Can you begin by telling me about your journey as a student and speaker of Indonesian language?
I kind of ‘fell’ into Indonesian language studies. When I was in year 11 (in the early 1970s in north-west Tasmania), a career counsellor asked me what I planned to do after I’d matriculated. I’d been working on the assumption that I’d go to the University of Tasmania and study to be a teacher of French and/or German, my strongest subjects. He suggested I think about an Asian language. At the time not many universities were offering Asian languages, but ANU had a strong program and an attractive scholarship. So in a dutiful sort of way, I followed that counsellor’s advice and was accepted into ANU’s Asian Studies program. Then I had to decide which language to study. Thinking that Japanese and Chinese would be far too hard, I opted for Indonesian, despite knowing nothing about the country or the language. Here I’d like to quote from an essay I wrote for Inside Indonesia in 2006:
My memories of being a beginning student in Indonesian are somehow inextricably bound up with poring over some of the stories from Pramoedya’s early collection, Cerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora). Of course I wasn’t actually a complete beginner when I first met Pramoedya back in 1975 – the heading on the yellowing, roneo-ed, old-spelling copies of those stories that I still hold dear reminds me that it was in third year BIM (Bahasa Indonesia & Malay) at the Australian National University that we began to explore those marvellous stories, so many of them based on Pramoedya’s life.
My first trip to Indonesia was at the end of second year uni. That trip changed my worldview forever–I think my brain got rewired–and the country, the language and the people have been part of my psyche ever since.
I’m eternally grateful to that career counsellor, whose name was Eric Nash.
I’ve found that experiencing Indonesia has a habit of rewiring the brain. Many say that to be a good literary translator, one also needs to be a good writer. How has your own writing practice developed throughout your career as a translator?
I have no doubt that the best literary translators are also writers themselves. In my case, though I’ve done a lot of writing during my career, it‘s been academic writing rather than creative writing, so I’m not sure whether my writing practice has fed directly into my literary translation practice. Certainly my interest in language–a hugely fascinating phenomenon–has been an important part of my approach to translation. While it’s important to know how a language works at the structural level (its grammar, syntax and vocabulary), it’s also important to be tuned into the tone and style of the original text and to, instinctively almost, know how that can best be rendered in the target language. But that all makes it sound like an exact science. It’s not, of course, no more than creative writing is. Although it’s probably not a very satisfactory answer to the question, while it’s fair to say that all good literary translators are good writers, that doesn’t mean that all good writers are good literary translators. There has to be some kind of innate connection with both languages that transcends the writing and probably even the reading process.
Yes, it seems that innate connection and instinctive understanding can only stem from a long-standing interest or love of the language. One of your major achievements is your translation of Ayu Utami’s Saman. Can you tell me a bit about Saman, including your initial reactions to the work and the translation process itself?
The publication of Saman coincided almost exactly with the fall of Suharto’s New Order regime in May 1998, after 32 years of authoritarian rule. As such, the novel is viewed by many as being emblematic of the new freedoms that rapidly emerged after Suharto’s resignation. It certainly challenged many literary conventions both in its style, which features flashbacks, multiple narrators and an almost magical realism quality in parts, and in its themes. The response to those themes in Indonesia focused largely on the graphic details of the sexuality of the four female protagonists; all of whom are independent, educated and open about their sexuality. (Much of the outraged response to the sex scenes was from readers who had not actually read the novel, but had ‘heard what it was about’.) But for me, this is above all a political novel. The exposé of the oppression of plantation workers in South Sumatra is courageous and compelling, as is the exploration of the place of religion in daily life in Indonesia. A friend sent the novel to me soon after it was published, and as soon as I started reading it I knew this was something new and powerful in Indonesian literature.
I met Ayu in Jakarta not long afterwards and then began a long process of translating. It wasn’t finally published in English translation, by Equinox, until 2005. Ayu and I worked together on what was a tricky translation in many ways, given the lyricism of her prose and the subtle changes in tone throughout the novel. We had our disagreements–one particular sticking point was Ayu’s concern that the length of sentence and phrases in the Indonesian be retained in English, because she rightly maintained that the length of sentences and even words was key to the overall impact of the novel. The final version is not perfect, and we both made compromises, but I think overall it’s an honest interpretation of the original novel.
That’s seven years between the publication of the original and the English translation–highlighting translation as a process including not only writing, but also compromise, negotiation and collaboration. Saman is considered a ground-breaking work of Indonesian literature, in part because it touches on taboos, sexual and otherwise, in Indonesian society. How do you think these taboos have been read by a non-Indonesian audience?
Outside rarefied academic circles, it’s hard to say really. It’s certainly been read with interest, both in Indonesian and in translation, by students of Indonesian language and literature. For those who know of the oppressive nature of the Suharto regime, I think the most striking thing is the breaking of the taboo on political activism. Readers are surprised by the overt sexual references but it’s not such a big deal for non-Indonesian audiences as it is for those who lived under the Suharto regime. But I’m kind of second-guessing here. I liked a comment by Lasse, a reader on Goodreads. This was the first Indonesian novel he’d ever read (and I’m not sure whether he read the original or a translation) but he recognised that the novel is ‘very brave’ and concluded by saying ‘I’ll definitely read it again later in my life because it still captivates me somehow, even though I can’t exactly say why.’ I know how he feels.
