Translation – Amir Hamzah: Silence

by indonotes

Amir Hamzah was born in 1911 into an aristocratic family in Langkat, north east Sumatra. He studied at a Dutch language H.I.S. (“Dutch native school”) then spent a year of a Dutch Junior High School in Medan, before studying in Jakarta and Surakarta. He then returned to Langkat to become a civil servant. During the Indonesian revolution he took up a position representing the Republican government, but in 1946 was killed in the social revolution that destroyed much of the region’s aristocracy. Amir Hamzah was a co-founder of Pudjangga Baru, an Indonesian language cultural journal published between 1933 and 1942.

The below poem, Silence (Sunyi), was published in a special edition of Pudjangga Baru entitled Fruits of Longing (Buah Rindu) in 1941.[1]

The translation poses particular challenges. Not only is the language poetic, but Amir Hamzah had a deep knowledge of classical Malay literature, and this (along with a range of other influences) shaped his poetry. The result is that some of the language is somewhat archaic, and would require a fuller knowledge of classical Malay than mine to do it full justice.

Some sense of the scope of the challenge is evident from the title ‘sunyi’, which I have translated as silence but could also be translated as lonely or even desolate.

Anyway I gave it my best shot, so here it is:

Amir Hamzah

I knock on the door of my youth
Wanting those feelings to return
The garden is locked and bolted
I’m left alone in silence

I come to the arena, the place of struggle
Bachelordom a happy place
I see an elbow that keeps on touching
I stand up, not to be greeted……

Slowly I continue
Melancholy, the heart consoles
Crying, I weep
Listening to persuasion mix with grief

I hear the bangsi[2] calling and calling
Sobbing, a rumble like thunder
Mistaken, I stand remote
A body tossed by waves of yearning

I sit with chin on hands
Dreaming of butterflies kissing flowers
I doze for a while
In the embrace of old memories

It seems the sunset glow feels as though I’m seeing
Your voice, love, feels me hearing
You lean, sitting, brushing
I peak at the decaying waves.

Beseaching the waves to revere the song
To your crimson lips bright red in essence
My thoughts drift to the fields of longing
Although you are sitting here.



Kuketuk pintu masaku muda
hendak masuk rasa kembali
taman terkunci dibelan pula
tinggallah aku sunyi sendiri.

Kudatangi gelanggang tempat menyabung
masa bujang tempat beria
kulihat siku singgung menyinggung
aku terdiri haram disapa…

Teruslah aku perlahan-lahan
sayu rayu hati melipur
nangislah aku tersedan-sedan
mendengarkan pujuk duka bercampur.

Kudengar bangsi memanggil-manggil
tersedu-sedu, dayu mendayu
tersalah aku diri terpencil
badan dilambung gelombang rindu.

Duduklah aku bertopang dagu
merenung kupu mengecup bunga
lenalah aku sementara waktu
dalam rangkum kenangan lama.

Rupanya teja serasa kulihat
suaramu dinda rasakan kudengar
dinda bersandar duduk bersikat
aku mengintip ombak berpedar.

Imbau gelombang menyembahkan lagu
kepada bibirmu kesumba pati
pikiranku melayang ke padang rindu
walaupun dinda duduk di sini.

[1] The biographical information here comes from A.Teeuw, Modern Indonesian Literature Vol. 1 (1979). A useful summary of the Pudjangga Baru is provided by Sutherland in ‘Pudjangga Baru: Aspects of Indonesian Intellectual Life in the 1930s’, Indonesia, Volume 6 (October 1968), 106–127. (free to download from the Indonesia Journal site).

[2] A kind of bamboo lute.