An interview with Max Lane

On the politics of translation

Fadli Fawzi and Nazry Bahrawi

Photograph by Nazry Bahrawi

Max Lane introduced the English-speaking world to the revolutionary that is Pramoedya Ananta Toer, often speculated to be Indonesia's best candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Lane, now a lecturer of international politics at Victoria University, was a mid-level officer working at the Australian embassy in Jakarta when he began translating Pramoedya's Bumi Manusia in 1980. At this time, Indonesian president Suharto's New Order Regime (the Partai Golongan Karya [Party of the Functional Groups, also known as Golkar]) was in power, propped up by foreign investment and backed by the army. It was also when heavy-handed repression was the norm in Southeast Asia, and Suharto's New Order government was no exception. In the early 1980s, corpses began surfacing in public places as a result of extrajudicial killings. These 'Petrus' (Penembak Misterius, or mysterious shooter) killings were undertaken by the army to reduce the crime rate, which President Suharto openly admitted in his biography.  The Indonesian government was also involved in a bloody conflict in East Timor as guerrillas resisted the Indonesian occupation beginning in 1975.

It was amidst this backdrop of violence and repression that Lane translated Pramoedya's works, which were met with opprobrium by the Indonesian authorities. Pramoedya and his incarceration were a reminder of the brutal inception of the New Order regime, the bastard child of genocidal reactionary factions and a complicit Western World.

Pramoedya's novel
Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) itself had been banned on grounds of vague accusations of association with 'Marxist Leninist' thought. What Lane did was introduce the English world to the conscience of a humanity they had helped destroy.

You were an Australian diplomat when you first translated Pramoedya Ananta Toer's first novel of his Buru Quartet series, Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind). How did an Australian diplomat come to be interested in Indonesian Literature in general, and Pramoedya's work specifically?

I had been a student of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney (1969-72) and I had already visited Indonesia several times. I was interested in issues of political democracy and development (and ending under-development). In 1974, I was in Jogjakarta for almost a year studying the Javanese language and also tutoring politics and sociology at the Bengkel Teater, established by W.S. Rendra, the poet. I was at Bengkel theatre during the period Rendra produced Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga [The Struggle of the Naga Tribe] and also his adaptation of Lysisrata. I became very interested in the relationship between literature, political, social and political change. On my return to Australia in 1975, I translated Kisah Perjuangan Suku Naga into English. It was published by St. Martin's Press New York and University of Queensland Press, Brisbane. This was peformed by Nimrod Theatre in Sydney and then by other theatre groups. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation produced it as a radio play. I continued to be interested in this kind of literature and these kinds of issues, and visited Indonesia again in 1978, after Rendra was released from jail. (He was jailed for five months without trial after a poetry reading in March 1978.)

In 1978, I found a job in the overseas aid arm of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1980, I was posted to the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Of course, again I spent much time with Rendra and other political and literary people, who were already my friends. Also in 1979, Pramoedya and 15,000 others were released from the prison camp on Buru Island, where they had been illegally detained for almost 14 years under horrific conditions. Many died in prison. So Pramoedya was back in Jakarta by 1980, but under surveillance. Given my interests, I was of course very interested when a friend offered to introduce me to Pramoedya. I was later given an early copy of Bumi Manusia, was enthralled by it, and offered to translate it. The offer was accepted.

We also understand that you have gotten into trouble for your translations. For instance, you were recalled to Australia after translating Bumi Manusia in 1981. Could you describe how this situation unfolded?

I was a middle level staff member in the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in early 1980s. In my spare time I started translating Bumi Manusia. In 1981, I informed the Ambassador that I had completed the translation and hoped soon to publish it through Penguin Books Australia. While I saw the project as a major contribution to bettering Australian-Indonesian cultural relations, and something good for the promotion of Indonesian literature in general, the Ambassador and the Australian Government saw it as an undiplomatic activity. Bumi Manusia had been banned by the Suharto regime in 1981. So I was in effect publishing a banned book. The Ambassador arranged for me to leave Indonesia as soon as possible in order that I be out of the country before the Indonesian government found out about this activity. During this whole period, the Australian government was complicit in the murderous activities of the Suharto regime. The Australian government had celebrated the anti-communist mass murders following an attempted coup in Indonesia in 1965 (about one million murdered) and the Suharto regime's bloody invasion of East Timor in 1975. By the mid-1980s, about 300,000 Timorese were dead because of this. The Australian government provided weapons training to Indonesia during most of this period. They saw themselves as a close partner of the Suharto regime and did not like an Australian diplomat translating a book that the regime had banned, written by a person the regime had imprisoned.

