Enjoy this interview with translator and dancer, Annie Tucker.

Annie, did you grow up around people who valued creativity and creative expression?

Yes, very much so. My dad had a day job but was always sculpting in his free time, mostly wood and stone, usually abstract animal and human forms. He still creates striking pieces, and is currently working on a series of wood reliefs inspired by biblical themes, from fish and crosses to a really incredible piece in which a man is having his sight restored. My mom loves music and when I was a child, she often played records and sang at home and in choirs, and has now has become a prolific knitter. Her whole side of the family was creative—my grandmother’s beloved brother was an abstract expressionist painter. My grandmother painted her whole life, and fostered creativity in her five children, so one of my mom’s brothers became a landscape painter and the other, a poet and writer. Throughout my entire family, creative expression was valued and encouraged, seen as one of the most important things you could do with your time and your life, and those values were passed down to me and my sister.

Java-dance-creative expression

Dancing as an adult

How did you become interested in dance? Writing?

I think I’ve been interested in both for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was always dancing around, and I loved reading and writing from a very early age. As a kid, I would write and illustrate my own “books,” pieces of paper that I would staple together.

dance-creative expression

New Friends Through Dance

Tell me about your work in Indonesia around dance and disability and dance and creative expression with Tia Setiyani, the Yogyakarta based activist.

When I was in my early twenties I was dancing, teaching dance, and choreographing. I lived in Indonesia for a while, and studied Indonesian dance. Then, through my dance work back in the states I started teaching mixed ability classes. Then I spent a year in the Americorps in New Mexico, and the dance organization I got hooked up with, Keshet, was very committed to equal access to the arts. I got very interested in the healing potential of art, particularly dance and music, rather than their purely aesthetic value, or just as performance.

When I went back to grad school I decided to do my dissertation on the interpretation and treatment of autism in Java, and a large part of my research ended up focusing on therapeutic gamelan, which is an Indonesian percussive orchestra.



Here in the states, for many years I have also been affiliated with a dance non-profit called Evolve, and some colleagues there were getting into the Mettler approach to creative dance. This was a comparatively new technique for me, but it was incredibly appealing because it was accessible to anyone and everyone—it is freeform, improvisational, and interactive. I joined Evolve on a trip to Vietnam in 2014, where they conducted workshops with social workers and young women who had been rescued from human trafficking.

I thought it would be awesome if we could do a similar thing in Indonesia, so in 2015 we went to Yogyakarta and with the help of the hard-working activist and social organizer Tia Setiyani, we conducted workshops with all different kinds of folks—at PLUSH, which is an LGBTI and ally group; with dance students at ISI Yogyakarta, the performing arts college; Balance Yoga studio; Bina Anggita, the school for children on the autism spectrum. I had done my research at previously; even a collective of women workers at the market. We danced with over 100 people, from preschool age to grannies over the course of two weeks! It was an amazing and joyful experience.


Activist Tia Setiyani rocking out

I think the wonderful thing about creative dance is that its fundamental principle is that art-making, in this case, dancing and dance-making, is for everyone. I think sometimes people can get into a mindset that art is only valuable if it is professionalized, or that there is a certain type of person that is “creative,” or that it has to be your full-time thing to be acknowledged. Dance is especially challenging because we have so many, often really hurtful, ideas about what kinds of bodies should be allowed to be seen and move freely, or can be considered beautiful or worth watching. Creative dance helps people reclaim the joy of spontaneous movement for themselves, explore their own creativity.

Plus the program allowed me to interact with Indonesians in a whole new way, which profoundly impacted me. It created the sense that in the dance space we were communicating with one another more directly without cultural boundaries—while some of our respective dance traditions were surely reflected in our movements, it seemed like we were exchanging a shocking range of human emotions and experiences. Of course, part of it was that we didn’t have to contend with verbal language. Part of it was that I wasn’t doing research, but playing creatively. And part of it is that I have found that while their contemporary fine art can be really wild, many Javanese people often prefer to be a bit reserved in their social interactions and through this dancing I felt like they were opening the floodgates to really intense experiences and expressions. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it!


