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24 Hours with Gaspar
Lara Norgaard on translating Sabda Armandio's Indonesian noir
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a storyteller from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with literary translator Lara Norgaard about her translation of Sabda Armandio’s metafictional crime novel 24 Hours with Gaspar (Seagull, 2023) from Indonesian. Order the book from here. The novel has also recently been adapted and released as an Indonesian film.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Browse the full interview archive here.
THE USONIAN: 24 Hours with Gaspar is a vibrant, genre-defying novel that tells the story of a thief (Gaspar) out for his next score—a mysterious black box handed down through the ages. As Gaspar forms his Ocean’s 11-esque crew for the heist, we slowly uncover the dark secrets Gaspar has been hiding from everyone, even himself. And the titular thief is no ordinary noir character—Gaspar rides around Jakarta on a motorcycle named “Cortázar” in honor of the Argentine novelist—an iron steed that also happens to be possessed by a “Cheetah jinn.” What brought you to Sabda Armandio’s work in Indonesian, and what made you want to translate this novel?
LARA NORGAARD: I was a Luce Scholar [a fellowship that places Americans in professional experiences across Asia] from 2019 to 2021.1 In Jakarta, I was conducting two interview series with Indonesian authors. One of them involved writers who represented the Suharto dictatorship (1967-1998) or state bylines that tied to the larger dictatorship.2 The other series of interviews I did considered Indonesian writers who were avid readers of Latin American fiction—this was my passion project.
The reason why I started doing that interview series was because Latin American influences were cropping up in different moments and places. A lot of Indonesian writers and young people are extremely well-read in Latin American fiction, and not just the authors you would expect. Sabda Armandio is one of the writers who is fascinated with Latin American fiction, such as that of Julio Cortázar. That’s one of the references you can see clearly in his novel, but there are a lot of subtler ones. The entire book is roughly inspired by the work of Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Mexican detective fiction—most people would not get that reference in the US.
I started hearing about Sabda Armandio along with some other authors with whom he’s close friends, part of an older generation of Indonesian writers. I was reading their work for this interview series, and that’s how I met Sabda. (He actually goes by the end of his last name, “Dio”).
I interviewed Dio and one of his contemporaries, and I wrote an article about both of them in The Jakarta Post about what they were trying to do in connecting these various different Latin American authors.3 Through that conversation, I had a new understanding of Dio’s book, and I wanted to do something more with it. And then Covid hit, and I had to leave Jakarta.
I ended up moving back to my parents’ house in Colorado, and I was bored, because I couldn’t do all these interviews as planned. So I started translating the book.
The project was exciting because though I had done translations before then, mostly of Latin American literature—short fiction from Spanish and Portuguese—I had never worked on a much a longer text. Having that extra time to work on a novel was helpful, because Indonesian is the language I’ve learned most recently, so I had to be quite attentive. I applied to the PEN/Heim grant around that time, which was useful for finding a publisher.
It was also a pivot in my professional life. I was moving from a situation in which I was interviewing, analyzing, and thinking about cultural scenes and circulation, and transitioning to being part of that process of cultural circulation, an actor in that broader scene.
TU: The novel is quite self-aware of its genealogy owing to noir and detective fiction. As Gaspar’s father says in the text: “If you want to write a good detective story, you should first hone the skill of confusing your reader. Then, your detective can swoop in like Jesus, playing the savior who will parse through all the puzzles that you yourself designed, offering logical explanations that, even if they don’t fully satisfy your reader, will at least make them sigh in relief from achieving some amount of clarity.” Meanwhile, the novel itself is especially disorienting from jump. It opens with a sci-fi (and “cli-fi”) frame; its narrative is additionally split between the first-person narrative of Gaspar and a police interview of one of the other principal characters. What were the challenges of translating a text this complicated, “meta,” and para-textual? How do you orient the reader when the novel is so intentionally disorienting?
LN: When it comes to the “narrative of disorientation,” that was one of the things that helped me translate it. It has to do with the way Latin American detective fiction works. Michael Wood, a literary theorist who was my thesis advisor at Princeton, wrote a wonderful essay on the Latin American detective novel.4 He basically says that, in contrast to the Anglophone detective tradition, in Latin American detective stories, when you think you have solved the crime, it just opens up more layers of unsolved crime. In that way, Latin American detective fiction pushes against the conservative conceit of the detective novel. In [English or American] detective stories, the detective can find empirical truth, resolve crime, and bring society back to a state of peace and justice—which is not how the world works at all.
