Interview with John H. McGlynn by B.B.P. Hosmillo
B.B.P. HOSMILLO: Asian Literature in translation is incredibly important to students of language, literature, and creative writing. I have benefited so much from the works of translators. For example, when I became so interested in Japanese Literature in 2011 I read Yukio Mishima, Oe Kenzaburo, Shimao Toshio, Yasunari Kawabata, Osamu Dazai, and others in the translations of Donald Keene, Kathryn Sparling, John Nathan, and Alfred H. Marks, among others. In addition, the first non-Filipino, Southeast Asian novel I read came to me in English translation: Shahnon Ahmad’s Rentong translated as The Rope of Ash by Harry Aveling. This is the reason why I have enormous respect to translators for giving not only a particular text the possibility to reach a wider audience, but also for allowing readers to access worlds and nuisances only translation might serve. So when I met Harry Aveling in 2011 at the National University of Singapore, I remember I thanked him with my face blushing. Could you speak about the natal reasons why you decided to begin translating? And what is the first text you translated? How was it received?
JOHN H. MCGLYNN: I began to study Indonesian language and culture in the early 1970s and moved to Indonesia in 1976 where I have lived since, almost continuously. In my first decade in Indonesia, virtually the only articles to appear in the international press about Indonesia were about the nation’s dismal human rights record or the pervasive corruption that riddled the country’s political and judicial systems. These were stories that needed to be told, of course, but they were not balanced by any information of a more positive nature. This set me thinking on how I might be able to alter this situation. From my studies of other cultures in college, I had come to firmly believe that a key to learning about another culture is its literature and, as I was by this time supporting myself with work as a translator, I came up with the idea of starting the Lontar Foundation, an organization that is devoted to introducing Indonesia to the world through literary translations. Unfortunately, with little demand for Indonesian literature abroad and few commercial publishers willing to pay for translations from the Indonesian, in the three decades since I founded Lontar, the Foundation has been forced to build international awareness of Indonesian literature almost entirely on its own.
My first published translation was that of a classical Malay poem, which I translated as part of my MA thesis, but my first book-length work was a collection of poetry by Indonesian women titled A Taste of Betel and Lime (Jakarta: Pustaka Jaya, 1980; Toeti Heraty, ed.). Thereafter, I published two lengthy stories by Umar Kayam and a novella by S. Rukiah in a collection titled Reflections on Rebellion: Stories from the Indonesian Upheavals of 1948 and 1965 (Athens: Ohio University, 1983; Wm. Frederick, ed.). These translations, and the dozens of book-length translations that followed over the years have enjoyed limited readership with few of the titles selling more than a few thousand copies. Nonetheless, when combined, my work and that of other translators I have published through the Lontar Foundation, which I established in 1987, have laid the groundwork for the creation of a canon of Indonesian literature in English.
B.B.P. H.: I think translation is intrinsically related to culture and readership. I’ve encountered translators who are explicit in their intention of translating for Western readers. There’s one American translator who, in one of his works, translated soba or the Japanese for cold noodles as spaghetti. I believe his reason was to make it relatable, but that was not quite well received by critics. In your case, how important imagining your reader is? And how do you intervene when there are concepts which are peculiar to Indonesia and don’t have a near counterpart?
J.H.M: A translation is a new creation aimed at an audience different from the original text. I believe that the target language and the target audience are king. That said, the major hurdle for translators is producing a translation that is both felicitous to the original text and does not contort the original text in the process. For every phrase in a text, translators have numerous choices to make, ones ranging from choice of gender to tense. The better translator understands that not everything can always be translated and gives priority to the most important elements of a text. Often, little sacrifices might have to be made. One must accept that fact and not, as many novice translators do, leave scores of incompre-hensible words untranslated or append copious footnotes to the translated text. What kind of enjoyment does this give the reader in the target language?
More specifically, for the translator of Indonesian texts, a truly serious challenge is translating a text that, despite its historical merit or significance, might have been poorly edited in the original. In Indonesia, manuscripts go almost directly from the writer to the printed page and editors are given very little freedom to work with authors to improve their manuscripts. Editors are viewed as little more than proofreaders whose responsibility it is to ensure that all i-s have been dotted and all t-s have been crossed. So, what can a translator do? Without the author’s permission, it’s unethical to “fix” a text yet to leave the flaws intact opens the translator to a barrage of attacks from misguided literary critics who do not understand the translation process.
B.B.P. H.: It is fundamental to writers to have a voice and to be able to develop it. Voice, I think, becomes more suspicious and intricate when it is of a translator. I once encountered this critical reading (the critic doesn’t deserve to be named) that translators occupy a feminine position; that their work or voice essentially belongs to the author. Although I dismissed that claim, sometimes I do feel that there’s a tendency to remember the author but not the translator. It is undeniably important for authors to protect their voice, their own meaning, but how do you protect yours? How do you relate your voice to that of the author?
J.H.M.: You’re absolutely right in saying that there is a tendency to remember the author, not the translator. When a translated work is well-received or critically acclaimed, the author is praised. Meanwhile, when a translated work is poorly-received, the translator is blamed, whereas, whatever flaws are in the translation might very well have marred the original text as well. It is not the translator’s right to alter or improve a text—at least not without permission from its author. Translators are servants of the word and, as such, are frequently deemed to be less creative than the author of the original text.
One of the joys of being a translator is being able to speak in many voices, not just one as authors tend to do. The translator’s voice must be able to match that of the original text. We are myna birds whose voice might resemble another’s but is definitely our own. Thus, if I am translating a classical Malay poem, for instance, my voice must be different from when I translate an absurdist prose work. I have many voices and, yes, they are all my own but they will and must vary depending on the text I’m translating.
