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The importance of literary translation for global recognition

Dylan Amirio
Dylan Amirio

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, September 11, 2017 | 10:39 am
The importance of literary translation for global recognition

Before the establishment of the Lontar Foundation, there was virtually no place in the world where one could find translated versions of Indonesian literature. (Lontar Foundation/File)

Since 1987, the Lontar Foundation has been one of the most active independent institutions in translating Indonesian works into English, quietly developing and making local literature accessible abroad as a result.

Before the establishment of the Lontar Foundation, there was virtually no place in the world where one could find translated versions of Indonesian literature, and the foundation itself has remained the only organization since 2009 that focuses on promoting translated Indonesian literature abroad.

But while the foundation itself had a productive few decades behind it, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, Lontar has also fallen victim to the indifference of Indonesians toward the importance of translating those works into English.

Lontar Foundation co-founder John McGlynn once mentioned that even after three decades and the support of many notable Indonesian authors, it remains hard for the arts in general to get sponsored by the government or private investors due to the fact that it has to compete with more lucrative fields that can guarantee higher returns on investment, such as sports.

“The fact is that sales of our books only account for one third of our income. The rest of it comes from contributions from friends and projects that we get asked to do. For example, if someone comes up to us with a book that’s very interesting and is willing to pay us a lot of money, we’ll do that,” McGlynn explained.

Writer and senior journalist Leila S. Chudori, who has had some of her work published by Lontar, recalled that she had known of the foundation’s work since her days as a field journalist.

Her involvement in the foundation began when McGlynn asked her to collaborate as a contributing editor for Lontar’s Menagerie book series, which involved editing poetry and short stories included in the series.

In her eyes, the most obvious hurdle in getting a foundation like Lontar to achieve international success is funding. Currently, the foundation relies mainly on donations or sponsors, thereby making involvement in the foundation mainly a “labor of love.”

“This needs to be handled with the utmost patience, because not everyone who has money really understands the importance of translating Indonesian literature into English. I would also think that John is having trouble in terms of getting new recruits, because many young people may not be interested in this kind of work because of the low financial rewards,” Leila said.

She adds that the success of Indonesian literature abroad is also met with the fact that Indonesian is not really an internationally known language, therefore it is hard to find recognition for Indonesian works abroad.

Getting immersed: A woman works in the library of the Lontar Foundation in Pejompongan, Central Jakarta.Getting immersed: A woman works in the library of the Lontar Foundation in Pejompongan, Central Jakarta. (JP/I Gede Dharma JS)

“Translation is not merely changing words into other languages. It is also cultural. There are some [cultural contexts] that need to be explained. The word ‘dik’ in Indonesian, for example, can be a term for one’s little sibling, but it can also be used to address lovers. It couldn’t just be translated simply into English into ‘sis,’” Leila said.

Read also: All the things we've lost in translation

Lontar had previously stated that it can cost Rp 50 million (US$3,757) to Rp 100 million to translate one title and its subsequent processes, thus making the selection of books for translation a very strict and picky process.

McGlynn added that there would have to be great confidence in an Indonesian title to translate it into English, because the books that have been chosen for translation have to be considered to be within Indonesia’s literary canon. It is also the reason why works by young authors are rarely taken up by Lontar.

On the difficulty of translation, French columnist and translator Jean Couteau said that when translating a book into another language, the most essential part is to translate its cultural context as well so that none of the message conveyed is lost.

This is his usual experience whenever trying to translate French works into Indonesian. Having lived in Indonesia for decades, he admits that while he understands Indonesian very well, he will never truly comprehend it.

“It’s harder to translate a book that has a lot of unconventional slang, and more so for a book that aims to use language as a way to distinguish a character’s standing from others,” he said at a July event at the Institut Francais Indonesia, where he was discussing his most recent translation work, L’Elegance du herisson by Muriel Barbery, which was translated into Kemolekan Landak in Indonesian.

The lack of awareness about the importance of translating Indonesian works into English may also have stemmed from the indifference shown by many toward literary development in the country.

Because Lontar’s translators are primarily native language speakers and edited by professional publishers, the foundation feels that they have a sort of upper hand in terms of quality and the use of experts would guarantee that quality. But the problem is that the primary translators are typically unable to focus completely on translation as a result of many of them having other obligations.

Leila elaborates that there is a lack of literary critics in Indonesia that can really write and analyze literature only for the sake of preserving Indonesian literature.

“A problem in the literary landscape here is that many of its enablers work in groups, and therefore assessment is usually done collectively. Indonesia has many independent authors and enablers but the lack of those ideal types of critics is also reflected by the fact that many have other business to tend to, such as academics or domestic issues,” she said. 

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