Being a Writer and a Translator (#2)

This is the second post of a series entitled “Being a Writer and [Insert Other Thing Here]”.

As a lot of you know, I’m a writer, but I also translate Indonesian literature into English. I’m fairly new at tranaslating. My first translation – of Nala Arung’s“tasteless” poetry – appeared on Asymptote‘s blog in 2014. And this was followed by others, including work by Eka Kurniawan, Laksmi Pamuntjak, and more recently, short stories by Avianti Armand and Ahmad Tohari. Still in the pipeline are two book-length translations – Paper Boats (Perahu Kertas) by Dee Lestari and Aruna and Her Palate (Aruna dan Lidahnya) by Laksmi Pamuntjak – and also, several poems by Norman Erikson Pasaribu.

And while all this is going on, I’m working on The More Known World – the second book in the Oddfits series.

Writing and translating at the same time has slowed my pace in both areas. There are only so many hours in a day, and now that I can only work during the times I have childcare or when the spouse (…or, um, TV) takes care of the young ‘un, there are less work hours in a day and less work days in a week than during my pre-toddler, workaholic existence. But I confess, I’m still a workaholic, and I’m greedy when it comes to interesting projects, and I really love both writing and translating. Each of them is enriching and exhilarating in its own way. And even though I know writing is the endeavor that will, if successfully executed, garner me more visibility and prestige, literary translation is not only something I enjoy, it is something that I feel is important on principle, perhaps precisely because it’s less in service of my self and involves a certain suppression of ego.

The differences between writing and translating, at least for me, can be summed up as follows.

Writing is like being on Masterchef. Translating is like doing a crossword puzzle.

Writing exercises a very different part of the brain than translating does. (This is probably a painfully obvious statement for many of you, so forgive me.) I think of it as being a contestant on Masterchef, where the challenge is to create a multi-course meal. And perhaps you have a theme or ingredient around which to anchor your meal – “bittersweet,” “yellow,” “quail eggs,” “The Cold War” – but apart from that, it’s all up to you. You can do anything you want, but consequently, the options are limitless, almost overwhelming. It’s the same with writing. You’re probably writing because there’s some thing, some idea, that has compelled you to sit in front of a blank notebook or screen and put pen to paper / fingers to keyboard.

But how to express the thing? – that is the question. Soup and salad? Sauces? When and where? What meats? (Lamb? Pork? Oyster? Rabbit? Legs? Ribs? Rumps? Cheeks?) What starches? (Taro? Millet? Short-grain rice?) What sweets? (Mousse? Berries? Bean paste? Palm sugar?) Bearing what cultural influences? Seasoned with what spices? Prepared with what cooking techniques? How will the elements of each dish hang together? How will each course hang together in the meal entire? Are you doing something new? And if so, how new, what new, why new?

It’s similar with writing. How does the tale unfold? (Chronologically? In media res? Shifts between the past and present?) From what point of view(s) will it be told? (Third person omniscient narration? Free indirect discourse? First person? Stream of consciousness? Present tense?) And in what style (Humorous? Detached? Lyrical? In tones bubbly or pensive? Earnest or sarcastic? Hardboiled or runny?) What on earth will happen? (For anything could happen, you know!) And how will these happenings be paced? Who are the characters, and what makes them who they are, and why make them who they are? What and where will the climax/climaxes be? How will it all flow? How will it all end?

With writing you start from scratch. You set the scope for your own vision. (And thankfully, unlike in Masterchef, if something doesn’t work, there’s plenty of time for a do-over.) Not so with translation, which is more like filling in a crossword puzzle. A really difficult one. And being really obsessed about solving all of it. What’s fourteen letters for “crafty crustacean dressed to kill”? Or a five-letter word for “cat’s in the cradle,” ending with “d” or possibly “p”? (I totally just pulled these supposed clues out of my three-letter-word, so don’t bother trying to solve them.)

My point is, when I’m working on a translation, it’s hard to switch off. Whether I’m shopping for groceries, or replying to emails, or standing on the train platform, my mind is constantly reordering, rephrasing, and rethinking words and lines to get the English to do the best justice possible to the original Indonesian in terms of replicating tone, style, rhythm, allusions, etc. Wordplay and other humor, consonance and assonance, idiomatic expressions, and cultural references are particularly challenging to translate. But as with crosswords, the most challenging passages to translate are also often the most rewarding ones – the ones that will linger in your memory for weeks, months, years even.

Writing indulges delusions of grandeur. Translating subsumes the self.

The above analogy (writing vs. translation = Masterchef vs. crossword puzzles) lays bare another critical difference between writing and translating. If writing / being on Masterchef is all about showcasing your own individual talents, and getting to take credit for what you’ve accomplished, translating / solving a crossword puzzle has an element of self-subsumption to it, an element of “good work, but this is not about you – it’s about the thing you’ve translated/solved.”

Let me try to articulate that again. When I write a story, or an essay, or a novel, the person in the limelight (insofar as there is any limelight) obviously ends up being me. When I translate someone else’s writing into English, the person who will be the star attraction is the original writer. And this is only fair. The person who wrote the piece – the Masterchef – should be in the spotlight because this is the whole point of translation – to introduce a readership to new work by a writer who deserves to be known about and read by people who speak different languages from that writer. This is why I began doing literary translation – because I had (and still have) a genuine desire to make really cool work by Indonesian writers known to an English-speaking audience. But when I undertake a translation, I do so with the knowledge that I am doing so in the service of the work I am translating and the writer whose work I am translating.

Because I am also a writer, this is humbling business. Most people who read my novel The Oddfits will remember that I wrote it. The majority of those who read Eka Kurniawan’s “Caronang” in English will most likely not remember that I translated it – in the same way that I (shamefully) don’t remember off the top of my head who translated the English edition of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo; in the same way that I (appallingly) don’t remember who translated my English editions of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; in the same way the students in my Classics of World Literature class probably don’t remember who translated the editions of The Ramayana and The Dream of the Red Chamber I assigned as reading.

I’m not bitter about this state of affairs. Not at all. It makes sense. But it also makes me conscious that literary translation – especially in cases when financial remuneration is either absent or negligible – is about forgetting oneself for the sake of showcasing someone else to his or her full advantage. And this subsumption of self applies to the mechanics of translation as well: when I translate, I’m very conscious about respecting and bringing out the distinctive style of the writer whom I’m translating. I think the danger in translating is the temptation to impose one’s own voice, style, tone on another author’s work. I’m not sure if I succeed all the time, but I try my best not to do this. And whenever possible, insofar as it is possible, I try to be as transparent with the Indonesian writers whom I translate about what I’m doing with their work, and to involve them in the translation and subsequent editing process, as any principled literary translator should.

Terribly deep, I know. Stay tuned for the installment #3 in this blog post series: “Being a Writer and Mothering.”



  1. Kellie Kromkowski

    Wow! You are multi-tasking to the max. I am glad you broke everything down into analogies we can understand. I often take for granted the role of the translator in literature. It is truly an art form in and of itself.

    The more creative and worthwhile things you do, the better you are for those around you. And a little TV time is not so bad.

    Best wishes to you with all your endeavors. Looking forward to the next Oddfits!


  2. […] my previous post on being a writer and a translator, I reflected on how translating is a humbling process – one that involves the subsumption of self in order to produce good results. Motherhood has […]

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