Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2022

IndoLit Club Sydney: Translation forum

I am hopelessly behind with reviews and everything else, but the opportunity came up to attend a translation forum this morning so I jettisoned #SituationNormal…

# Update 23/7/22 Please note that some elements have been edited from the original post at the request of Toni Pollard.

The IndoLit Club Sydney is an online book group which meets with Zoom, and (thanks to Twitter) I was able to attend their forum on translation.  The session was moderated by Kestity Pringgoharjono from the IndoLit Club. (See their Facebook page).

As one of the participants mentioned, the panel consisted of an older generation of translators, and this session was an opportunity to mentor younger people wanting to make a career in translating Indonesian.  The panel introduced themselves and their work, beginning with John McGlynn whose work as both translator and publisher I know from my own reading:

  • John McGlynn: when he began translating there was next to nothing in the way of Indonesian literature available in English.  His own Indonesian teacher (in the US) had used IndoLit to teach the language, and so McGlynn found himself able to read novels early on and wanted to share his enthusiasm with others.  He  began translating even as an undergraduate, and in 1987 founded the Lontar Foundation. He found that it was impossible to have an income as a literary translator so he diversified into freelance commercial translation, working for US Dept of State and other bodies, and also translated non-fiction and films, as well as technical materials.  He has 40 book length titles translated under his own name, as well as an extensive body of translation work, too much to detail here.
  • George Quinn: Quinn is the translator of the novel The Rape of Sukreni by Anak Agung Pandji Tisna.  He has also translated some short stories and some children’s picture books from English into Indonesian.  However he is mainly interested in translating from Javanese, and is a strong advocate for what he says is the oldest literary tradition in Southeast Asia, more than 1000 years old.  He says that a “censorious” shadow has fallen over Javanese Lit since Indonesian nationalism. (He didn’t explain what he meant by this to his audience of people very familiar with Indonesian culture and politics, but I am guessing that this is probably because the Javanese are said to dominate the rest of Indonesia.)
    • Keith Foulcher: Foulcher said that by comparison with Quinn and McGlynn, his literary translations are ‘minimal’.  His interest comes through his 40 year friendship with Putu Oka Sukanta, a notable author in Indonesia, who like Pramoedya Ananda Toer endured a long period of political imprisonment (before Indonesia became a democracy).  Foulcher likes Putu’s poetry, but his latest translations are the novels Threads of Dignity and The Turning Wheel (which are available from Lontar).
  • Pamela Allen: Allen was a student at the ANU and an academic the University of Tasmania, now retired).  She began by saying that she was rushed into her first translation and would still like to improve it, but alas, I didn’t catch the name of the book.  In 1992 she become aware of and contacted the Lontar Foundation, and was encouraged by McGlynn’s response. She now translates mostly for Lontar, and her most significant translation is Ayu Utami’s Saman (1988), which I am also yet to read.
    • Toni Pollard: Pollard explained how she stumbled into translating the novella Above the Day, Below the Night by Putu Oka Sukanta when she was about to be made redundant. She says the publisher used a terrible cover for a novel about Indo prostitutes, but having the work published gave her the confidence to contact John McGlynn, because prior to that she had just been translating drivers’ licences etc. Mirah of Banda was her first major translation, and it took 2-3 years because it had to be fitted into part-time teaching work. Now she also works for the Ubud Writers Festival, and has also translated for a couple of other publishers.
  • Isla Winarto: Winarto said that people often assume that translating is easy for her because she grew up in a bilingual, bicultural household, but she didn’t get involved professionally until she encountered George Quinn as her honours degree supervisor.  Translating is not her main source of income, but again John McGlynn was the catalyst for her career as a translator.  She has done 20 short stories and a novel.  She loves reading in the Indonesian language and is currently reading the literary sensation Gadis Kretek by Ratih Kumala (translated by Annie Tucker) which is being made into a film for Netflix. (I am a bit spooked by what appears to be a film that valorises the development of Indonesian cigarettes, even if the feminist in me likes to see a woman given credit where credit is due.  Smoking is a serious health problem in Indonesia claiming 300,000 lives every year.)

These translators made the point that I have heard many times before: literary translation is a labour of love and it is rare to earn a living from it.  It has to be an adjunct to other income producing work, preferably in ways that enrich the translator’s knowledge of the language and culture they are working in.

The discussion then turned to what the ingredients of a book worthy of translation might be. John McGlynn’s advice is to:

  • Start with a good work.  If the original work is badly written, then the translation should read badly as well because that’s a good translation.  It’s not the job of a translator to fix it or make a text better than it is.
  • Work on something that you like, or else it’s no fun.  He mentioned his early work as a translator of texts about Indonesian economics, which was definitely not fun.
  • Try to make it as good in English as it is Indonesian.
  • Believe in what you’re doing.  His project is to bring the book to a wider audience, and that’s important work to be doing.

