As a person who has spent most of my adult life working to promote the translation of Indonesian literature into English, I am often preoccupied with thoughts about translation and the role that it has played in the development of nations, in particular, Indonesia. And as Indonesia has begun to make itself better known throughout the world not just for its “excesses” (especially ones in the fields of human rights and the environment that marked the Soeharto era) but for its economic growth, plurality of beliefs, wealth of creative content, and the strides the country has made in international foreign diplomacy, I continue to uphold the view that the country needs to invest significantly more than it has in the past in the field of soft diplomacy, specifically the promotion of Indonesian language and literature. Just as China and South Korea have, in line with their rise as economic powers, invested abroad in education—sending hundreds of thousands of students abroad to study but also underwriting the cost of faculty positions abroad that are devoted to the study of their countries—Indonesia would do well to follow suit for, as these two nations have learned, it is not just material trade that makes a nation powerful, it is trade in ideas which, in the end, determines the position of a country on the world’s map. But let’s take a look at the field of translation…
As with commercial trade, in a just world the exchange of ideas should be a two-way current with an equitable balance in the flow from one country to the next. Unfortunately, such is not the case in the world of translation where language and power are often synonymous and, today, where the English language exercises nearly global hegemonic rule, the number of translations being published in English is tiny—the figure of 3% of all books published is often mentioned—when compared with translations from English into other languages. In the case of Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world, more than 30% of the 45,000+ titles published annually are translations from English—even those titles that were originally published in languages other than English. No two-way current here!
I do not despair that Indonesia is the recipient of a horde of content from abroad—Indonesia has long absorbed and put to good use many of the more beneficial ideas that have originated elsewhere (as well as some of the bad!)—but what ruffles my feathers is that in the West or, more specifically, the English speaking West, it appears a floodgate has been erected to restrict the flow of ideas in that direction.
At this point in time, would it be possible to turn this situation around, to raise the floodgates in the English speaking world in order to allow the more rapid absorption of ideas and content from outside?
In 2019 Indonesia will appear as “Market Focus Country” at the London Book Fair, the second largest book fair in the world in some terms but the largest fair in the world in terms of rights trading, i.e., the exchange of ideas. For Indonesia, this is a special opportunity to make its name known as an abundant source of creative content and I, in a reprise as coordinator of the country’s literary program at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair (where Indonesia was Guest of Honor Country) am now in charge of the country’s cultural program in the U.K. (Thank God I am not working alone! Praise Heaven for the British Council and other National Organizing Committee members!) In that position, I was recently approached by the British translation journal, In Other Words, to write an article on translation about “the view from Indonesia”—which is yet another reason why I have been thinking about the role of translation of late.
I have yet to submit my article for that journal but I have already formulated its conclusion which is that for a country’s achievement of success in the field translation, a number of elements need to be in place. The first is “content,” which Indonesia has in abundance. The second is “concept”—that which needs to be done to have a country’s canonical literature translated into other languages. This is where Lontar has played a significant role. The third is “conditions”—taking advantage of situations that arise (such as the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015 where Indonesia appeared as Guest of Honor Country and the London Book Fair in 2019 when Indonesia will be Market Focus Country). The fourth is “commitment”—long-term financial commitment on the part of the government to underwrite the cost of a translation funding program as well as other elements such as writers’ residency programs and travel grants for writers.
Fortunately much progress has been made towards the fulfillment of these conditions, though “commitment” remains the most problematic one—a guarantee on the part of the government that it will invest the necessary financial resources in a sustained translation funding program. This remains a question. I count on you to voice your support for such a governmental venture but, as a failsafe measure, I ask you to give to Lontar. October 28 will be Lontar’s 32nd anniversary. Please think of sending an early birthday gift to Lontar now.
John H. McGlynn