Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 17, 2017

AALITRA Symposium, Translating Australian Literature, 16/9/17

AALITRA-logo-image-file1.gifYesterday I attended the annual AALITRA Symposium here in Melbourne at the Boyd Library in Southbank, and had a most interesting time.  The event was very well attended and arriving just shortly before it started, I was lucky to get a seat.  I think some people must have come without booking in beforehand, and who can blame them, this is always a beaut event for anyone interested in translation, and – thanks to the Copyright Agency, it’s free.

The program featured Alice Pung in conversation with Leah Gerber from Monash about Pung’s experience of literary translation.  There was some preliminary discussion about the past practice of labelling books as ‘ethnic literature’ or ‘migrant literature’ which had a kind of silo effect along with assumptions about a set of tropes that distinguished it from ‘Australian literature’.  In this context Pung made an interesting remark about Anh Do’s book The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir  which she said is popular with people who are anti-refugee because he is seen to be a ‘grateful’ refugee.  But the main focus of the discussion was about the relationship between translator and author….

Alice Pung’s book Unpolished Gem has been translated into ItalianGerman and Indonesian, and her experience with the translator was different with each.  She had very little contact with the Indonesian translator Francesca – indeed so little that when Pung commented that she hadn’t even been given the surname of this translator, she was surprised to have it explained that it is quite normal to have just one name in Java.  But she developed a closer relationship with her Italian translator Adele D’Arcangelo, who, she said, had seen parallels between Italian and Australian culture that Pung herself had not identified, in particular that Pung’s ethnicity is regional in the same way that Italy’s is.   The discussion about the German translation branched off into a discussion about American editions, which – with audience input – became quite critical of the American penchant for insisting on inappropriate changes to suit an American audience.  Pung said, for example, that some of her US YA readers had picked up on changing the emergency phone number from the Australian triple 000 to the American 911, and had commented in social media forums that they knew this number was wrong in Australia.

Worse than this, however, was that while none of the translations into other languages required an introduction about the Vietnam War or a family tree, the American one did because, it was said, American publishing has not kept up with attitudinal changes elsewhere.  They still assume that their readers are too ignorant to know about events and cultures outside the US, and Pung was quite indignant about the assumption that American readers don’t know about the Vietnam War in particular since the US had been one of the belligerents and indeed it is called the American War in Vietnam.  If she wanted to be published, she had to agree to these changes, but, she said, it turned the story into a ‘refugee story’ instead of the family story that it is.  Gerber closed this discussion with a thought-provoking reply to a question about the ethics of ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignising’ a text: she said that the point was to make the book accessible, and that it’s not an ethical issue…

Karen Viggers is the author of three books which have had more success in translation than here in Australia.  Her books have been translated into French, Italian, Norwegian, Slovenian and Spanish; and they have been very successful in France, selling more than 400,000 copies to date and winning a French Award. The Lightkeeper’s Wife (La Memoire de embruns) was on the French National Bestseller list for more than 32 weeks.  She compared the elegant French covers with Australian covers designed to get the books into K-Mart even though they misrepresent the books and may lose readers who dismiss them as commercial fiction.  She also talked about the difference in formats, where in Australia books come out in C and B formats, while in France there’s a large format edition and then a poche (pocket) mass market edition.

Interestingly, Viggers had had very little contact with her translators, and had in fact seen a query on social media from her Slovenian translator about what something meant, when she had offered to be available for any queries and would have preferred to have been asked directly. She said that as a result of her success in France where she has had media tours and so on, she had brushed up her school French and included pages in French on her website out of respect for her French readers.

One of the translators in the audience asked whether Viggers thought the translator’s name should be on the front cover (she said she didn’t mind) and this triggered quite a bit of discussion (and long-winded ‘questions’) about acknowledging translators!  I was therefore quite amused when later, in a private discussion over wine and nibbles in the break, an older translator was quite dismissive about young translators wanting to be acknowledged.  He seemed quite surprised when I said that as a reader I wanted to know who the translator was, and that there were some books that I would read because they had been translated by a translator I admired.  (Margaret Jull Costa, for one.  She never translates anything that’s not a great book to read and her translations are flawless.  Aussie Will Firth for another, because he translates politically astute books from Eastern Europe.)

And then, the highlight of the event for me, was Lily Yulianti Farid in conversation with Paul Thomas of the role literary translation has in spreading cultural knowledge between Indonesia and Australia.  I know Lily from my session at the Bendigo Writers Festival where we talked about her short story collection Family Room, (see my review). It was translated polished up by John McGlynn since Lily speaks perfectly good English but wanted to be sure she hadn’t made any errors. Paul Thomas’s academic area of interest is in cultural exchange and he thinks that Australia’s most interesting relationship is with our nearest neighbour, Indonesia.  Since Indonesia’s independence Australia has needed to work on this relationship independently of the US and UK, and we need to have a cultural relationship as well as a political/economic one.