That’s certainly the sign of an affecting and memorable work, and leads to my next question – how do you reflect on the book and your translation almost 15 years on from its publication?
I’ve gone back to the novel quite often since its publication, and I find I’m always struck again by what a fine piece of writing it is. The description of the oppression of the rubber farmers, whose land is taken over for oil palm production, makes compelling reading as do the passages where the male protagonist, Saman, is grappling with his religious faith soon after being ordained as a priest. There is also some harrowing writing about the cruelty shown to the handicapped girl Upi. As a literary device, the email exchange between Saman and Yasmin at the end of the novel now feels a bit dated. As a means of social communication, email feels a bit last century!
I think the translation stands up ok. The unanswerable question every translator faces when reading their translation is whether it is/should be a faithful rendering of the original, or whether it is/should be a new text. It’s a question the authors no doubt grapple with too. You can venture a long way down the labyrinth of translation theory without finding the ‘truth’ about what a literary translation should be.
Those ‘unanswerable questions’ regarding the theory, process and ethics of literary translation certainly continue to be debated. Some recent discussions in the Indonesian literary community have examined the roles and attitudes of western translators of Indonesian literature. What change would you like to see in the narrative regarding Indonesian literature in translation?
The scholar Susan Bassnett reminds us that ‘translation always takes place in a continuum, never in a void, and there are all kinds of textual and extra-textual constraints upon the translator’. Employing a somewhat blunter tone, a scholar and translator of Indonesian literature recently suggested in a tweet that ‘it is the neo-colonialist attitudes of the literary Anglosphere who should blame themselves for the absence of Indonesian writers from the Anglophonic literary stage.’ This is an accusation that begs some very big questions. I know from my own experience how difficult it is to get translations of Indonesian literature published by major publishers. Having said that, it is heartening to see the rise, both in Indonesia and elsewhere, of independent publishers with an interest in Indonesian literature, both in the Indonesian language and in translation. As for a change in the narrative, I’d like to see a recognition that, whatever our background–race, gender, age, Anglophone or not–and cognisant of the fact that we are all subject to a variety of extra-textual constraints, we translators of Indonesian literature are on the same mission. Edith Grossman, who enabled those of us who don’t speak Spanish to access the marvelous works of, among others; Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargos Llosa, describes the transcendent importance of translation as: ‘a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before.’ It’s as simple, and as complex, as that.
I think that recognition you speak of is important not only in ensuring the debate is constructive and respectful, but in fostering passion for Indonesian language and literature amongst younger generations of scholars and readers. You have said that Indonesian literature has been understood as ‘a significant part of the project of nation-building’. Do you think this is still the case for Indonesian literature in 2019, or has the focus of Indonesian literature expanded beyond this?
When a new language and a new nation are constructed at the same time, it seems almost inevitable I think that that nation’s literature–a product of its language–will reflect (and/or contest) the ideologies, premises and processes upon which the nation has been/is being built. Things have indeed changed since the establishment of the Indonesian nation and of bahasa Indonesia. And yet I still see a lot of writing that engages with identity, with what it means to be Indonesian, post-Reformasi. There is a significant body of fictional work dealing with the lives of Indonesian Muslims, particularly Indonesian Muslim women for example. There is poetry and fiction about the experiences of LGBTQI people in Indonesia. There is fictional writing on environmental issues. There is writing that explores regional cultures and traditions. In many–but not all–cases, these themes are developed in the context of contemporary socio-political reality in Indonesia. So while it’s no longer nation-building per se, it’s much more nuanced than that–the historical, social and political realities of Indonesia are there in the writing, forming an important part of the context of the poem, short story or novel.
Yes, and given the incredible diversity of Indonesia as a country, it’s not surprising those questions of identity continue to be explored. What’s exciting for you about Indonesian literature at the moment? And, what does the future hold for you as a translator and participant in Indonesian literature?
In January this year I was fortunate to spend a week in Jakarta, immersing myself in the literary scene there and attending local literary events. Shunning traditional venues and forums, there is a plethora of young Indonesian poets and performers regularly making their voices heard in literary cafes such as Pavilyun Puisi and Kios Ojo Keos. The title of one of those gatherings seemed particularly apt: ‘Poetry in the Hands of the Urban Young’, as does the title of Kezia Alaia’s poetry anthology, Bicara Besar (Talking Big). Something that stood out was the bilingualism of many of the young poets, who write and speak in a fluid mix of English and Indonesian.
Visiting small local publishers too contributed to my picture of the Jakarta literary scene. Indie Book Corner, Avatar Press, Post–these are but a few of the publishers producing quality publications with the bare minimum resources and infrastructure. I found them inspirational.
Every year I am also excited to read and hear the work of new young voices at the Ubud Writers Festival, which supports up to 15 emerging Indonesian writers from across the archipelago through the Emerging Writers Program. This program gives talented young writers the opportunity to present their work to a wider audience, and to have it included in a translated anthology. I certainly anticipate being involved with this festival for the foreseeable future and continuing to work with the Lontar Foundation on the diverse translation projects that it champions.