George Quinn agreed that a translator should not embellish a work. but then went on to raise the question of cultural differences that interact with the literary conventions of English.

  • Sometimes complying with those English traditions can so some ‘violence’ to the original.  He gave the example of Javanese honorifics levels (respect levels) which are not present in Indo or in English, but are very important in Javanese Lit. It can be hard to manage the untranslatable.  He referred also to tu/vous in French, and how that distinction is multiplied many times over in Javanese. The moderator Kestity also mentioned the same issue when translating the other way, giving the example of referring to an older person using kamu which would be very disrespectful.
  • Quinn thinks it’s important for translators to immerse themselves in the culture of the language they translate.  He does it mainly by reading, and he thinks that the national literature of Indonesia should include writing in Javanese, Sundanese etc.  (This reminded me of the same issue in India, where there are multiple languages but only a couple of them are translated into English.)

Keith Foulcher reminded the audience to consider who they are translating for.  Who is the readership?

  • He brought translation and publishing into a wider context by drawing attention to its politics. To what extent do you make the cultural world accessible, he asked, in the context of the hegemony of global English and the concept of ‘world literature’ and the politics of international publishing.  Should English readers have to come to terms with aspects of culture that they’re going to struggle with, or is it really important to make those readers aware of Indonesian literature and make the book more accessible?  Readers who don’t know anything about Indonesian may not relate to it  because it’s ‘not interesting because it’s too different’.  OTOH sophisticated readers sometimes find IndoLit not quite ‘up to standard’ (He said hates quoting these criticisms).

The moderator Kestity asked how do we reconcile these issues?

George Quinn said that because of the political pressure on JavaneseLit, its writers are writing for an in-group, and not for Indo or Anglo readers.  They can assume that their readers know what their allusions are, and he gave an example sometimes criticised as weak characterisation: an allusion to ‘bulging eyes’ brings the reader familiar with Javanese culture to a whole culture of of characters deriving from wayang (i.e. traditional puppet plays.)

Pam Allen talked about the domestication v foreignisation debate in academic circles.  She explained this as a spectrum which at one level means not translating foreign elements such as CSI (culturally specific items & concepts) if you can’t.  This includes keeping the sentence structures so that readers know they are reading the other language.  This approach challenges the reader to do the hard work, while the other end of the spectrum homogenises the text to make it easy for the reader, with substitutions or omissions so that reader may not even realise that they’re reading a ‘foreign’ text.  Market forces, she said, are also at work because publishers don’t want to produce a book that’s likely to be read by very few buyers.  Most translators are somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  Allen also made mention of the novel Pachinko, written in English by a Korean-American author.  The book has no explanations or footnotes…

Toni Pollard talked about the importance of her network of Indo friends who help her to develop her cultural knowledge, and asks for help to check anything she’s not sure of. She prefers the accessible approach using straightforward language and uses a thesaurus a lot to broaden her knowledge.

Isla Winarto reiterated that being bicultural and bilingual does not make it easy.  (Even she can get even a character’s gender wrong, because dia/nya are not gender specific).

  • A lot of what she does is instinctive, she said, but the target audience of the novel is relevant… many Indonesian novelists are not writing for an international audience, and she tries to be aware of what other readers are not going to understand.  She believes in broadening the English view of the culture, and that the books that have been selected for translation are chosen for that reason.  She gave the example of a recent translation of Sun Lee Thomas Alexander’s My Birthplace and Other Stories. It features Chinese Indonesians, with whose culture she was familiar to some extent because family members are Chinese, but she still had to do extra work to make the translation good.

Kestity says all translators are supplementing their income in commercial ways… She says translators learn something new every day, and it’s important to be open-minded to all works.

Pam Allen responded to an audience question about how to improve the English translation if it’s not the translator’s mother tongue.  She said (and o! how I agree!) that it’s important to read widely in the target language as well.

Many thanks to Kestity Pringgoharjono and the IndoLit Club for making this presentation accessible and for moderating the session so well.  It was an excellent discussion covering a wide range of issues, specific to Indonesian and to translation in general.

BTW It was depressing to find that some of the books referred to were not in the Goodreads database, (or anywhere else that I could find) and that a couple of titles which were at GR did not #NameTheTranslator (which I took the opportunity to fix because I am a GR librarian.)

I also couldn’t access the Lontar website because my malware protection wouldn’t let me.


  1. Lisa, to be really honest, I haven’t read the full piece here, because I am supposed to be stuck to the chair editing. But I wanted to stop by and say how much I admire you commitment to, and curiosity about, the literary world. And, of course, your willingness to share it with us. It’s a small wonder!


    • Thanks for stopping by, Robyn, it’s very kind of you to say that.
      (I was conscious that it’s longer than my usual 1000-1200 words, but it was such a rare opportunity to hear about a language less translated than others, I wanted to report as much as I could about it.)
      I have to ask, is this your own new book that you’re editing?


