Promoting Translation in the Publishing Industry

“Promoting Translation in the Publishing Industry:
A Developing Country’s Perspective”

“Salam Sejahtera dan Salam Persahabatan!”

I am glad to have the honor of attending this seminar and am grateful for the opportunity it offers to meet scholars, linguistics and other book publishers. As I consider the distinguised and well-educated audience here, I have to wonder, “Am I in the right place?”
      My job deals a lot with the translation and publication of books which are both written in the Indonesian language and are also translated from other languages. But I have to admit that I am not a professional translator, and I do not represent any of the big Indonesian publishing houses. I always tell myself that I am first and foremost a journalist; that’s been my lifelong identify, even until this day, athough I no longer work for a newspaper. But you know, old journalists never die! Therefore, what I will present here is based on my position and identity as a journalist.

About two months ago, I received a real surprise, an invitation from Professor Ahmat Adam to attend this seminar. My first reaction was that it was simply impossible to turn down the invitation, even though the topic of the seminar is actually not something which I handle every day. As a journalist, I admire Prof. Ahmat Adam greatly and therefore it was simply impossible for me to reject the invitation of a person I respect and admire.
     I could only guess why Prof. Ahmad Adam invited me. Hasta Mitra several years ago translated and published his book, which was important for Indonesian readers in general, especially for journalists and those interested in the history of the Indonesian press. I should explain here that I am not the translator of Prof. Ahmat Adam’s book; I was only involved as the editor and proof-reader. I can say that the translation is more than okay, but the ones who have the right to judge whether the translation is good or not are the readers.
      If I say that the translation is good enough, that is because of two factors. First, the translator doesn’t resemble me. I mastered my mother tongue only because I was forced to learn it –- I am the product of a colonial education, someone who used Dutch in daily conversation. When Japan occupied Indonesia, Dutch and other foreign languages were banned, and it was only then that I started to learn my own language. But the translator of Prof. Ahmat Adam’s book is a person who I consider to have the DNA of the Indonesian language embedded in his psyche. His name is Amarzan Lubis. He is a literary man, an essayist, a poet and now a journalist who, in my opinion, speaks Indonesian beautifully. There are not many people who speak Indonesian as well as he does – Pramoedya is one of the few people who come to mind. The second factor conributing to the very compentent translation of Prof. Adam’s book is that the writer himself – Prof. Ahmat Adam –, was willing to check the translation and even give suggestions to Amarzan Lubis, because he himself speaks Indonesian. He wrote the book in English, a brilliant thesis which is a big contribution to Indonesian history. We cannot expect direct assistance from the authors if we translate; for example, the work of Chomsky, let’s say, let alone Gorky, Hemmingway, and other authors who are dead. By telling a bit about Prof. Ahmat Adam’s book which was translated into Indonesian, we actually have talked about the topic of this seminar.