Well, in 1946, the now defunct newspaper The Argus said that Australia should flood Indonesia with translations about ourselves, but *chuckle* in response to Menzies’ suggestion that Indonesian should be taught in Australian universities, Indonesia flooded us with books – 16,000 of them!  Alas, even today, a mere trickle of Aussie books have been translated into Indonesian.  A sort of canon of Australian authors includes Thomas Keneally, Sally Morgan, Christopher Koch, Alice Pung, Peter Carey and Randa Abdel-Fattah plus some short stories in anthologies for Australian Studies in Indonesian universities.  Lily acknowledged that Indonesians are much more interested in European literature, and that didn’t change even when Patrick White won the Nobel Prize.  (That concurs with my own observations in bookshops in Yogyakarta: heaps of translations of British classics (Austen & Co) and also British crime fiction.  I myself bought some Agatha Christies so that I could practice my reading in Indonesian with books where I already knew the plot.)

Some of the titles that were translated had a political agenda.  The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith was translated by an author whose own work was banned, and he wanted to send a message about human rights to the generals under Suharto.  Sally Morgan’s My Place was translated to show that the Australian government was open to books that were critical of Australia, and it was launched not in a bookshop but by the cultural attaché and published under the auspices of the Australian Institute.   Two titles by Peter Carey, My Life as a Fake and True History of the Kelly Gang were also chosen as part of this program and Lily, who had read the latter, said that not only did Indonesians not know about Ned Kelly, but that they knew very little about Australian literature at all. Scholarship students coming to Australia to study are told instead about barbecues and Australian slang, and that within this international network of students, Aduh! most had never read an Australian book though they might have seen one of our films.  (Because now that they have their own fledgling film industry, they are interested in how other small film makers do it.)  Apparently there has been a launch of an “Australian Corner” in Indonesian university libraries, but it hasn’t really got started yet…

Lily talked about the specifics of the Indonesian translations: their edition of True History of the Kelly Gang has no colloquialisms in it, they’re all translated into standard Indonesian.  My Place, OTOH, used an East Javan dialect in contrast with standard Indonesian to represent Indigenous voices as distinct from Standard Australian English.  She said that some concepts are difficult to translate and gave the example of ‘bushranger’ being translated as ‘bandit’ and the honorific ‘Sang’ added to it to show that there was some respect for Kelly amongst (some) Australians.  Perhaps of more significance to the marketing of Australian books is the issue of what Lily coyly called ‘dirty words’.  Australian fiction these days is full of foul language, and while post 2000 Indonesian books by women writers have more explicit sex and ‘dirty words’ there is cultural pressure on them not to do so.  So ‘dirty words’ in Indonesian translations are made milder due to these cultural sensitivities (and my guess is that some works e.g. by Christos Tsolkias would never get into the country).

But when it comes to planning literary festivals for Indonesian audiences, (and Lily is active in that) the interest is mainly in European and American writers.  Our best hope for promoting Australian literature to our neighbour is through the international students returning to Indonesia, they are the footprint because Australia is familiar to them.  But what Lily didn’t say because she was too polite, is that these students must surely be a bit taken aback at the relentlessly negative portrayal of Indonesia in our media, and perhaps they return home not really wanting to read our books.

Oh, and just in case some readers think it doesn’t matter: Indonesia has a population of well over 261 million.  10% of those are middle class people with middle class incomes, more than the entire population of Australia.  An Australian author breaking into that book market can make a great deal of money!



  1. Oh, I would have gone to this if I could (though, that said, I had opportunities to attend ACT Writers Centre sessions this weekend, but didn’t – for family reasons PLUS my Jane Austen group).

    Anyhow, I was really interested in the translators’ comment “the ethics of ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignising’ a text” being “to make the book accessible, and that it’s not an ethical issue…” I’d probably argue that it’s not a black-and-white issue and would depend very much on the sort of work and the audience. Is it too snooty to say that the more literary the work the less “domesticating” you would expect because such readers tend to be aware of cultural and historical issues? My guess is that some sensitive “domesticating” could be useful in genre books and YA, but it’s surely a fine line. However, I would have thought that the 000/911 thing would be pretty obvious from context and unlikely to need “domesticating”.

    Karen Viggers’ point about covers is interesting too – albeit a bit of a side-issue to translating. I have still to read one of her books – am keen to, but the pile, the pile. (And how irritating to see a question on social media from someone translating YOUR book!)

    Finally, I agree that the translators should be on the cover, and if not then clearly on the title page. They should not be relegated to the verso.