      • Hi Lisa, that wasn’t a complaint about the length — far from it! I think it’s great to see such a thorough description of the forum. As for me, yes, this is my next novel I’m editing. It’s about an inter-religious relationship in England in the decades before the expulsion of the Jews (1290). It has been slow writing, and lots of waiting time for feedback from publisher and sensitivity reader. The plan is to release it in the first half of next year.


        • Ooh, wonderful, fascinating era… I’ve read something Spanish about inter-religious tolerance but not anything set in England.
          #LookingForwardTo It!


          • Thank you for the vote of confidence, Lisa. I’m having one of those fragile moments. Editing can do that to you!


  2. I didn’t expect translators to be highly paid but it’s depressing to learn that it’s hard to make a living just from translation. It’s such a skill but clearly not valued as highly as it should be


    • Well yes, but the truth is that with some exceptions it’s hard to make a living in any area of the arts in Australia because we have a small population and so there’s just not a lot of people buying enough of a huge diversity of products which include a lot of overseas imports as well.
      Having said that, I would have thought that Indonesian translators would be doing better than most because there’s not a huge pool of Anglo people fluent in Indonesian, compared, say to competing with the work of French or German translators.


      • I’d forgotten the issue of the size of the market. Though if Australian publishers did a better job of marketing overseas it might be a bigger market …


        • LOL I would say the same about New Zealand books. We hardly hear a thing about them and they’re our nextdoor neighbours!


  3. Hi Lisa,
    Toni pollard here , co convenor of Indolitclub. Thanks for the wonderful wrap of our translators panel on Thursday that Kesty passed on to me. However there are a few errors that require correcting regarding works translated, spelling of Keith Foulcher’s name, etc that need fixing before your report is read too widely. Could you please send me your email asap so I can pass on to you the points requiring attention. Thanks. Indolitclub would like to share the link to our members once the points have been amended ( I need to send out our post meeting report by Tuesday at the latest as I will be away after that with no access to my computer) cheers, Toni


    • Hi Toni, thanks so much for visiting here.
      I do apologise for the misspellings; as I’m sure you understand it’s not easy to catch the names of people and books etc and I just did the best I could with what I thought I heard, searching on Goodreads and Google. But I also have an ongoing problem with the lack of strength in my RH forefinger since I broke my wrist so it doesn’t always depress the intended key. I’m guessing that’s how I missed the O in Foulcher’s name, and then repeated the error as I continued. (I always welcome proofreading friends who alert me to the errors that my spellchecker hasn’t detected!)
      Anyway I’ve just fixed Keith Foulcher’s name but will happily amend other spellings. You can contact me directly through the contact form on the About page. Cheers


  4. Ok, will do…


  5. Fascinating reading; thank you for sharing this with us. I suppose literary translators probably supplement their income with commercial translation; that’s how most translators I know make their living. I have a similar thing where worse-paying transcription is supported by well-paying localisation work (US to UK English “translation”).


    • LOL Don’t get me started on that! (Localisation work). All languages change but there is a fine line over which the Americanisation of our English must not cross, starting with ‘mom’!
      I’d guess that most translators would want work that’s complementary, but perhaps they have a better chance of finding something compatible than, say, sculptors or classical lute players.
      Writers are an interesting case. There’s a lot in social media ATM about them not being paid enough and I hear their angst, but IMO, for them, at least having to work in an unrelated field can be an opportunity to move in different social circles and meet people not in their comfort zone, who can then be turned into fabulous fiction. Plus, the gig economy means that they can tailor hours of work to align with writing time, whereas the old 9-5 economy meant that it was all or nothing for creatives. My friend the actor Susan Arnold had to resign from secure work with super and sick leave etc to take up acting opportunities, and my BIL had to give up secure work as a teacher to work nights at the newspaper as a political cartoonist.
      It’s complicated.


  6. Sorry I’ve taken so long to comment on this Lisa. I saw it come through but last week was a packed one. This sounds really interesting as, like you, “m interested in translation. Most of what was covered here isn’t new, is it, but it’s always interesting to hear confirmation. Quite coincidentally, Mr Gums and I were talking today about the cultural issues affecting translation (relating to a Musica Viva concert we went to this week which had surtitles translating German, with which he is fairly fluent, though not so much with the poetic German involved here!) I admire those who take on this challenge and wear the criticism when people don’t like their work. It would have to be a labour of love!

    I’ve been hearing some discussion recently here on how few Australians are learning Indonesian. It was THE language for a while wasn’t it. It was the first one my kids primary school offered.


    • It comes as no surprise to me that it has fizzled out… we don’t have a pool of bilingual Indonesian nationals to draw on so the system is dependent on Australians learning it and wanting to teach it, but there is no career progression for those that do. So in primary schools, they don’t stay teaching it for long…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Certainly staffing has been the biggest hindrance and challenge for languages in schools hasn’t it. Sad.


        • Yup. And entirely preventable. It’s not like they weren’t told…

          Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: