Matheos Viktor Messakh , THE JAKARTA POST , JAKARTA | Mon, 02/02/2009 12:59 PM | Lifestyle
Despite Indonesia’s rich literary tradition and vibrant local publishing scene, the work of only one Indonesian writer — Pramoedya Ananta Toer — has made its way onto the international stage.
Visit any Gramedia bookstore around the country, and you will see that fiction is the most visited section. Hundreds of novels, plays and anthologies are published here every year, but few get translated, keeping them inaccessible to the rest of the world.
The list of obstacles is a long one, according to John H. McGlynn, the director of publications at the Lontar Foundation.
“First and foremost is lack of support, whether from the private corporate or government sector. There has to be recognition — especially from the government — if you want to present yourself to the world as a civilized nation through literature and art.”
McGlynn, who has lived in Jakarta for 33 years, translated several works by Pramoedya and arranged his US tour. In 1987, he established the Lontar Foundation along with writers Goenawan Mohamad, Sa-pardi Djoko Damono, Umar Kayam and Subagio Sastrowardoyo as an initiative to foster greater appreciation of Indonesian culture, particularly through the translation and publication of Indonesian literature in English.
It is hardly a secret that few Asian governments and business have made the effort to have their local literature translated and promoted worldwide. Writers from India, Singapore and the Philippines who write in English gain some success, and a few Chinese and Japanese writers have managed to break through on the international market.
This lack of government support means publishers must rely on sales alone — an approach that doesn’t work for translations.
“Most countries around the world recognize that,” McGlynn said. “Throughout South America, Europe, other countries in Asia, there are institutions or the government itself provides subsidies to publishers who want to publish their literature.”
Low sales and high production costs mean that most of the revenue from a translated book — 80 or 90 percent — goes toward covering production, distribution, translation and writing, plus overheads, leaving the publisher with an unsustainable profit margin.
“If the maximum amount a publisher or a translator can get get from a Rp 100,000 book is maximally Rp 10,000, how many books do they have to sell to get a profit?” he said. “The publisher of a translation can’t survive using the commercial model.”
Even one of Indonesia’s biggest publishers, Kompas-Gramedia, finds it hard to sell translations or other books written in English.
Bagus Dharmawan, a chief editor of Penerbit Buku Kompas, a subsidiary of Kompas-Gramedia publisher, believes that the lack of a local market for English-language books means many publishers are not interested in having local works translated.
“We still have a problem with literacy even in Indonesian,” he said. “How can we expect people to read in English?”
One example, said Dharmawan, was an English version of Development Manifesto by the late economist Mubyarto, published in 2005. By October 2008, only five exemplars had been sold.
Yet Indonesian publishers have a high rate of translating books written in other languages into Indonesian. According to UNESCO, Indonesian is among the top target languages for translations. When it comes to works translated out of Indonesian, the language does not appear on the list. Countries that have published books translated from Indonesian include Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, Germany and theUnited States.
Even when works are translated and published, convincing international booksellers to distribute them is very difficult, especially in the United States, which is the world’s biggest market.
“Of the some 100,000 books published in the US last year, less than zero comma something percent were translations,” McGlynn said — a sign of the international lack of appreciation of foreign literature.
“There is not that much interest in the West in knowing about Indonesia, and it’s happening with almost all non-English languages.”
Only a few authors who write in languages other than English are well-known in the West. Many become known after winning prizes, especially the Nobel Prize.
“Of all the wonderful Spanish-language writers, a couple have gained fame, and Umberto Eco is the only well-known Italian writer,” McGlynn points out. “Indonesia has only Pramoedya and it’s very limited. … He was interviewed by almost all major televisions, radio and newspapers, but that didn’t help him increase sales at all.”
That there are no institutions representing writers compounds the problem.
“There is no such thing as literary agents in Indonesia, whereas Western publishers will only deal with an agent. They don’t deal with authors, they don’t deal with publishers. So for a writer from Indonesia who doesn’t have an agent, they won’t get to first base.”
And even then, it is a crowded literary scene.
“If we’re going to translate something from Bahasa Indonesia into English, it has to say something different or it has to say something so amazingly well, that they will take notice.”
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy’s highly successful award-winning 1997 novel, was an example of a book that “broke out”, McGlynn said, because it is well written in English and also illuminates Indian society.
“That’s where Pramoedya had a gift. He was both a good writer and he said something about Indonesia.”
A contemporary Indonesian novel, such as crime or chick lit, will not appeal to Western readers who already have too much choice.
“Not that Indonesian writers should look toward the West and say ‘what’s going to make it there?’ That should not be their measure of success. Their measure of success should be how well it is received within their country. But if they do want to introduce Indonesia abroad through literature then they need to say something about Indonesia.”
The lack of such writing, McGlynn said, is one reason the Lontar Foundation has not been as productive as hoped. During its 20 years of existence, the foundation has published less than 100 books.
A further limitation is a shortage of translators, and the time and money required for the translation.
“It takes a year or more to get the translation of a novel right,” McGlynn said. “But no organization can afford to pay a good translator what they deserve.”
McGlynn could translate Pra-moedya’s works only because the publisher paid him in advance.
“Most of the good translators I know have a full-time job. They only translate for love of Indonesia and there is no appreciation of that love. And after a while it just gets burned out.”