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Toer in Translation

October 20, 2017

by Shannon Bush


“To explain the reasons, the dynamics, the causes, the forces at work in pushing history forward without dehumanizing or depersonalizing it is Pramoedya’s great achievement.  … History is not the background to these stories, it is the protagonist.” 
-from Max Lane’s Introduction to his English-language translation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s House of Glass (Rumah Kaca)


My appreciation of the scope of the Indonesian nationalist movement and the seemingly intractable forces arrayed to defeat it came to life with the introduction of one figure: not Sukarno, not Hatta, but Minke.  For those, like me, whose Bahasa Indonesia was not up to the task of working through a series of four highly sophisticated novels, ones whose complexity lay in their subtle deconstruction of the material processes of colonialism and of the rationalizations used to mask a crude and racialized exercise of power, we owe a debt of gratitude to Max Lane.  With his translations of the “Buru Quartet,” the series of four novels comprised of This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass, Dr. Lane is largely responsible for introducing Pramoedya Ananta Toer to the English-speaking world.

The main protagonist throughout the series (present even in his absence in House of Glass) is Raden Mas Minke, an indispensable guide who takes readers through the unfolding of Indonesia’s long twentieth-century.  While following the progression of his life, the reader attains an affective awareness of what early anti-colonial nationalists were up against and experiences a dawning realization that the outcomes which now seem inevitable were not preordained.   Students of history are accustomed to looking back at what seem discrete events, often fixed as points on a timeline.  This stance of certainty about the past comes up against the world Pramoedya reveals in which characters have to decide who to trust, weigh decisions, organize, and take risks not knowing what would become of their efforts.  Minke’s world of the unfolding present with its paths not taken, almost-successful efforts, and just-missed connections leaves the reader with an “epistemic vertigo:” we know how things turned out from history books, but the novels’ recitation seems much more real precisely because of its uncertainty.

Temporal perspective shifts when we read Minke’s “contemporary” judgments of Kartini or witness the internal division of one of the earliest “Native” organizations as a result of self-dealing.  The reader is forced to acknowledge that history unfolds in fits and starts and is subject to the limitations and foibles of individual leaders.  Even the sense one has of the colonial project as an impersonal, monolithic force is shown in the final novel, House of Glass, to be mistaken:  it was a human endeavor, conceived of and carried out by individuals.  To lose sight of that, Pramoedya’s work implies, is to lose sight of the tragedy of colonialism.

The creative and intellectual effort necessary to translate literary works of such importance was brought home to me earlier this year when my Indonesian language class devoted an entire period to translating just two paragraphs from House of Glass.  All five of us had a different way of rendering the sentence “Robert Suurhof’s stay in jail did not at all lessen my troubles” from the original Indonesian, each with a slightly different meaning.  Even our language instructor, who grew up in Jakarta, was unsure whether a metaphor in the second paragraph was an authorial creation or an adage from another part of the country.  Another sentence required close familiarity with a subplot that would only appear later in the story.  Dr. Lane confronted these choices word after word and sentence after sentence.  Moreover, faithfulness to the author’s objectives, not just word choice, required an intimate understanding of Pramoedya’s intentions and artistry.

You can hear Dr. Lane talk about “Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the Origins of the Indonesian Nation and Radical Politics Today” on Friday, November 3rd from 1:00 – 2:30 pm in Thomson 317 and about “Indonesian Politics Since Jokowi: Class and New Ideological Contestations” on Thursday, November 2nd from 3:30 – 5:00 pm, also in Thomson 317.