Frankfurt Book Fair 2015: How serious is Indonesia in promoting its culture, literature?

by Niken Prathivi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Feature | Sun, April 06 2014

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At the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015, Indonesia will be the event’s guest of honor, offering the nation a chance to show the world that it has tremendous wealth of culture and literature.

The event will be the first time that Indonesia will be so honored.

In previous iterations of the fair, Indonesia has been represented by the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI) or individual publishing houses.

Deputy Education and Culture Minister Wiendu Nuryanti said that officials were taking the time needed to make sure that the government was ready. 

“We must understand that the book fair has a wide constellation [in the industry], so we’d like to treat Frankfurt Book Fair as a promotion place for Indonesia. We also think that we can develop some ideas, like gaining some ground for creating a translation center in Indonesia,” Wiendu said during a recent seminar titled On the Road to Frankfurt: How Translation Travels held by Kompas Gramedia.

“We have our own great authors and we need momentum to promote them and their powerful literary works — and the Frankfurt Book Fair is the perfect international stage for Indonesia,” she added.

Officials plan to display 2,000 books at a dedicated Indonesian booth at Frankfurt, Wiendu said. About 150 of the titles would be translated into English or German. 

“Our translation team is doing its best to finish half of the target number by end of the year. If everything goes well, we will have translated all 150 titles by next year,” she said, adding that the government has allocated US$1 million for the project.

So far, Wiendu has received 530 titles to be brought to Frankfurt. “We’re welcoming more titles from the public, especially the ones that explore local culture with universal values.”

Also speaking at the seminar, Gramedia managing director Wandi S. Brata said that his company would display another 100 titles of Indonesian literary works in foreign languages during Frankfurt.

“It’s great that now the government is willing to facilitate us at the book fair. I think it’s a brave step from the government, which hopefully will have a good impact — on Indonesia in general, and on local publishers in particular,” Wandi told The Jakarta Post.

Wandi said that publishers and the IKAPI worked independently at international book fairs in previous years. “We used to only focus on buying rights [of international titles]. This time, Gramedia alone, for example, will be trying our best to sell some rights of local titles to international market, especially Germany.

“So far, we’ve translated 61 titles — there are about 40 to go. We’re optimistic that every title will be ready by next year.”

Even so, Wandi is realistic. “Most publishers overseas still look down on Indonesian books. Only books from great and famous authors, like Pramoedya Ananta Toer, get their attention.”

Surprisingly, books about Indonesian Islamic fashion have come to international consideration, especially in Middle East countries such as Turkey, and from Malaysia, said Wandi. “It seems that our all-covered fashion has become a trend.”

Wandi said that Indonesian publishing industry was still “colonized”, meaning that most of books on sale were from overseas. “Foreign titles in fiction and non-fiction are still favorites. Although, in metropop, there’s been a significant shift. Indonesian metropop is a favorite now,” he said of women’s popular literature.

Nung Atasana of Borobudur Literary Agency says that different countries have readers with different interests. 

Malaysians, for example, are interested in Indonesian books about Islam, Islamic fashion, fashion, Islamic novels, Chinese philosophy, recipes, handicrafts, agro-business, interior design, parenting, education, motivation, health, computer, literary works and children’s books.

“Brunei Darussalam looks for literary works; the Philippines looks for English[-language] children’s books; Vietnam looks for on education, children’s books and references; Thailand looks for children’s books; the Indonesian community overseas is interested in rare books and local content; while Japan is up for literary works,” said Nung, a former editor of Gramedia Pustaka Utama publishing and former international marketer for Gramedia Publishers.

There was also interest from publishers in other nations: illustrated children’s books for South Korea, classic and contemporary literature in the United Arab Emirates, Islamic writings for Saudi Arabia, cookbooks and literature in the Netherlands and reference and literary books in the US.

“From my observation, it means that most of those countries are looking for children’s books, especially with hand illustrations instead of computer-generated ones,” said Nung.

Meanwhile, Kate Griffin, the international program director for British Center for Literary Translation, said that most foreign publishers look for books that would fit their lists, tastes and aesthetics; as for works with stories they think their readers would read.

“In the UK, we are generally not as adventurous and open to other literary styles as other European countries. Crime fiction in translation is popular, as is straightforward storytelling, but not so much literary experiments. 

“This means that UK publishers are often quite cautious in what they choose to translate, selecting titles that don’t stray too far from the taste of UK readers and familiar literary styles. They might focus on genres such as crime, or big family sagas, to be sure that there is an audience,” she said.

Author Laksmi Pamuntjak has had her novel Amba translated into English under the title The Question of Red. The book, published by Gramedia Pustaka Utama in Indonesia, will be available in bookstores after April 1. 

Laksmi has sold the German rights of the novel to Ullstein Verlag, which will publish it in German by fall 2015. Ullstein Verlag is a respected German publishing company that has published the works of George Orwell, Ha Jin, Margaret Atwood, Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun, Richard Dawkins and J.K. Rowling. 

“I can only hope [the German distribution] will further open doors to the international market,” said Laksmi.

Looking at Frankfurt, Laksmi said that Indonesia could use the fair to curate the nation’s literature to determine which works should be presented to the world and display the sheer breadth of the country’s cultural voices.

“The government should take this seriously, however, for a moment of this scale calls for resources and a great amount of faith and national pride in what Indonesian authors have achieved. 

Look at South Korea and how committed its government is in subsidizing and promoting its writers and artists and works in translations,” she said.

Taking the stage in the Frankfurt Book Fair isn’t so much about whether Indonesian literature is good enough, said Laksmi. “It is, rather, about whether the world is interested in what we have to say in the first place.”

Photo caption: A discussion in Jakarta held on the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. (Courtesy of Indonesia Goes Frankfurt 2015)

Photo by: (JP/Ricky Yudhistira)