JAKARTA, May 18 — For a long time, before the mini-boom in Indonesian literature in translation started by the buzz over Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound, the only Indonesian novels in English translation you would see on the shelf when you go into a bookstore overseas were more than likely to be Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet novels – This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass. All four books were translated by one man, Indonesianist, political activist and former renegade Australian diplomat Max Lane.
Lane is not the only man to have translated Pram’s — the Indonesian nickname for the Nobel Prize in Literature-nominated author — books, there was also the Australian academic translator Harry Aveling (The Fugitive, The Girl From the Coast) and the American — reportedly a pseudonym — Willem Samuels (All That Is Gone, The Mute’s Soliloquy), but Lane’s translations, first published by Penguin Australia and then picked up by Penguin Books worldwide, are the most well-known and have never been out of print since it was first released in 1983.
Before translating Pramoedya, Lane had been a frequent visitor to Indonesia since the late 1960s, when he travelled through the country and on to Singapore on the original “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” trail. Some of the stories from his early journey in Indonesia are collected in a book of short stories, essays and poems that Lane released in 2016, titled, Indonesia and Not: Poems and Otherwise.
In 1974, Lane based himself in Yogyakarta, where he spent a year studying the Javanese language and tutoring politics and sociology at Bengkel Teater, the famous theatre company founded by Indonesian beat poet and playwright WS Rendra.
Lane’s first translation of a serious work by an Indonesian author was his version of Rendra’s play, The Struggle of the Naga Tribe, a sharp satire of Suharto’s New Order regime.
Lane then worked for Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was posted at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 1980 as a second secretary. It was then that he was introduced to Pram, who had just returned from 12 years of political exile on Buru Island.
He was given an early manuscript of This Earth of Mankind (Bumi Manusia in Indonesian) and the rest is history. As Lane recalled, “Pram had just been released from Buru then. Given my interests, I was of course very interested to translate his work.”
This Earth of Mankind is the first novel in what would eventually be known as Pram’s Buru Quartet. The book disguises its ambitious project to trace the birth of nationalism in Indonesia in a page-turner featuring a tragic love story between the protagonist Minke — a fictionalised version of Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the “father of Indonesian journalism” — and his half-Dutch, half-Javanese wife Annelies.
Although the book did not directly criticise Suharto’s New Order, it was banned by the regime’s censors less than a year after its publication in 1980, on the vague grounds that it promoted “Marxist and Leninist thinking.”
Lane also got into trouble for translating the book and was recalled home.
“I was a mid-level staffer at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta when I started translating This Earth of Mankind. Once I finished, the original book had already been banned by the Suharto regime. So I was in effect publishing a banned book,” Lane said.
Despite the snag to his diplomatic career, Lane persisted to finish the translations for the rest of the Buru Quartet novels. The last instalment, House of Glass, was published in 1988.
During a talk show on Pram at the Jakarta Globe Reading Club’s inaugural event in South Jakarta last Saturday, Lane said one thing that enthralled him most about the Buru Quartet was Pram’s ability to tell the story of how Indonesia as a nation was formed down to its minutest details, despite the author’s lack of access to the outside world when he wrote the books on Buru Island.
Lane said that in his first few years on the island Pram was not allowed any pens or paper, so he used to recite the story to his fellow prisoners every night.
“These are great works of historical fiction, great epics that tell the origin story of Indonesia, set during the time before the word Indonesia was even in use,” Lane said.
Translating more than just the text
Lane said one of the biggest challenges in literary translation is maintaining a balance between staying true to the original work and trying to create a “new” work in the target language that will evoke the same emotional responses as the original piece.
In translating Rendra’s and Pram’s works, Lane said the key thing for him was to understand their thinking, learn from their texts and witness first-hand how these authors engage with society.
Lane said his experience with Bengkel Teater also gave him the confidence to translate Indonesian literature.
“I led discussions on politics for almost a year [at Bengkel Teater], and Rendra would always be there. I talked to him a lot, especially between 1974 and 1981,” Lane said.
His friendship with Pramoedya also helped him to understand his works beyond the text.
“I had many discussions with Pramoedya and his friends, his publishers Joesoef Isak and Hasjim Rahman, who were all trying to achieve similar social goals,” Lane said.
“In this sense, I see myself as translating their [Pram’s and Rendra’s] ideologies and perspectives, not just the text in their books,” he said.
(Not) reading Pram
Though Pram’s books have now been translated into 42 languages, they still remain largely unread at home. According to Lane, this is because Indonesia is the only country in the world that does not teach its own literature in the classrooms.
“The government removed the study of literature from elementary and high school curriculums back in the 1970s. Since then students have been learning basically language lessons,” Lane said.
“This is such a shame, since Pram is a hero to everyone I’ve seen who has had the chance to read his novels. Pram’s books help them to become more sensitive to deep social injustices in Indonesia,” Lane, who now runs Open Page, a library and writers’ residency centre in Yogyakarta, said. — Jakarta Globe