As you have described above, you have translated Pramoedya and W.S. Rendra, two of Indonesia's best known literary figures. Why specifically these two and not others?

I have also translated some of the poems of Wiji Thukul, who disappeared in 1998, presumably  tortured and murdered by pro-Suharto forces. I love literature in general, from all countries, but—of course—especially in my own language, English. As somebody with a commitment to bringing Indonesia to the English-speaking world, my passion was to introduce people to the two writers I thought were Indonesia's best, but also the two who spoke most deeply to the hearts of Indonesians. I still believe that no other two writers have had such an impact on Indonesians. Although, we must note that literature in Indonesia is not yet widely read. This is a result of another one of the crimes of the Suharto regime, namely, that it stopped the teaching of Indonesian literature in schools. So over the last 40 years, tens of millions of children have gone through the school system without any serious understanding of literature, let alone of the works of politically out-of-favour writers such as Pramoedya and Rendra. Literature itself did not develop in a healthy way either during those 40 years and has still yet to find new take-off energy. The fact that the existing generation of writers, poets and dramatists does not care at all that those children have not been taught literature—they have never raised a word of serious protest—shows how limp it is.

For me, Pramoedya's works of historical fiction are great epics that tell the origins of Indonesia, having been set during the times before the word "Indonesia" was even in use. Meanwhile, Rendra is a great articulator of the people's anger against the dictatorship and its injustices. He is capable of expressing these with beautiful words, embedding analysis as well, and sometimes too with great humour. As I said, I have also translated Wiji Thukul, the son of a trishaw driver, who was the street poet of the anti-dictatorship movement that swelled between 1989 and 1998 in Indonesia. He too should not be forgotten.

The organisation that Pramoedya was strongly associated with, Lekra (Lembaga Kebudjaan Rakyat), was very influential before 1965. We understand that it was involved in a tussle with  another organisation, Manikebu (Manifesto Kebudayaan), which was staffed by other literary greats like Goenawan Mohamad. Yet both are leftist cultural organisations. Why was Manikebu not as oppressed by Suharto's New Order regime as much as Lekra?

Pramoedya did not head or hold any important position in Lekra. As a left-wing writer with a high profile, he had accepted an invitation for a kind of honorary position in Lekra and had spoken at some Lekra events. Pramoedya's main activities in the period 1960-65, apart from research in preparation for more novels, was to be editor of the cultural page of the daily newspaper Bintang Timur. Bintang Timur was published by the Indonesia Party (PARTINDO), a radical left party supporting Sukarno. Lekra was, on the other hand, affiliated to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), which, of course, also strongly supported Sukarno. As cultural commentator for Bintang Timur, Pramoedya wrote many columns on Indonesian history and literary history, which was his passion during this period. He was also an energetic critic and opponent of the trend among Indonesian writers to embrace right wing ideologies. Some of these right-wing writers collaborated secretly with the Indonesian army and intelligence elements and helped form the Manikebu group. Manikebu hypocritically advocated a separation of the arts from politics. I say 'hypocritically' here because they were working with the Army. Pramoedya was one of the sharpest critics and outright opponents of this trend. The Sukarno government later banned the MANIKEBU group's manifesto, although all of its supporters remained active and played a major role in supporting the coming to power of the military dictatorship of Suharto.

