Improving Literary Translation in Indonesia

Eliza Handayani

Originally published in “In Other Words”, Issue 38, Winter 2011


While I was studying in a liberal arts college in the United States, my professors often made references to works of literature that they assumed students had read in school, such as Hamlet, Anna Karenina, the Odyssey. Many of my classmates had indeed read them. I felt cheated that good Indonesian translations of such titles were not available when I was growing up. Since then I have been nursing a dream to organise efforts to translate into Indonesian, publish, and promote works of literature from around the world. In 2006, a year after graduation, I returned to Jakarta and got a position as an editor at a publishing house.

After the toppling of the repressive New Order regime in 1998 and the ensuing democratic reforms, the number of titles published in Indonesia increased dramatically; books in translation flooded the market; ideas once considered subversive, subject matters once considered too controversial, books about Marxism, socialism, state corruption, the 1965 ‘coup’, sex and homosexuality, about and by ethnic Chinese, books criticising the toppled president, and books once banned by the New Order suddenly crammed bookstores.[1] The public responded with equal zest.

Equally notable was the emergence of numerous small, ‘alternative’ presses, many located on the narrow streets of the culturally vibrant student town Yogyakarta, burning with the idealistic desire to enlighten the nation after decades of restrictions, censorship, and misinformation. These small publishers, along with the big established players, raced to publish translations of works by world-renowned authors and thinkers, trying to fill the void left by 32 years under New Order.[2]

As the euphoria died down, the public began criticizing the quality of the translations. Perusing books encountered in bookstores and friends’ collections, I often found sentences that made no sense, poorly structured paragraphs, and passages that distorted the meaning of the original text, sometimes leaving me wondering if the manuscript went through any editing process at all. Another reader may wonder if the author’s thoughts were too complex for him or her to understand, or if the author did not really deserve his or her high reputation, whereas uncritical readers, or those unable to read the original texts, may just go on using these books as reference and materials to write articles, reviews, and studies. Moreover, the public’s original enthusiasm have calmed down as well, and since, other trends have shifted publishers’ interests in favour of translating more popular books, such as chick-lit, teen-lit, and self-help books.

Working as an editor for a publishing company, I gradually realized the difficult conditions in producing literary translations.

Translators’ competency

1. Many considered translation an easy task (‘whoever can speak the source language and target language can translate’). Many translators are not so proficient in the source language and do not have a good command of literary skills and devices, thus they work literally, translating word for word, instead of finding creative solutions to transfer meaning from one language to another.

2. Many translators do not have an in-depth understanding of the book at hand. Many are assigned a book by an author they never heard before, and once they finish translating the book, it is often also the end of their contact with that author. Translators who are also experts in an author’s works, a genre, or a period are rare.

3. There are few competent translators from languages other than English; books in languages other than English are usually translated from an English translation, except perhaps Islamic books written in Arabic. Translation consultancies, residencies, and exchanges are rare.

4. To the extent of my knowledge, there is not yet a course of study that one can take to learn the art and craft of literary translation—even though there are foreign literature majors at reputable universities where students read books in the original language and write a thesis in that language.

Unfavourable working conditions

5. Commercial publishing houses rarely provide an environment conducive to producing good literary translations. Most translators are hired per project, and they are given such a short time to complete the project, sometimes as short as only one or two months to translate a novel of more than 200 pages. In a rush to publish, some publishers even divide a work into sections and assign them to different translators. This is done both to minimize costs and to take advantage of trends, for example to quickly publish a work by an author who recently won the Nobel Prize, or to publish a novel whose film adaptation was still playing on the cinemas.

6. Often editors function only as correctors or proofreaders. They are given the manuscript once the translators complete their work, and then the editors make their corrections or changes, usually without consulting the translators.

7. First print-run of most novels is only around 2500-3000 copies, which if sold out in the first year may be considered a bestseller;[3] the market for poetry is even smaller. Also, Indonesian publishers do not keep midlists and backlists; after two years or so (maybe one reprinting, but most books do not even get that), the publishers let the book go out of print.