So that was the interpretive angle that I was taking when I went into 24 Hours with Gaspar—when Gaspar opens the “black box” he seeks in the novel, he finds a second, violet box inside. The moment is symbolic of that exact problem—one crime opens up so many more, so that there is no resolution that can be found.
And another thing I thought about was Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853), one of the first appearances of a detective in fiction. The book is very confusing, about 1,000 pages, and you don’t even figure out what the crime is. Who is the criminal? Who is the main protagonist? There are like 140 characters in the book, many of whom are unnamed, but some of those unnamed characters become important later on. When you’re reading, you’re really struggling to keep track.
Raymond Williams wrote an essay about characters and Dickens.5 What he says is that part of the issue with Dickens characters is that they’re a little flat. But what Dickens does so magically, is write an urban novel. The characters are flat, because they’re always constantly encountered in the city, where people are just seeing the surface level of the other person and making impressions based on these shallow encounters. In many ways, because Bleak House is a quintessentially urban novel with this profusion of characters, you don’t know their role in the intrigue at hand, and people are involved in these massive networks that are simultaneously siloed and isolated.
24 Hours With Gaspar is much shorter, and with far fewer characters, but it has that kind of structure as well, leading to a certain amount of confusion, making us ask questions like—how are these characters connected, and why? Which of the encounters are actually by chance, and not by design? Do these moments mean anything at all?
That uncertainty captures Jakarta as a city in a really powerful way. The narrative is disorienting, but also living in one of the world’s biggest cities is disorienting.6
The meta-literary elements were some of the most fun things to work on as a translator, because I got to discover them as I went along. One of the most interesting involved Budi Alazon, the rockstar character who wears a lucha libre mask. When I was doing the finishing touches on the novel translation, I was briefly in Mexico City, and I was rereading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (1988). There’s an innocuous chapter two thirds of the way through the book, a random scene about a Mexican band called The Question Marks, in which everyone wears lucha libre masks, and no one knows who they really are. And so I text Dio, and I’m like, is this where you got it? And he’s like, oh, you found it!
TU: Indonesian may be an unfamiliar language to many of our readers. What are some of the interesting aspects of this language (idiomatic expressions, differences in syntax) that you had to consider when translating for English?
LN: First off—in Indonesian, there are no verb tenses, which touches every aspect of the book. Determining what the tense should be in English was an essential decision for understanding about how time works in this novel.
Gaspar could be narrating in present tense, but I chose past tense—as if Gaspar was writing down notes in a diary or journal. Part of the reason I did that was because in the book’s meta foreword, it indicates the book we have in our hands comes from written documents, modified and compiled, and then left out a bunch of chapters. But because this is supposed to be a document in which the narrator is alive and writing something down, not everything is in past tense. There are a lot of present-tense descriptions of characters, but all of the action is in the past.
The other thing is, Indonesia is a multilingual country. There are a lot of times Gaspar’s narration plays off puns and mistaken impressions of other people. Rather than being a Sherlock Holmes-figure who gets everyone right, he’s a Sherlock Holmes figure who gets almost everyone wrong. And so when that comes to the moment when the character Afif speaks in Sundanese, a language spoken in West Java, I had to keep it in the original—with no equivalent in English there was no way to make the rest of the dialogue make any sense. In this scene, Afif is mixing Sundanese words into her Jakarta dialect, using a really low register of Sundanese to say, “don’t mess with me.”
This gets more complicated, because in Sundanese this usage of “me” would be more like the pronoun “I,” and in Indonesian languages there is a low register version of “I” (similar to how in Romance languages there is a formal and informal version of “you”). In this conversation, Afif uses the low register version of “I,” which is really insulting.
Gaspar replies by saying that’s a really rude way of referring to herself, and since Afif is Sundanese, she should be sure to know that. And then she’s like, I’m not Sundanese. She says, if I said a few words in Zulu, it wouldn’t make me South African. So the whole exchange is just playing on this thing that’s actually very common in Jakarta.
In Jakarta, most people come from somewhere else in the archipelago and are bilingual—they speak Indonesian in addition to their regional language. This is the way Indonesian is spoken on the street, an aspect that rarely appears in novels because writers usually rely on an elevated Indonesian in dialogue.
