Myth and History: Writing from Indonesia

In October of this year, Indonesia will make its appearance as the guest of honor (GOH) at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF)—the first country from Southeast Asia to be so honored. Because Frankfurt is the largest annual book publishing event in the world, it is, possibly, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Indonesia to present to the world its books and authors. Nonetheless, in today’s world, however, where the primary international language of communication is English and, in Europe, where German serves as a bridging language for numerous other languages, the question remains: How can Indonesia adequately present its literature without a sufficient number of translations into English, German, and other major foreign languages? The answer to that is difficult at best.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest country in the world and Malay, Indonesia’s mother language, is one of the world’s top-ten spoken languages with a conservative estimate of at least 200 million speakers. (Some estimates are as high as 500 million.) But how many book-length literary titles are translated from Indonesian into foreign languages each year? Usually no more than ten. And how many Indonesian authors could even the most erudite literary critic in the United States cite by name? I would wager to say one, at most.

This is a deplorable situation, to say the least. In these times, as the world continues to shrink through the expansion of trade agreements and the proliferation of social media, translation—especially literary translation—has an ever more important role to play in the maintenance, development, and promotion of a country’s cultural values. In the global scheme of things, however, what is happening? Indonesia is being left behind. Indonesia, home to sailors who once pioneered routes across the Asian and Pacific oceans, leaving traces of their presence in places from Hawaii to Madagascar, is becoming, not an international advocate of homegrown ideas and ideologies but a passive receptacle of alien premises and promises which, however beneficial some might be, others must and should be countered by alternative views.

A reversal of the above trend is possible but will not come about without a sea change not only in the attitude of Indonesian decision-makers who fail to recognize that literature, in the broadest sense of the word, is the key determinant in assessing the value of a nation’s contribution to global culture but also in the behavior of book-industry personnel abroad who underestimate the value of translation as a means of strengthening intercultural relations and English-language educational systems that have increasingly demoted the study of foreign languages.

This issue of Words Without Borders represents one tiny step toward correcting the situation.

As a translator of Indonesian for more than three decades and as co-founder of the Lontar Foundation, the only organization in the world devoted to the introduction of Indonesia abroad through literary translations, when three years ago Indonesia was chosen as guest of honor country for the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair and Indonesia’s Ministry of Education and Culture’s announced its initial goal of providing financial subsidies for the translation and publication of 200-plus books in German, I argued strongly that such a goal would be impossible to achieve. The goal was then changed to 200-plus books in German and English. But that, too, I argued, would also be difficult to achieve. The simple fact is there are very few professional literary translators of Indonesian in any other language. Further, having spent more than twenty-five years trying to pitch Indonesian literature abroad, I was quite certain that few foreign publishers would be interested in publishing translations of Indonesian literature, and certainly not without access to government-funded translation subsidies. (To its credit, the Indonesian government did establish a translation funding program, but not until 2014.)

The nine authors whose work appears herein were selected from a larger list of twenty-five authors whose work Lontar’s editorial board chose to translate and publish under a new imprint titled “BTW Books” (as in “By the way, have you heard about this author?”), one that we established specifically to make certain that Indonesia would have enough high-quality writers available to participate in this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Just as was true of the “long list” of twenty-five authors, this issue of WWB, with nine authors, represents a healthy range of literary genres and writing styles, including  a fragment of a novel by the very popular Abidah El Khaliequ; a mini-essay by literary critic Hasif Amini; poems by Acep Zamzam Noor and Taufik Ikram Jamil, two of Indonesia’s most respected poets; and short stories by four prizewinning authors: Linda Christanty, M. Iksaka Banu, Mona Sylviana, and Zen Hae.

Much in the way that other countries with established translation promotion centers publish catalogs of new and interesting works by writers that might not be known to the general foreign reading audience, the BTW imprint is intended to introduce to the world Indonesian authors whose work is hardly known outside this country’s borders but has been deemed by Lontar’s editors to be worthy of international attention. This selection suggests the range and variety of Indonesian writing, and serves as a glimpse of the work of Indonesian authors who will make their debut on the world stage at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.