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Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

Translator’s introduction

To translate is to bring writing to a new audience. Otherwise, translation would not be needed, obviously. In any work of translation, the translator has to negotiate between the original readership and the new one, but in bringing this book, Truth Will Out, to English language readers, some particularly difficult translation issues emerged.

The original edited volume was written for Indonesians by Indonesians, and consists largely of transcribed oral interviews in Indonesian. Given the nature of the topic and the oral history project that produced the interviews, the specificity of the original intended readership was particularly significant in shaping the book.

As the introduction explains, the volume came about as the result of an oral history project involving students and researchers interacting with former political detainees and their families, together with witnesses and perpetrators of the Indonesian 1965–66 mass violence. Unlike many other books that have emerged recently with first hand accounts of these events, this particular book was not written or edited by an ex political detainee. The oral history project was conceived and based at an academic institution in Yogyakarta, and involved students and researchers dealing with a subject that had long been taboo.

Anyone born between about 1970 and 1985 in Indonesia went through their entire education during Soeharto’s New Order, with its thorough and devastatingly effective propaganda about the events of 1965–66 and its aftermath. (Those born between 1986–1992 experienced a partial but formative New Order education at primary school). Even at the time of the oral history project that produced this book, namely 2008–11, just a decade after the fall of Soeharto in 1998, questioning the official version of events was, if not now so risky, still deeply uncomfortable.

A sense of caution and discomfort permeates this book. The language tries to be neutral, gently nudging the (original) readers along to reconsider their received ideas about events, and most particularly, their received ideas about people labelled and stigmatized as communists and communist supporters. One senses the learning process of the researchers themselves as they interviewed people they might otherwise never have met and discussed subjects otherwise never broached.

Readers of the English translation, living as they do outside of Indonesia and not themselves the product of New Order education, might at times find this tedious. Vocabulary, for instance, is often problematic. Throughout the volume, the term ‘1965 tragedy’ is used copiously. In the original Indonesian, the word ‘tragedy’ was capitalized and the year written with an apostrophe, so ‘Tragedi ‘65’. The phrase is a signifier for everything sensitive and formerly taboo. Just mentioning the year ‘1965’ is enough to convey deep, troubling resonance in Indonesian. When linked to the word ‘Tragedi’, the phrase attempts to be inclusive and non-accusatory – in the book there is little use of words like ‘atrocities’, ‘killings’, ‘slaughter’ or ‘massacre’. The term ‘mass violence’ used in this English edition book title (to satisfy English language library search and readership purposes) does not appear in the Indonesian title, which was ‘Suara di Balik Prahara: Berbagi Narasi tentang Tragedi ‘65’, literally ‘Voices behind the tempest: sharing narratives about the 1965 tragedy.’

Another example of problematic vocabulary is the word ‘victim’. The Indonesian word here is ‘korban’ (which is the same word for ‘sacrifice’), and is used throughout the book by commentators, interviewers and interviewees. In Indonesian, as in English, the word has a passive connotation of suffering. Many ex detainees in Indonesia now prefer to use the English word ‘survivor’, even when speaking in Indonesian. There is no catchy single word in Indonesian to capture the agency of the English word ‘survivor’. However, to change the word ‘victim’ used in Indonesian to ‘survivor’ throughout in the English translation of the book would obscure the original choice of ‘victim’ and that particular point of view.

There is also use of euphemism. In criticizing religion, particularly Islam, the phrase ‘a particular religion’ is often used. This is common practice in public discourse in Indonesia, where people are afraid of being accused of slandering ethnicity, race or religion. Readers will thus find reference to ‘a certain religious group’, or phrases like ‘the Duta Masyarakat newspaper, which was linked to a particular religious organization’. Some writers or speakers might dare to be more direct and use ‘Islam’ in such instances; however the nature of the oral history project that produced this book – interviews conducted by researchers working under the umbrella of a Catholic university – lead to particular caution when referring to Islam.

During the New Order period, referring to communism and the communist party involved the same kind of euphemism. Everybody knew what the phrase ‘a particular ideology’, or ‘a particular political party’ meant, but avoided the word ‘communist’ not for fear of slander, but because of the heavy dread it bore. This euphemism is rarely heard now, but it crops up in the introduction to the book as retrospective comment on the New Order (‘Sometimes the accusations were that people involved wanted to revive a “certain” political party’).

Translators make choices. I could have chosen words other than ‘victim’ or ‘1965 tragedy’ which are repeated ad infinitum. It was tempting, for it would have made the English a smoother read. But this particular book is important not only for the content of the accounts therein, significant though they are, but also for the way these accounts were researched and presented. It records how a group of Indonesians, based at an academic institution and mostly educated during the New Order, were dealing with a terrible aspect of their history, just a decade after the fall of the New Order. From this point of view, the language used is significant, showing how, 50 years after the events discussed, these Indonesians speak and write about them. Getting people to talk and reflect requires gentle, non-confronting terms, and an implicit acknowledgement that everyone in Indonesia was affected by the ‘1965 tragedy’. Getting other Indonesians to read the book requires being non-confrontational. The translation thus tries to convey the Indonesian relatively faithfully – with its repetition, its hesitancy, and its caution – rather than create a totally smooth English text.

Another factor inhibiting ‘smoothing out’ the English text was the fact that the bulk of the book comprises transcriptions of oral interviews. The Indonesian text tries to preserve the sense of orality, faithfully representing all the repetition. This makes more sense in the Indonesian, because this is the language of the original speech and transcription. It is more jarring in English, but I chose not to edit the repetition in translation, as I felt this would betray the original purpose of the editor.

The editor Baskara T Wardaya SJ ends his introduction to the book with the following words:

Through listening to the voices and narratives behind the 1965 political-humanitarian catastrophe in Indonesia, which come from varied perspectives, we hope to jog all our memories of what happened at that time, and what happened after it. And in this way we will better learn from what happened in Indonesia for all of our sakes, wherever we are.

The book’s readership and point of view is evident. The ‘we’ is Indonesians today confronting their own history, jogging their memories, questioning their consciences and received truth, painful though this is. But there is another ‘we’ implied – the ‘we’ of ‘wherever we are’, who can learn from what happened in Indonesia, and from ways that Indonesians are dealing with it. This includes the ‘we’ of the readers of the book in English translation.

Jennifer Lindsay, 28 February 2013

Truth Will Out: Indonesian Accounts of the 1965 Mass Violence

   by Dr. Baskara T. Wardaya SJ