Making Literature Travel between Europe and Asia: INDONESIAN TRANSLATION PROGRAMS

How does writing from other continents find its way to European publishers in today’s competitive book industry? And how do we interact with markets and literary scenes as remote as those of China, India or Indonesia?’
In the lead up to Asia Pacific Writers & Translators’ conference in Bali, Indonesian translator Eliza Vitri Handayani shares her thoughts on Making Literature Travel, a subject she spoke about at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, the year Indonesia was Guest of Honour. The issues she raised, particularly about government support—or the lack of it—for literary translations can be extrapolated to other countries.

TRANSLATORS PLAY AN important part in introducing the literature of any country to another. Eliza Vitri Handayani, founder of InterSastra, a free, independent space for literary exchange between Indonesia and other countries, n Indonesian literary translation initiative, pointed out that many translations are achieved because of a proposal to a publisher by a translator knowledgeable in a country’s literature. ‘Translators can inform the industry about which foreign books are likely to sell in other markets,’ she said.

She stressed the importance of government support for translation programs. In the specific case of Indonesian literature she said, ‘To get more translations from Indonesia into Europe, it’s crucial for the Ministry of Education and Culture to continue investing in translators through the Indonesian Translation Funding Program.’

She suggested investment could be done in many ways.

1) Hold literary translation workshops and mentoring programs. (Handayani flagged the success of her own translation initiative, InterSastra, which partnered with British Centre for Literary Translation to hold translation workshops, seminars, readings, and other events with Indonesian and European authors.)

2) Train translators how to network with and pitch a work to international publishers.

3) Events like APWT’s conferences can do this. Handayani mentioned the European Literature Night’s Translation Pitch which helps translators sharpen their skills and promote the authors whose works they admire. The pitches can then be distributed on social media to create even bigger buzz around the books and translatorsauthors.

4) Train translators to write reader’s report and proposals that they can submit to international publishers. ‘These will give translators experience in creating a book summary, gathering info on sales, prizes, media coverage, and explaining to publishers why they think the book would be successful with the target audience.,’ Handayani said.

5) Hold a Translators Exchange Program. Handayani suggested collaborations with European countries with organizations devoted to promoting their country’s literature. ‘They could collaborate to create a program enabling a translator working to translate a book by, say, a German author to work in Germany for a period of time, supported by the German organization, and a translator working to translate a book by an Indonesian author, can work in Indonesia.’

She said the Indonesian Translation Funding Program could fill a real need by
improving the infrastructure for writers in Indonesia. . ‘Hold workshops to raise awareness regarding copyrights; create a network of translators who are able to translate from regional Indonesian languages; develop festivals and residencies, especially including in the regionsprovinces, where authors, editors, and translators can meet,’ ‘ she suggested.

She said all these steps are necessary to address complaints from translators of that source texts are often poorly edited. ‘The ITFP should also consider holding editing workshops with Indonesian authors and editors.’

Olivia Sears, director of the Center for the Arts of Translation in San Francisco, pointed out at an earlier InterSastra seminar that some less-translated countries have had success (in achieving published translations of in other countries ) by inviting delegations of editors and publishers to their country to meet authors. ‘ITFP can do this periodically,’ Handayani said. ‘And the other way around, sponsor visits of Indonesian writers to various literary festivals, perhaps in collaboration with embassies abroad. Another simple, but useful, thing to do is to donate Indonesian books to schools and libraries abroad.’

She also suggested that government- supported translation arms like the ITFP should post on the web a catalog of translation samples into English. These could be easily browsed by foreign publishers.

At the 2010 InterSastra seminar Professor Lily Rose Tope from the University of the Philippines highlighted the sad fact that Southeast Asian countries don’t read each other.


‘ONE OBVIOUS BARRIER is language,’ said Handayani. ‘If we can get more translation going between Indonesia and our English-speaking neighboring countries, such as Singapore and Australia, we can open doors for translations into other languages in the region and beyond.’

Handayani recommended that because most publishers don’t have the resources to pay for translation costs, the government translation initiative must continue, but rather than directing grants to Indonesian publishers, it must reach out to international publishers.

‘If ITFP already paid a grant to translate a book into English, published by an Indonesian publisher, and then, say, a UK publisher wants to acquire the book but they don’t like the translation and want to hire a different translator, then the public will have to spend twice as much on the grant for that book,’ she said.