What are you working on currently?

I’ve been doing a lot of translation recently. My first major project was Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan, which was an unexpected experience in terms of how I just was translating it just for fun, on my own while procrastinating on writing my dissertation not knowing where it would go. Now it has received such a warm reception in the literary world; it’s incredible. That project led to some others.

I translated Cigarette Girl by Ratih Kumala, which was a fun historical novel about the clove cigarette business, complete with forbidden love and secret recipes. I just finished up one manuscript, Nirzona, which was a really fascinating novel about post-tsunami Aceh by Abidah El-Khaliquey, filled with dense references to Indonesia’s political situation but also Sufi mysticism and philosophy and Yogyakarta university culture.

Also, I have just started on Eka’s third novel, the working English title of which is Love and Vengeance: Repaid in Full, and it’s totally different than Beauty, a kind of Tarantino-esque romp filled with contract killers and truck drivers and underground fighting rings in West Java. I’ve got another potential short story collection by a writer from Northern Sumatra coming down the translation pipeline, too, and will be working on Eka’s next novel O, which is about a monkey who falls in love with a dangdut music star.
How did you decide to translate Cantik itu Luka or Beauty is a Wound? Had you ever translated anything before? What’s the process like translating from Indonesian to English and was there room for creativity?

I am a huge bookworm, and I learn about many things by reading about them. The first time I came to Indonesia, in 2001, I naturally wanted to read Indonesian literature, but there wasn’t that much available, either in translation or even in Indonesian, because at that time the publishing industry was much more underdeveloped than it is now. Everything was out of print; it was really hard to find books to buy. So that was the first time I got the idea that I should translate a novel. I even started working on one, Ayu Utami’s Saman, but I never made contact with her and the book was translated by someone else and published, which is all well and good because I don’t think my language skills were up to the task at that time.

When I went back to Indonesia for the dissertation research in 2011, I still had the idea in the back of my mind. Through Wawan Yulianto, a translator I had met in 2001, I was affiliated with a group of writers and translators and started doing some small projects. And of course I was translating interviews and such for my research. But Eka’s book was recommended to me as something I should read–by multiple people–and when I read it I was completely blown away—the book was hilarious, tragic, violent, satirical, and it offered this unhinged version of Indonesian history since the end of colonialism. It was really political, offered a biting take on political violence and sort of poked fun at local moralistic literary conventions, but at the same time, it was filled with outrageous scenes and supernatural thrills and memorable characters that I thought you wouldn’t have to necessarily know anything about Indonesia to enjoy it.

It is interesting to translate Indonesian into English for a number of reasons. First, there are no real tenses in Indonesian, the verb stays the same and then gets modified like something is “already” done or “will” happen, but it’s often difficult to know. Plus, Indonesians are loose about time: if something is in the past they might use the word for “yesterday” even though it isn’t technically yesterday, or just use a word that means “a while ago.” So especially in this book, which jumps around through time quite a bit already, that was an interesting challenge.

Second is that the sentence constructions in Indonesian are often passive: people don’t always do things, but things happen. People don’t scream, but a scream is heard. I had to make decisions when it best served the story to use a more active English construction, taking the passive construction as a less intentional aspect of the language, and when to treat it as a key part of the meaning and the culture that needed to be conveyed.


Translating in an Indonesia art gallery

There was a lot of room for creativity in word choice. It’s difficult to explain, but I feel like even written Indonesian is a little bit performative, more like oral tradition—sometimes things are suggested but aren’t totally spelled out, because you as the reader are expected to actively fill in the blanks. So I want to try to capture that performative quality by filling in blanks for readers who might not be used to language that is so fast and loose, adding detail or clarifying tone without changing the writing. Also, I think English literary convention is much more strict about repeating words. I remember even as an elementary school student, we were encouraged to use synonyms instead of repeating the same verb. So I get to choose a variety of words when the author had repeated the same one, again in order to add detail or clarify tone.


Beauty on Display

Can you share an interesting passage from the book where you were able to exercise your creative touch?

