By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief
This month’s issue of Words Without Borders focuses on translated writing from Indonesia, which will be the Guest of Honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. As John McGlynn, co-founder of the Lontar Foundation and guest editor of the issue, notes in his introduction to the issue “the first country from Southeast Asia to be so honored,” but it has not been without its challenges. Not the least of which has been finding translators and support for the program.
McGlynn, whose organization has been campaigning to promote translations of Indonesian literature for some 28 years now, see the a dearth of translations from the island nation — the fourth most populous country in the world, with some 250 million people (and as many as 500 million on Earth who can understand written Bahasa Indonesia or Malay). “But how many book-length literary titles are translated from Indonesian into foreign languages each year? Usually no more than ten,” he writes. “And how many Indonesian authors could even the most erudite literary critic in the United States cite by name? I would wager to say one, at most.” And that is likely Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
He goes on to call the situation “deplorable,” adding:
“In these times, as the world continues to shrink through the expansion of trade agreements and the proliferation of social media, translation—especially literary translation—has an ever more important role to play in the maintenance, development, and promotion of a country’s cultural values. In the global scheme of things, however, what is happening? Indonesia is being left behind. Indonesia, home to sailors who once pioneered routes across the Asian and Pacific oceans, leaving traces of their presence in places from Hawaii to Madagascar, is becoming, not an international advocate of homegrown ideas and ideologies but a passive receptacle of alien premises and promises which, however beneficial some might be, others must and should be countered by alternative views.”
The nine Indonesian authors were selected from the Lontar Foundations new imprint of translated titles called, BTW Books, (as in “By the way, have you heard about this author?”). And in the issue are a mini-essay by literary critic Hasif Amini that “interrogates the origin of poetic invention,” Poet Taukik Ikram Jamil writes to and of a lover, while Acep Zamzam Noor mourns disaster and indicts the government response. Fiction includes stories by Clara Ng, Mona Sylviana, M. Iksaka Banu, and Zen Hae. And, in a contribution by popular author Abidah El Khalieqy, a defiant prostitute shows up her client and tormentor.
John McGlynn will be a featured speaker at this year’s The Markets: Global Publishing Summit, taking place at the Frankfurt Book Fair on Tuesday, October 13, and co-organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair and Publishing Perspectives. Tickets are available here.