Writing the Story of Indonesia

Blog / Column


March 3, 2015 — Valent Mustamin


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

by Salman Faridi

I may not be the right person to do this, but after some thought about it, the right person may not necessarily care, and thus I found myself using desperate tactics to speak on behalf of authors representing Indonesia. In the preparation of Indonesia as the Guest of Honor at the largest book festival in the history of the world, being such an important part in the event provokes a sense of anxiousness too. This is none other than due to the experience of the publishers in Indonesia, which are actually not minute, but do not seem to pass to mature stage after all this time.

There are several reasons that I call out the immaturity. First, although there are many new writers in recent years, only a few are to be reckoned with as well consistent in the publishing arena. New writers often get caught up in the “one hit wonder” formula: becomes popular for one time, and obscure after that. Consistency apparently is not a short path, it needs to be sharpened so that it builds character. Second, publishers that are taking the big role to present new authors to the public, are not uncommonly too focused solely on the business side. Competition and strategy are the inevitable part of any business. However, if the content presented can not be read, this is unfortunate for the reader who bought the book hoping to gain benefit. Third, the scale of the publishing industry is not really large. If the calculation of the total book market of approximately 2.5 trillion per year can be accepted, this figure is not sexy enough to attract new investors to join and inject fresh funds into the book business.

Like a Twitter user who enters the timeline anxiously, I, too, feel the same in entering the Frankfurt Book Fair (FBF) timeline which is only a few months away. The fact is, in the simultaneous and synergistic preparation involving some ministries and publishing associations, the manuscripts prepared are still far from enough. Perhaps, its complexity can be read as confusion of the text or book content that may appeal to the readers of the world. Because it is impossible that we provide substantial funding to translate the lessons supporting books, and then sell it in the FBF, isn’t it?

A good content — my message to the Bentang editor crew — will encourage the reader to enjoy it, and will ultimately drive sales as well. The local market with such a varied content can be tried one by one, ranging from fiction with its subcategories to nonfiction which also has a derivative products. However, preparing a content that deserves to be brought to the international stage is not easy.

Rainbow Troops: a very brief experience

For me, this is certainly subjective, of the few manuscripts in Bentang, Rainbow Troops plays an important role that boost my learning curve about publishing, mainly on promoting authors and their works to the local to the global stage. I do not wish to argue about the content, since tastes is certainly not debatable, instead I wish to mention on the long waiting period between the translation process to the draft the manuscript being sent to manuscript agent. In a coherent cycle, efforts to introduce the literary works of Indonesia is always preceded by a process of translation, particularly into English language, followed by editing, then establishing interesting product information to be sent to the agent. It is important to note that in all of this cycle, the author is always involved to the final result of the manuscript.

The first difficulty when trying to translate is, who is the right translator? Who is the one that quite understands the context of Indonesia, yet English is her/his native language. For a layman such as me, this first difficulty is not easily solved. Since it is unlikely to pick any foreigner just because he/she speaks English to translate a literary work. In the first experiments, I have to chuck away two initial translations before finally approving the third translation of the draft. The total translation and editing process took more than a year. Another difficulty looming immediately is how to “sell” the manuscript?

Long story short, the script of Rainbow Troops broke through the first agent which lead Andrea to be an Indonesia writer — beyond translation into Malay language and sold to the Malaysian and Singapore market — whose work is published in several countries in Asia, including South Korea, Vietnam and China. After moving through the second script agents in New York, Rainbow Warriors increasingly crossed the globe. The last three countries that published Rainbow Warriors are Japan, Germany and the United Arab Emirates. Factors of author’s insistence, including luck, beyond interesting script, I suppose has conspired to bring the footsteps of Indonesian writers and find new audiences in a variety of different languages.

