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Preparations for Indonesia’s 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair

Indonesia will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair (FFB) in 2015. But how many translations will be ready? Article by John H. McGlynn.

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Of all international book-associated events, FFB is the mother of them all. Not only is it the world’s first book fair—established in the 15th century—it is also the largest book-publishing event in the world.

Each year about 7,500 exhibitors from more than 100 countries gather in Frankfurt to trade in publishing rights. FFB attracts 300,000 visitors, of whom approximately 200,000 are industry professionals, plus more than 10,000 journalists.

The Fair itself is massive with a total of about 171,700 square meters of exhibition space filled with displays of 400,000 titles or more.

In 2011 more than 3,100 German exhibitors were present there. Next in line was Great Britain with 761 exhibitors and the United States with 604. All other countries combined were represented by 3,050 exhibitors.

FFB might be said to be the United Nations of the book world. However, just as at the real U.N. in New York, where all countries are supposed to be equal, in Frankfurt too, there are some countries that are “more equal” than others. Of the available 164,000 square meters of exhibition space, for example, Great Britain and the United States occupied 30,000 square meters. Indonesia, with a collective stand of publishers occupied just 60 square meters of space.

An invitation to be guest of honor at FFB is a once in a lifetime opportunity which Indonesia cannot afford to pass up. While the financial investment will be great, the benefit derived from Indonesia’s presence as guest of honor at the Fair is likely to be even greater. The following tables, figures for which were obtained from FFB, serve as graphic illustrations for my opinion.

Guest of honour countries at FFB in the years 2008 to 2011 were, respectively, Turkey, China, Argentina, and Iceland. Table 1 shows the number of books from these countries that were translated into German—only German, not other languages as well— prior to their appearance at the Fair.

TABLE ONE JOHN MGLYNNAt FFB, publishers from around the world are invited to contribute to an international exhibition of books about the guest of honour country.

john 2While the Fair itself last only five days, authors from the guest-of-honour country begin to tour Germany six months before.


Media coverage for the guest of honour at FFB is second to none, beginning 6 months before the event and not ending until after the appearance of the guest of honour at the Fair. Even as authors are touring Germany, German authors and journalists are being sent to canvass and write stories about the guest country. A country’s appearance as guest of honour at FFB generates a large and positive amount of media coverage for the guest of honour country. With about 10,000 accredited journalists from 60 to 70 countries, FFB is the book-publishing industry’s largest media event. In 2011 the number of accredited bloggers was 565. In 2011 about 35,000 readers were documented as reading the Book Fair blog.

It usually takes a minimum of one year to translate and publish a book or around 200 pages. Over the years, I have worked with more than 100 translators and I am well aware not only of the time required to produce a literary translation that is both felicitous to the original text and appealing to the target audience but the more worrisome fact that of the 100 translators just mentioned no more than a dozen are both truly fluent both in Indonesian and English and have the skill set to produce a literary translation that is as enjoyable to read in English as it is in Indonesian.

The situation in Germany, where there are far fewer translators of Indonesian to English, is more worrisome still. In a discussion with Berthold Damshäuser, literary translator and professor of Indonesian language and literature at the University of Bonn, he said that he knew of fewer than ten translators skilled enough to translate an Indonesian literary work in German.

If it takes a translator one year to produce an accurate literary translation, he or she could translate at most three books between now and 2015. If there are only 12 good translators of Indonesian to English, this would mean being only able to produce 36 new books in translation between now and that time. There are more good translators out there—that I know as well—but very few of them would be willing or could afford to give up the time needed to work on such a project as the one described unless they can be assured of obtaining reasonable recompense for their work. The same can be said of professional editors and proofreaders whose assistance will also be essential to the success of this project.

… if the word of God had come down to the Indonesian archipelago, this is where it would have remained.


*This article is an excerpt from ‘The Language of God: Why Translation Matters’, an essay by John H. McGlynn that first appeared in slightly revised form in Strategic Review (October-December 2012). The full article available here.


John McGlynn PhotographJohn McGlynn is the founder and director of the Lontar Foundation, the only organization in the world whose primary focus of activity is the promotion of Indonesia through the translation of Indonesian. Lontar is involved in Indonesia’s FFB engagement. John is an active member of Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association and will further explore issues associated with translation of Asian languages at AP Writers 2014 conference in Singapore (17-20 July).




posted by - | date - 14th February 2014 | category - General, News - FRONT PAGE ONLY! | | 0

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Asia Pacific Writers and Translators' Executive Director

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