I think creativity in translation can often be found in small-scale problem-solving. Eka can be a bawdy writer. In Beauty and in the book I’m currently translating, one of the problems that comes up a lot is how to translate the Indonesian word “kemaluan.” This word is like a catch-all phrase for genitals—I think genitals would be the most accurate translation, as the word can refer to male and female. But genitals sounds super clinical, it sounds a little clinical in Indonesian but not as much so. So I had to make choices. Here I will quote the work of Tiffany Tsao, who wrote about the book, because she captured clearly the process that I went through in one instance. This is from her piece In Suspicion of Beauty: On Eka Kurniawan:

[T]here were also points where I initially found the translations ‘awkward’ – but on reflection saw that they made perfect sense because of the way they conveyed something of the original that may otherwise have been lost. For instance, the following passage is from Beauty is a Wound, in which two lovers reunite after being separated for over a decade:

‘Do you still want me?’ asked Ma Iyang. ‘My whole body has been licked and splattered with a Dutchman’s spit, and he has stabbed my privates one thousand one hundred and ninety-two times.’

‘I have stabbed twenty-eight different women’s privates as many as four hundred and sixty-two times, and I have stabbed my own hand countless times, and that’s not even counting the privates of animals, so are we really all that different?’

‘Privates’ [‘kemaluan’], one might translate as ‘genitals’ (awfully clinical) or ‘penis’ or ‘vagina’ as the case may be (though the original ‘kemaluan’ refers not just to penises or vaginas, but includes the whole ‘down there’ in general). Literally, the root word of ‘kemaluan’ is ‘malu’ or ‘shame’ (hence, most likely, the rationale behind the urgently advancing ‘shame’ in Tucker’s translation I mention above).

Thus ‘he has stabbed my privates’ could be ‘he has skewered my privates’; ‘his penis has stabbed my vagina’; ‘my genitals have been pierced by his’; ‘his shame has impaled my shame’ etcetera. One could even omit the genitalia entirely: ‘I’ve been run through one thousand one hundred and ninety-two times’. Or if one wanted to go for something skewery in feel, but more identifiable as a sex-related term, one might replace ‘stabbed’ with ‘penetrated’. Almost all of these options are a bit awkward around the edges—but Eka’s usage deviates from the idiomatic in Indonesian as well. Arguably rendering it unconventionally in English does justice to its unconventionality in the original. What Tucker’s ‘stabbed my privates’ does have going for it is its evocation of battle—the play on the double meaning of ‘privates’ and the obvious war connotations of ‘stab’—which taps into the mingling of love with violence that recurs throughout the Beauty is a Wound.”

In each circumstance of the word I am trying to remain true to the original—there are, after all, plenty of slang words for genitalia, particularly in Indonesian dialect, that Eka didn’t choose to use—while trying to maintain true to the spirit of the usage in the passage and the overarching themes or intentions of the book. So here I used privates but as she mentioned elsewhere I might use “shame” which is very old-fashioned in English and yet sometimes best conveys the tone, I might use “penis” or, especially in this third novel, I might pick another slang word.

beautyisawound-book-eka-kurniawanIt appears to me, that much of your work is collaborative in nature. What do these collaborations feed in you?

Well I think in certain ways I am an odd duck because I can be a real loner and I really like working independently, but I also think that I am empathetic and a good communicator, so I think I often have a good intuitive sense and I really enjoy making people feel like they have been seen and heard. I took the Myers-Briggs personality type test once, and I don’t remember the letters corresponding to my type but the test said it was rare, and that my two ideal jobs would be either a therapist or a writer.

So translation is perfect because I work mostly on my own, unless I’m asking the writer a clarification question or something, but the whole time I am trying to think what their intentions were, the type of feeling they are trying to create, what they are trying to say, and that combination is somehow perfect. Also, having spent so much time in Indonesia and having fallen in love with its crazy brilliant diversity, and then coming back to the States where people know almost nothing about it, it is very satisfying to feel like I’m sharing a little bit of what I love, and through that exposure giving back to a place that has given me so much.