She expressed concern over how much is paid to translators themselves, and whether translators retain the copyright to their work. For Indonesian work showcased at the Frankfurt Book Fair she said that public money discriminated against citizens. ‘Translators who are Indonesian citizens had to work for a lower rate than that for non-Indonesians, even if the books are published in key foreign markets, such as the US and Australia, and even if the Indonesian translators themselves live in countries with higher living costs than Indonesia. The rates for Indonesian translators were IDR 140,000 per page to translate into English and 160,000 into German; the rates for foreign-citizen translators were IDR 300,000 into English and 480,000 into German.

‘I understand that most esteemed translators translate into their native tongue, but the work’s quality, not the translator’s citizenship, should determine the rates the translator gets. Increasing our appreciation for translators’ work will pay off in the quality of the translation.’


TRANSLATORS THEMSELVES CAN create public events that attract a wider audience to increase general appreciation for what we they do. Handayani cited several inspiring examples:

1) The British Centre for Literary Translation’s Translation Duel. Two translators are tasked with translating the same short text. They go on stage to debate their translation choices. Rosalind Harvey, an award-winning translator from Spanish into English, said: “When I participated in Translation Duel I invited my friends to watch. On the way home, they told me that the event made them see that my job is not the same as that of a typist. They saw that what I do is actually challenging and fun.”

2) Katy Derbyshire’s blog Going Dutch with German Authors. Derbyshire is a widely acclaimed translator from German into English, every week or so she would go out for drinks with an author and have a relaxed conversation about many things. The blog is an amusing and effective way to draw wider attention to the authors.

3) Paper Republic’s Chinese Short Story Year, which . This publishes online one piece by a Chinese writer every week. Posting a new piece every week keeps the project fresh, and the short pieces can attract readers previously uninterested in Chinese literature.

4) Translators should work with authors to submit their pieces to all kinds of literary media abroad—many now are accepting translations. Indonesian writing should be put on the global literary map, not only in a special edition of Indonesian authors, not only as writing from Indonesia or Asia, but as a part of world literature.

In return, authors must also support their translators and not forget to acknowledge them. With creativity and social media savvies, authors and translators can now do so much more to help bring the writings we love across countries and continents.


IN FRANKFURT HANDAYANI took the opportunity to speak about a collection of Indonesian writing, translated into English, called ‘Diverse Indonesia’.

‘As has happened in other Guest of Honour countries before, in Indonesia there were controversies surrounding the selection of authors featured at the Fair. When InterSastra was invited to the Fair by Literature Across Frontiers, I decided to open up space for authors not yet selected by the national committee. In August we sent out a call for submission, and in September we read and selected the submissions without seeing the author’s name to focus only on the works’ quality. We then approached emerging translators to translate the works and paired them with established translators, so that the program also became a training opportunity for the emerging translators. ‘InterSastra is from, by and for writers and translators – all working voluntarily. We do hope that in the future we will receive support from the ITFP so that we can do much more.’

‘By making investments in translators and the infrastructure for Indonesian literature, the ITFP will bring benefits not only for our performance at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but also for Indonesian literature in the long term.’

Eliza Vitri Handayani is a novelist and literary translator from Indonesia. Her novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different was published in 2015 and was launched internationally, including at the APWT Summit and Frankfurt Book Fair. At the launch of the novel in Oslo and Jakarta, she wore a dress that she made herself using the novel’s proofs. The book’s launch at Ubud Writers & Readers Festival was cancelled due to police objections, and Eliza protested by wearing to the festival t-shirts with excerpts from her novel. Her short works have appeared in Indonesian and international anthologies and media, such as Koran Tempo, Jakarta Post, Magdalene, Asia Literary Review, Griffith Review, Exchanges Journal, Words Without Borders, Inside Indonesia, Index on Censorship. In 2016 Eliza was a selected as a fellow for the Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange (WrICE) program, and she appeared in several literary festivals: Northern Territory Writers Festival, Makassar International Writers Festival, and Melbourne Writers Festival. Eliza is the founder and manager of InterSastra, which is currently publishing “Defiant Voices”, a series of works by writers who keep writing in face of censorship or intimidation; and “Literary Souvenirs”, works by writers encountered during travels.