Labodalih Sembiring was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for his translation of Eka Kurniawan's Man Tiger. Labodalih Sembiring is the pen name of Muhammad Dalih Akbar Sembiring. Born in North Sumatra, the ex-features journalist currently lives in Yogyakarta as a writer, translator, and gardener.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to Eka Kurniawan's work?
Labodalih Sembiring (LS): Eka and I had never met in person prior to this project. One of our mutual friends heard that he needed a translator, and suggested that he and Benedict Anderson contact me. They then asked me, as well as several other translators, to translate the first few pages of Lelaki Harimau (the original title), which I had never read before. So technically those three people were the forces that drew me to the novel (as well as another friend who lent me the book). Now that I think about it, the explanation of why they picked me over the others never quite expanded from “We like your translation.”
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you'd done?
LS: I had never done any literary translation longer than a short story before. It was terrifying at first. But I have a degree in English literature, and have published several short stories that experiment with plot and psychology. So it did feel good to peek into Eka Kurniawan's peculiar mind and to reinvent his characters by re-orchestrating their voices using my vocabulary. But the particular ambiance of Eka’s aggressive sentences often required the strictest attention to word count and rhythm. It was like having a tiger behind my back every time I turned on the computer.
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
LS: I have been revisiting Al-Qur’an as of late. I failed to notice its literary wonders when I was first reading it as a child. I now find that I can discover more of its layers when I compare the English and Indonesian translations, for my Arabic is very limited.