Indonesian Literature and the World Stage

Blog / Column


March 2, 2015 — Valent Mustamin


Editor’s Note:The following text is adapted from Anton Kurnia’s original paper in Bahasa Indonesia titled “Sastra Indonesia dan Pentas Dunia“, as translated by Retna Karunia. Delivered at #KamisLiterasi session, as part of IDWriters Literary Day on January 29, 2015 at Goethe-Institut Jakarta.

by Anton Kurnia *

To be honest, our literary work is still a terra incognita in the literary of the world. One of the reason for this is due to the small numbers of our literature that are translated into foreign languages, especially the major world languages such as English, French, and German.

This year, Indonesia is to be the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair grand event. A number of works have been prepared by the government for exhibition, including their translated version, especially in English and German. Shall this improve the representation and penetration of Indonesian literature on the world stage?

In relation with the matter of literary translation, I propose that in the long term we should form a kind of Literature Translation Institute (I’ve written about this in Media Indonesia, November 2003, and in Horizon Literary Magazine, October 2012). The institute is more or less the same as ITBM (Institut Terjemahan dan Bahasa Malaysia — Malaysian Institute of Translation and Language) in our neighboring country.

Literature Translation Institute would be assisting and improving the ability of the translators —especially literary translators— from various languages into Indonesian, complete with all the functions and supporting facilities: the complete reference, extensive network, and established coordination. The institute is also to facilitate the translation of Indonesia’s best literary works to various foreign languages, as well as their publishing and distribution efforts.

The establishment and management of this institution should be a collaboration between the government, various groups of translation practitioners (including HPI, Himpunan Penerjemah Indonesia—Association of Indonesian Translators), academics, publishers, and litterateurs, with the involvement of foreign cultural institutions (including Goethe Institute, the British Council, Erasmus Huis, etc.).

Of course, the literature translation institute is not the sort of instant magic solution to solve the many problems in literary translation, but rather a collective effort undertaken in a coordinated, planned, and continuous manner to gradually resolve a number of issues in the translation of world literature into Indonesian and vise versa.

One of the tasks of this literature translation agency is enabling the granting appropriate recognition to the translators to be able to concentrate on their work. Moreover, in this institute, translators of various languages can meet and discuss their work, while improving communication and mutual understanding in order to produce a good-quality translation work —either from Indonesian to foreign languages and vise versa. Translation work of good quality is needed for the betterment of our literature.

Translating is not an easy work. Translating is a serious effort that requires hard work and entails a profound responsibility, which is an obligation to preserve the significance of the original text, and the necessity that the translation result is clear and readable in the target language, while keeping the text nuance–particularly on literary texts. Thus, the work of a translator is a tremendous effort to achieve a nearly absurd perfection: the significance, readable; its nuance, beautiful; and as faithful as possible to the text created by the author–while also striving to translate as precise as possible.

Concerning the hard work in translating, take the example of the recognition of Natasha Wimmer, accomplished translator from Spanish to English which is mainly known for her translation of novels by Roberto Bolano (1953-2003), such as The Savage Detectives and 2666. Previously, Wimmer had translated novels by Mario Vargas Llosa.

In an interview published in Newsweek’s website, late August 2014, Natasha Wimmer revealed how she grappled with the winding process and the great difficulty in translating The Savage Detectives set in 1970s’ Mexico City. The novel told of young poets who were delirious with love of written words, stole books, and had lengthy discussions on literature at downtown cheap cafes and restaurants.

Wimmer worked hard to achieve the perfect result, endeavored to be faithful to the meaning of the original text, while absorbing the feel of the novel she translated. She deliberately moved to Mexico City to translate the novel (when the fact was she had a comfortable apartment in New York) and rented a place near one of the protagonist’s favorite cafe. She also hung out with the city’s youth to be able to understand the feel of their language and their slang, and discussed with the student fans of the late Bolano. When she had worked on three-quarter of the novel, she decided to redo it from the beginning because she wasn’t satisfied. She felt the lines did not reflect Bolano’s sense of language. She strived to complete the translation of the novel in one and a half year.