This is partly because reading culture is still low, despite high literacy rate.[4] Whereas most of the population can read road signs, fill in questionnaires, and write notes, they do not necessarily have a high reading and writing proficiency, and in many areas books are still a luxury.

8. Translators are usually paid per character (IDR 4-25, or GBP 0.3-2 per 1,000 character) and are not offered royalties; the publishing house holds copyrights to the translation. The publishers need to keep costs low so that they can make a profit while keeping the books relatively affordable.

9. Generally, translation quality does not affect sales as much as author’s reputation, packaging, or the story of the book, therefore publishing houses have little incentive in investing in good quality translation.

10. Many literary translators cannot live solely off their work as translators. They may have another job or work on multiple projects at once, thus cannot dedicate themselves entirely to a book or familiarize themselves further with the book’s issues or aesthetics.

11. Due to leftover fears of government censorship and newer fears of attacks by the public or religious groups adamant on controlling other people’s morals, and sometimes due to their own political or religious beliefs, some publishing houses practice self-censorship—taming or suppressing passages they consider controversial or inappropriate, such as those with profanities, sexual or romantic references, or otherwise considered objectionable to certain religions or social norms, thereby damaging the aesthetics and integrity of the books, sometimes without informing the original copyright owners or the translators.

12. While there is an active Association of Indonesian Translators (Himpunan Penerjemah Indonesia—HPI) and translators’ online community and mailing list (Bahtera), literary translators form only a small part of those. I am not aware of an organisation specifically devoted to the interests of literary translators.

Low appreciation

13. Translation quality is rarely discussed in book reviews, except when it is poor. However, many publications mention the translator’s name along with the book’s title, author, and publisher in the reviews. Not all reviewers have high reading proficiency in foreign languages, and even if they do, it is difficult or expensive to obtain the original texts. There is still no publication or column specifically dedicated to the review or criticism of literary translation.

14. Publishers hold launchings, radio talk shows, and discussions at bookstores or cafes to promote their books, but translators are seldom invited to speak at such events, and the translation quality is rarely mentioned.

15. There is still no prize or award that honours literary translators or the year’s best book in translation.

With low visibility and appreciation, translators also have low motivation and incentive to develop their skills and improve the quality of their work.

In 2007 I stated my concerns to writers Nukila Amal, Ayu Utami, and Zen Hae as members of the Jakarta Arts Council’s (JAC) Literary Committee 2006-2009. After long discussions, we agreed to hold a Literary Translation Programme as the first step toward addressing the problems of literary translation in Indonesia. We aimed to demonstrate better practices in producing literary translations and inspire further efforts to improve the practice of literary translation. In December 2007 I signed on as programme officer.


After consulting with other writers and editors, the Literary Committee and I decided to translate History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters by Julian Barnes (U.K.) and Dictionary of the Kazhars by Milorad Pavić (Serbia). The first was translated directly from the original language and the second was translated from an English translation.

We chose to work with novels, considering that prose is relatively easier to translate than poetry, novels have relatively wider readership, it is easier to obtain rights to a work rather than to a collection of works, and it is easier to find a translator for a book by one author rather than for an anthology. Moreover, the Literary Committee who would be closely supervising the project consists of two novelists and a short-stories writer. Specifically, we wanted the books to offer a new formal possibility in constructing a novel, not be particularly challenging to translate, be less than 300 pages, due to time constraint, and be written and published after 1980.

We then selected our translators and editors, trying to involve as many parties as possible, including publishing houses, literary communities, students and the academia. Barnes was translated by Arif Bagus Prasetyo, an acclaimed art and literary critic and English-into-Indonesian translator with nine books credited to his name. His editor was writer and translator Dinar Rahayu. Their copyeditor was Wikan Satriati, who has worked as an editor in a publishing house since 2001. Pavić was translated by Noor Cholis, who has translated 22 books and essays; he worked with Yusi A. Pareanom, the editor-in-chief of Banana Publishing, Jakarta. Their copyeditor was Bramantio, who was then just finishing his Master’s degree in Indonesian Literature.

