Found in Translation: Putting Indonesian Novels on the Map
In the international world of books and literature, Indonesia has long been a blank spot on the map as only a handful of writers from the country, including Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Mochtar Lubis, are internationally known and read.
A new series of Indonesian literature translated into English aims to change that.
Officially launched on Thursday at Aksara book store in Plaza Indonesia, the new series called “Modern Library of Indonesia” includes 10 titles by local authors that cover a time span from the 1920s until 2001.
The launch coincides with the celebration of the National Day of Awakening today, which can be seen as evidence that literature, though sometimes neglected, can play an important role in the country’s history and culture.
Published by the Lontar Foundation in collaboration with the Djarum Foundation, the first 10 books will be followed by 40 more titles in the next three years.
“This is exactly what the Lontar Foundation is about,” John McGlynn, co-founder of Lontar, translator and long-time Jakarta resident, said during the launch.
“We love Indonesian culture, and especially Indonesian literature,” McGlynn said.
“With this series, readers abroad can get to know our local writers, and through their books, Indonesian history over the last couple of decades.”
He added that the books translated for the new series were all titles that were regarded as important in the development of Indonesian literature.
Putu Wijaya, renowned writer and playwright, is one of the authors whose work has been chosen to be included in the collection.
He said it was a special moment for him since his novel, “Telegram”, was first published in 1973 but had never been translated into English.
“I had to wait almost 40 years for this translation,” he said.
He added that he still vividly remembered an incident in Berlin when he attended a literature festival in 1985.
“An American man approached me and asked if I was from the Philippines,” Putu said. “When I said I was from Indonesia, he was surprised and said he didn’t know there were writers in Indonesia.”
He added that he was upset but could not really blame the man for thinking that way since English translations of Indonesian literature were scarce at the time.
Another writer who had to wait several years for her book to be published in English is Dewi Lestari. Dewi first gained fame as a singer before taking time to focus on her long-time hobby of writing.
“Ever since my first novel ‘Supernova’ was published in 2001, I had hoped that it would be translated into English some day,” Dewi said. “So this is like a dream come true.”
She added that writing was a window of expression, and that she felt honored to be chosen as one of the writers who are part of the new series.
“In the past, I have been invited to some writers’ festivals abroad,” she said.
“The participants always seemed very interested in my presentation, but when they asked me, ‘Where can I get your book?’ I always had to say that there wasn’t an English translation yet.”
Novels are not only an important part of literature, but they can also influence other fields of Indonesian culture.
Filmmaker Mira Lesmana said she had often been inspired after reading extraordinary books.
After turning Andrea Hirata’s novel “Laskar Pelangi” into a hit feature film, she is now working on an adaptation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel “Bumi Manusia”, which is scheduled to be released next year.