Learning from Indonesian and Malaysia’s world literary outreach efforts

As Seen On


Written by Benjamin, and was originally published in Thammasat University Libraries,
Mar 12, 2015

This year, the prestigious Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany will be held from October 14 to 18. The guest of honor will be Indonesia.

To prepare for this vast responsibility, a meeting of writers was held, as reported on March 9 in The Jakarta Post. Many Indonesian writers feel that their government should establish a translation center to support the translation of Indonesian books into foreign languages, and also encourage more translation into Indonesian of foreign books. As book lovers in Thailand have noted, such translation projects are costly and labor intensive and rarely happen on their own, without such encouragement and funding. Because Indonesia must be prepared for the high-profile international showcase of the Frankfurt Book Fair in a few months, translations are already underway that will be presented in printed form on this occasion. Major literary works from the history of Indonesia will be available in English and German, since many visitors to the Fair read English more easily than they can read German. Thousands of journalists from all over the world attend the Fair as well as many leading international publishers. When a country is guest of honor, it is featured in official events and presentations and gets the majority of press coverage. One Indonesian writer and translator, Anton Kurnia, suggested that his country’s government should open an institution like Malaysia’s Translation and Book Institute (ITBM):

We need quality translation works to develop our literary industry. The government should intervene for our cultural sovereignty.

The Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books

The Institut Terjemahan & Buku Malaysia (ITBM, The Malaysian Institute of Translation & Books) is based in Kuala Lumpur. Formerly known as the Malaysian National Institute of Translation, it was founded in 1993 to provide infrastructure for Malaysia’s translation industry. It is owned by the country’s Ministry of Finance and managed by its Ministry of Education. The ITBM was intended to improve the country’s translation industry in all its aspects on a national and international level. It is also meant to promote local writers and help the national publishing industry.

Indonesia’s Inspiration

As they prepare for their visible role in the Frankfurt Book Fair, Indonesian authors see the value of such a center to assist in communications. What is presently a scattershot effort based on chance can work in a more systematic way with good organization. The ITBM recognizes the need for bringing knowledge to its people through fine quality translations to achieve societal development. Malaysians saw the importance of increasing the data base of knowledge in their own language, educating all generations in subjects such as culture, science, and technology through translation and publishing. They were also aware that the impact of their own culture would be magnified on a world scale by deliberately making efforts to bring their writers to an international stage. Part of the infrastructure needed for this effort is in a more highly developed book industry overall, including the art of translation. On the eve of their own moment in the sun in Germany, Indonesian writers have realized the wisdom of Malaysia’s plan.

Thailand and Translation.

Since Thailand has no plans to present its literature on such a massive world stage in the immediate future, it relies on small individual efforts to get major works translated into Thai language. The recent project to translate Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick into Thailanguage was crowd-funded by the publisher Unlimited Literature and co-managed by the online bookseller Readery. It is even more difficult to find English-language publishers willing to pay for the translation of Thai books into English. While the individual efforts of some translators, usually university professors, has had some results, these are rare. A majority of the literary legacy of Thailand remains untranslated and unappreciated by the outside world. Our ASEAN partner Indonesia realized that they share this problem in terms of their own literature and the pressure of preparing for the big presentation in Frankfurt resulted in some creative progress. Yet Malaysia founded its ITBM without any such world event on the horizon. It seemed like a good idea, and it has proven to be one. Alongside a government agency, private initiatives for translating and publishing may continue as before. It is just more cost-effective to be able to rely on an office specifically intended to assist in such communication. Malaysia already has it and Indonesian writers are aware that they need one. Will book lovers in Thailand one day decide that this could be a useful addition to cultural life in the Kingdom as well? Everyone knows that certain cultural achievements do not happen by themselves; they need encouragement. Without such encouragement, opportunities are missed and talent overlooked. Raising esteem for Thailand in the world’s eyes is a cultural and literary task.

The ITBM’s vision.

Some of the principles of the ITBM which also appeal to leading writers in Indonesia are as follows:

To be the leading translation organization and publisher of quality books.

To enhance translation services in multiple languages;

To increase the translation and publication of quality informative materials in Malay;

To intensify efforts to translate and publish prominent local works in other languages;

To provide a platform for local writers to produce original works of varied genres;

To expand promotion and marketing of ITBM’s services and products within the country and worldwide;

To enhance and optimize the use of facilities to promote the sustainability of the translation and book publishing industries.

Some influential Indonesian authors approve of these and other goals as stated on the ITBM website. Okky Madasari, an Indonesian writer, observed that her

government, which previously turned a blind eye to literary works, has been left with no option but to pay serious attention to the project.

Previously, it was up to individual authors to try to distribute their works internationally but now, more support will be offered. Until recently, having any international exposure at all could be a matter of mere chance. Okky, whose novels are not in the TU Libraries collection but are available by interlibrary loan, told The Jakarta Post:

I received a request from a journalist in Spain for an interview after they found my book during the journalist’s holiday trip in Bali. Most of my readers are those who accidentally stumble on my books or read the reviews and buy them at [online bookstore] Amazon, or who meet me at book festivals or author conferences and buy my books just to get them signed. We cannot rely on the quality of our work per se and pray that someone will find it somehow.

Indonesian writers website

As part of the initiative to make their country’s literature better known on a worldwide scale, others in Indonesia have launched a website, idwriters.com. As the website states, it is

devoted to showcasing Indonesian writers and/or book authors, along with their publications, journals, and other literary resources in English. Our main feature, the writers directory, provides a way for writers to find one another, but more importantly the resources provided makes it easy for event hosts, — especially for international event hosts –, literary organizers, arts administrators, librarians, booksellers, and readers to get in touch with writers. We built this site because we noticed the lack of resources dedicated to Indonesian literature, especially one that is accessible to the international community. It became even more of a necessity considering that Indonesia will be the Guest of Honour at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair.

A comparable initiative promoting Thai writers would likely be helpful and informative in the same way. One Indonesian reader of the Jakarta Post article left a comment reminding us that translation is not just about communicating culture and strengthening mutual understanding in the ASEAN spirit. It can also be a matter of life or death:

A quality translation center is needed in Indonesia. Not only for writers translating from Indonesian, but also if not mainly for translating into the Indonesian language. In particular this is important for medical reference works that doctors, scientists and students need. While most of them privately do make it a priority to study English for this reason, the Indonesian government should take responsibility for it too. Computer translation programs cannot be relied upon.

Read the full article here.