I don’t know how many of you were on Lontar’s mailing list in 2011 but in May of that year I sent a message to the list about Indonesia’s possible selection as Guest of Honor Country (GOH) at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest and most prestigious book fair in the world. In the message, I stated that “for Indonesia to finally put itself on the map as both a source and repository of world intellectual heritage, it is incumbent that this country put its best face forward at the Fair.” Somewhat pessimistically, I then asked, “Will the Indonesian government commit the substantial financial resources necessary to afford the translation and publication of literary works of historical significance?” to which I answered, “Based on past experience …. I would not want to bet on it!”
Despite numerous bureaucratic and financial challenges, Indonesia did become GOH at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair and the national organizing committee, drawing on the country’s wealth of creative human resources, staged an impressive show. In the year leading up the Fair, Indonesia staged a huge variety of events and at the book fair itself, where more than 70 Indonesian writers appeared, the mostly-German public was wowed by the loquacity and verisimilitude of Indonesia’s authors and performers.
With the country’s theme being “17,000 Islands of Imagination,” Indonesia garnered an incredible amount of positive international press coverage as a result. (As an aside, when coming up with the theme, the basic idea for the organizing committee was the question of how it is possible “imagine a nation” of so many islands, ethnic groups, languages, and cultures. The answer: “imagination”!)
The point of the above is that the splash that was made, the ripple that was created by FBF-2015, did not stop there. After the Fair, the Ministry of Education and Culture established the National Book Committee which, in turn set up a Translation Funding Program. This program, coupled with the establishment of an international residency program for Indonesian authors as well as increased participation in international literary festivals and book fairs (at London, Bologna, Beijing, and Sharjah) has led to a dramatic increase in the translation and publication of Indonesian titles abroad—up from a single or low two-digit annual figure prior to FBF to a four digit figure today. It has also led to numerous invitations from other countries to be the featured country at their fairs.
Each of these new ventures in the field of cultural diplomacy may be likened to another pebble that is tossed into the water to keep the original ripple expanding and growing. With enough pebbles, in the form of continued financial investment, increased promotion of Indonesian “content”, and greater participation on the part of Indonesian stakeholders abroad, this possibility is now greater than ever before—especially now with Indonesia’s recent selection as “Market Focus Country” at the 2019 London Book Fair….
In the introductory paragraph to this rumination, I stated that the Frankfurt Book Fair is the largest book fair in the world—which it truly is in terms of space, countries represented, and other markers. However, the largest rights fair in the world—the site where the largest monetized amount of copyright to intellectual content is bought and sold—is the London Book Fair (LBF)—and with the English language currently serving as the world’s premier “bridging language,” this fair is, for Indonesia, a most important one. The fact is that while there are only a limited number of qualified literary translators from Indonesian to English, that number far exceeds the number of qualified translators from Indonesian to German and almost all other languages in the world. (Ask me, how many translators there are from Indonesian to Spanish, French, Italian, Korean, and Japanese or, for that matter, even regional languages such as Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Cebuano.) Once again, the fact is, in most cases, if an Indonesian title is sold abroad, it is because there is at least a sample or excerpt of that title in English. …And it is far easier for Indonesian publishers to produce English-language synopses of the titles to which they have the rights to sell than any other major foreign language.
(Another aside: Indonesia has done far too little to promote study of Indonesian abroad and here we have a reverse ripple effect with the number of Indonesian language students in countries abroad on the decline. Hence, the importance of translation becomes surmount.)
Once again (but with far less lead time when compared to FBF-2015), in the months leading up to LBF-2019, during the Fair, and after the Fair as well, Indonesia will stage an extensive cultural program. With funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Creative Economy Agency (BEKRAF), and the British Council, the National Organizing Committee for LBF-2019 will celebrate the best of contemporary Indonesian writing, including events to meet authors and discuss their work in front of international audiences both at the London Book Fair and across the UK.
Indonesia’s presence as Market Focus Country at The London Book Fair 2019 marks an especially important moment in the country’s effort to promote Indonesian content abroad. It is one very large pebble which, when dropped into the center of the multiple rings could very well result in a seachange in foreign attention paid to Indonesia.