We introduced the translators and editors from the beginning, and they worked closely from April to December 2008 (about nine months, more than twice the time usually allowed by publishing houses). We also paid them higher rates than were usual at publishing houses. We bought the translation rights and gave translators copyrights to their works. Additionally, translators and editors could consult the writers on the Literary Committee whenever they needed to. In translating Pavić, we planned to consult the Serbian-into-English translator, but we only succeeded in reaching the rights holder to Pavić’s work very late into our project after a long story of unreplied emails, fax, and letters, and we had no other lead on how to approach the Serbian-into-English translator.

The team, the writers, and I met four times during the course of the nine months, sometimes inviting other translators and writers, going through the manuscripts and discussing problems encountered, exploring alternative ways to translate a sentence or paragraph, and settling disagreements between translators and editors. The translators and editors also communicated online between meetings.

We then solicited interest from five publishers, four in Jakarta and one in Yogyakarta, before choosing two, one for Barnes and one for Pavić. We delivered a clean manuscript, ready for layout, printing, and publishing. Sejarah Dunia dalam 10 ½ Bab was printed 3000 copies without assistance, and Kamus Khazar was printed 2500 copies with assistance of 30% of printing costs.

For the launching of the books, I put together a media kit consisting of a press release and two sample chapters in the original texts and in the Indonesian translations, and sent those to reviewers and the media so that the translation quality could be discussed in their articles. We then invited publishing professionals, HPI, the Association of Indonesian Publishers (Ikatan Penerbit Indonesia—IKAPI), cultural institutions, universities, arts and literary communities, the press, and other parties that may be interested. We launched the books in June 2009.


I was pleased that we had taken a step towards improving the practice of literary translation in Indonesia, but as I wrote my report, I realized that occasional projects like ours would not be enough to affect the overall situation. JAC particularly does not have the resources to sustain a continuing publishing programme because its members change every three years, its staff is hired on a part-time basis, and funding often arrives late. I realized it would take long-term, coordinated efforts to improve the conditions for literary translation in Indonesia.

An independent, well-funded, and clearly structured literary translation centre will be able to implement a long-term publishing programme that includes works of literature from around the world, classical and contemporary. The centre, being not entirely for profit, can choose their books based on quality and the need of the public. Over time it will give readers a good selection of books that present diverse literary styles, voices, themes, and forms; it will allow readers to survey great writings that are being done around the world, works that expand imagination, inspire creativity, and open minds; it will provide the texts needed to follow the history and development of a literary form or theme; it will build the foundation for future improvements.

My experience at JAC convinced me that the centre would need to publish its own books, not least to demonstrate to other publishing houses that it is possible to provide an environment conducive to creative works, for example by allowing a longer working period for each book and by fostering a good working relationship between translators and editors based on mutual respect.

With the capacity to publish, the centre can break with the habit of authorizing editors to make changes without translators’ knowledge. Even with JAC’s guarantee of a final manuscript, Mr. Prasetyo’s publisher made changes to his work without informing him or us. ‘With the excuse to conform the work to house style, the publisher’s editor ruined the consistency of terms used, ignored translator’s judgment regarding specific matters, and ultimately clouded the author’s aesthetics that we have worked so hard to preserve,’ he wrote.[5] We immediately sent a formal complaint against the publisher, who then promised to re-publish the work without the changes. This promise remains to be fulfilled.

Indeed, translating books from many parts of the world means bringing in a myriad of perspectives, values, ideas—some are bound to be controversial by local standards—but rather than altering the work, we can highlight the deeper meaning of the entire work and shift attention away from a few passages that may seem offensive if regarded on their own, or we can ground the work within the context of the culture that produced it and let it be a window to another world. An organisation with a thorough commitment to good literary translation can do precisely this.

I also sensed that the centre should not depend mainly on government funding, but rather find reliable support from local and international literary and translation institutions. As a publishing entity the organisation or centre will be eligible to apply for translation subsidies and grants from international institutions, many of which give out such grants only to publishers. With stable funding, the centre can pay translators and editors fair compensation so that they can focus on working and perfecting their craft. It may also offer them royalties, and certainly the copyrights to their works.

