Imagining an Indonesian Literary Translation Body

To translate is to transfer a text into another language, to put it simply. But this carries a lot of problems with it. For example, in relation to literary translation, which books to translate and why? How to value the quality of translation?

How far a translator is recognized? What is the position of the translator in connection with the author’s text, and copyrights? And what about censorship, the relation among the translators, editors, publishers as well as agents?

These were some of the questions that the “Towards an Indonesian Literary Translation Center” seminar was trying to answer. Held in Erasmus Taalcentrum Jakarta from October 8 – 12, 2012, the seminar was part of the effort to found an Indonesian literary translation body, as initiated by Eliza Vitri Handayani. The seminar ran simultaneously with translation workshop and was organized in cooperation with British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT).

The workshop was a kind of sequel of a summer school of group translation conducted by Writer’s Center Norwich last July. In Jakarta, three classes were offered, Dutch – Indonesian, Dutch – English – Indonesian and Norway – English – Indonesian. The works to translate were Old People’s Home by Norwegian author Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold and the novel Dover (2008) by Dutch author Gustaaf Peek, which were already translated by groups in Norwich. The English translator group leaders were brought to Jakarta, Kari Dickson and David Colmer, both are award-winning translators.

The workshop was an experiment, to quote BCLT’s International Program Director Kate Griffin. The class translation leaders for each class were Widjajanto Dharmowijono, Anton Kurnia and Arif Bagus Prasetyo. The names of the last two are quite famous among the literary translator circle. At the closing night, the groups performed the consented translation.

The workshop was aimed to grow appreciation of literary translation, which takes a great deal of process and thus is an art in itself. Regarding its complexity,

Melani Budianta, an English literature professor at the University of Indonesia wrote in Kalam journal, that to translate is an ‘intertextual strategy’ to process the source text into a text of its own. The translation text may be different from the original as it carries the cultural ideology and the age developing within the translator. Translation is never neutral.

Translation also demands skills. In the past the Indonesian translators themselves were authors. Sophocles’ Oedipus was translated by dramatist WS Rendra, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea by poet (and lecturer) Sapardi Djoko Damono, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Tortilla Flat by Djoko Lelono. We actually had our golden moments, consuming works translated into Indonesian, which were published long ago by now a losing state-owned Balai Pustaka, and Pustaka Jaya.

As regards translation of Indonesian literature, John McGlynn, co-founder of Lontar Foundation which has published the English translation of select most important modern Indonesian writers’ works, said Lontar aspired to introduced Indonesian literature to the international world. Yet, I was a bit surprised to hear that Indonesian works can be translated into another language bypassing English. For example, Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) was directly translated from Bahasa Indonesia to Filipino by Thelma Kintanar. This is despite, Lily Rose Tope, who teaches Southeast Asian studies at University of the Philippines, argues that Southeast Asia hardly read each other’s literature. Her paper focused on colonial history that influenced the country linguistically and culturally. Her colleague, Corazon D. Villareal, shared her method of teaching translation and examples of how her students approach translation, as part of creative writing or literary and cultural studies. This is where literary translation by practitioners goes hand in hand with research and academic insights on translation.

In order to enliven literary translation, the working conditions must be far improved. Handayani highlighted the condition in Indonesia, including the short time for translation (even a book is divided into sections for several translators for speed, yet at the cost of quality and consistency) and low fee. In addition, the translator’s name is hardly acknowledged in the publication. She envisioned an award or prize for literary translators, perhaps an Indonesian version of UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, of which Griffin was one of the judges. The prize, £10,000 annually, is divided equally between writer and translator.

One way to improve the working condition surrounding translation is by providing professional assistance. PEN Translation Committee’s guide can be reference for translators in a contract negotiation, wrote Olivia Sears from Center of the Art of Translation, in her paper. Nicholas Jose, who teaches creative writing in University of Adelaide, informed that Australian literary translators have AALITRA, Australian Association for Literary Translation. In Norwegia, freelance translators were even able to go on strike for better pay and a better agreement with the publishers. Cecilie Winger, chairperson of the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators (NO), showed how the translators managed to reach an agreement with the publishers’ association for increasing the basic fee per page, something that translators can benefit from a union.

Cooperation across translators’ organization becomes favorable. Eddie R. Notowidigdo from the Association of Indonesian Translators (HPI) said one of the benefits of this is that the future literary translation center can have access to HPI’s member database. But do we see Indonesian government fund on the horizon? Jose told about Australia-India Literatures International Forum in Sydney which was organized by, among others, the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-India Institute of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. There is a subsidy program to fund the translation and publication of Australian literary titles into other languages. Journals are indeed effective to nourish translation practice and discipline.

Overall, it was a great week of engaging in Indonesian literature and cultural exchange. We must be reminded that Indonesia is bound to be the guest of honour in the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, so it is hoped that a possibility to body established to facilitate these can be realized soon.

Indah Lestari

A translation practitioner, earned MA in English Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, India, and currently teaches Creative Writing at Unisma Bekasi English department.

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salin guro, mimpi indah

i don’t seem to be able to sleep. it seems that this day cant just be over without my recalling of the things that make my day, make me happy, make an important turn in my life.

first is a good bye. but it’s not a sad one as i now have three amazingly smart and kind Fillipinos whose interest is the same as mine, literature, Cora, Lily and Isabela, who are all lecturers at the University of the Philippines, who were totally strangers to me two days back. We met yesterday, the first day of a workshop/seminar on founding a literary translation body. They wanted to get some batik and souvenirs, but Thamrin City is usually closed at the same time as the offices. So I took them to a mall, playing a role of an LO, which I missed so much, but this time voluntarily. Then they treated me for dinner, and even for es teler dessert, though only at their hotel.

and they are leaving tomorrow, plane would take off around 1.30, so they won’t attend tomorrow’s seminar even the morning session. but at least i know whom to contact when i get to Manila hehehe. and after seeing Filippinio’s interest in studying Indonesia, especially the literature, I was thinking of sending Lily some Acehnese writer’s short stories that I have done for the Translation course in JNU… hmm,,

second is the hope that my translation work, of JM Coetzee’s novel, would be able to reach the hands of the author. This is made probable by Prof. Nicholas, who is one of the speakers in the seminar. He teaches creative writing (so fun!!) and… guess what… in addition to Writing and Society Research Centre, University of Western Sydney, he’s also in the, I better quote here, « J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide »!!!

When I was still in India, I really wished I could give a copy to my professors, especially the ones teaching Translation Studies and Postcolonial Literature. But since I only have a copy, which I luckily found in a major bookstore after I got back from India (it was published in 2005), I can only give it to one person, without shipping cost preferably. So we’ll see what happens. I know Coetzee mustn’t speak Indonesian, but I’m somewhat embarrassed. It was my first attempt of (published) translation, right after I graduated from Unpad.

third… maybe chronologically, rather than by degree… I got a reply from a publisher that my poem is accepted for their journal!!! Oh my God, I hardly write, let alone poems. And I got rejected a few times before. I only sent my three to five English poems to international journals, both print and online. And… my shortest poem is the one accepted.

They first told me that they only have 35 pages for the poems of the 24th edition, and mine would be placed on page 36 if there were such page hahaha… So the editor decided he would include it in the next edition, the 25th. I will receive a hard copy of it, since I won’t be able to travel to attend the launching. FYI, one copy costs 10 pounds….

So that’s it. I’m about to crash. See you.