TU: The novel’s metafictional introduction caches the events of the novel within a list of darker moments attributed to Indonesia’s history: “Indonesia is familiar with dates tied to tragedies: 12 May, four students killed; 28 June, the Mandor Affair; 12 September, the Tanjung Priok Massacre; 22 October, a pilot in training crashes a fighter jet into the National Monument; and lastly, the most widely known date, debated to no end: the 30th of September Movement, 1965. Or the ill-fated day humanity will never forget: 27 December, the Day of Conception. Though I was well aware of all these stories, the peculiar crime of March 4th was new to me.” Referencing these moments, the book’s introduction characterizes the events of the novel the “March 4 incident.” To explain for an audience less familiar with that history—what is the significance of this allusion?
LN: So, Dio’s also playing with the future—half of those events listed in the introduction never happened. Some of the other events—such as fighter-jet-pilots-in-training crashing into the National Monument—also never happened. But it sounds like it could happen, especially given the number of plane crashes in Indonesia. Though most of them didn’t happen, the Tanjung-Priok massacre did happen, and the 30th of September Movement in 1965 was the military coup that put Suharto in power, leading to mass killings.
In the context of 24 Hours with Gaspar, it’s an interesting reference to all of these days. What’s weird about it is the March 4 incident is also a phenomenon that, by the end of the foreword, almost repeats itself. Every year on March 4, crazy things can happen—effectively, all of this stuff rises to the surface again. To that end, it’s also unclear if the March 4 incident refers to a specific event or several events within the novel. The cyclical aspect shows that the investigation of the past is incredibly relevant to the present and to the future. So there’s no certainty, which is what this book markets in—absolutely no certainty.
TU: Tell us about the book’s drawings, which are really arresting and augment the text, especially given the story’s cinematic tone.
LN: One of Dio’s friends created the illustrations for the original Indonesian novel, and I worked with the editor at Seagull Books to adapt and translate them for the English edition. The illustrations are fun because they continue to do the world-building left unfinished in the novel itself, gesturing at how much more is suggested by the text.
One of the most interesting illustrations features a sci-fi character, “VN 4F 1F”—a brain inside a robot. The caption reads, “Husni, a woman who lives next door, frequently travels abroad and makes sure to bring back fridge magnets as souvenirs for VN 4F 1F.” I love this added detail. It’s an entire world that appears only in this caption.
TU: You’ve translated literary work into English from Portuguese, Spanish, and Indonesian. Every literary translator makes choices in interpreting work—whether that’s to preserve wordplay, the musicality of a phrase, or to enhance clarity of meaning. What are your “values” as a translator across these different languages?
LN: On a certain level, I care about having an interpretation of the book and using that as the way I translate. In that sense, there’s no one-size-fits-all method that I use that unifies the different books I work with—whether they’re across different languages, or even within one language. I view translation as an interpretive act. Without having an interpretation of the book, there isn’t a transfer of meaning from one language into English.
That being said, I do try to balance the interpretation I’m making with sort of getting a sense of how it will land in English. I’m always trying to think about how it will read. I like to make it a little weird.
This is part of the reason why I’m not adding a ton of footnotes and trying to explain everything. Because I like that sense of foreignness that comes with it. The sense of— maybe I don't know everything about this place. Readers might be missing a little something. But if you start looking things up, you would get a fuller sense of the world.
Sabda Armandio is an Indonesian novelist and short story writer. He is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including Best Novel of 2015 from Rolling Stone Indonesia for his first work of long fiction, Kamu, the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award for Favorite Book and Best Novel from the Jakarta Arts Council for his second book, 24 Hours with Gaspar, and Tempo Magazine’s Literary Figure of the Year for his 2019 novella, Dekat dan Nyaring. Armandio’s short fiction debuted in English translation in 2020, in the anthology The Book of Jakarta (Comma Press). Armandio lives in South Jakarta, where, in addition to writing fiction, he works as a multimedia journalist and literary translator.
Lara Norgaard is an essayist and translator of Indonesian, Brazilian, and Latin American fiction. Her work has appeared in publications including Public Books, Asymptote Journal, The Jakarta Post, and the Two Lines Press anthology Cuíer (2021). Her translation of 24 Hours with Gaspar was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2021. Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Harvard University researching post-dictatorship literatures.
“After Such Knowledge: The Politics of Detection in the Narconovelas of Elmer Mendoza,” ed. Nilsson et al (eds.), Crime Fiction as World Literature (Bloomsbury, 2017).
“Charles Dickens” in The English Novel: Dickens to Lawrence, (Raymond Williams, New York: Oxford UP, 1970).
Jakarta has a population of 10.56 million; with an overall population of 278 million, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, behind India, China, and the United States.