The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



Foreigners struggling for fluency in Indonesian would happily throttle Stephen Epstein, just to stop their shame.

For while dilettantes stumble through thickets of syntax, wrestling with the prefixes and suffixes that tangle the allegedly easy language, Dr Epstein finds it all a stroll in the paddy. For this linguist only Melanesian pidgin is easier.

And to make it even more galling the New Zealand academic is self-taught. Korea, its language, history and social structures are his prime interests and where he focuses his intellectual efforts, not Indonesia.

He is currently studying the reshaping of South Korea’s national identity and its transformation into a cosmopolitan society. His students are researching issues in Japan and South Korea. Yet Indonesia continues to seduce.

He’s just released a translation of a famous Indonesian novel. In August as a Presidential Friend of Indonesia he met President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesia’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs sponsored the visit.

Dr Epstein, 48, was educated at Boston in a suburban mono-cultural environment, and then went to Harvard where he studied ancient Mediterranean languages. When he moved to the multi-cultural west coast to do his Ph D at the University of California he discovered a greater affinity with Pacific cultures.

He was initially urged to study Chinese because of the business opportunities, but “fascination with languages and a desire to explore the experiences of daily life in other cultures” overtook any plans for a suited corporate career.

After wrapping his mind around Greek, Latin, Mandarin and a few other languages the backpacking hyper-polyglot who collects vocabularies and grammars like others gather souvenirs headed for Asia.

In 1990 after studying for a year in Korea he headed for Malaysia but wasn’t over enthused. So he hopped across to Indonesia. Enchanted by the people, the culture and words he stayed, wandered and absorbed. His learning style is to listen, converse, and read, rather than write

“Some learn languages to travel,” he said. “I travel to learn languages. It helps when you can approach people instead of having them start the conversation, expecting to use English. I’d rather be in the position of controlling the encounter.

“In Indonesia people are friendly and relaxed. I just smile and let the conversation go. It’s not usually like that in Europe.

“I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences, one in Lombok where I was being set up for a mugging, but got away, and the other in North Sulawesi when two drunk policemen tried to force their way into my hotel room one New Year’s Eve.

“Such events are rare. Usually I get asked into people’s homes, to meet families, to attend weddings and parties. I’ve been invited for tea, stayed for lunch and still been there days later.”

The one time hitchhiker is now director of the Asian Studies Program at Victoria University of Wellington.

But he keeps returning to Indonesia, sometimes accompanied by his Korean wife Mi Young. He goes to tramp the mountains, explore the archipelago’s lush landscape and polish his language skills using every available source.

“I found listening to BBC broadcasts in Indonesian particularly helpful,” he said.

”As the register (level) of language goes up, the language gets easier. So I still have problems with sinetron (soap operas). The situation is reversed in Korean.”

Dr Epstein’s skills are now on public display with the release of his translation of Putu Wijaya’s Telegram, written in 1973. The translation, published by the Jakarta based Lontar Foundation as part of its Modern Library of Indonesia series covering the past 80 years, will be re launched at the Singapore Writers’ Festival on 22 October.

An earlier launch was hosted last month (September) in Wellington by Agus Sriyono, the Indonesian Ambassador to NZ.

It’s the first time the prolific Balinese writer’s novel has been available in English. The task was neither simple nor speedy. Dr Epstein has already translated some Indonesian short stories and was keen to handle a book, but his academic duties got in the way.

These included teaching and editing the volume Understanding Indonesia published by Victoria University’s Asian Studies Institute, and running seminars on Indonesian studies.

The translation of Telegram started in 2003 but got shelved for four years. The task wasn’t made easier by the quality of the original printing.

“I worked for some time with a particular sentence but couldn’t get it to make sense,” Dr Epstein said. “Eventually I contacted Putu who sorted out the problem straight away: The version I was working on had publishing misprints.”

Telegram is a stream-of-consciousness story of a lonely knockabout Balinese magazine journalist living in Jakarta with his ten-year old foster-daughter. A telegram arrives saying his mother is ill.

Should he return and take up his family responsibilities, or continue his indecisive, directionless life?

Although the publisher is promoting the book for its insights into Indonesian life, helping make the literature more accessible to foreigners, Telegram doesn’t depend on location. It isn’t thick with cultural references difficult to penetrate.

The novel is sprinkled with references to Western and Indonesian literary figures and quotes in the style favored by poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad, who helped establish Lontar in 1984.

The book also has some snappy one liners (‘in love, anxiety is never far away’, ‘being insignificant takes guts, too’ and ‘daydreamers can get roughed up’) which gives Telegram an easy Perry Mason feel.

The anti-hero is an individualist who drinks beer, chases whores, has a long-standing imagined relationship with a married woman and generally acts in a most un-Indonesian way. Or in the way Indonesians are supposed to behave.

And all this back in the early days of the morally uptight and suspicious Soeharto regime, though Dr Epstein said Putu had not suffered the censorship and condemnation of other writers of that era.

Now 67, Putu has written 30 novels, 40 dramas, short stories and sinetron scripts. He will be present at the Singapore launch, along with Dr Epstein. Another Lontar book, a translation of Oka Rusmini’s Earth Dance, described as being about Balinese women confronted by social realities will also feature.

In his Wellington office with views cascading down to a cricket ground, the tops of city high-rises and the harbour beyond Dr Epstein rejected suggestions that he’d be better off on an Australian campus where Indonesian studies are a major discipline and the archipelago just a short flight north.

“I love to walk the NZ mountains, just as I do those in Indonesia,” he said. “I don’t intend to move, but I’ll continue visiting Indonesia. Learning the language is an ongoing process. I still have a few peaks left to climb.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 October 2011)


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