Life

Translator tells more than
words can say


Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Harry Aveling put both his legs on the table and, in the style of an intense poet, read a passage from Dewi Lestari's Supernova.

Then the 60-year-old Australian put his legs down again and chuckled.

""That's how Sutardji (Calzoum Bachri) would read it,"" he said in fluent Bahasa Indonesia.

Aveling possesses a deep knowledge of Indonesian literature, and it is not only because he is the director of Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne.

He has translated over 50 volumes of Indonesian and Malay literature into English. The Malaysian government awarded him the Anugerah Pengembangan Sastra (Literature Development Award) in 1991 for his contributions to the international recognition of the literature of the two countries.

Among his Indonesian translations are Kill The Radio by Dorothea Rosa Herliany, and the anthology of great Indonesian poems, Secret Needs Worlds: Indonesian Poetry 1965-1998.

""I wanted to bring knowledge from Indonesia to Australia, because Indonesian literature in Australia could hardly be found,"" he said at a press conference.

""We're neighbors. We're supposed to understand each other. I thought literature could bring us closer in heart, soul and emotion. As for money, jangan harap (don't count on it),"" Aveling laughed.

His most recent translations include the critical study Shahnon Ahmad: Islam Power and Gender (published by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) and a cotranslation with Sudha Joshi of Sahajo Bai, The Brightness of Simplicity (Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi).

Aveling is now working on the translation of Supernova, which he believes is the most important novel in this country in the past two or three years.

The best selling novel dwells not only on love and relationships, but the author also peppers it with philosophical ideas about the universe and existence in general. Dewi, writing under the pen-name Dee, also inserts here and there the basic concepts of modern physics (some have said that there are a few mistakes in the theories).

According to Aveling, the book is important because it starts out in the postmodern era in the literature scene.

""During the period from 1945 to the 1990s, there was not much interesting development in Indonesian literature. Every author used the same approach. Novels used to be simple, the plots were linear, the characters were not complicated,"" he said.

Only in the late 1990s did change come, with the appearance of Ayu Utami's Saman in 1998.

""What's more interesting is that most of the new authors are women, Ayu, Dewi and Dorothea to name a few,"" Aveling said.

He found out about Supernova from his students.

""She (Dewi) is very creative. The plot is excellent and unpretentious. It uses modern youth language. The setting is the big city and the characterizations are really urban. It really represents its era, and that's how literature should be,"" he said.

""Some of the veteran authors are sometimes too serious and oppressive. And they like to over-romanticize things by using homeless people as the main character or using village culture as an accessory,"" he said.

""Writers now indeed have more freedom to choose. But still, it has to be based on love. Don't hurt others' feelings.""

Works that truly represent society and the era, like Supernova and Kill The Radio, are important to be brought outside the country through translation.

""Of course, if it's not different from the work of non-Indonesian authors, why bother? Because we want to give something new, something different.""

The difficult thing about translating Supernova, he said, was understanding the physics theories.

""So, I have had to read physics books. I also ask my son who works in the computer field. It's not easy to be a translator, you know,"" he laughed.

Dewi praised Aveling and said he was exceptional in bringing something more to the translated works.

""He translates with creativity. Just look at how he translated Dorothea's book, which was originally titled Sebuah Radio Kumatikan (I turned off a radio) into Kill The Radio. It takes a good writer to do that,"" she said.

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