The savage dispute between left and right in the Indonesian arts scene before 1965 cannot be separated from the general political polarisation that was taking place in the country. A rapidly growing left wing, under the ideological leadership of Sukarno and the organisational push of the PKI, envisaged a socialist Indonesia. A stagnating right wing, based on an alliance between conservative religion, landed elites, a tiny pro-western intelligentsia and literary scene and a majority of the extremely corrupt armed forces officer corps envisaged a militarily-ruled Indonesia crushing the popular movement and opening its doors to western money and power. Everybody was challenged to take sides. Everybody knew that whoever won, it would be then very, very difficult to change course again. Pramoedya, and tens of millions of others, chose to support Sukarno and socialism. However, they were unarmed. In October 1965, Suharto and his group in the army seized the opportunity provided by a failed midnight conspiracy to replace the army leadership to launch a programme against the whole of the pro-Sukarno left. A million people were killed and several tens of thousands jailed. About 15,000 to 20,000 were imprisoned for 14 years without trial, including Pramoedya. The repression of the left was supported by the Manikebu writers. The left was targeted because the attempt to remove the generals, which resulted in the assassination of several generals, had been organised by the head of the PKI. Although he had done this without the knowledge of his comrades or the membership of his party, contravening its own strategies, the whole party suffered collective punishment and destruction, along with any other left supporters of Sukarno.

The Manikebu writers, renamed as the 66 Generation, which included figures such as Goenawan Mohammed [a poet and former editor of news weekly Kompas], emerged as the victors. They also took as their war booty dominance of the literary and intellectual world. Pramoedya as well as many writers from Lekra who were not killed languished in prison. No campaign from other writers ever emerged to demand the freedom of those imprisoned.

One figure who was in an ambiguous position was Rendra. He had signed the MANIKEBU statement but soon afterwards left to study in New York. As a result, he was never integrated into the collaboration with the anti-left forces before 1965 as they prepared the ground to seize power. When he returned to Indonesia after the slaughter and arrests, he continued to identify with the Manikebu generation on some issues and always remained hostile to Pramoedya politically (while admiring him in the literary field). I think by the 1970s, Rendra had developed many similarities with the left writers of the 1960s, though not in everything.

What were some of the contemporary issues shaping how Indonesian literature was being written at the time? How was Pramoedya's work shaped by his life experiences and personality during this time?

Bumi Manusia and its sequels were published in the 1980s. They were written in prison on Buru Island in the 1970s and the basic ideas in the novels were conceived and researched in the early 1960s. In the end, however, the explanation is "simple". Pramoedya was part of the "45 Generation" —the generation that was engaged in the direct struggle for independence and then against colonial rule. Independence was proclaimed in 1945 and the Dutch conceded sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949. Pramoedya took up both the rifle and the pen to fight the Dutch. He was captured and spent time in a Dutch prison. As a genuine 45-er, Pramoedya had deeply felt ideals and vision for the future of Indonesia: democratic, humane and prospering. By the late 1950s, he was disappointed and frustrated by the lack of progress and the endemic corruption as well as moral and political bankruptcy of most of the ruling elite. He had visited the People's Republic of China in the 1950s and compared the big leaps in economic progress for ordinary people compared to Indonesia and also the closeness of the intelligentsia to the grassroots in China. His disappointment led him to ask: Why?

I don't know why, but Pramoedya's approach to answering this question was very different from almost everybody else, including those in the left. Most of the left saw the main causes of the country's backwardness to be in its semi-colonial situation in the world economy—despite achieving independence. Pramoedya also completely agreed with this, but clearly did not think this was a sufficient explanation by itself. He started a search for the origins of Indonesia's backwardness in its pre-Indonesian history, both from the "feudal" period as well as the colonial period. He began an epic research project, working in the national library and mobilizing his students (he was a lecturer also) to carry out research projects. It was this research which provided him the material for the revolutionary new perspective on Indonesian history—overturning many accepted ideas—which we find in Bumi Manusia and its sequels as well as his other historical writings, novels and anthologies, published in the 1980s. What were these revolutionary perspectives? That is another huge topic.

What do you think are Pramoedya's main contributions to Indonesian literature?

He was a massively prolific writer who made many different contributions until 1979. But I think his main contribution is his historical novels: the Buru Quartet series of four novels as well as the two novels Arok Dedes and Arus Balik, set in pre-colonial times.

Let us move on to translation and literature. Literary translations are sometimes criticised for missing out on the nuances of the original language. What issues or difficulties did you have in translating such nuances?

Yes, translating nuances is a problem but I do not know how I did or did not resolve these issues. I tried to keep as much "foreignness" as possible, expecting the reader to do some work of interpretation and digestion of language, hoping that not too much work would end up being imposed on the reader to integrate the language into the reader's reading. It is a question of subjective judgement as far as I can see. But I was very young and inexperienced then—much less experienced and skilled than Pramoedya himself. I am sometimes these days asked for examples of this, but I must admit I find it difficult to recall after 30 years.