“In general, capturing the rhythm in a new language is the hardest thing to do, and it’s also the most important thing to do. You can’t be carried away by a novel unless you are caught up into the sweep of the language,” said Wimmer.

Nobel Prize in Literature and Indonesia

We can not shut ourselves off from the development of world literature if we want to be equal with other nations that dominate the stage of world literature. Here’s something to think about, from the time the Nobel Prize in Literature was first presented —to Sully Prudhomme, a French litterateur— to this day, the only Indonesian who had ever been a strong candidate to received this prestigious literary prize was Pramoedya Ananta Toer, our prominent writer that was imprisoned and exiled on the island of Buru without trial by the New Order regime for years (1965-1979). Once freed, he published brilliant novels that catapulted his name in the stage of world literature.

Of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t everything. There are many prominent and influential writers who have never won the prestigious prize all their lives, such as Jorge Luis Borges, James Joyce, or Franz Kafka. On the contrary, there are also the prize recipients whose name slowly disappeared from the literary world. However, the Nobel Prize is a milestone that —like it or not— are recognized in the map of world literature.

I saw that behind the success of the Nobel Prize for Literature-winning individuals, are a nation’s literary tradition that are rooted and grown since centuries ago. A tradition in its simplest form: the passion for reading, writing, and publishing literary works, and passing on the repository of those works as a legacy that continues to be construed and then manifested in masterpieces. And also the willingness to learn from the major works in the literary treasures of the world.

Take a look at our neighboring Asian nations such as India, Japan, and China. India not only has Rabindranath Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913), but they also produces prominent writers of contemporary literature that are popular in the world, such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.

Japan has two Nobel Prize for Literature recipients: Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (1994). Long before Kawabata and Oe won the Nobel Prize, the prominent works of world literature were translated massively into Japanese since the time of the Meiji Restoration. Shakespeare’s were even translated many times into in various versions. Haruki Murakami, Japan’s current leading novelist who’s often shortlisted as a candidate for the Nobel Literature recipient, has diligently translated the works of Franz Kafka, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and JD Salinger, before producing his own best works. In the past, Japan has given the world, one of the earliest novels in history, Genji Monogatari by Murasaki Shikibu, written in the eleventh century. Also, their forms of traditional poetry, such as haiku, has now become popular in the world.

And now China has also stepped in in the ground of the world literature at the Nobel level through Gao Xingjian, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 who currently living in France, and Mo Yan, the novelist who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012.
These nations have a long history and a strong literary tradition. They have translated foreign works of literary treasures of the world into their language, published them in book form, examined them and drew benefit from them. And in time, they deliver great works of their own, equivalent to the best works of the world.

And what about us? Do we have to have a long history and strong literary tradition?
In the past, we’ve spawned classic works that were no less great compared with other nations’ heritage. Take for example, La Galigo or Serat Centhini. However, to be able to produce great works again, we must be willing to open up. Not being satisfied in our own shell. Our literary audience need to read more major works of the literary world stage, through the work of translation, either through the publication of books and publications in the mass media (short stories, poems, essays, plays). I think the “small things” such as these are very useful for the development of our literature and culture.

We need to read quality works of the world literature for the betterment of our own, comparing those works with our works, and learn from the world authors. Not only from their work, but also of their creative process and the work ethic. For example, how Balzac was willing to work 16 hours a day, or how Kafka divides his life between office work and creative writing without losing his creative wit.

Reflecting on Latin America

In the Latin American literary ground there is a phenomenon called “El Boom”. That explosion of literary works by authors of Latin America in the 1960s until the early 1970s in which they appeared on the world stage to explore new ideas and shook the literary stage in a way that is unprecedented. The prominent characters of this phenomenon are Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014, Colombia, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982), Julio Cortazar (1914-1984, Argentina), Carlos Fuentes (1928-2012, Mexico, recipient of Cervantes Prize in 1987), and Mario Vargas Llosa (born in 1936, Peru, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010) whom “by chance” have the experiences of wandering in Europe.

