitchen while watching the horrible scenes of destruction in Ambon became the most pliable dough she had ever produced…” The audience in Hobart was silent, listening tensely to the sentences that followed.

Now Lily was telling about matters beyond the kitchen. She was talking about a single mother who must confront the culture of corruption and the culture of nasty gossip because of the breakdown of her marriage, and moreover the confl icts raging in eastern Indonesia. This is always a focus for Lily who is the initiator of the Makassar International Writers Festival. When the reading ended, there was thunderous applause. Chris Gallagher, director of the Tasmanian Writers’ Center, said he was impressed. “Even though I don’t know anything about Indonesia, I could catch how universal this story is,” he told Tempo, adding that the stories he heard that night made him want to explore more of Indonesian literature. “This is what I mean that Indonesian literary translations will succeed in presenting information, even if for foreign readers it is at an introductory level about Indonesian social and political conditions,” Allen said. For her, without translation, the richness and beauty of the work will be confi ned, unable to be appreciated by a wider audience.


WHILE Hobart is located on the island of Tasmania geographically far from and not too familiar with Indonesia, cities such as Melbourne, (and also Sydney and Canberra) as well as Perth are places where Indonesians and Indonesianists regularly gather. McGlynn faced questions that delved even deeper when he gave his presentation at Murdoch University in Perth. For example, Helene Jaccomard, a lecturer in French from the University of Western Australia, asked whether in selecting works that are translated more emphasis was placed on the Indonesian-ness of the story’s background rather than on literary quality. McGlynn said literary quality was the fi rst thing a translator considers. “It has to be a good story,” he said. After taking esthetics into account, Aveling said, a foreign publisher searches for something unique in the text. “If the genre is like the work of Iwan Simatupang, which I have translated, it turns out it is diffi cult to fi nd a foreign publisher because they feel there are already many novels of  that genre in western countries,” he said.

That is why local fl avor in a text is important to attract foreign publishers. Lontar maintains literary quality as the main selection criteria and other factors, such as political or sociocultural themes are seen as supporting. McGlynn also gave the challenges of compiling the Modern Indonesian Library, which he sees as characteristics of the publishing industry: “Publishers everywhere, including in Indonesia, are more open to forms of fi ction, particularly the novel. They are not too enthusiastic about distributing collections of poetry. Those of famous poets don’t sell well, let alone poetry by poets of no one has ever heard.” But McGlynn and the team of curators for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 will still prepare a list of literary works without heeding the commercial aspect. What is important, as John McGlynn explained, “We just have to take steps now. The translations have to get underway. If we do it at the last minute, the works will be carelessly translated and that is not fair to the Indonesian writers.”