All of What It Could Be: In Conversation with Tiffany Tsao

To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

When reading a new book in translation, I usually begin by reading the translator’s note. Although it is customary to print the translator’s note at the end of any translated work, I find it enriches my reading to know in advance how the translator approached and connected with the text, to understand their particular choices and challenges. But while translator’s notes often reveal a profound intimacy with the original text, I have rarely read a translator’s note as unapologetically impassioned and moving as the paean Tiffany Tsao wrote for Norman Pasaribu’s award-winning collection of poems, Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Tsao’s translator’s note calls Pasaribu and the collection a “miracle” and describes how working on the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus was transformative for both translator and author. “Norman’s poems,” Tsao writes, “have become a part of and spring from me as well,” adding, “I don’t think that I can ever go back to be being the person that I was before.” 

Through the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus from the Indonesian, Tsao and Pasaribu have forged a partnership that is intellectually energizing and dripping with creative charisma.  After reading Pasaribu’s vibrant poems, Tsao’s exceptional translator’s note, and following the two on social media as they successfully toured the UK, I was raring to speak with former Asymptote Editor-at-large, Tiffany Tsao. Amongst other things, Tsao was generous enough to share more about the “mutually nurturing” relationship she has developed with Pasaribu, and how Sergius Seeks Bacchus, published in the UK by Tilted Axis Press and forthcoming in Australia from Giramondo, has come to belong to both of them.

-Sarah Timmer Harvey, April 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Congratulations on the publication of Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you tell me about the collection and how it was received in Indonesia?

Tiffany Tsao (TT): After spending three years working with Norman on the translation, I almost feel I’m too close to speak coherently about it! It’s like being asked to describe someone you know intimately: you’re aware of all their facets, of them in different situations and at various points in time. Still, I’ll try my best. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is about contemporary queer life in Indonesia—as he and others have experienced it, but also and importantly, as all of what it could be. Hence the Christian, Batak, and speculative dimensions of many of the poems. Some of them depict realities for queer individuals that Indonesia’s present-day circumstances deny: strolling the streets of Heaven hand-in-hand; strolling the streets of post-alien-invasion Earth hand-in-hand; being celebrated by one’s family via the traditions of one’s culture; getting married (and divorced); having children; being happy; growing old. The poems range in tone too, from melancholy, darkly humorous, wistful, playful, tragic, to tragicomic. Perhaps this variegation is also what makes Norman’s collection so difficult to sum up.

The collection’s reception in Indonesia was bifurcated in the extreme. On the one hand, it won a major national literary award, placing first in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Manuscript competition. On the other hand, because the poems of Sergius Mencari Bacchus were overtly queer, Norman experienced a tremendous amount of online bullying afterward, which plunged him into severe depression.

STH: In the translator’s note, you write about “working so closely together” with Norman that “the labels of ‘translator’ and ‘author’ ring somewhat false” because your roles were so “mingled” and “merged.” How did your collaboration come about and how has it developed over time?

TT: I approached Norman via a direct message on Twitter. At the time I was Asymptote’s Indonesia Editor-at-Large and was trying to encourage submissions from Indonesian writers. This was challenging because, obviously, submissions have to be translated into English first, and not all writers have access to translators. I knew he had won the Jakarta Arts Council award for his poetry, and that his short fiction had received much acclaim. So, I offered to translate his poems so that we could put together a submission for the poetry editor’s consideration. I said that if the editor rejected it, we could submit to other outlets—that is, if he was happy to continue working with me.

He said yes! And that he was willing to have me translate! We put together a submission for Asymptote, and it was accepted. Around the same time, we submitted to Cordite Poetry Review, and they took a poem. After that, we were on a roll. We won the 2017 PEN Presents competition. We approached Tilted Axis, who agreed to publish us and applied for a PEN Translates award, which we then won.

At first, working together on the translations involved a lot of debate. We would do tug-of-war over certain phrases, certain words, until we came to a compromise. As trust developed and we grew closer, our brains began to sync, and our correspondence on the poems became more collaborative, more mutually nurturing. We began deploying different methods to achieve better results. For example, Norman would sometimes rewrite parts of a poem to “prepare” it for translation into English. I asked Norman to record himself reading poems that I found particularly difficult. I would pepper Norman with questions via WhatsApp as I was working on a translation draft. Sometimes we’d edit together in real time on Google Docs. He encouraged me to be less literal, to take more liberties, to go with my gut and not be afraid of getting personal with the poetry. With a few of the poems (particularly the humorous ones), my first translation attempt would more or less end up being the final version. Others required numerous revisions. For two of the poems, Norman wrote new versions in English based on my translations. On our recent book launch tour in the UK, Norman described us as “linguistic wife and wife.” He always insists that the book belongs to both of us, which makes me very happy, but also embarrassed because I’m generally bad with accepting praise.

STH: While working with Norman on the English translation, you were particularly challenged by the Indonesian third-person pronoun. Can you speak to limitations of the English language in this context and how you overcame them?

TT: In Indonesian, all pronouns, including the singular third-person pronouns (dia, ia, -nya, beliau) are gender-neutral: there is no equivalent of she, he, her, or him. The singular they/them would be the closest equivalent in English, but is considered “progressive” and is still fighting for validation in many quarters. In the context of a collection of queer poetry, these genderless Indonesian pronouns are invaluable, facilitating an effortless expression and recognition of gender-fluidity through conventional language. They create space for the normalization of queer experience in a way that the English language doesn’t accommodate—not fully, not yet.

