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Indonesians struggle to promote books abroad

Devina Heriyanto
Devina Heriyanto

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Tue, September 4, 2018  /  02:39 pm
Indonesians struggle to promote books abroad

A staff member at Indonesia's National Stand organizes books for the 2016 Frankfurt Book Fair. (JP/Stevie Emilia)

In August, the National Book Committee (KBN) announced the recipients of its LitRI translation grants. This year, 70 titles were chosen from 131 applicants, comprising translated works in six languages by publishers in more than 10 countries.

If the number seems underwhelming, consider this fact: there was no government-sponsored translation program until several years ago, to be exact, until the KBN itself came into being in 2015. That year, Indonesia was selected as the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair and the KBN was established to organize the country’s preparation and activities during the event. To seize the moment, post the book fair, the KBN formally became a permanent institution under the Education and Culture Ministry.

“Before 2007, the Indonesian Publishers Association [IKAPI] had tried to join the Frankfurt Book Fair independently several times, but failed due to a lack of funding. Only in 2009 did the Education and Culture Ministry begin to help. Now that the KBN exists, Indonesia has consistently promoted curated books and writers abroad,” said Laura Prinsloo, the chairperson of KBN.

“LitRI translation grants encourage foreign publishers to print Indonesian works in their countries,” added Prinsloo.

Aside from the funding, finding the right translator was also tricky, according to the senior editor at Indonesia’s biggest publishing house Gramedia, Mirna Yulistianti. “Literature works especially need translators who command both the English and Indonesian language skilfully. Not only grammatically, but they also must be able to translate the feeling and emotions well,” said Mirna.

Obviously, title selection matters. For instance, literature works should be able to reflect Indonesia in terms of its culture, society and politics, argued Mirna. “It doesn’t always have to be about the 1965 tragedy; other themes such as women and oppression or poetry have also begun to attract foreign publishers,” she added.

Then there is also the task of promoting the translated works abroad, which is mostly done by the writers or local publishers. The KBN can only help promote Indonesian books at four exhibitions that it participates in, which are the Beijing International Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, London Book Fair and Bologna Children’s Book Fair -- the latter being the biggest children’s book fair in the world.

“There is a huge interest in Indonesian books in the Middle East. Unfortunately, we still cannot reach the area,” said Prinsloo.

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Take Okky Madasari’s story for example. Last year, her novel Pasung Jiwa (Bound) received the 2017 LitRI grant for its Arabic translation and was published in August in Egypt and some Middle Eastern countries. However, Okky admitted that the government was not involved in promoting the translated book.

“If not myself, then it is my publishers who do the distribution and promotion,” said Okky.

Senior journalist and writer Leila Chudori had the same experience. Her novel Pulang has been translated into English as Home by John McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation, which also holds the distribution rights for the translated work in Southeast Asia. Home was acquired by Deep Vellum, a United States independent publisher that holds the distribution rights in the US and Canada.

“In 2016, the Lontar Foundation worked with Deep Vellum and various US campuses and art centers to invite me to do a book tour in eight cities in the US,” said Leila. “Home has received government aid for the translation, not for promotion.

Indonesian writers also need to learn how complicated it is to enter the wider web of the international book industry,” she said, adding that many people, even journalists, do not understand the process of translating books, the ownership of translation rights and the inner workings of the publishing industry in general.

This is also something that the KBN is working on. Through its workshops, the committee is trying to educate writers and agents on the sale of translation rights, book to movie adaptations, the global trend in the publishing industry and the manuscript writing process itself. The next event, the Litbeat Festival, will be held on Sept. 10 and 11 at the National Gallery.

The biggest obstacle, according to Prinsloo, was the lack of rights agents in Indonesia. “You not only need to have the knowledge and the ability to sell the books, but you also need connections with foreign publishers. Some Indonesian writers do use the service of foreign rights agents,” she said.

Government aid is needed to further promote Indonesian literature, starting with the KBN’s existing programs and hopefully more.

“Promoting books should be part of the diplomatic work of our embassies worldwide,” said Okky. “Books can influence people and, like other creative works, can be seen as part of our effort to foster our soft power as a nation, hence strengthening our international clout.” (kes)

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