Translation is key to Indonesian literature going global
Endy M. Bayuni
The Jakarta Post
Indonesian writers have had a grand and stylish coming-out party here at the Frankfurt Book Fair this week, as Indonesia is featuring as guest of honor at the world's biggest and oldest book festival. The global publishing industry is giving Indonesia a warm welcome as it becomes privy to the richness and diversity of Indonesian literature and culture.
Many writers who have hitherto been known only to Indonesian readers are now set to go global as their works have suddenly become available in many foreign languages.
'Translation is everything,' remarked John McGlynn, the chairman of the Jakarta-based Lontar Foundation, a small outfit that has painstakingly struggled to introduce Indonesia to the world by translating works by Indonesian writers.
The Indonesian National Committee for the Frankfurt Book Fair had originally planned to translate as many as 300 books for this once-in-a-lifetime event; you get invited as guest of honor once only. The Committee did not meet the target, but there were enough books eventually to present at the Indonesian Pavilion.
Three books being promoted had already received wide acclaim before Frankfurt, thanks to their translations. They are Leila Chudori's Pulang (Home), Laksmi Pamuntjak's Amba (The Question of Red), and Eka Kurniawan's Cantik itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound). Another book making the circle is Andrea Hirata's Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Troops), which has been translated into 20 languages. These four and many other writers are in big demand during the four-day fair.
If translation has been the answer all along for Indonesian writers to go international, then why didn't anybody think of it before?
McGlynn did, but it was almost like a one-man fight against the odds. And he did it out of his love and passion for Indonesia and its literature.
McGlynn has been translating Indonesian works for 35 years, including the last 28 years under Lontar, which he founded with help from several Indonesian writers. Lontar has now translated over 200 titles, mostly into English. With Frankfurt, it has started to do German translations.
It is difficult to imagine Indonesia being made guest of honor at Frankfurt had it not been for Lontar's work, which gave the organizers a sample of Indonesian literature.
Although he must now feel that his work and dedication has been vindicated, McGlynn is keeping a low profile in Frankfurt. He is seen in the background making sure that writers come prepared and appear at book discussions at their appointed times.
'This is the culmination of Lontar's work,' McGlynn told The Jakarta Post when he had time for a break. 'I don't mean it in the sense that this is the end of our work. But this is something that we at Lontar have been working on.'
McGlynn is not all that optimistic about the future, despite the government saying it plans to launch a translation fund to seize on the momentum of Frankfurt.
They should give the management of the fund to a private agency, he said.
Goenawan Mohamad, chair of the National Committee, endorsed the idea of a non-government translation agency. 'This is not the government's money. It's the public's money,' Tempo's senior editor said.
McGlynn's doubts about the way bureaucracy works is not unfounded: He had a bitter experience working with the government in preparing the translations for Frankfurt.
The works were delayed as the government haggled about the fees to pay foreign translators, which were four times higher than the local rate. After several meetings, the government approved the high European rates, and Lontar signed contracts with translators for 30 books. Then the government went back on its word and refused to pay.
Lontar, which already pays the European rates for its translators, ended up having to pay to make up the huge difference.
'The government needs to step back,' McGlynn said pointedly, somewhat contradicting the complaints that the government does not pay enough attention to the literary world.
On the bright side, however, Lontar now has a larger pool of German translators in addition to the existing English translators.
Admittedly, part of the burden of translating Indonesian books should be carried by foreign publishers. This will be the job of Indonesian publishing houses, to market and promote Indonesian writers. Most large publishing houses in the past came to Frankfurt to buy the rights to foreign books. Now in Frankfurt they must do some selling too.
Indonesian Ambassador to Germany, Fauzi Bowo, has spent most of his time in Frankfurt this past week giving his support. He is already thinking about seizing the moment by planning a roadshow of Indonesian writers and their books.
But to increase the sales of Indonesian book overseas, there is no alternative other than to translate even more titles into foreign languages. For this Indonesia must be prepared to fork out more money and pay the international rates for translators.
'If we can pay translators the appropriate rates, we can get a lot more books translated,' he said.
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