Translating Mona Sylviana’s story collection, “A Tale of Redemption and Other Stories,” has been something of a change of pace for me. Indonesian literature is often steeped in the exotic cultures, mythologies, and languages of the many ethnic groups of Indonesia. Hence it can be difficult at times for the translator to convey this “Otherness” to a Western readership. Sylviana’s stories, on the other hand, with their mostly contemporary settings and universal themes of love, redemption, and revenge, are readily accessible. At least on the face of it.
One of Sylviana’s stories that she gave an English title, “To Be or Not To Be,” presented me with an unusual problem. The story, about a young man who assumes a predestined relationship with a girl merely because he saw her by chance a couple of times, did not really relate to the Shakespearean quote familiar to Western readers. I opted to change the title to “Meant To Be” to reflect the theme of predestination. Another title proved untranslatable—“Kepala K”—referring to the heads of three animals in the story that all start with the letter k in Indonesian but not, of course, in English. The story revolves around the animal that provided the meat for a special barbecue to impress a girlfriend, so I had to retitle that one “The Saté Barbecue.”
“A Tale of Redemption,” however, is most aptly titled. It is a fragment of a longer story within a story, touching on Indonesia’s deeply troubled past, where redemption for crimes dating back fifty years is difficult to openly seek. It has even been dangerous to openly talk or write about the violent aftermath of the September 1965 coup that wiped out communist sympathisers and criminalized all left-wing organizations right up to the present day. Only very recently have Indonesian writers dared to begin writing about these sensitive matters. A number of writers are now using themes related to the aftermath of 1965 in their works. There is Leila Chudori’s novel Home, and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Question of Red, to name just two that have been translated into English.
Sylviana’s story can be read at two levels. She refers obliquely to these violent events by focusing on one man’s efforts to seek his own redemption for his past actions and to lighten his burden of guilt for the suffering he brought upon a woman he cared for through the process of storytelling. At the same time, “A Tale of Redemption,” with its references to killings and the hounding of those labeled “communists” in the story, is a means of reminding readers of the events of 1965.
In terms of the translation process, I needed to try to reproduce the tone of the convivial banter of the men who are plantation workers enjoying a relaxing evening in a café and keen to hear an entertaining story. At the same time, I had to maintain the respectful tone they used with the storyteller, whom they obviously look up to. The men call each other “Bang” (“brother”) but refer to Samsu, the storyteller as “Bapak” (“father”), a polite form of address in Indonesian. I got round using these relationship terms by having the men refer to Samsu as “the gentleman” and “sir” to show the esteem they hold him in, but use “mate” when they’re talking among themselves. The men are unaware of the connection between the storyteller and the woman working in the café. Perhaps, due to the decades of silence over what transpired in 1965, they are also unaware of the story’s implications for their own country’s history.
And in contrast to this casual setting for the storyteller’s tale, I had to capture the dramatic intensity of the tale itself by recreating the author’s short, sharp sentences, although sometimes in other translations I combine sentences in a way that is more natural in English. I chose to keep the English the same in this story. For example: “A squeak from the window. It opened. Just a little.” and “The sound of Laksmi holding back tears. She was nearby. Maybe they were pushing her. She was close to the kitchen door. Someone looked out the door. A goat bleated. The person came back inside.”
The publication of this story in translation in 2015 is of particular relevance because it is the fiftieth anniversary of Indonesia’s so-called “communist coup” that toppled the Sukarno regime and brought in Suharto’s oppressive “New Order” regime. The repercussions of the systematic crackdown that followed the failed coup still haunt Indonesia today. There has been no justice or reconciliation for the families of between five-hundred thousand and a million Indonesians massacred and the tens of thousands tortured and imprisoned after the failed attempt by a group of left-wing junior officers to overthrow the senior military leadership in Sukarno’s unstable alliance of nationalist, communist and religious forces. Nor has there been any opportunity for redemption for those who, caught up in the anti-communist fervour, perpetrated the violence.
The concern for me in translating “A Tale of Redemption” was whether the historical references to the past are clear enough for the reader, who may have no particular knowledge of Indonesia’s recent history. In the end, I chose to let the story speak for itself—a personal tale of one man’s attempt to seek redemption for his cowardice decades earlier by putting his own safety before that of someone he himself had endangered. Even if readers don’t understand all of the broader historical context, the story makes a stark statement about individual guilt and cowardice.