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John McGlynn: The uphill climb for Indonesian literature

Dylan Amirio
Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, September 11, 2017 | 10:44 am
John McGlynn: The uphill climb for Indonesian literature

Lontar Foundation’s co-founder John H. McGlynn, an American who has been in Indonesia for the past 40 years and shares a passion for Indonesian arts as a whole. (JP/I Gede Dharma JS)

"Books are the essential element of the creative sector. From books come things like apps, films and games.”

This was the sentiment shared by Lontar Foundation’s co-founder John H. McGlynn, an American who has been in Indonesia for the past 40 years and shares a passion for Indonesian arts as a whole. 

The Lontar Foundation was founded in 1987 by McGlynn, who initially came to Indonesia to study shadow puppetry in 1977, as well as prominent Indonesian authors such as Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono and Umar Kayam. Initially, the foundation was established as a way to translate Indonesian literature for overseas markets. 

But after seeing the lackluster commercial response, the foundation that has mainly focused on being a publisher and translator of Indonesian writings now applies a tighter selection process to pick the literary works it translates.

Despite Lontar celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the foundation still faces the typical problems that art foundations tend to struggle with, such as a lack of funding and government support. 

Read also: The importance of literary translation for global recognition

As McGlynn describes, it is still a “slow, uphill climb,” even after three decades and support from many notable Indonesian authors. It is hard for the arts to get sponsored by the government, private corporations or even wealthy investors because it has to compete with more lucrative fields such as sports, which also benefit individual bureaucrats more than the small returns the arts can offer them. 

“Corporations, also, they tend to prefer sponsoring sports rather than the arts because I think they’re able to get tax benefits for giving to sports, but not to the arts,” said McGlynn in a recent interview. 

Only during globally significant events, such as the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, where Indonesia was the guest of honor, did the government see a slight potential in heightening the Indonesian name. It seemed that Lontar’s hard work, which also saw them handle the Indonesian festivities, might be funded by the supposedly arts-friendly Joko “Jokowi” Widodo presidency. 

“In the lead up to the Frankfurt Book Fair, the government showed interest but after that, they just went quiet,” McGlynn disappointingly recalled. 

He said the role of government support in promoting and helping to fund translation programs was incredibly vital because it showed a national commitment to developing the arts, and also empowered artists to keep doing what they do. 

However, other than globally showcasing Indonesian literature at its most significant level in recent years, the country’s participation in international events such the Frankfurt Book Fair could also help boost tourism in Indonesia.  

Governmental bureaucracy has been the most troublesome obstacle for Lontar and can hinder the national development of Indonesian literature. It doesn’t help if the Ministry of Education is subjected to constant reshuffling, which eliminates the possibility of a long-term translation-funding program because of shifting priorities each time. 

The Creative Economy Agency, said John, was a good start toward proper government support, but even they were weighed down by the disappointing bureaucratic culture and the lack of focus. 

When compared to other countries such as South Korea, Turkey, or even Malaysia, which all have government-funded literary translation programs, Indonesia falls far behind. Besides having rather minimal social importance when it comes to literature, the country also lacks proper experts to do translation work within the government itself. 

This is in contrast to developed countries such as the Netherlands, for example, which is able to publish around 100 to 200 Dutch books in other languages annually. 

“You need the right translation experts to carry it out. Lontar could have been doing it for them[…] if they gave us a budget! Huge countries around the world have their own translation funding programs, but they give the money to organizations that can carry it out. That’s one of the reasons why a country’s literature becomes known globally,” he said. 

With one of the lowest reading interest rates and books per capita rates in the world, there is a fear that Indonesian literature is in a very dire situation. Public schools also do not tend to push the study of literature as much as they should. 

However, McGlynn feels there has been a slight resurgence in public reading interest in the past year. In the literary sense, McGlynn believes strongly in the idea that an author must be in tune with their roots and become aware of their nation’s social landscape. Even if a budding Indonesian author were to write primarily in English, it would make their works technically not Indonesian literature.

“If there are writers that can write well in both languages, then good. But it’s very rarely possible. I’ve been here for 40 years and although my Indonesian is good, I could never write something of emotional depth in Bahasa Indonesia. I understand everything I read, but I cannot immediately draw from it,” he said. 

One exception to this rule, however, is the literature written by Indonesian figures during the Dutch era, with R. A Kartini an example of a local figure who wrote primarily in Dutch, but had the quintessentially Indonesian experiences that needed to be told.

“That is also a reason why a lot of stuff that Indonesians write in English tends to be flat,” McGlynn added. 

He acknowledged the presence of some Indonesian authors who wrote in English that produced very good works too, but the Lontar co-founder also observed a worrying trend and tendency for young Indonesians to write in English simply because they wanted to go international. 

McGlynn said based on his experience, foreign publishers tended to be more interested in a foreign author’s roots, rather than their inward looking concepts. 

“For Indonesian authors, the added value is that they are Indonesian. If you want to compete in English speaking markets, one should know that less than 3 percent of books sold are translated books. Commercially if you’re writing in English, you’ll be up against the other 97 percent,” he said.  

“Publishers aren’t looking for you, they’re looking for Indonesia.”

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