This literary explosion was, more or less, triggered by political tension in Latin America at that time as the impact of the Cold War between the capitalistic Western block and the communist Eastern block. The victory of the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in 1959 where the revolutionary movement that was supported by the people succeeded in overthrowing the dictator, Batista, has foster new hope for the people of Latin America who were oppressed under the military junta regime. This hope triggered the growth of creative passion among young authors that were open to new ideas.

This was what gave birth to the “El Boom” through the novels with “modern” tone —which were characterized by nonlinear plot, the reversal of time setting, and the switching of point of views— that broke the conventions. Among them, the most phenomenal work is, of course, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967). In short, “El Boom” changed the face of Latin American literature forever and affected the work of the next generation.

As a result of “El Boom”, the works of Latin American authors increasingly attracted the attention of the world, including the work of their predecessors (including the masters, such as of Jorge Luis Borges and Juan Rulfo) and the generation after that, commonly referred to as “Post-Boom”, such as Roberto Bolano (1953-2003, Chile).

In Indonesia, in some aspects and in a smaller scale, the phenomenon of “El Boom” somewhat similar to the emergence of a more “open” literary writing passion, especially by women writers, after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998, with Ayu Utami as pioneer, through her work, Saman. However, its resonance on the world stage is unfortunately not powerful enough.

One of the supporting factors of the success of Latin American writers, both commercially and in the eyes of critics, after the era of “El Boom” that paved the way, is the role of literary agents, such as the legendary “Big Mama” Carmen Balcells. In addition to the works having strong cultural identity contained within, as well as showing superior aesthetic aspirations, there is also the role of an agent that becomes active mediums to penetrate the tight world publishing industry so that the works can be appreciated by a wider audience.

Good translation factor is also very important. In this case, for example, the role of an accomplished translator from Spanish to English, such as Edith Grossman, Natasha Wimmer, as well Clementine and Gregory Rabassa, is very significant in introducing the works of the writers of Latin America to the world stage.

Therefore, if we want to step up our game in the literary world stage, our literary translation into other languages is a must. If more of our literary works are translated into foreign languages, certainly they will have greater opportunity to be more seriously appreciated by a wider audience.

Massive translation effort on a number of selected Indonesian literature in the event of Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 needs to be appreciated. The good news, four Indonesian literature in English translation are included by prominent literary magazine, World Literature Today, to the list of 75 best translation work throughout 2014, namely Anxiety Myths (Afrizal Malna, translation by Andy Fuller), The Rainbow Troops (Andrea Hirata, translation by Angie Killbane), Krakatoa: The Tale of Lampung Submerged (Mohammed Saleh, translation by John H. McGlynn), and Lies, Loss, and Longing (Putu Oka Sukanta, translation by Vern Cork and Leslie Dwyer), along with the translation of the works of the world’s prominent authors, such as Alberto Moravia (Italy), Bohumil Hrabal (Czech), Cesar Aira (Argentina), Danilo Kis (Croatia), Saadat Hasan Manto (Pakistan).

Previously, a number of works of our women writers have entered the world stage, both on a concerted effort from a number of parties as well as their own efforts. Take for example, Saman by Ayu Utami, winner of the Prince Claus Award in 2000, which has been translated into eight languages. Similarly, Tarian Bumi by Oka Rusmini, which has been translated into English, German, and Swedish. Also, the works of Dorothea Rosa Herliani, Lakshmi Pamuntjak, Dewi Lestari, Linda Christanty, Lily Yulianty Farid, and Okky Madasari. However, it is not enough.

We need the long-term commitment and a more systematic and integrated effort to translate our best works into foreign languages. All of that is what will open the window of opportunity for intercultural dialogue without being hindered by differences of nations and languages.

Note: This paper is based on a number of my writings that have been published, namely Penerjemahan, Sebuah Pandangan (Horizon Literary Magazine, October 2012), Penerjemah (Tempo Magazine, November 2014), and Gabo, Sastra Amerika Latin, dan Kita (Bali Post, January 11, 2015).

*) Anton Kurnia, writer and translator of literary works.