There is criticism levied at me individually as a journalist. It is this: why is it that an analysis of the history of the early Indonesian press and its role in the struggle for Indonesian independence was written not by an Indonesian historian or an Indonesian journalist? Why didn’t Hasta Mitra make an effort to ensure that vitally important books about Indonesia are written by Indonesian authors?
      I admit that the criticism is true because I do not have any hesitation to translate and publish books on any topic if the topic being analyzed has not been written in the Indonesian language. Even if there are books on a particular topic written in the Indonesian language, I will not hesitate to translate and publish books on that topic written by a foreign author if it is a good book which can contribute to Indonesian literature.
      The criticism I just mentioned comes from a segment of society who believe that if there are Indonesian people who can write –- whatever the topic is -– it is the work of the Indonesians who must be published and there is no need to translate foreign books. I do not belong to the group of people with such thinking. I will translate books in any foreign language, regardless the topic, and publish them, if they are good and have an added value that can enrich the knowledge and expand the horizons of Indonesian people. That is one requirement to which I hold strongly. My statement that I really want to translate and publish books which meet the above requirement actually implies that I have access to the facilities and the required funds. That is often times not the case; many times Hasta Mitra has sturggled to publish a worthwhile book with lack of capital, soley because we are totally committed to the important contribution such a book will make. I am fully aware that I, as an individual and a publisher, am from what are referred to as one of the “developing countries”. And if we mention “developing countries”, we will find publishers who face obstacles and problems in realizing their wishes and plans, and those frustrations are typical of what’s experienced by others in “developing countries”
      Another negative idea on translation comes from a small segment of our society’s educated people. They are opposed to translations in general, believing that books must be read in the original. I disagree with that. This idea -– whether people realize it or not -– has strong intellectual arrogance, and is not sensitive to reality. People who speak like that might have obtained a BA or MA degree, or even a PhD from the United States, England, France, Germany or other industrialized countries. There are, however, very few people who have had the opportunity to study abroad and who speak another language fluently. Our students -– in Indonesia -– who study in local universities, and who have obtained a BA, a master degree or even a doctorate -– for the most part, they don’t speak English fluently, let alone French, German, or Dutch.
      The conclusion is that despite such negative ideas about translation, I strongly believe that we need translators and we will continue to need them, even if the “developing countries” are able to produce many sophisticated authors who have mastered foreign languages. The Netherlands is an example. The Dutch in general master English, and many speak another foreign language, as well -– German or French, for example. In an English-or-another-European-language-speaking country, which have experts in all fields, more than 50 percent of the books published are translations. The literature of the Third World, for example, becomes the agenda of the publishers in Holland and other industrialized countries. The publishers must not merely be profit oriented and their book lists should also focus on aspects of cultural interaction among nations, which broaden one’s world.
      If publishers in industrialized countries have such an attitude, then those in developing countries must maintain that attitude even more strongly, because positive translation enriches the idea and thoughts which are transmitted by the author to the readers. Translation has a role to stimulate a reader’s creativity when the reader get the chance to know another nation’s culture, which are more advanced in various fields -– not only in technology, for instance. In this case, the translator and the translation have an important role. The language into which the source is translated will also develop because the translator is stimulated to continuously find from his or her own language the words and idioms which are equal to the source language. Language is the most instrumental tool of thought and communication. Countries which don’t actively encourage the translastion of worthwhile books will remain behind, dragging their feet in reaching a higher level of kknowledge.
      The big problem is how to improve the quality of translation. What is a good translation? Improving continuously the quality of translation is a challenge and at the same time it is also an obligation. We may tolerate translations which are not really good if we talk within the context of various problems facing developing countries, as long as there is a prospect that they can improve. It is difficult to justify bad translations, which err in interpreting the meaning and the message from the source language. Publishing a bad translation which is full of mistakes is just the same as circulating counterfeit currency.
      In this seminar we will of course talk in a broad way. A special workshop with adequate time for discussion is needed to address those technical problems. But here I only try, based on my own experience, to define what good translation is.

Good translation of a text or a book is the transfer -– reproduction -– from the source language into the language of those who receive the message embodied in the text of the source language, and the transfer is made using words or idioms which have a meaning that is as close as possible to that of the source language. The translator should pay attention to the structure and the style of the source language, but it is not necessary for he or she to follow the structure and the style if they are not in accordance with the structure or style of his or her language, or if they sound akward. When a text has been translated into a certain language, the text must become a work in the other language. For example, if an essay in English is translated into the Indonesian language, the “English essay” must become an “Indonesian essay”, but the message that is originally written in English should be easily understood by Indonesian readers.

Therefore an mportant requirement for good translation is that the translator must master his or her mother tongue in the first place. The mastery of the source language is surely important, but the mastery of the mother tongue is also no less important. The translator should have a broad general knowledge and specialty in certain fields, besides mastery of the mother tongue.
      Indonesian as the language that is used by translators also develops in accordance with the progress of time. If we compare translations done in the first decade of Indonesia’s independence with those that we have now, we can clearly see the changes, or let’s say, the improvement, in the Indonesian language, which is a very dynamic language. It improves in the sense that the language is now more economical, more condensed and there are not many useless words. The long-drawn-out style has not been entirely gone away, but only a few still use that kind of style.

