John H. McGlynn: Sharing Indonesian Literature Worldwide

John Mcglynn at Lontar Foundation

John McGlynn has made it his life’s mission to share the beauty and diversity of Indonesian written works with the world through the Lontar foundation. ‘Lontar’ is the Indonesian word for Palm-leaf manuscripts, which used as writing materials dating back to the 10th century with the spread of Indian culture in Indonesia.

One of the most interesting things about Indonesia is its literature. Indonesia has had many inspiring and legendary authors and their books have elicited various responses from the critics and government— some have been banned from circulating. These are but some Indonesian literature highlights!

The Lontar foundation is bringing this literary treasure trove to the world through translation into English and other languages, as almost all of this literature is in Bahasa Indonesia and other Indonesian dialects. Indoindians team had the opportunity to visit the Lontar foundation office in Pejompongan and talk to McGlynn.

John McGlynn in Conversation with Espiralina Puspa Tania
John McGlynn in Conversation with Espiralina Puspa Tania

The graduate of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor (1981) is one of only a few non-Indonesians in the world today who has devoted most of his professional life to the development, promotion and dissemination of knowledge of Indonesian language, literature, and culture.

He with his four Indonesian friends established the Lontar Foundation in 1987. Before the establishment of Lontar Foundation, he was a college student who was interested in puppetry. Then he fell in love with Indonesian language, learnt it until he was fluent, and started to translate Indonesian literature.
Lontar Foundation is the only organization in the world devoted to the publication of Indonesian literature in translations. The organization also aims to improve international awareness of Indonesia Literature.

“When I came (to Indonesia), there was absolutely nothing in the news media about Indonesia as a source of culture. I started to translate Indonesian literature to show that other side of Indonesia to give a balance to the negative image Indonesia had back then,” McGlynn shared with Indoindians.

McGlynn continues to be a USA citizen although he has spent almost 40 years in Indonesia to learn about Indonesian literature. He has played a key role (as editor, major contributor, project coordinator or translator) in the publication of more than one hundred books about Indonesia, with subjects ranging from classical Javanese poetry to conflict-resolution. He is widely viewed among Indonesian circles as the world’s foremost English-language translator of Indonesian literature.

“Until now, more than 200 books have been translated and it’s quite challenging since it is hard to find some of good literary translators,” McGlynn said. “We focus on translating classics literature, so it is easy for us to choose. Also, I own most of the books I’ve been translated as well, so it makes the process easier,” he added.

He said that so far, Lontar always gets good response from the people. “Too bad we didn’t get as much funds as the love we’ve got,” he laughed.

Through Lontar, McGlynn also initiated the “On the Record” film documentation program which thus far includes 24 films on Indonesian writers and more than 30 films on Indonesian performance traditions. He also often serves as the contract person for foreign private and governmental organizations that are operating programs in or hope to undertake work in Indonesia. He also has organized international speaking tours for Indonesian authors and been a primary mover behind the establishment of a number of international seminars and exhibitions, including the first Festival of Indonesian Oral Traditions, the first International Seminar on Indonesian Writing Traditions, the first Indonesian International Women’s Film Festival, and so on.

His love for Indonesian literature has enabled Indonesian literature to go global. “People can read Indonesian literature without learning Indonesian language first,” he smiled.

We wish McGlynn and his Lontar Foundation an even more beautiful journey in the future, in order to preserve Indonesian literature and spread the beauty of it to the world.

About Lontar Foundation


Lontar Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization based in Jakarta, Indonesia. It was founded in 1987 and reestablished in 2009 to conform with new Indonesian regulations governing foundation. Lontar’s primary aim is to promote Indonesian literature and culture through the translation of Indonesian literally works. It goals is to stimulate the further development of Indonesian literature, make Indonesian literatures accessible to an international audience, and preserve Indonesia’s literary record for future generations.