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Why Translate Indonesian Literature

Written by eastern writer on Friday, December 21, 2007

by John McGlynn

At present it is possible to study every major non-English speaking Western culture through its translated literature; such is not the case with the literature of Indonesia, the fourth-largest and one of the most politically and economically strategic countries in the world.

In all but two universities in the United States (University of Michigan and University of California at Berkeley) Indonesian literature, if offered at all, is taught in the department of history, anthropology or linguistics. While the situation is somewhat different in Australia where, because of geographical proximity and for historical reasons as well, knowledge of Indonesia is much more pervasive, the fact is that few scholars of Western literatures are aware that Indonesia has an ancient literary tradition, and that few specialists in Chinese, Japanese, and Indian literatures (subjects in which one can obtain advanced degrees at American universities) have much regard for or understanding of the literatures and, in broader terms, the cultures of Indonesia and other countries of Southeast Asia.

Outside the academic sphere information on Indonesia in the West has generally been limited to the occasional (and, usually, sensationalistic) article on the op-ed page or in the business section of newspapers. Although this situation has changed somewhat as a result of the Asian economic crisis and Indonesia's transition of political power, the world media's memory is short-lived and following the return of economic and political stability to the region, the status quo for news coverage is likely to return.

Partially for that reason, Lontar feels that it is imperative to balance the negative impact that political and economic developments have had on public impressions in the West with information that might have a positive influence on public perceptions. This is the primary aim of both Lontar's publications program and its other activities.

Lontar feels that the only place to begin such a program is at the university level. At numerous universities abroad are already in place Indonesian study programs; a fair number of these universities even have faculty members with the knowledge to teach courses on Indonesian literature in translation. But until Lontar was established the possibility of teaching such courses was virtually unimaginable.

Now, with Lontar's backlog of publications and its future publications list, this is a distinct possibility.


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