Why Aren’t More Indonesian Literary Works Published Abroad?

It’s a question often posed to me by foreign writers and scholars, maybe because I speak English or maybe they know me at one time as a bookseller and a publisher of translated works of Indonesian writers. In any case, it’s not an easy question to answer.
Most of us thought at first, with the international publications of Pramoedya’s tetralogy, more writers from Indonesia should by rights follow on the path he had opened up. The reality is nothing of the kind. Only a few writers – Seno Gumira Adjidarma, Goenawan Mohamad, Sapardi Djoko Damono, Danarto, Ayu Utami and Eka Kurniawan — have been published abroad, albeit through small publishing houses or university presses. No writer after Pramoedya Ananta Toer has enjoyed the kind of success as Pramoedya did. Pramoedya’s books are on the Fiction & Literature shelves of Barnes and Noble, W.H. Smith, Borders and most well stocked bookstores everywhere in the world. Pramoedya’s first international fame was introduced by Max Lane’s translations of his famed tetralogy. These novels were published by one of America’s most respectable publishing houses, Hyperion. Later, Penguin also secured rights for U.K and the commonwealth countries.
For quite a long while, over 20 odd years under the repressive scrutiny of the New-Order regime, Pramoedya was principally known abroad for his four novels: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass; because none of his other works were translated. Around year 2001, in the initial bloom of reformasi here in Indonesia, fresh interest in his other works still not translated gathered pace. Tales of Djakarta was published locally by Mark Hanusz of Equinox, translated by The Nusantara Translation Group, then C.W Watson’s translation of It’s Not An All Night Fair, published also by Equinox, a version of Girl from the Coast was published by Select Books in Singapore, later retranslated by Willem Samuels (aka John McGlynn), who afterward also translated All That Is Gone. Most recently, Max Lane translated Arok of Java published by Horizon Books in Singapore. When I talked to Max Lane last, he was planning to work on next in the trilogy of the Arok legend, Reverse Current (Arus Balik) and Mangir. The last years before Pramoedya’s death, he enjoyed the success and recognitions long overdue to him. He received the Fukuoka Cultural Grand Prize in 2000, The Norwegian Authors Union 2004 and Centenario Pablo Neruda 2004. He was always rumored to be in the run for the Nobel Prize. His works were translated in some forty countries worldwide. He bought a house in Bogor. He got an agent based in Barcelona named Anna Solar-pont, who helps manage the sales of rights of his works and the collection of royalties. There were various speculations of This Earth of Mankind to be filmed by a renowned Hollywood director, but nothing came out of that. Meanwhile, Pram’s agent in Barcelona vexed about the lagging response from his family to her queries about requests she had received from international parties on various rights of his works.
One can simply wonder whether the Pramoedya Ananta Toer Estate will be in good care under his children’s watch. For it is apparent from what I’ve learned it is in disarray, either for lack of communications skills or the awareness of the mechanism of the international rights systems on the part of Pramoedya’s heirs.
Most Indonesian authors can seem rather intractable when it comes to interactions with foreign interests. Some writers remain stalwart about not letting any editors circumcise their texts; they believe in absolute artistic autonomy over their works. Editors are dismissed as charlatans unequalled to their art; they have no idea if Hemingway had a dedicated editor, Maxwell Perkins, who made his unruly spellings look good on the page and James Wood, the revered literary critic, has a youthful editor who constantly tells him off. Communications with some of these writers – whether because of their inability to grasp other languages or plain disinterest – can brook misunderstanding and not often incite outrages.
Most of the works of these writers, through no fault of theirs really, have not been translated. There is no concerted efforts by the government to promote these writers abroad, albeit throughout the years there have been attempts from a few private enterprises, such as Lontar Foundation through the support of various international bodies, in putting out master works of established writers. However, these trickle efforts often face an impasse in distribution outside of Indonesia; because of various reasons, I assume, but foremost of which I believe is funding to participate in international book fairs. There are, however, also no genuine efforts from the writers themselves to seek translation of their works.  There’s a sense that their works are done, let the others worry about them.
The young generation of writers is less complacent. In answer to my question, Eka Kurniawan, dubbed recently as heir to Pramoedya by Benedict Anderson, the renowned author of Imagined Communities from Cornell University, says, “Let’s face it, after Pramoedya, we don’t have a world-class author the equal of Haruki Murakami, Moyan, or Orphan Pamuk.” When told only three percent of world literature is published by the publishing giants in New York and London, he replies, “Then we should try to be good enough to fit into that three percent.” While I can’t completely agree with his assessments that we don’t have the equal of these preeminent authors he mentioned, I do admire his exuberance and his determination. His novel, Beauty is A Wound, was published this year by a Japanese literary publishing company and he just came back from an invitation to a university in Tokyo to talk about his new novel. He has had a good start and sees his future beyond the limitations that have enclosed his predecessors’ ascent to world literary stage.

