I first heard the name “Laskar Pelangi” in September 2008. All of a sudden it was everywhere: the book, the song, the movie. The first book of Andrea Hirata’s life-inspired quartet, Laskar Pelangi has taken Indonesia by storm since its release in 2005, selling a record number of copies. Its popularity remains unsurpassed. In 2008, it was adapted to film, and in that medium it has earned awards and gained recognition worldwide.
As both a story and a literary work, Laskar Pelangi is priceless — so admired that men have proposed to women using this book in place of a ring. It contains a unique, new way of telling a story. Set on the Indonesian island of Belitong, Laskar Pelangi conveys a sad tale with laughter and lightheartedness. It tells of oppressed people protesting in admirably good humor, without swearing, without violence, without a divisive political movement, and without anyone to take up their cause. The vicissitudes of growing up are depicted brilliantly; the reader will be touched by an absurd yet pure first love, and one can’t help but smile at the innocence of the children as they earnestly plan their futures. Above all, Laskar Pelangi tackles serious issues, such as the right to education and corporate exploitation, while framing them within the tale of a beautiful childhood journey and friendship.
Having been deeply affected by the Belitong I encountered in the book, I had to go there. So my friend Kate and I planned a Christmas trip to Belitong—and by planned, I mean bought tickets and left the rest up to fate. We happened to stay with Andrea Hirata’s brother, Pak Diding, and his family while we were there. We fell in love with Belitong: the people, the landscape, the culture. It felt like a home away from home. A few months later, Andrea asked me to review two drafts of translations for the book. I gave him my opinion, and he eventually asked me if I would translate it. As a student of literature at Universitas Indonesia at the time, I was both delighted and intimidated by this offer. I accepted, and we began the translation at the end of March 2008.
Translating this masterpiece was no easy task. It took seven months. I worked on it at home, in taxis, at cafés, on airplanes, in airports and during lunch at school. I worked on it on Java, Bali, Sumatera and Belitong; in Singapore, America, Malaysia and South Korea. This translation has seen its fair share of places. Some parts were easier than others, and I had a lot of help along the way.
One thing that was very important and difficult to master was conveying the correct emotion in English in the same way Andrea conveyed it in the Indonesian version. Along with trying to tap into universal emotions, the overall construction of irony in the book was one of the biggest challenges in taking on this translation, as was trying to figure out how we wanted to translate the words “Laskar Pelangi.” The film has had a number of international debuts, and in those debuts they used “Rainbow Troops,” we decided to stick with that for consistency. I am not crazy about the phrase in English and have already heard many criticisms of it, and for those reasons, after the phrase Laskar Pelangi is used in the book and defined in English, the Indonesian phrase is used for the duration.
Cultural translation and its attendant quandaries—knowing when to explain something and when to just leave it as is—were our constant concern. One of our goals in translating Laskar Pelangi into English is to share it with the world—not just Southeast Asian Studies libraries and classes. In the hope that Laskar Pelangi will appeal to a wider audience, we decided to stay away from glossaries and footnotes.
Another goal in translating Laskar Pelangi was to provide Indonesian students of English with a study reference written by someone from their own country. Indonesian students are often given assignments with English novels—what better inspiration and motivation for them than a book by one of their countrymen about their country.
The epic journey that is Laskar Pelangi, the character of the book itself and the central theme of education (from any angle: the way people value their existence, in the community, amongst each other) all contribute to making this book a universally touching experience. Education is a basic human right, and all over the world there are children and teachers who are still struggling to secure this right. I recently had a discussion with a teacher in Central Java who sometimes loses junior high students due to their need to work. Not unlike Bu Mus and Pak Harfan, he makes less than $25 USD/month, and often goes above and beyond his teaching duties, making house calls to check up on students who have been absent more than three days in a row. For reasons of poverty, marriage, lack of teachers, lack of students, not to mention natural and social disasters, many children do not have access to education. Laskar Pelangi is a product of and a medium for the inspiration to overcome these circumstances. This is one of the reasons the book has been so popular in Indonesia.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to translate this book. Many people have helped me, and this is part where I write my elongated Thank Yous. I would like to thank Andrea Hirata for entrusting me with translating his masterpiece. Andrea himself has had a very active role in the translation. We have had many ups and downs while working on this project, and it would not be anywhere near as good as it is without him. I recruited some very intelligent friends to help with the project. My editors, Emily Hanna Mayock and John Colombo, have spent countless hours reviewing the work. Their input and corrections have been invaluable. Jewel Aldea has been kind enough to be the final proofreader (aside from Andrea), and her contributions have really given the translation a polished finish.
I hope everyone loves this story as much as I do. Selamat membaca.
Angie Kilbane – Jakarta, October 4th, 2009