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In March, Tilted Axis Press’ publications list included 2018 PEN Translates Award Winner Sergius Seeks Bacchus, the first book of poems by Indonesian author Norman Erikson Pasaribu. Interweaving issues of sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and class, Pasaribu’s poetry paints a series of heartbreaking but also hopeful portraits of queer life in Indonesia. 

In our first blogpost specifically exploring the translation of poetry, the translator Tiffany Tsao tells us more about such a process and about how it evolves alongside the author and translator’s relationship.


The translator Tiffany Tsao. Photo Credit: Julie Koh


What was your journey to becoming a translator?

“The path I took wasn’t straight by any means. Even though my parents are both Chinese-Indonesian, I only became interested in reading Indonesian authors when I was doing my PhD in English literature. That was when I began taking formal classes to improve my Indonesian. (I heard the language spoken around me while I was growing up, and spoke occasionally myself, but my parents spoke to my siblings and me in English.)

I did some research on Indonesian literature as an academic, but I only became a translator when I left academia to pursue writing full time. I joined the volunteer staff of the literary quarterly Asymptote as their Indonesian Editor-at-Large and began producing translation samples of stories and poems to show the section editors. Things progressed from there.”


How does the translation of poetry differ from the translation of fiction and non-fiction? Did you have any particular difficulties related to features of this genre?

“To me, poetry translation is much more challenging. I write fiction, so my thinking is very prosaic, and I was nervous from the start about whether I would be able to do a good job. With poetry, you have to pay so much more attention to sound and rhythm, to each word and its placement. You have to be more open-minded about what words are possible, but you also have to be economical at the same time.”


What was your relationship with the author during the translation process and how did it influence your practice?

“I worked very closely with Norman during the translation process, which took three years all together! Our exchanges have taught me so much about poetry and how to appreciate it on another level than I previously had. This in turn has affected how I write and translate prose: I’m much pickier about rhythm now; I definitely didn’t pay attention to it in the same way before.

Our friendship has also made me much more mindful about my privilege in many areas, and the effect this can have on my work as a translator. I mention in my translator’s note how heteronormative my thinking was, and how I realized part way through, thanks to continued conversations with Norman, that this was influencing the way I was rendering his work into English. We went back and revised a lot of the poems, with Norman taking the lead. But now I think about it and shudder: to impose a heteronormative voice on a book of queer poetry, which Sergius Seeks Bacchus is, would have been such a crime.

I’ve also become aware of other ways in which I’m privileged: my family’s material circumstances, for example (my mother’s side of the family are successful entrepreneurs). And this meant that I had to be especially careful and work alongside Norman when translating the poems that deal with working-class life. (Norman is from a working class background. You can read an interview with him here.)”


Is what sense(s) is this Sergius Seeks Bacchus a diverse collection?

“Some poems are bittersweet, some are darkly humorous, some are melancholy, some are tragicomic. Some draw on Christian imagery and theology, some are dystopian, some are sci-fi, some are accounting-themed. References range from allusions to Dante’s Divine Comedy and pre-Aeschylean drama to the TV show 30 Rock. Norman has spoken about how he deploys this breadth in order to claim space for the queer experience—that it’s important to populate all sorts of realities and scenarios with queer individuals so that we can broaden our minds about where queer people belong, which is everywhere.”


One of the themes of the collection is (breaking) ‘binaries’. How does this relate to what you call in your afterword “the binary labels of ‘translator’ and ‘author’”?

“I’ve mentioned already how closely Norman and I worked on the translations. But we worked so closely that boundaries between our roles really did blur after a while. It started out conventionally: I would produce a translation and then we would correspond on it. But then we began employing all sorts of cooperative techniques. He would rewrite the Indonesian versions to guide my English translation. We would edit together in real time via Google Docs. He rewrote two of the poems based on my translations!

He also would encourage me to be more personal, less literal. And as we became closer, became friends, became trusting, his poetry began to seep into my bones, or as I say in the translator’s note, “unsettling my self from my self, altering my thoughts, perspectives, opinions, emotions.”

So the end result was that I am the translator with Norman. Without Norman, I am not the translator that translated these poems. And I also feel an emotional connection to the poems in excess of my translating role.”


It is fascinating that, in your afterword, you call translation a “miracle”. Can you explain what you mean?

“I think I call the translation of Sergius Seeks Bacchus in particular a miracle. (I’m hesitant to call all translation a miracle…I think that translation should always be a miracle, but there are moments when it can be a transgression too.) I guess what I mean is that it astounds me every time I reread these translated poems, every time (no kidding!), that Norman and I were able to accomplish something like this. Isn’t that what a miracle is? Something extraordinary, something impossible, the divine tampering for better in this dark, limited world.”


What is your favourite poem and/or your favourite verse from Sergius Seeks Bacchus? Why? 

“Aaaah. I cannot choose. There are too many. I will just speak on four poems, but please know that they are not my “favourites.” They are the ones that are haunting me at this particular moment.

“Erratum” made me cry when we were in the final stages of translating it. Because it’s about the unconditional love babies are often born into, and how that love becomes conditional as we grow. I’m tearing up now even writing about it. I think how there are so many unloved adults and children who came into this world being so loved.

“Poetry” still makes me feel as if my heart is being wrung. It is about a Batak man who has been living closeted his whole life—through marriage and into old age. It is so golden and sad. I think about these lines every day: “All this time, loneliness has been your leafage, green and shaggy and lush.”

“Update on the Left-Behind Woman” resonates with me on a personal level. I tend to expect quite a lot of myself in terms of self-discipline and am very annoyed when I don’t seem to be falling in line and operating as I should. I think the resonance showed in my translation: Norman loved the first version I produced and we only made minor edits from there. Translating it obviously came more naturally to me than some of the others.

“Footnote to 33” continues to give me goosebumps. The reference is a bit hidden in this English version. The original title of the collection was Sergius Mencari Bacchus: 33 Puisi, or Sergius Seeks Bacchus: 33 Poems, so this particular poem is actually a footnote to the whole collection. The perceptive reader will also note that the collection’s dedication alludes to Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” so this poem is in the same vein as Ginsberg’s. It is a chilling poem. While translating it, for some reason I couldn’t help but play Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” in my head.”



We kindly thank the translator Tiffany Tsao and Tilted Axis Press for their contribution to this blog.


Tiffany Tsao is a writer and literary translator, author of the novel Under Your Wings (forthcoming in the US as The Majesties) and the Oddfits fantasy series. Her translations (from Indonesian to English) include Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus, Dee Lestari’s novel Paper Boats, and Laksmi Pamuntjak’s The Birdwoman’s Palate. Born in the United States and of Chinese-Indonesian descent, she has also lived in Singapore and in Indonesia and currently lives in Australia. She has a B.A. in English literature from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. in English literature from UC-Berkeley.

Read more from Tiffany Tsao here.


Tilted Axis Press is a not-for-profit press on a mission to shake up contemporary international literature. Founded in 2015, it publishes the books that might otherwise not make it into English. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is their third publication project of 2019, following Translating Feminisms, four feminist poetry chapbooks from across Asia, and the bestselling short novel Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, translated by Morgan Giles, which we had selected as our Translated Book of the Month in March. This year, their 2018 The Devil’s Dance by Hamid Ismailov, the first novel written in Uzbek to be translated into English (by Ronald Rayfield), was awarded the EBRD Literature Prize.


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