JAC hired experienced translators and editors, but to improve translation we must build translators’ competence and nurture new talents. Doing so requires long-term commitment. The envisioned centre may hold mentoring programmes, lectures, and workshops with expert translators, writers, and international translation representatives. It may also cooperate with universities to create a Literary Translation major in which students can explore the art of literary translation, or to run classes intended to foster specialization among translators so that they too can be experts in their chosen area, be it an author’s works, a genre, a period, etc.

The centre may also spur translators to develop and produce better works by recognizing first-rate translators and encouraging the appreciation of literary translation. JAC invited translators to speak at the books’ launching, but a stable centre can do so much more in terms of giving translators some recognition. As it promotes its books, the centre may hold festivals, readings, talks, open houses, and book tours across Indonesia—inviting deserving translators and asking them to talk about their work and the process of translation. The centre may also regularly award a prize for the year’s best book in translation, selected by an independently elected jury and given to translators. It may publish a journal specifically dedicated to the review and criticism of literary translation, training reviewers to evaluate translation quality and allowing translators to receive thoughtful feedbacks.

My experience at JAC also made clear the importance of having a strong international network, which can connect Indonesian translators with translators in other countries and facilitate translation consultancies, especially in doing relay translation. Such network will enable the centre to invite authors to consult with the translation of their works, bring in experts to talk about issues relevant to the books being translated, send translators on residencies that allow them to experience first-hand the cultural nuances of the book they are working on.

I believe that the strategies mentioned above, if coordinated well, in the long run would improve the conditions of literary translation in Indonesia, produce better quality translations, and ultimately make it possible for Indonesians to grow up and grow old reading good Indonesian translations of good books from around the world.

An independent literary translation centre with the capacity to publish and promote its own books may just be the base for the organisation and implementation of those strategies.

[1] Michael Nieto Garcia, ‘Indonesian Publishing: New Freedoms, Old Worries, and Unfinished Democratic Reform’, in Identifying with Freedom: Indonesia after Suharto, ed. by Tony Day (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), pp. 58-69.

[2] Arif Bagus Prasetyo, ‘Buku-buku Terjemahan: Banjir Berkah yang Bermasalah’ (‘Books in Translation: A Flood of Mixed Blessings’), Koran Tempo, date unverified.

[3] Genre fiction generally sells better than literary fiction, although there is encouraging news from Serambi Publishing, Bandung: since 2009 publishers have begun to compete in publishing translations of classical literary works, mostly from English, after the success of such translations as Nabokov’s Lolita and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. (From personal correspondence with Anton Kurnia, Serambi’s editor-in-chief, September 21, 2011.)

[4] According to Badan Pusat Statistik (Statistics Indonesia), 2010 literacy rate among people under 15 is 93%, aged 15 to 44 is 98%, and over 45 is 82%. Statistics Indonesia, ‘Tabel 4. Persentase Penduduk Buta Huruf menurut Kelompok Umur Tahun 2003-2010’ (Illiteracy Rate According to Age Groups 2003-2010) <> [accessed 28 September 2011].

[5] ‘Dengan alasan menyelaraskan hasil terjemahan agar sesuai dengan selingkung Penerbit, penyunting yang digaji Penerbit itu melakukan perubahan sendiri yang merusak konsistensi pemakaian istilah, melenceng dari estetika dan gaya penulis asli yang telah susah-payah berusaha dipertahankan penerjemah bersama editor dan tim konsultan semula, serta melanggar judgement call (tafsir terhadap maksud pengarang asli) yang menjadi hak prerogratif penerjemah.’ Arif Bagus Prasetyo, “Sastra Terjemahan Kita” (“Our Literary Translation Scene”), presented at Temu Sastrawan Indonesia II [2nd Indonesian Writers Conference], Pangkalpinang, Indonesia, 30 July-2 August 2009.

Eliza HandayaniComment