Actually, there are other ways outside of the steps I described earlier. The main purpose of the option of offering the script to script agent is to fulfill the author’s dream in which upside and downside of the manuscript is determined by in-depth study. Since the retail logic move and think in the same way with the publishers in Indonesia which focus on its business, which is retail. If the manuscript is not interesting, and thus will not affect the revenue of the publisher, then the manuscript is rejected. However, different considerations may occur if the script is promoted through cultural cooperation platform which usually through bilateral — and, of course bureaucratic — process. Because, usually, each embassy has funds for translation that allow publishers in Indonesia to propose their works to be translated into the language of the destination country, and or translate the work from one country into Indonesian language. For example, Bentang Pustaka once received funds from the Hungarian government through the office of Hungarian embassy in Jakarta to translate the work of Péter Zilahy, called The Last Window Giraffe, a unique novel in which the story is presented alphabetically. Later, this work is re-published independently, which the cost of production is, of course, financed entirely by Bentang.

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Translation through international manuscript markets and cultural projects are both valid. Since the most important is to give a channel to the author so that her/his work is known to the world. I really envy the South Korean government in their cultural strategy that’s seriously prepared and well-established. In the last two years, the big issue in the international book fair is that the target of the manuscripts publisher and manuscript agent actually begin to move into the Asian market which is inhabited by three most prepared countries, namely China, Japan, and South Korea. India, due to the dominance of the English language that’s well practiced by the authors, has long ago shot through in this field, as well as introduce world-class writers. Let us see what happens in the book industry in Korea.

Learning from Hallyu Wave

I first know this Korean wave through Winter Sonata drama series, years ago. However, only a few knows that this country ginseng not only makes the realm of audio-visual as their popular culture campaign, music and books also occupy the same respectable position. The success of Korean drama series is followed by the next wave that came through the flood of boy band and girl band that are no less exciting. Fanbases of particular musical groups emerge and becomes the source of any information relating to Korean musicians. Shortly, Indonesian youth are fluently saying Annyeong Haseo or Gamsa Hamnida. More serious fans learn how to say I love you in Korean, in the hope that one day they would meet the handsome oppas, and, who knows, hit it off.

Of course, not everyone has the same tastes. To each, their own. However, what hit me the most is when, at one time, I received a catalog of published books for children’s fairy tale from around the world, and discovered that the story of Roro Djonggrang were offered among the titles to buy the copyright on the script for publishing. It is somewhat strange to buy the copyright to the story that comes from one’s own country, yet written by authors from abroad. Yet that catalogue is the irrefutable evidence of just how we seriously overlook the international market.

As in music, and movies, books by authors from Korea begins to break through to the world stage. I know of several script agents and publishers who are very aggressive in following major exhibition of world-class publishers ranging from Frankfurt, London, Bologna, Italy, Japan, China even Indonesia Book Fair, an international event which held in sports stadium with makeshift facilities. One agent even boldly open a representative office in Brazil, with, of course, the strategic objectives to target Portuguese speakers, which is in quite large amount. Brazil population alone is 200 million people. Precise calculations and interesting manuscripts hold an opportunity for massive profits.

This aggressive attitude is not a recent move. In the last ten years, for example, the South Korean government attracts a lot of in the Korean language enthusiast by fellowship offer that allows anyone interested to learn the language with one main goal: translation. This step is very smart, if not brilliant, in order to accelerate the translation of the works of Korean into other languages in the world, instantly. One of the think tank in charge of this case is Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI). The institution, founded in 1996, has a huge success selling local script abroad. Do not be surprised if in the last three years there are a lot of Korean manuscript in major bookstores in Indonesia.

Reflecting from the hallyu wave, if I could, I would like to propose the same thing to the Indonesian government, through authorized ministries and officials to participate in thinking on promoting Indonesia through its works. The fact is, in the preparation for FBF — which is sadly hurried and worrying — there is a small feeling that the government allocate the strategic funds to translate the works of Indonesian writers by perforce.

However, it would be better if it is conducted through of a more focused strategy formulation. For decades, Indonesia has opened up through Darmasiswa scholarship that allow foreign students studying Indonesian at top universities in the country. Why not prepared these foreign students to be a reliable interpreter for our authors’ works? I believe Indonesia too cool to not be known to the world, especially its authors that have a lot of potential and world-class quality.

Yogyakarta, January 26, 2015

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