Discover the longlist: Tiffany Tsao, ‘Indonesian writing can defy foreign expectations’

Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Tiffany Tsao is translator of Happy Stories, Mostly.

Tsao spoke to us about the challenges she faced working on her translation during the pandemic and discusses why she is a champion of Indonesian literature.

Tiffany Tsao

Written by Tiffany Tsao

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find translating fiction in particular?

I wanted to see more high-quality translations of Indonesian writing in circulation. My literary agent, who represents my writing, offered me a chance to translate Indonesian-language samples for her in preparation for the Frankfurt Book Fair when Indonesia was a guest of honour. Things snowballed from there. I write fiction myself, so I feel translating fiction is easier for me than translating poetry.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

My parents leaving me to sit in the bookstore aisle to read while they went elsewhere to run errands.

What did you enjoy most about translating Happy Stories, Mostly?  What did you find most challenging?

I enjoyed everything about translating Happy Stories, Mostly. The most challenging thing was that I had to translate it during the pandemic when I felt quite anxious, sad, and pressed for time (lockdowns with small kids = hard).

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?

I was strongly influenced by Norman’s [Erikson Pasaribu, author of Happy Stories, Mostly] poetry collection, Sergius Seeks Bacchus, which I translated before this book. There is overlapping language and themes. I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but in hindsight, I think I may have been influenced unconsciously by Ghayath Almadhoun’s poetry (as translated by Catherine Cobham), Lydia Davis’s style, Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang, and Psychopomps by Alex DiFrancesco.

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

Norman and I are close friends. We chat and share a lot. And I ask Norman for feedback on all the drafts.

My earliest reading memory? My parents leaving me to sit in the bookstore aisle to read while they went elsewhere to run errands

Which three seminal books which have been translated to English would you recommend to people interested in learning about Indonesian culture?

To be honest, I am not fond of questions like this: I don’t think the goal of reading books from a country should be to learn more about that country’s culture—there are cultural guidebooks for that sort of thing. And I feel ‘seminal’ is a big burden to bear. 

But I can recommend three things translated from Indonesian into English that are not my top three but a few of the many I think people should read: 1) The Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Max Lane (which is actually four books… people often stop after the first one, but I think it’s important to read all the books); 2) not a book, but an online series of Indonesian fiction and poetry that I co-edited with the writer Eliza Vitri Handayani for the arts organization InterSastra. The series is called Unrepressed and showcases work that explores themes that are often sidelined, suppressed, or considered taboo in Indonesia. I’m very proud to have co-edited it. The series features emerging writers and translators alongside more established ones and sheds light on the different and diverse challenges that people all across the archipelago face. 3) People From Bloomington by Budi Darma, which I confess I translated but am super excited about, and which is coming out in mid-April. It’s about people who live in Bloomington, Indiana—and just shows that Indonesian writing can defy foreign expectations.

Tell is a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.

While doing my PhD in English literature, I had three Madagascar hissing cockroaches as pets. Their names were Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch, and Baby Love.

And an interesting fact about the book.

The original title of the book is Cerita-Cerita Bahagia, Hampir Seluruhnya, which can also be translated as ‘Happy Stories, Almost All’. The ‘hampir’ or ‘almost’ is one letter away from ‘vampir’—‘vampire’. In Norman’s own words (untranslated by me): ‘We queer are always thrown to the hampir, to the almost, and there the idea of happiness turns into the vampir.’

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil (translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr)

What book haven’t you finished?

The book I’m writing.