In translating the poems, I had to reconfigure the way I as a native English speaker approached the gender-neutral pronouns of Indonesian. Instead of seeing them as concealing he/she/him/her, I had to open my eyes and realize they could be neither, either, and both all at once. I only came to this revelation through my close correspondence with Norman. Without our conversations, I would in all likelihood have imposed a gendered heteronormativity on a work that was written with the express intent of counteracting such thinking. I am so grateful for our partnership. We revised all the poems on a case-by-case basis, with Norman leading the way on pronoun choice.    

STH: Speaking of challenges, I so appreciate that your translator’s note makes clear that you expect readers to be able to “process multiplicity” and “consider what is willfully and unconsciously erased in translation to simplify foreign writers and their writing in order to make them easily comprehensible for an English-reading audience.”  In your opinion, what are the translator’s responsibilities when it comes to sharing a writer’s vision, cultural background(s) and identities with a reader in another language? And what are the reader’s responsibilities?

TT: I take my responsibility as a translator very seriously when it comes to conveying these things. As a writer myself, I think I’d be so upset if someone translated my novels and didn’t take my vision or the cultural context of my work seriously enough to attempt to convey them! I think the responsibility is all the greater when it comes to translating someone from a minority background or marginalized community within their country, like Norman. He’s a gay writer of Batak ethnicity from a Christian working-class background and has had to work hard to carve out the space he’s made for himself on the national literary scene. To ignore his work’s vision, not to mention its cultural context, seems violent to me—a form of suppression.

I think it’s the reader’s responsibility to be open. People should understand that a deeper appreciation of texts written from an unfamiliar point of view and context must start with discomfort. As with language learning, disorientation is a necessary part of the process. Over time what is foreign will become less foreign. And hopefully, one’s comprehension of a text can then extend beyond a superficial enjoyment of how exotic it is and approach a more nuanced appreciation akin to what the text would receive among its readers at home.   

STH: Recently, you authored a thread on Twitter in response to an article published by the National Centre for Writing in the UK entitled “Where Are all the Indonesian Writers?”  Your thread argued that the article, while intended to promote Indonesian literature in translation, did more harm than good.  Your thread has been the subject of some rather heated online debate, and you have since published an essay entitled “Why Are Indonesians Being Erased from Indonesian Literature” in which you expand on the ideas you initially shared on Twitter. Why do you think your tweets struck such a chord with the literary community?

TT: I think timeliness played a major role. I wrote the thread in the days leading up to the 2019 London Book Fair, for which Indonesia was the official market focus. As such, there was a receptive audience for the concerns I expressed about the inadequate, demeaning, and quasi-colonial ways in which Indonesian writing in translation is being promoted and appraised by its supposed advocates. Comments indicated that similar problems plague the promotion of translated literature from other countries, so I suppose the thread served as a useful starting point for discussing how to address this situation as a whole.

I probably wouldn’t have written the thread if Indonesia hadn’t been the LBF market focus. The fact that this situation was being used to diminish and ignore the accomplishments of certain writers made me extremely upset, and because I felt powerless to take any other action to ameliorate the situation, I turned to Twitter. I should add that my thread wasn’t the only critique leveled: it came on the heels of some criticisms posted by Eka Kurniawan to Facebook, and preceded similarly-themed threads and articles by friends with whom I’d been discussing recent events, including Norman Erikson Pasaribu, Madina Malahayati Chumaera, and Theodora Sarah Abigail, who penned an article called “The Problem with Promoting Indonesian Literature Abroad” for the Jakarta Globe.

Although I was grateful for the international attention, I was more excited about the tremendous positive response from other members of the Indonesian literary and publishing community. It showed me, and so many other people, that our grievances were indeed valid—that there have been major ethical problems with the translation and representation of Indonesian writing to English-speaking audiences. I hope people will now have more freedom to voice their concerns without fearing backlash from those who occupy positions of authority or who dominate the Indonesian-literature-in-translation scene (for example, John McGlynn who heads the Lontar Foundation). I also hope this controversy will provide the basis for holding those in authority to account, or even better, challenging and redistributing that power.

STH: Banci is a word that often appears in Sergius Seeks Bacchus. Can you speak about your choice not to translate a word that feels so essential to the text?

TT: Banci is a derogatory term used to describe people who deviate from stiflingly straight, heterosexual norms. It’s applied to gay and transgender individuals, to “effeminate” males, “tomboy” females, those who cross-dress, and so on. In earlier versions of the poems where banci appears, we experimented with different English equivalents. But in the end, Norman and I decided to leave banci as is. When replaced with other slurs that were themselves quite culturally specific either to North America or the UK, the word lost its viscerality—the pain it inflicts on so many queer Indonesians every day. Somehow it seemed better to bear full testament to that suffering than to subsume it under queerness as experienced in western countries.

STH: Now that Sergius Seeks Bacchus is out in the world, what are you and Norman currently working on?

TT: I’m translating some of his short fiction into English. And he’s translating the Indonesian edition of my most recent novel, Under Your Wings (forthcoming in the US as The Majesties). We love working together! I worry that if we ever “break up,” it’ll be massively traumatizing for us both. I really hope we don’t.

Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator of Chinese-Indonesian descent. She is the author of the novel Under Your Wings (US edition forthcoming in early 2020 as The Majesties) and the Oddfits fantasy series. Her translations from Indonesian to English include Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus, Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats, and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate. She has a Ph.D. in English literature from UC-Berkeley and now lives in Sydney, Australia.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.


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