  2. I enjoy your interest in translation though it doesn’t affect much of what I read. But our outright aversion to cultural engagement with our neighbours – the withdrawal of radio and tv services as well as the failure to encourage book translations in both directions is nonsensical and counter productive


    • Ah, then I have a series just for you! Giramondo are bringing out a series called Southern Latitudes, which is about introducing books from east and west of us rather than being preoccupied with the northern hemisphere. I have one on the go (from Argentina) and another on the TBR from NZ, and there will be some from southern Africa and the south Pacific – and surely, from Indonesia as well!


  3. *chuckle* Well, you know by now, I suppose, that ‘thought-provoking’ in my posts is sometimes code for I don’t think I agree with this but haven’t yet thought out my position clearly.
    I was thinking along the lines that whether a text is ‘domesticated’ or not can have a political impact, in the sense that the more that a ‘foreign’ text is made comfortable to read, the more it fits into the reader’s comfort zone (so yes, I take your point, commercial fiction is all about reading within a comfort zone, making it easy is what it’s about). But as Alice Pung said, taking her book into the US comfort zone of refugee stories makes the book less universal than leaving it as a family story. And in the context of domestic politics both here and in the US, refugee stories are part of the weaponry against demonising refugees, and are read or not read i.e. rejected within that frame. So I think that in this case, and maybe others, the choice to domesticate does have a political impact, and therefore domestication *is* a matter of ethics.
    But, while nobody used the words ‘cultural imperialism’, judging by the vehemence of some in the audience, there were strong feelings about our texts being unnecessarily manipulated to ‘Americanise’ them. Someone said that if we Australians can and do make an effort to understand foreign references and allusions in what we read, they should too, the implication being that ‘allowing’ Americans to be ‘lazy’ was a matter of ethics for the translator and publisher too.
    The interesting thing about the way this discussion was hijacked to the issue of Americanising texts, i.e. English to English was that the discussion stuck there. It didn’t move on to domesticating for and from other languages, and by coincidence I’ve just been chatting with Evan on my post about the Catalan book ‘In Diamond Square’ about anglicising names in the Bush translation to English. ( If you follow the comments, Evan provides a link to a line-by-line analysis of the difference in UK and US translations, which shows the choices the translators have made to domesticate or foreignise.
    BTW I have personal history on this: I refused to allow my best-selling education text about Indonesia to be domesticated for the American market, denying myself whatever sales I might have had there. I wrote the book for Australian children to learn about our neighbour, and the whole first chapter compared our history and society with theirs. (Their government, ours; their colonisation; ours etc). If I’d agreed, I would have been denying our children the possibility of engaging with Indonesia in that very specific way, and the bigger picture is that our students ought to have Australian material to learn with. That was a matter of ethics, IMO.
    The whole business of translation can be more contentious than it seems, and while I’m interested in the issues in an abstract kind of way, I keep reminding myself that at the end of the day, it’s translation that enables me to read books from around the world and that I will have more time to read those books if I don’t get side-tracked into following arguments about whether and how translation should be done at all!


    • I certainly did understand your “code” Lisa! I know you well enough by now! You’ll notice that I didn’t engage with the “ethical” part of her comment because I generally agree with you. I didn’t want to write an essay in my comment so just wanted to throw in my POV that nothing is ever black and white (well, few things are, anyhow). I think hard and fast rules are limiting if not dangerous, and that a more nuanced approach to these issues is the best way to go, but I do agree that there tends to be over-domestication for the American market . And because it is such a big market they can get away with it. It’s all about money, and those who do it care not a jot about moving people’s cultural understanding on. It’s also denying them the opportunity, treating them as imbeciles!

      There’s always the option of annotations – but these are not going to interest those who read just for story. The edition of Persuasion I just read (which is why I specifically included “historical” in my comment above) has a lot of annotations to explain things that people knew then, but not necessarily now. Some were words that were easy to work out from the context but others were very useful (such as the hierarchy of lodgings in Bath and what they tell us about the various characters).


  4. Reading your comment, although I’ve heard plenty about it I was going to say that apart from a shocker of a Zola translation, I haven’t actually encountered much domestication for the US market myself, because of course I read Australian editions and wouldn’t know what they get up to… but then I remembered that I have a first US edition of True History of the Kelly Gang *and* the original UQP edition. *blush* I haven’t actually read either, but when I do, maybe I should read the US edition to see if I can identify any Americanisations!


    • No, me neither, but one does hear about it regularly around the traps – so your Symposium info just added to that, he? As for Kelly, yes, that would be very interesting, particularly given the vernacular it is written in. I wonder if they did do any.


      • I’ll get to it soon, but not before I finish Finnegans Wake. I am almost half way through!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. […] is a controversial issue I’ve discussed with Lisa (ANZLitLovers) recently on her blog when she reported on the AALITRA Symposium. I’m not sure who originated the comment, […]


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