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The Indonesian Way

In response to:

Workers & Warriors from the July 19, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In Mr. Ian Buruma’s review of The Fugitive by Pramoedya Ananta Toer [NYR, July 19],the writer mentions that “…the translation of Pramoedya’s novel is so stilted that it is difficult to tell whether he also merits the recommendation…as ‘one of the world’s most important writers.’ ” Later, in the same article, Mr. Buruma remarks on the creaky translation again. To my knowledge, the reviewer does not speak or read Bahasa Indonesia and is, therefore, in no position to judge the felicity of the novel’s translation.

After quoting what is—Yes, I admit it!—an awkward piece of dialogue (“Only God the Most Powerful knows how much I’d like to have you beneath our roof once more…”) Mr. Buruma remarks that “People don’t talk like this in English or I daresay in Javanese.” Ignoring the fact that The Fugitive was first published in Bahasa Indonesia, not in Javanese, I daresay that most Javanese and most Indonesians as well, especially the Muslim majority, would disagree with Mr. Buruma. Because people “don’t talk like this in English” is a shaky basis on which to judge the accuracy of a translation. Further, Mr. Buruma completely ignores the fact that the awkwardness of that particular piece of dialogue is very much in keeping with the pompous, self-righteous and hypocritical nature of its speaker.

To his credit, Mr. Buruma mentions in his review that “if any writer is in a position to appreciate the ironies and ambiguities of history…it is Pramoedya Ananta Toer.” Nonetheless, by failing to mention that The Fugitive was Mr. Toer’s first novel, written by the author at the age of twenty-three in 1949, he implies that The Fugitive dates from a much later time (after the author had experienced fourteen years of imprisonment without trial in Buru, an island prison).

Mr. Toer freely admits that The Fugitive is neither his best nor favorite work. I, as a translator of Indonesian literature must add, however, that the work is of great historical importance for an understanding of Mr. Toer as both a writer and Indonesian nationalist. I highly commend William Morrow and Co. for its decision to publish this work. For whatever its shortcomings, the novel will, I hope, serve as a good introduction to Pramoedya’s later and more recent works.

I must also comment on Mr. Buruma’s remark that “It is as much of a common-place to compare Indonesian things to Wayang as it is to drag Kabuki into everything Japanese…” That is true only for the novice or the uninformed. Knowledge of the Javanese shadow theater is essential to an understanding of The Fugitive, nonetheless there is no reason to devote three columns of a review to comparisons between wayang and the novel. That is not literary criticism; that is pettifoggery.

Near the end of his review of The Fugitive Mr. Buruma asserts that “Pramoedya as editor of a pro-government publication castigated writers who diverged from the extreme leftist party line…” Here again Mr. Buruma is walking on unstable ground. It is highly unworthy of Mr. Buruma to include such a comment without a prefix on the history of Indonesia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. One must note that the publication for which Mr. Toer served as editor supported the government only insofar as the government supported the publication’s nationalist goals. Does that make the publication “pro-government”? Like other politically-involved writers on both the left and right (and almost all Indonesian writers at that time were, without exception, politically involved), if Mr. Toer castigated other writers, he did not do so surreptitiously, but in a public forum that provided free room for response. Further, his criticisms were aimed not at writers who failed to adhere to the extreme left party line (he himself was not even a member of the Indonesian Communist Party) but people whom he saw as failing to uphold the ideals of the Indonesian revolution and squandering their talents in the service of a corrupt society.

In attempting to fill the gaps in Mr. Buruma’s article, I am also forced to add that Mr. Toer never supported the imprisonment of other writers for their beliefs. It is sad that, after the cataclysmic events of 1965, the same can not be said for other prominent members of Indonesia’s literary community. The resounding silence that followed imprisonment of tens of thousands of writers and artists after 1965 is proof enough of the cowardice of the Indonesian intelligentsia that Mr. Toer criticized.

Mr. Buruma obviously feels that the burning of Mr. Toer’s library and the confiscation of his belongings and fourteen years of his life should be no guarantee of literary or political beatification. I would be the first to agree. Unfortunately Mr. Buruma failed to see that was not the reason behind the English-language publication of this novel. In translating The Fugitive I was attempting only to show the early work of a writer who is now, forty years later, one of the world’s most remarkable writers. My apologies to Mr. Buruma if he feels that my translation is “creaky.” A little rust, however, should be no reason for his failure to see.

Willem Samuels
New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

Like so many translators with tin ears, Mr. Samuels ignores the most important yardstick of a good translation: it must read well in the language at hand. To judge whether this is so does not demand any knowledge of the original. Accuracy is of course a different matter, and since indeed I do not read Bahasa Indonesia I refrained from comment on that aspect of Mr. Samuels’s work. I never said the book was written in Javanese, only that the characters would have spoken in that language. In any case, whatever Javanese people spoke in the 1940s, wooden dialogue does not express self-righteousness or hypocrisy, but a clumsy way with prose.

Perhaps Pramoedya’s first novel is mainly of historical interest and has little literary merit, and hence is a poor example of his work. I shall have to take the translator’s word for it. But it should be mentioned that not all scholars of Indonesian literature agree with this assessment of Pramoedya’s early works. The French scholar Denys Lombard calls them masterpieces and mentions that according to many people Pramoedya’s first novel was the best he ever wrote. So perhaps the bad prose is not all the author’s fault.

I must say I cannot quite follow the point about Wayang. Should I not have made the comparison at some length, even though “knowledge of the Javanese shadow theater is essential to an understanding of The Fugitive“? I don’t know what Mr. Samuels is getting at, but do I smell a whiff of pettifoggery here?

Now to the most important issue: Pramoedya’s persecution of other writers during the Sukarno years. Let me quote from an article by Goenawan Mohammed, the editor-in-chief of Tempo, a respected magazine in Jakarta, and himself a writer who lived through that period:

Pramoedya’s main aim…was to show the fallacy of those writers who did not subscribe to Lekra’s doctrine, that “politics is the Commander.” He concluded that the political ambivalence that had given birth to the arts and thoughts of “tramps” should not be cut down and wiped out. There was no need, he stated, “to give room, however limited, to these infectious elements…”

These infectious elements included distinguished writers, such as Takdir Alisjahbana, who felt it was unsafe to stay in his country, and Mochtar Lubis, who was jailed. The works of other authors attacked by Pramoedya were banned. So the “free room for response” was rather limited in space, about as small as a jail cell, in fact. And where have we heard the line before that people were all right unless they failed to uphold the ideals of the revolution? Squandering their talents on a corrupt society? Surely it is up to the individual artist how he wishes to use his talents. Alas, Pramoedya did not think so, and apparently nor does his translator.

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