The proclamation of the Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945, and the sudden evaporation of press controls that came with it, triggered a rush to translate foreign works into Indonesian. Especially in demand were radical foreign political texts which had been difficult or impossible to obtain during the Japanese occupation (1942–5) and the prior Dutch colonial period.
Jajasan Pembaruan, a publisher formed in 1951 to promote the dissemination of Marxist writings in Indonesia, was particularly prolific in its output of Indonesian translations in the post-independence decades. It published over 70 translations of Marxist texts between 1952 and 1965. These included not only the works of the canonical European Communists — Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin — but also the writings of Marxists from China (Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi), India (Ajoy Kumar Ghosh), Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh, Truong Chinh), North Korea (Kim Il Sung) and Australia (L.L. Sharkey, L. Harry Gould).
The chains of transmission involved in producing these translations reveal a long and winding network of textual diffusion. The source texts for many Indonesian translations were English editions, which were themselves translations from Russian, Chinese or Vietnamese, published by presses whose purpose was to disseminate Communist writings in English, such the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Moscow or International Publishers in New York. The Indonesian translators were mostly English-speaking Indonesians aligned with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), such as D.N. Aidit, Njoto, Rollah Sjarifah and her brother M.H. Lukman. Sjarifah was especially prodigious, completing at least 17 translations between 1954 and 1964 of works by authors as diverse as Lenin, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh and Liu Shaoqi.
Jajasan Pembaruan had bookshops in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Surabaya which sold its publications, as well as agents in Bandung and Medan. Its publications were also sold in other bookshops in Indonesia. The avalanche of Marxist translations which it published in the fifties and sixties seems to have led to a parallel demand for Indonesian primers on Marxism, such as the Istilah Marxis (Marxist Terms), published by Jajasan Pembaruan in 1957 and reprinted in 1960. This work was itself a translation by Sjarifah of L. Harry Gould’s Marxist Glossary, which had first been published in Sydney in 1943. Gould’s short book was highly popular and was republished in 1946 in Sydney and San Francisco, with revised editions being printed in 1947, 1960 and 1967. It seems to have reached Indonesia via India, since Sjarifah states in the introduction that she worked from an edition published by the People’s Publishing House in Bombay.
Gould was a Jewish Irishman who had come to Australia in the interwar years after a spell in the United States, joining the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1934. He lectured at the Workers’ Educational Association in Sydney from 1937 and was considered a theorist within the party. His Marxist Glossary contained concise summaries of difficult Marxian concepts, such as dialectics and materialism, as well as quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin on important subjects such as class struggle and revolution. Many of his definitions had a Stalinist edge, such his entries for Trotskyism (‘A counter-revolutionary organisation’) or Kulak (‘rich peasants against whose extortions and profiteering the new Soviet state had to wage a long difficult struggle’).
Sjarifah faithfully translated these definitions into Indonesian, keeping the Stalinist inflection. Sjarifah even reproduced Gould’s entries which condemned ideologies that were supported by sections of the Indonesian Communist Party, such as nationalism (‘The policy of the capitalists … towards other States, and towards subject, i.e. non-sovereign, peoples’) or feminism (‘One of the various liberal movements associated with the expansion of capitalism in the 19th century, designed to secure social and legal equality for women, but in actual fact expressing the interests and outlooks of property-owning middle and upper-class women’). In both cases, though, Gould was careful to condemn only ‘bourgeois’ nationalism and feminism, which left room for the progressive versions of those ideologies supported by the PKI.
Sjarifah did edit Gould’s text in certain ways. She wrote in her introduction that terms which were ‘particular to Australia and less international in character have not been included in this edition.’ The entry on the Australian Labour Party (ALP), which was controversial within the CPA because of questions it raised over the extent to which the Labour Party represented capitalist interests (Gould defined the ALP as ‘in practice basically representing the interests of the capitalist class’), was left out by Sjarifah, as was the entry of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), an anarcho-syndicalist organization which was influential in Australia during the First World War but unknown in Indonesia.
While the majority of Sjarifah’s translations of conceptual and ideological terms were direct transliterations from English (Dialektia, Epistemologi, Jakobinisme etc.), she did substitute certain Indonesian concepts for Western ones in her translation. For example, in the entry on ‘Fetishism of Commodities’, Gould described the belief that objects were vested with ‘magical properties’, which Sjarifah translated as ‘sifat-sifat kesaktian’, drawing on the Javanese notion of sakti, a term derived from Sanskrit which described the latent power of an object or person. In a similar manner, she translated ‘equalitarianism’ as ‘Sama-rataisme’, using the term sama-rata which connoted equality of status as well as equality of goods and which formed half of the popular Indonesian phrase sama-rasa sama-rata (roughly ‘equality gives an equal feeling’), coined by the radical journalist Mas Marco in 1918. Thus, while the Istilah Marxis offered a key for understanding ‘universal’ Marxist concepts and Marxist texts from around the world, Sjarifah took care to root Marxist ideas in concepts and language familiar to Indonesians.
The bloody massacre of Indonesian Communists in 1965–66 brought the translation work of the Jajasan Pembaruan to an end. Regular translators who were PKI leaders, such as Aidit, Njoto and Lukman, were arrested and killed in 1965. It remains unclear what became of Sjarifah, though she was an Indonesian delegate at the 6th Congress of the Albanian Women’s Union around 1967, suggesting that she successfully escaped Indonesia.
The anti-Communist New Order regime which came to power following the 1965–66 purges restricted the diffusion of Marxist texts in Indonesia, as the occupying Japanese forces and Dutch colonial government had previously done. The interval between 1945 and 1965 thus stands out as a time of unusual freedom of the press in Indonesia. It was in this context that Sjarifah and others were able to make concerted efforts to translate foreign Marxist texts into Indonesian, connecting Indonesia to trans-national networks of Communist textual diffusion which stretched across Australia, India, Vietnam, China, Europe and the United States.
As Lydia Liu has pointed out in Translingual Practice, ideas don’t move on their own; historians need to ask ‘who does the traveling?’ Sjarifah was one of the many translators that powered the movement of ideas in postwar Indonesia, not as a passive receptor of Marxist texts but as an active agent, who reframed Communist ideas as she spread them to new audiences.
This work of translation has been taken up by a new generation of Indonesians in the decades following the fall of the New Order in 1998, shown not least by the fact that a new translation of Gould’s Marxist Glossary was published in July 2019 by the Basabasi press as Glosarium Marxis. Interestingly, this edition, translated by Sushela M. Nur, sticks rigidly to the English original, including Gould’s entry on the Australian Labour Party and reversing some of Sjarifah’s translations, for example rendering Equalitarianism as ‘“Equalitarianism” (paham tentang persamaan semua orang’)’ (the belief in the equality of all people), rather than ‘sama-rataisme’. This suggests that while Marxism continues to excite interest in Indonesia, it is now something of an ossified ideology, in that translators treat it more as a fixed set of ideas, laid out unchangeably in texts, rather than as a living body of thought, to be modified and molded to new circumstances. Texts still move through transnational networks, but the ideology they once animated is largely lifeless.