With this simple paper, I attempt to make a response to the topic of this seminar, i.e. “Memajukan Karya Terjemahan dalam Industri Penerbitan: sebuah Masa-depan bagi Negeri-negeri Berkembang” (“Promoting Translation in the Publishing Industry: A Developing Country’s Perspective”).
      Interpreting that title makes me tend to underline that the mushrooming of translation books plays a strategic role for developing countries to reach a higher standard of living for the people -– in the sense that the people should be more prosperous economically and culturally. Making such a statement, I realize that we have a dilemma on specific problems facing developing countries. We are right away in a vicious circle regarding priorities. Which should be the first priority? Rice, clothes, food or books? Infra-structure of the economic development or books? We are not organizing an economics seminar, but as a publisher I state that those priorities have close correlations – one supports the other, and therefore they should be treated equally, instead of being conflicted.
      The duty to promote translation has two main goals: first, to continuously improve the quality of the translation. Second, to continuously add the number of translated books. Consequently there will be supporting factors, which should be addressed properly, like business management and a good distribution network.
      About the first goal, it has been mentioned above what can and should be done to produce good translations. As for the second goal, this is not merely the task of the publisher, but this should involve other parties within society, especially the government, education institutes -– both state and private universities, as well as the mass media.
      The government, as part of its political policy, should open a translation department in all schools of letters, and also in higher education institutions, especially vocational schools, like the non-degree program in academies for those who want to become a translator. It goes without saying that the promotion of translation needs many professionally authorized translators; it is the higher education institutions which have to produce them. Mass media can help by providing columns to review and criticize newly-launched translation books. We have not achieved the goal, but intensive activities by the above institutions will become a trigger with which to improve the quality of translated books.
      There is another effort that can help improve the quality of translations, and that is the presentation of prestigious awards for translators and/or publishers who have produced excellent translations. Such award presentations should be held every year, and what is most important is that there should be a big prize which will function as a significant stimulant for the recipient. This alluring stimulant could become a motivator in producing outstanding translations. This plan involves a lot of funds and is ideally handled by the government and business through a special body.
      One thing which becomes the full responsibility of the government, and publishers can do nothing about, is the tax problems. The preamble of the Indonesian constitution clearly addresses the country’s duty to educate the nation, but books, which are one of the effective means by which to educate a nation, are relatively expensive. The retail price of local books are quite high, let alone the imported ones. The paper, the import, the production, the publishing, the transport, the retail price, the royalties for the author, and the income of the company –- are all a series of things which are subject to taxation, which in the end must be paid by the readers.
      The government indeed needs taxes to run the wheels of the administration and to take care of the welfare of the people, but the task to educate the nation requires them to make wise policies and to take special and selective steps in taxation policies.
      One crucial thing facing publishers in developing countries is the copyright issue. It is indeed one of the most difficult problems. Talking about copyrights, I have to restrain myself from becoming an instant politician. We all know that the patents of various inventions in technology and also the copyrights for books are mostly in the hand of developed countries in the West, who are fond of calling themselves “The Free World”. They have a high value, i.e. “democracy” which they generously give for free to developing countries, and they even often force them to receive it. But if they get the turn to talk about copyrights, things become totally different. It is no longer a free item. They set a tariff for the copyrights and refuse to give them away for free to publishers in any developing country who are interested. Hence, we know that the progress and welfare which they now enjoy is partly contributed by developing countries as they have exploited natural resources in the developing countries and transported them to the Free World Countries for ages until today. (I am sorry I talk a bit about politics for a while).
      If I am not mistaken, in a meeting in the framework of the Bern Convention in Stockholm in 1967, developing countries requested to obtain a concession of access on copyrights held by developed countries. There is strong and logical ground to make the request: the access for information and copyrights are needed for the mass education of poor people in developing countries. Basically, the developing countries’ request was approved, but it was not until 1971 that the approval was included as an appendix of the Bern Convention. In reality, the approval does not work because developed countries do not implement the agreement in their respected countries.
      This is the urgent homework for all governments of developing countries in the international forum: to struggle for the access to the copyrights of books that they need without having to meet any burdensome requirement. We hope that the translation and the publication of books from developed countries is not regarded as piracy if the local publisher has informed the related foreign publisher and has given full credit to the author, publisher, and the year of publication. The bureaucracy of the licensing of copyrights which is related to certain tariffs, should not be an obstacle for publishers in developing countries.
      Publishers in the Third World will find it difficult to catch up with developed countries if the copyright issue is not solved thoroughly. The kinds of books that should be available for free access can be discussed further, but we hope that basically copyright will not become an obstacle for developing countries in their efforts to improve the dignity and the welfare of the people.
       Joesoef Isak
(Kota Kinabalu, 2 August 2005)
Subowo bin Sukaris
HASTA MITRA Updated at: 3:03 PM