An Interview with Harry Aveling
by Maria Gallucci,
Communications Assistant, Center for International Studies
In Harry Aveling’s classroom, cultures come together, languages are learned and literature is translated. Aveling, who specializes in translating Indonesian and Malay literature, is in his third year as a visiting professor at Ohio University, and said he hopes to come back for more.
Aveling is an Associate Professor of Asian Studies at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia (These titles have different meanings between our two countries. At Ohio, Aveling's appointment carries the rank of Full Professor). An adjunct faculty member in Southeast Asian Studies at Ohio University , Aveling holds a Ph.D. in Malay literature from the National University of Singapore.
Ohio and La Trobe universities maintain a five-year agreement to facilitate the
exchange of expertise, faculty and students between the two universities, particularly in Southeast Asian Studies, he said. Through this connection, Aveling has taught in Athens in 2002 and 2004, and is currently in his third year here.
However his connection to Ohio began many decades ago. In the 1970s, Aveling met Elizabeth Collins at the University of Penang in Malaysia, where he said he experienced “three years of total immersion” in Malay culture and society. Collins is an Associate Professor in Classics and World Religion at Ohio University, and served as director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies between 1999 and 2002.
“The 1970s was a period in which Malaysia had just established these universities and needed foreign faculty because their own faculty were getting PhDs,” Collins said. “Harry was there before us, and we overlapped about a year.”
During her stay in Penang from 1975 to1978, she established an experimental preschool that was trilingual in Malay, English and Chinese and was used by for faculty and employees of the university.
“Harry was already getting famous as a translator of Indonesian poetry,” she said. “He’s one of the premiere translators of Indonesian.”
Aveling first came to the United States in 1999 and worked in the creative writing program at the University of Maryland in the area of Literary Translation.
“I came down to Athens at that time and met Dr. Collins again, and people were saying, ‘Come to Ohio, this is where Southeast Asian Studies is really important,’” he said. “When 2002 came around, I had no choice. Coming back to Ohio was the obvious thing to do.”
He said he enjoys working at Ohio because he can work with American and international students, and can work in both English and Indonesian.
Aveling began to study Indonesian and Malay in the early 1960s, when the languages were first being taught at universities in Australia.
“I thought we really needed to know about (the languages) as Australians and we needed to become part of the region,” he said. “Rather than always looking to England or America or somewhere overseas, we should look around our own neighborhood and get to understand them.”
Aveling said the highlights of his life and career include being in Southeast Asia, meeting with writers and people who study literature regularly, meeting face-to-face with the people he has studied, written about and translated, and the personal encounters he has made through teaching and translating.
In 1991, he won the Anugerah Pengembangan Sastera, or Literary Advancement Award, given by the Federation of Malay Writers Associations. The prize recognized Aveling’s contributions in promoting and translating Indonesian/Malay literature into English for the rest of the world to see, he said. He is the only non-Malaysian to have ever received the prize.
Back in Ohio, he teaches two courses this winter quarter, including Modern Southeast Asian Literature in Translation. The course deals with contemporary writing translated from Indonesian into English, and the theme is reason and emotion in Indonesian and Malay literature.
“Society in Indonesia usually tends to be fairly restrained…not wanting to break out into sudden, unexpected emotional displays—very reasonable and controlled,” Aveling said. “When we come to literature, a lot of it is very unreasonable and emotional. (We look at) what writers do to justify breaking the emotional expectations about being polite and respectful of other’s feelings.”
Collins said reading Indonesian literature opens many new doors of understanding. “You can’t really understand a culture without understanding its literature—not just the classics, but also what contemporary writers are writing about their society,” she said.
Aveling’s second course is Translation Studies and is part of the Applied Linguistics program. It is the first time this course has been offered at Ohio, he said. The course examines how different cultural and sociological views can impact the way literature is translated. Aveling also taught Translation Studies at the University of Indonesia, where he served as a visiting professor in the first half of 2006.
“It is a special course, and having done a lot of translating myself I have gotten involved in thinking about theory and thinking about processes and intercultural relationships that take place in translation,” he said.
In both his courses, he said his American and Indonesian students are also learning about each other’s cultures and attitudes through literature and translation. “American students are asking the sort of questions that make Indonesian students themselves think about their own culture…and how American students come to understand the importance of Indonesian writers when they read them in translation,” he said. He added that what he enjoys most at Ohio is “the opportunity to work with students from diverse backgrounds.”
Ohio’s libraries hold 42 books in which Aveling has contributed as an editor or a translator. In 2001, the Ohio University Press published his Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry, 1966-1998.“The book is a selection of the very most interesting poetry from the New Order period, when Indonesia was essentially under a military dictatorship,” Collins said. “In this poetry, the poets are undermining the political repression that was there without making direct accusations. You couldn’t protest directly…that is why ‘secrets need words.’”
Secrets Need Words was short-listed for the New South Wales Premiers Literary Award in Translation in 2002. The award judges commented: “Harry Aveling's translation of Indonesian poetry is one of the finest examples of poetic discourse transubstantiated into pure poetry within another language. Dr. Aveling has rendered effectively and transparently the extremely nuanced and emotionally charged poems of the original through an idiom of balanced adjustments and highly functional modifications. His translation shows not simply accuracy and faithfulness, but also creative and imaginative transfusion of the original poetical rhythms into English.”
He also translated and edited the recent volume Santa Rosa/Saint Rosa, poems by the leading Indonesian female poet Dorothea Rosa Herliany. The volume received the prestigious Khatulistiwa Literary Award for Poetry in Jakarta in November 2006.
La Trobe and Ohio universities intend to renew their five-year agreement, which ends this year. Collins said such partnerships provide extraordinary opportunities for Ohio faculty and students to learn from the people and cultures they study and offer the same chance to others in return.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to come back again under that agreement, and hopefully some Ohio faculty and students can come to Melbourne as well,” Aveling said.
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