Since we met at London Book Fair in 2011, BCLT has been working closely with Eliza Handayani and her Inisiatif Penerjemahan Sastra in Indonesia. Through the Inisiatif, Eliza is keen to increase the amount and improve the quality of literary translation in Indonesia. Most translation of foreign literature into Bahasa Indonesian goes via English as a bridge; there are few experienced translators working into Indonesian from other languages, except for historical reasons Dutch.
We decided to explore this process in a creative way, setting up relay translation workshops that linked back to the BCLT Summer School in Norwich. In July 2012, our Dutch workshop, led by David Colmer, translated part of author Gustaaf Peek’s novel Dover into English, while the Norwegian group, led by Kari Dickson, worked on an extract from Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold’s second novel Monsterhuman. And in October 2012, the four set off for Jakarta… Here, David, Kari and Kjersti share their experiences with us.
Kate Griffin, BCLT
Exporting the Summer School
When asked to lead the Dutch-English group at the BCLT Summer School in Norwich and then take the workshop to Jakarta in the European autumn, I jumped at the chance, not because of a yen for travel, but because Indonesia was my first “foreign” country and Indonesian the first foreign language I attempted to learn (I don’t count New Zealand as foreign and I definitely don’t count high-school French as an “attempt”.) Although no Indonesian was required, I thought it opportune to resuscitate the elementary Indonesian I had spoken twenty-five years earlier and began revising, using the beginner’s guide that was dated even then.
The Norwich format is simple, single-minded even: led by an experienced translator who has been explicitly instructed to refrain from imposing their translational vision or taste, a group of translators produce a consensus translation in consultation with the author. I was sceptical but it worked far better than I had imagined. The plan for Jakarta was to take the resulting translation and repeat the excercise with a group of English-Indonesian translators, led by an experienced Indonesian translator and in consultation with the author and the Norwich group leader. The Dutch-Indonesian situation was complicated by the addition of a second group, working directly from the Dutch.
My first subversion was to impose my vision and taste by rewriting the consensus translation. This shouldn’t be seen as a lack of faith in the Norwich participants, but simply as recognition of the fact that in Jakarta I would be called upon to explain and justify the translation choice. I felt that I could only do that properly if they were my own choices. I also noticed that a consequence of consensus had been a consistent movement away from the original. With seven translators voicing reservations about the fluency or naturalness of particular phrases, there seemed to be a tendency to settle on “native English” formulations. For instance, rejecting the literal “[looking for a parking space] Tony drove round and round hoping someone might leave” in favour of the more common “waiting for someone to leave”. In the solitude of my own study, I couldn’t help but feel that “hoping” better expressed the protagonist’s state of mind. I also felt that the inevitable comparison of relay and direct translation would be more interesting if the source translation for the relay group was less affected by the compromises of consensus decision-making.
Emboldened by this unauthorised intervention, I also translated an additional excerpt with minimal consulation with the author, Gustaaf Peek. This excerpt had been planned for Norwich, but left out because of time constraints. The reason for including it now was that it was set in Indonesia and therefore especially interesting for Indonesian readers and translators. Bringing a literary work home in translation is an additional challenge, requiring authentic dialogue, for instance, which is true to the region, class and background of the characters. In these cases the translation needs to satisfy a more rigorous standard than the original. The enthusiastic response of the group and their chilling performance of this passage during the final presentation justified this second liberty with the workshop format.
The Dutch-English-Indonesian group was fortunate to be led by Anton Kurnia, an author and editor and the translator of more than forty books, including works by Nabokov and Rushdie. Gustaaf divided his time between the direct and relay groups and I sat next to Anton to answer questions about the English. Anton and the participants discussed the text and possible translations in Indonesian and I was pleased that I was generally able to follow the gist of the conversation. Many of the discussion points were familiar despite the differences between the languages. Inefficiency, for instance, with Budi getting a few laughs by describing Rere’s option for the first sentence as “the choice when you’re being paid by the word”! His own first sentence suffered in turn from flattening, with the word sulit (“difficulty”) used in the translation of the absolute “couldn’t find anywhere to park”.
Indonesian is built up from root words that take on prefixes and suffixes to change form and meaning and much of the discussion seemed to revolve around finding the forms that struck the right balance between fluency and formality. For English translators, the corresponding discussions might have been about the merits of completely distinct words.
Indonesian is also characterised by a very large gap between informal spoken and formal written language. This meant that there was a lot of scope for making the narrative more colloquial without compromising the distinction with the dialogue. Choosing words like tak instead of tidak (both “not”), for instance. This discussion reminded me of the perennial issue of whether “to contract or not to contract”, a problem that arose several times in Norwich.