A version of this article was published in The Jakarta Globe, January 2009

6 thoughts on “Why Aren’t More Indonesian Literary Works Published Abroad?

  1. Alfred

    Hi Richie, there have been more efforts though to get Indonesian writers translated into Dutch. Like I have here on my bookshelve: Ahmad Tohari: Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (1982)/ Het dansmeisje uit mijn dorp (1993). Y.B. Mangunwijaya: Burung-burung manyar (1983) / Het boek van de wevervogel (1987). There are more, believe me. As for now Ayu Utami is “enough” for the Dutch readers. She now represents the modern Indonesian culture, like almost any country has only one writer representing his/her country in Dutch translations. That’s the way it works in Holland. Exceptions are for France, England, Germany, let’s say the dominant literary cultures, plus of course the USA, from where we get loads of writers. Holland is importing 75 percent of all books from abroad, the USA … only 2 – I say TWO – percent of all books. The USA simply isn’t interested, no matter if it’s Indonesia, Russia, Holland or Italy. It’s the USA and the rest of the world.

  2. Richard Oh Post author

    Hi Alfie, good to hear a new book, or rather a trilogy is forthcoming from you soon. I know European publishers have always been more interested in Indonesian or Asian works. Maybe they are more genuinely intrigued with these works rather than any considerations for the potentiality of the market or markets for them. As for publishers in the USA, well, they don’t bother because they are always aiming for big books for very large circulations. Ironically, when small publishers do well such as Cannongate or Serpent’s Tail, they are immediately enfolded by the large conglomerates and everything starts all over again.

  3. Alfred

    Yet I am afraid the American way of publishing becomes a thread for Europe. So the European publishing houses take the American houses as an example. It is not yet as bad as in the USA but someday it might be. In Holland there are few independent publishers left. They are been followed by elder journalists. The younger journalists though have no eye for them. So the literature that comes from minorities, for instance, hardly make the spotlight. Still I am optimistic. I never believed that literature was meant for the crowd. Contrary. The mass media use the term “literature” in a wrong way. Literature is an artistic way of writing, that’s all. Someday the media, the publishers and writers should remember that.

  4. Hning

    I was just thinking about you arguing discussing with when Nelden Djakababa in Ubud while writing this last article.

    Part of it came from the sense of failure when another attendant of that session came to me and asked, “So, who was the writer that Seno Gumira suggested reading? Danarto? And are there any of his books in English?” Err. No, none of the Indonesian writers reading material are available in English. Even Rendra. Have you heard of Pramoedya, though?

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  6. Carlitos

    That’s awesome! Was just brwnoisg your sight and your book looks awesome!Just thought I’d try and find another fun fact for you about Indonesia and here’s what I came up with:There are about 70 million kids in Indonesia–that means 70 million potential book sales! and:In Bali you could get change for money back in candy because money is worth so little.(not sure I believe that one, but it sounds good to me!)

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