Indonesian Literature Readies for Global Spotlight


While some avid readers may have heard of authors like Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Mochtar Lubis, for most people, Indonesia still remains a blank spot on the literary map.

This, however, could change next year, after Indonesia was last July named the guest of honor country at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which when it comes to the field of literature, is the biggest and most important event of the year.

From Oct. 14 to 18 in 2015, all eyes will be on Indonesia, and while it seems that there is still a long time to go until then, preparations in order to turn the event into a success are already under way.

“This will be a vital promotion of Indonesian literature and culture overseas,” said Wiendu Nuryanti, the deputy minister for education and culture.

“As GoH, Indonesia will have a golden opportunity to showcase its rich and diverse literary and cultural heritage — traditional and contemporary — to Germany, Europe and the world.”

The ministry acts as the overall coordinator of behalf of the Indonesian government, she added, and is responsible for the management and all funding and administration of the project.

“This project is financed by the government of Indonesia, coordinated by the Education and Culture Ministry,” Wiendu said.

“It is also supported by other government [institutions] such as the Trade Ministry, the Industry Ministry, the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry, the Investment Coordinating Board, the Foreign Ministry and the Religious Affairs Ministry. We will be also be seeking support from the private sector as well, including Indonesian companies and German companies who have long-standing trade and investment ties with Indonesia.”

Wiendu said it was essential for her ministry to collaborate with many stakeholders and creative people from across Indonesia, including leading literary and cultural figures, academic experts, Indonesian language and literary associations, and Indonesian publishers.

“The collaboration will also invite input with well-known cultural organizations with a long history of making Indonesian literature available to the world in other languages, such as the Lontar Foundation, the Goethe-Institut, the Indonesian-German Friendship Society, and so forth.”

Christel Mahnke, head of information and library of the Goethe-Institut Indonesia, said her institute had always worked closely with the Frankfurt Book Fair.

“We have seen that people in Indonesia have been really excited about being GoH in 2015,” she said.

“But being GoH is a lot of work and needs a lot of preparation, and it took some time to get things started.”


Award-winning novelist Okky Madasari agreed that this was a “golden opportunity for Indonesia to introduce its literary works to the world.”

“It’s time for the international community to get familiar with Indonesia’s literature, and to find out that we have many hidden gems here,” she said, adding that it was a big challenge to accomplish this.

“Indonesian publishers are small by international standards, and except for a few major ones, are still very much local-oriented and lack resources to showcase their books,” Okky said.

“Even the major publishing companies can only send a limited number of people to Frankfurt. So the government definitely needs to step in and help publishers and authors make Indonesia’s presence felt.”

The Goethe-Institut last year organized two discussions that involved translators, writers, publishers and other players from the literary field, in order to facilitate the exchange of ideas and plans between the different parties. More sessions are planned throughout the year.

The institute has also set up a bilingual blog,, as a platform and information hub for all parties involved in Indonesia’s preparation to be GoH at Frankfurt.

But one of the major problems is that not everybody understands how much time, effort and expertise it takes to translate novels from Indonesian into German or English.

“A [literary] translation can only be done by a native speaker,” Mahnke said, adding that most German language teachers at universities or schools simply did not have the capability of delivering an accurate translation.

Generally, a GoH country presents between 80 and 100 translated books — fiction, non-fiction and children’s books.

“Ideally, these books should be translated into German — that’s what the former GoH countries have tried to achieve as well — but there simply aren’t enough translators,” Mahnke said.

“So for some of the titles, we can opt for English as a bridging language, meaning translating [the books] from English into German since there are many books [by Indonesian authors] that have already been translated into English. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing.”

A committee decides which books will be among the lucky ones to be translated and introduced at the Frankfurt Book Fair, while Mahnke said that the chosen titles should include classical and contemporary literature.

Wiendu said her office was doing all it could to ensure a smooth process.

“We will do our best to reach the ambitious target of having 100 titles translated into German, but regardless of how many books are eventually translated, just as important is the number of authors whose works will be translated,” she said.

“One thing to remember is that translation is just the first step in the publication process. We need German publishers to agree to be our partners to ensure these books are then printed and marketed at their expense, not only at the Frankfurt Book Fair itself but later throughout the German-speaking world.”

But some argue the preparations for the 2015 fair started too late.

“There has to be a commitment on the part of the government to do this,” said John McGlynn of the Lontar Foundation, which has been vital in promoting Indonesian literature and culture on an international stage since its founding in 1987.

“It appears that there is now, but it should have happened [the moment they first knew about it]. It is virtually impossible to translate 100 books into German in the time that’s left. So we will need to use English as the bridging language. There is also another idea that I had — a sampler series done in e-book format.”

He said there were a lot of young, talented writers but many of them did not have an extensive body of work yet.

“They don’t have 15 or 20 short stories that deserve to be one collection; maybe they have five,” McGlynn said.

“Why not do that in an interactive e-book format, where you can have an interview with the author and things like that? I think we can get a few of those done, in addition to looking at what already has been translated.”

McGlynn also noted that there might be different perceptions on which titles should be translated.

“It’s not that simple. The thing is that if the German or American publishers are not interested in those books, there’s absolutely no reason to have them translated,” he said.

“Every literary critic in Indonesia knows what books have literary value, but when it comes to whether those books will be picked up abroad, that’s something only the foreign publishers can answer.”

The translation process may take up much time, but all parties involved know it is not the only challenge that awaits.

“The obligations and expectations for a country GoH are demanding, and as you would expect from a German institution, they are outlined clearly and in great detail,” Wiendu said.

“There are many things we have to complete in 2014 and the first nine months of 2015 in order to be ready on time.”

They include, in addition to translating dozens of books, the design and construction of a GoH pavilion — up to 1,500 square meters — at the 2015 fair, and organizing a major stand of Indonesian publishers at the 2014 and 2015 fairs.

“Finally, we are committed to planning and managing an extensive cultural program during all of 2015 for the city of Frankfurt as well as during the fair itself,” Wiendu said.

“We must also remember that we are following in the footsteps of impressive GoH participation by countries as varied in size and culture as Brazil [the GoH in 2013] and New Zealand [2014]. They have set the benchmark high — Brazil with its extensive cultural and supporting programs, and New Zealand with its stunning and imaginative pavilion. So we’ll have to work hard to meet our expectations to ensure Indonesia’s GoH participation is a resounding success for the audience and all Indonesian stakeholders.”

McGlynn said it was crucial to get the basics right first before it was even possible to see the bigger picture.

“We need a website, we need [to get] information out there to the publishers, we need a list of rules and regulations,” he said.

“Unfortunately, not much has been done yet in that regard.”

He also cited Indonesia’s bureaucratic system as another potential challenge.

“Unless the committee — and I’m talking about the people who really know what to do on it, I’m not talking about bureaucratic officials — doesn’t get the authority to make decisions, nothing’s going to get done,” he said.

“You can say all you want in a meeting, but I haven’t formally been asked, for example, to be [actively participating].”

Although McGlynn said he was a little bit worried, he added there was still a chance to get everything done on time.

“I think we can still jump-start in a way by drawing on Lontar’s expertise,” he said.

“But I — none of us involved — cannot do anything unless we are told, ‘This is our budget, and this is what we can allocate.’ I could send an e-mail to a potential 100 translators tomorrow. But I can’t do that because I can’t say, ‘You will be paid this amount per page.’”

This article was first published on January 29, 2014 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.