AAS Member Spotlight: John H. McGlynn

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John H. McGlynn, Founder and Director of Publications of the Lontar Foundation

Literary Translator; Indonesia

How long have you been a member of AAS?

I first joined in 1974 (if I'm not mistaken) and have been a member on and off since that time.

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues?

I joined at the urging of Toenggoel Siagian, who was a teacher of Indonesian language and culture at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, at the time. Having a "support community" is always important for a person's work, and Mr. Siagian was absolutely right in that the Indonesian support community would always be there when I needed it. That is why I would tell anyone to join.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies?

As a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, I was a student in the Art Department. One of my teachers owned several Javanese shadow puppets and as a combined theater-, design-, and fine-arts projects, I began to produce "Western" shadow puppets based on Western legends and sagas. My growing interest in Indonesia's shadow theater led me to the study of Indonesian language and culture which, in turn, sparked my interest in Indonesian literature and, eventually, my decision to become a literary translator.

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies?

I find great pleasure in transforming the written word in one language (Indonesian) to its equivalent in another (English). And now, after having worked as a translator and publisher of Indonesian literature for close to forty years, I am pleased to have been instrumental in making it possible to study Indonesian literature anywhere in the world through the medium of English. This was not possible when I first started studying Indonesian. 

Tell us about your current or past research.

Although originally from Wisconsin, I have lived most of my adult life in Indonesia, first coming to Indonesia in 1976 to study Indonesian and conduct research on wayang kulit, Indonesia's shadow puppet theater. In 1981, after obtaining a Master's degree in Indonesian language and literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I returned to Indonesia and have been here since that time.

Recognizing the importance of literature as a window into unknown cultures, I became a professional literary translator and through the Lontar Foundation, which I co-founded with four Indonesian authors in 1987, I have translated, edited, or overseen the translation and publication of more than 200 titles with literary work by more than 500 different Indonesian authors. Also through Lontar Foundation, I initiated the "On the Record" film documentation program which has thus far produced 24 films on Indonesian writers and close to 40 films on Indonesian performance traditions. As a feature-film subtitler, I have subtitled more than 100 Indonesian films.

Outside of Lontar, I am the Indonesian country editor for Manoa, and a contributing editor to the on-line literary journals Words Without Borders, Warscapes, Cordite, and Asian American Writers Workshop. I am a member of the Indonesian Publishers Association (IKAPI), the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Association, and PEN International-New York. I am also a trustee of AMINEF, the American Indonesian Exchange Foundation, which oversees the Fulbright and Humphrey scholarship programs in Indonesia.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Follow your passion and your interest but balance them with a large dose of sensibility and practical skills. No one is ever going to get rich as a translator of Indonesian literature but I have absolutely no regrets for having chosen that career path.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.
Largely because of Lontar's work, Indonesia was invited to serve as Guest of Honor Country at the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair, the first Southeast Asian country to have been given this honor. I served as coordinator of the literary program and, leading up to and during the course of the Fair, staged several hundred events in Germany and elsewhere. I am a collector of Indonesian modern art and have helped to promote numerous Indonesian artists. Years ago, I helped to found Indonesia's first LGBT organization and was the first person to have published an anthology of Indonesian gay literature.

McGlynn, John

Photo credit: Daniel Flanagan

"Follow your passion and your interest but balance them with a large dose of sensibility and practical skills. No one is ever going to get rich as a translator of Indonesian literature but I have absolutely no regrets for having chosen that career path."

— John H. McGlynn