Cultural differences emerged and care was required to ensure that Indonesian readers pictured the scene correctly: tempat untuk parkir instead of tempat parkir for instance (“place to park” instead of “parking place”), as the latter would lead readers to imagine a car park rather than a street with cars parked on either side. Sometimes additional context proved essential. In Indonesian, for instance, the sexes of siblings is less important linguistically than their relative age, so should they translate “sister” as adik or kakak (“younger sibling” or “older sibling”)? That required a quick search through the Dutch book to find information that wasn’t in the excerpts.
Writing about a foreign country and then having the nerve to take your writing to the country itself guarantees a critical audience, and some of the participants questioned the historical accuracy of the graffiti described in the excerpt. Here I failed dismally as the author’s representative, but fortunately Gustaaf arrived soon after to explain that in this passage he was referring to the build-up to the anti-Chinese riots of 1998, rather than the eve of the riots themselves, when the graffiti was limited to either crosses identifying targets or graffiti placed by the shopkeepers, identifying themselves, regardless of their true origins and religion, as pribumi Muslim (ethnic Indonesian Muslim).
There is much more to say but space is limited and the main thing is that the enthusiasm and commitment of the Indonesian participants fully matched the response I’d seen earlier in Norwich. The broader goal of the workshop was to launch a campaign to establish an Indonesian sister organisation to promote, improve and further literary translation in Indonesia and, from my perspective, the week could hardly have being more successful, either in showing what can be done or in establishing a seed group of translators to work with.
BCLT Summer School 2012 plus
Leafy green campus. Lots of Italian students. Walking. Rabbits.
Happily, summer coincided with the Summer School, and in every free moment, coffee, food and conversation spilled out onto the steps outside. So sitting on steps chatting, be it at lunch, or in the evening with a beer, or waiting outside Norwich library, is one of my strongest memories.
As it was the first time that I was going to run a workshop over four days, I was quite anxious about it. And I didn’t really know anyone. As people gathered, I hovered around, trying to glean as much information and as many ideas as I could from other workshop leaders who had done it all before. I met Kjersti, the Norwegian author, for the first time, and to be honest, we both seemed to be equally bewildered. I was quite surprised to discover that I didn’t know any of the participants in the Norwegian workshop, as it is a relatively select community, though I had met one of them before. But I needn’t have worried. We had a very balanced group and they were keen to work, share and learn, and Kjersti was a generous and open author. But she knows what she wants and at times pushed us to find a better solution, patiently explaining what she was trying to convey.
We launched into the text and our first major discussion came in the first line: how to write the sound of cow bells, given that it would later turn out to be the wire on flagpoles. Kjersti uses a lot of unusual compound nouns, so there were plenty of meaty words and cultural references to be unwrapped and repackaged. The participants worked hard, initially as one group, then in groups of three and two. In the afternoons, we went through the work that had been produced in plenary to reach consensus.
On the Wednesday afternoon we were joined by Erica Jarnes, from Bloomsbury, who went through the translated text with us from an editor’s point of view. I think we were all chuffed when she said how unified the text was, despite the fact that six people (well, eight really) had worked on it. It was the first time that editors had taken part in the workshops and I think it was a very valuable experience for everyone.
But it wasn’t only our text that was unified, the group was. Everyone seemed to work well together and was comfortable in each other’s company. I was struck, once again, by how important group dynamics are to the enjoyment of activities like this. The value of the workshop for many of the participants seemed to be the opportunity to meet, work and talk with other translators and to learn from each other’s experience, however long or short.
And for me personally, it felt like quite a watershed, as suddenly I was on the stage for the panel discussions, and not in the audience.
Endless city. Traffic. Swarms of motorbikes. People. Goats under bridges. Noise. Heat.
I was transported halfway across the world in a tin can and dropped in a bubble, and was enchanted. It was a bizarrely unreal experience that still feels very immediate. A great deal of time was spent being transported from one place to the next, looking through the car window at a city that was always moving, unfamiliar and outside.
Inside the bubble, I was there to do something familiar. Talk translation, work on the text we’d worked on in Norwich, but now with Indonesian translators.
The workshops and most of the seminar took place at the Eramus Taalcentrum, and we had to go through security checks to get in, albeit perfunctory. Again, the city was outside. And inside, there was a lot of talking. Through the seminar and workshops, I came to appreciate how fortunate we are to be working as translators in Europe, however much we may complain at times. We have the luxury of working directly from the source language, our conditions are comparatively very good, if not always optimal. We can participate in workshops, meet regularly with other translators, and more often than not, have contact with the authors.