I often cite the example of the translation of "buaya" (crocodile) which is the metaphor used to describe the young Minke as a lady's man, playboy and all that. I did receive some advice to translate this as "wolf" rather than "crocodile", because "wolf" was a more familiar metaphor to English language readers. I kept "crocodile" because it was more natural in the Indonesian context given that wolves ('serigala' in Indonesian) are rarer and more evil. In addition, "familiarity" should not be the only criteria. Thus I kept quite a few terms in Indonesian, leaving them in italics. I do notice that in later editions the publisher has removed the italics for many words. Why make familiar something which should not be familiar? Late 19th century Java in the Netherlands Indies should not appear so familiar to a later 20th century reader. In many cases, however, the examples are mainly minor in reality. There are probably issues also in sentence structure and tenses but I will leave analysis of that to the grammarians.

In both translating Pramoedya and Rendra, I think that the key thing for me was to feel that I understood their thinking, learned from their texts and also from an engagement with them in their orientation to society and change. I led discussions on politics and social change at Bengkel Teater for almost a year in Jogja, where Rendra also always participated in the discussions. I had many joint discussions with him, especially between 1974 and 1981. I had many discussions with Pramoedya and his comrades after 1980, all within the framework of trying to achieve similar social goals. In this sense I have seen my translation work as the translation of ideology and perspective, not just text. However, I doubt whether I can theorise this comprehensively, if at all.

What other Indonesian writers other than Pramoedya and Rendra would you be interested in translating? Why?

None at the moment, but I am expecting a flourishing of Indonesian literature over the next decade so who knows. I received a mandate—a letter—from Pramoedya to translate Arus Balik and I would like to do that very much.

There is a sense outside Indonesia that Pramoedya is a highly popular figure within Indonesia, but there are in truth Indonesians who do not hold Pramoedya in high regards at all. Do you think that the English translations of Pramoedya's work may have misconstrued his popularity in the service of creating a literary 'hero' when this may not really be the case?

No, I don't think this is the case. He is a literary hero to critical, progressive oriented Indonesians who are sensitive to the deep social injustices in Indonesia—and who have had a chance to actually read his novels. He is not a hero to others. His position as the leading Indonesian serious novelist is manifested in the fact that there are always several of his titles available in all major book stores at any time. His historical novels have been performed as (in the Indonesian context) hit plays. Bumi Manusia is now being made into a feature film by two of Indonesia's leading filmmakers, which is likely to increase the outreach of his novels.

Of course, in Indonesia, Pramoedya does not have a mass readership and therefore his works would not be known to 95 percent of the Indonesian population. The fact that literary criticism is not taught whatsoever at all in state schools means that this is a huge problem. However, within objective circles and among intellectually and politically active progressive Indonesians, I believe he has enormous importance—although there is now a challenge for this constituency to make much more of his ideas and contributions.

How do you think your reading and translation of Pramoedya's work was affected by your life and personality? Conversely, how did translating Indonesian works change you as a writer/ translator/ person?

I don't really know how to answer the first question. But perhaps the answer is buried somewhere in an answer to the second question. My engagement with Pramoedya during 1980-81 and equally as much my engagement with his publishers and editors—Joesoef Isak and Haysim Rachman—played a major role in inspiring me to become involved in socialist and radical politics and ideas. Joeseof Isak and Hasyim Rachman, both of whom had spent more than 10 years in gaol without trial under the Suharto dictatorship (with 20,000 others) were incredible people. They stood out above all the other Leftists released in 1978-9. Their courage and tactical brilliance in starting up a publishing company to publish Pramoedya's books under the dictatorship and their ability to launch the books and penetrate through the fear and censorship was an amazing achievement. Their love of Indonesia and humanity was inspiring.

And then there was the revelation of Pramoedya's books themselves.

During 1980-81, when I was working in Jakarta, I was able to be very close to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Joesoef Isak and Hasyim Rachman as well as Rendra, who was living in Jakarta then also, and some student leaders who had been released from jail then also, such as Hariman Siregar. The engagement with this mixture is no doubt made me who I am today and propelled me into new engagements with other radicals in Indonesia in the 1990s, as well as in Australia, the Philippines, East Timor and the Netherlands during the whole time since 1980 until today.