At this point in my life, dancing with people has become a healing diversion for me. When I was younger I wanted to be and then was professional, getting paid for my work, and that was exciting but also I had a lot of self-criticism and judgment and frustration, trying to improve technically and dealing with ongoing injuries. My attitude towards myself as a dancer was challenging, but I really loved working in the studio with others when choreographing; that was a real joy.

I would say this new creative dance approach, which is really more focused on communication and self-liberation, is refreshing, both a very different experience than dancing was in the past, but also a break from my current professional/creative life which involves sitting in front of a computer for most of the time. I really believe we need to move and feel with our bodies to fully inhabit ourselves and the world… before I went back to dance, during grad school, I took up ceramics. If I hadn’t had that tactile, nonverbal break while finishing my dissertation I think I would have gone insane.


Sanity-saving Ceramics

How have your nationality, ethnicity, or location influenced your creative work? Has living abroad influenced your outlook?

I think traveling certainly influenced my outlook on creativity, because it introduced me to the creativity of the natural world and humankind in general! There is not just one way to live, one way to create, one thing that is important in shaping a work of art or even a life. Leaving the New York metro area, where I grew up, in my early twenties to live in places like Indonesia and New Mexico introduced me to an incredible diversity of natural and cultural beauty.

Creative activities, like writing, translation, or dancing together, can act as a bridge to open up people’s eyes to first appreciate new and different ways of being-in-the-world and then to see the similarities amidst those differences.

Are there any ideas you haven’t had time to act on yet but want to yet? Do you think it will become possible to act on them in the future?

I think that while I have really enjoyed many different creative collaborations, it has been difficult for me to fully honor my own individual creative work—to put myself out there, to claim space for what is solely mine. That will be a goal for me in the near future, particularly with my own creative writing. I have some short stories and am working on a book-length piece of fiction inspired by my time in Indonesia. Hopefully I can get some of this published.

But I also had a baby in April, so as a first time mom I have also become totally engrossed with introducing my daughter to the world. Work and creativity (and sleep!) are coming in short snatches of time—15 minutes here, a couple of hours there—and usually with a baby napping in a sling on my chest.

 How can people view and stay up-to-date with your creative work?

I have thought about the idea of a website but I haven’t made one yet. I’m not super-social media active, but if I get a website or a twitter account or blog or something together, I’ll check back in with you! Eka’s third novel will be coming out with New Directions, probably next year, and Nirzona will be coming out with Amazon Crossing in November of this year. If you’re interested in creative dance in international communities, my colleague will be going to Lima this summer, and a few Indonesians will be coming to Arizona as well, and I think there will be updates about this on the Evolve website.

Tell us something we don’t know about you yet:

I am very mild mannered in general but get really crazy on LA Freeways. I curse people out and cut them off, and flip the bird all the time.


A younger dancing Annie


Annie Tucker is a translator, writer, and educator specializing in contemporary Indonesian culture, literature, arts, and health. After working as a dancer and choreographer in her early twenties, she received her PhD from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures. Her dissertation addressed the treatment of autism in Java with a particular focus on the therapeutic use of traditional arts and the philosophies of development embedded within them.

She is an adjunct lecturer for UCLA’s Disability Studies minor and a writer for Elemental Productions, an independent ethnographic film company making documentaries about Indonesia. Her translation of Beauty is a Wound has been recognized by a PEN/Heim Translation Award, the World Reader’s Award, and is a New York Times Notable book of 2015. She continues to support accessible dance programming in various ways, most recently through the international creative movement programs run by Evolve Dance. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.

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Past installments of “How you do dat dere?”

Keep on pushing, painting–creative interview with artist Forrest Solis (Interview #18)

Interview: Oh So Young reveals her approach to art (Interview #17)

Conjuring Creativity with intermedia artist Cherie Buck-Hutchison (Interview #16)

Interview: Andy Faulk makes some damn dreamy portraits (Interview #15)

Contact WPP to schedule a documentary photo session

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Willow Paule on Twitter

Source: New Stuff