For most of the participants, if not all, in the Norwegian workshop, it was the first time that they had done anything like this. It was the first time the author was there in the room, available to them, and could answer questions directly. And there were lots of questions. It took a while, we were all polite, feeling our way, but as we progressed through the first and second days, the questions started to come thick and fast. With lots of laughter. Many of the questions were cultural and physical. What are support tights? How can snow be crunchy when it’s wet? What does windswept mean? I realised how important it is to understand the country, culture and literature that you are trying to translate into your own language, in a way that others can understand – and how much I’ve taken that for granted. If I was asked to translate a novel from Indonesian into Norwegian, via English, I would seriously struggle.
Which is why the issue of relay translation is so important, if books are to be to be fully understood and travel as widely as we discovered Big Bird and Kill Bill have. The Insiatif Penerjemahan Sastra is a big step in the right direction.
As the week passed, and the text moved from Norwegian via English to Indonesian, my role receded. It was strange to then be on the outside, and not know how the text had evolved in Indonesian as a result of our discussions, but I’m sure it was the better for it.
I shared my bubble with some wonderful people, not least those I’d met in Norwich. Perhaps I fell a little in love. A small part of my heart is still in Jakarta. So every night, when I brush my teeth with the toothpaste we were given in our welcome pack, I’m back there. I have no idea what the words on the outside mean. But I don’t want what’s inside to run out.
Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold
Keep moving away from your mother tongue
I go out the door from my room, the first morning in Norwich, seven rabbits are sitting in a row on the lawn, staring at me. I hesitate, before moving quickly past them, so they won’t have time to make up their mind. I’m scared of being revealed. Inside the seminar room, I stare at the seven translators; I’m trying to make up my mind about them, knowing that they will reveal me.
The text they are going to translate is the first chapter of my second novel, a novel that has not gone to print yet. I feel vulnerable, I’m thinking about whether the text is solid enough, that it will take being pulled and dragged, by these careful readers.
What’s most important for me when I’m writing is the language, that the language of the author meets the language of the character in the book. In my first novel the translation was a challenge because the character’s quirkiness is shown through the strange words she chooses, and in the translation into English, it was hard to make the character seem odd – and not the translator. In the first chapter of my new novel, the language is characterised by streams of thoughts, switching between different tenses, and I use made-up words, often compound nouns. For several years I have worked on this book, it has been a pain and a struggle, and after a few hours of watching the translators in Norwich, it is good to see that struggle being transferred onto someone else. It is touching though, to see someone care as much about where I put the commas as I do myself. One could perhaps think that translating is a tedious sport to watch. But it isn’t, and I try to answer the questions about what I really mean to say as best as I can.
After five days of work, it’s time for the reading. They have all put so much of themselves into it the translation, and I feel proud about them being proud about their work. It’s like my writing has become an animal with a will of its own, completely independent of me, which is exactly what I want for my books, that they will manage on their own.
Then the English text travels to the other side of the world. Outside the seminar building in Jakarta there are the tiniest cats I have ever seen; I could put them all in my pocket. Inside the building I meet the translators. I immediately feel that the translators from Norwich should be here and meet the Indonesian translators, like they were siblings, separated at birth.
I’m full of courage about the English text being translated into Indonesian, since the English translators managed to sort out the problems they encountered. But it turns out to be quite different problems this time. I tell them that in this text I think of “time” as something vertical instead of horizontal, that the present becomes something else because stories from the past and the future cast light on it. So when they tell me that there is only one tense of the verb in Indonesian, I almost cry. But they make it work, or so they tell me. I think that’s part of translation too, to completely leave my writing in the hands of someone else, to trust that they want the best for it, and I can tell by their questions that they do.
The main character ends up in the river during a rafting trip, after having fallen overboard, and she disappears down the rapids, on her back keeping her legs up so as not to get caught in the rubbish on the bottom, bikes and prams people have discarded, you can drown that way.
Q: But why is it bikes and prams in the river?
A: Because people throw them in there.
Q: But why do they do that?
A: To get rid of them, if one wants a new bicycle for instance.
Q: But why don’t you sell the old one? Sell the pieces?
A: Because we are very lazy.
Q: By saying ”you can drown that way” – do you mean to drown in the same way that the prams and bicycles have drowned?
That is a beautiful thought – prams and bicycles disappearing down the river, waving with their handlebars, crying for help, before they sink to the bottom. I have never thought about this before.
To learn a language, and to learn about another language, is to go under the surface, all the way to the bottom, and I think I learned just as much about their culture as they learned about mine. I also learned more about the Norwegian language myself, since a language can only see itself in light of another. Most important, I saw my own writing in a new light.
This article first appeared in issue 41 of BCLT’s journal In Other Words.