B.B.P. H.: The excerpts of Not a Virgin by Nuril Basri that we have in the inaugural issue of Queer Southeast Asia are easy to understand-thanks a lot to you! What were your preparations in translating it? I guess this question has something to do with the fact that the novel explores the other side of Indonesia. The world of warias, even of lesbians and gays, is still masked in the archipelago. I remember when I, together with two local friends, was walking in a busy, market street in Yogyakarta, two warias came with their little guitar and started to sing. My local friends immediately noted that warias are typically beggars, taking the lowest social space in the country. That, of course, has become a stereotype and I think it is very difficult to alter Indonesia’s perception toward warias and other subjects, who differently relate to the country’s gender ideals. However, the characters presented in the novel are sort of subculture windows to see the fantasies of people whose sexual orientation is in question. In fact, I think when the novel allows those fantasies to be explicit, and explicitly told, it is able to compose moments to betray our complicity or addiction to the normative sexual fantasies of our nation.
J.H.M.: I am a gay man who has lived most of his adult life “on the other side of Indonesia” you refer to. I am a professional translator as well. You could say that “life” served as my preparation for translating Not a Virgin. Although the work is fictional, I am very familiar with the characters in it and speak their language as well. I have been a denizen of the gay bar described in the novel. I have associated with cross-dressing hairdressers, rent boys, and “sissy men.” From the many Indonesian gay men I have known over the years and who have spoken to me of their life and education at pesantrens in Indonesia, I am even familiar with the pesantren boarders who appear in the novel. Not that this familiarity made the novel any less difficult to translate. The book presented numerous challenges to me as a translator—but, of course, that’s one of the reasons I chose to translate it.
B.B.P. H.: What made you think that this specific work of Nuril Basri has to be translated and published? What are your hopes for the Not a Virgin?
J.H.M.: Throughout my 40 years of work as a translator and especially since 1987, when I established the Lontar Foundation, I have made it one of my life’s goals to produce, in translation, a serious and coherent body of Indonesian literature large enough to support the establishment of courses on Indonesian literature through the medium of English. This goal has necessitated the publication of a fairly wide range of titles from the various periods of Indonesian history, ranging from classic to the contemporary, and liteary genres as well—drama, poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, and so on. Further, because of Indonesia’s incredibly diverse social, ethnic, and demographic makeup, I have worked hard to make sure that the multi-faceted nature of Indonesian culture—not just the one-sided and stereotypic view seen in most television and news coverage—is apparent in the combined list of titles I have translated or published. In addition to work by many of Indonesia’s popular and “canonized” authors, I have translated and published work by Indonesian exile authors, guest workers abroad, former political prisoners, feminists, and other Indonesians whose voices are not often heard. A number of years ago I published the first collection of LGBT literary work in English and had long been looking for a “gay novel” to translate. I finally found that novel when Nuril Basri sent me his manuscript. At first reading, I knew I had to translate the book. In it I found the voice of so many Indonesians I have known in my decades here but are unknown elsewhere.
Because of its content and story line, and partially set in a pesantren as it is, there are likely to be challenges to the book’s promotion and distribution in Indonesia. (As of this writing, the author has yet to find an Indonesian publisher willing to publish the book!) Even so, I think it will be seen as a break-through work. I also can see it being picked up by publishers abroad. The book would make a marvelous film but, unfortunately, I can’t imagine a commerical or main-stream production company willing to take a chance with it.
B.B.P. H.: How long have you been translating? What is your current/next project?
J.H.M.: As mentioned earlier, I first began translating Indonesian in college, primarily as a means for improving my skills in Indonesia—and I have continued to translate ever since. Translating is not just work; it is also an enjoyable hobby and I can’t imagine ever ceasing my search for new texts to translate.
At Lontar, I am finishing work on two monumental anthologies, one on the Indonesian short story in the 20th century and the other on Indonesian poetry during that same time period. Much like the Norton anthologies, these volumes are intended for use in the teaching of Indonesian literature. Personally, I’m always looking for kinds of texts I have never translated before or works that increase my knowledge of Indonesian history and culture. I’m waiting for Leila S. Chudori to finish work on her next novel, a sequel to her novel Home, which I translated and was very well received abroad last year.
B.B.P. H.: If there’s someone reading this, who considers becoming a translator, what would you tell them?
J.H.M.: I’d say, “Go for it!” but I would also advise to hone your other more “sellable” skills as well, whether it be financial administration, computer programing or whatever. For literary translators of “exotic” languages such as Indonesian, It is especially difficult to make a reasonable living as a literary translator.
B.B.P. H.: How have you been changed by your work as a translator? How has your work transformed Indonesia in your own imagination? And how has translation given you a sense of “home” in Indonesia?
JHM: Because of my work as the translator of a wide variety of texts from a wide range of fields, I believe I am far more knowledgeable of Indonesia and Indonesian culture than I otherwise would have been if I had limited my work to one field only—an unlikelihood anyway. When translating historical novels, for instance, I have had to research the periods of history being dealt with. When translating feminist poetry, I have had to delve into the history of feminism in Indonesia. Translation of Islamic-nuanced literature has necessitated that I increase my knowledge of the history of Islam in Indonesia. All these myriad texts have enriched my understanding of Indonesia and increased my appreciation of this country’s rich imagination. To know is to love, as they say, and having coming to know Indonesia very well, I have come to love it as well and to consider it my home.
John H. McGlynn. ‘Interview with John H. McGlynn by B.B.P. Hosmillo’. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.