Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Month: February, 2014

Translation – Chairil Anwar: Night-Time in the Mountains (Malam di Pegunungan)

Another translation from Chairil Anwar’s poetry collection Deru Campur Debu. This one is very short, only four lines, but is tricky in its own way, and the ambiguity that runs through much of Anwar’s work is in evidence here.

Reading the translations by Burton Raffel and M. Balfas (the links are to the Google Books versions) there are several subtle divergences. One point is the translation of the word ‘terlalu’ which can mean ‘very’ but also ‘too much’. By translating it as ‘too much’ my version casts a subtly different light on the meaning, hinting more at the self-defeating dimension of rumination.

Nigh-Time in the Mountains

I think: is it the Moon that makes it cold,
The houses pale and the trees stiff?
This time I want the answer too much
Hey, there’s a little kid playing chase with the shadows

Malam Di Pegunungan

Aku berpikir: Bulan inikah yang membikin dingin,
Jadi pucat rumah dan kaku pohonan?
Sekali ini aku terlalu sangat dapat jawab kepingin:
Eh, ada bocah cilik main kejaran dengan bayangan!


Translation – Chairil Anwar: Pure Verse (Sajak putih)

Continuing my series of translations of poems by the poet Chairil Anwar:

Pure Verse

Relying on rainbow coloured dancing
You’re in front of me, veiled in twilight’s silk
In the black of your eyes rose and jasmine flowers
The fragrance of your hair sways, play fighting

Silence sings, night arrives in prayer
Rippling the surface of the soul’s pool
And in my chest a sweet sounding song
Drawing my entirety to dance

Live from my life, the door is open
As long a your eyes gaze up for me

As long as you’re blood flowing from the wounds
Death’s coming won’t part us

Sajak Putih
Bersandar pada tari warna pelangi
Kau depanku bertudung sutra senja
Di hitam matamu kembang mawar dan melati
Harum rambutmu mengalun bergelut senda
Sepi menyanyi, malam dalam mendoa tiba
Meriak muka air kolam jiwa
Dan dalam dadaku memerdu lagu
Menarik menari seluruh aku
Hidup dari hidupku, pintu terbuka
Selama matamu bagiku menengadah
Selama kau darah mengalir dari luka
Antara kita Mati datang tidak membelah

Why translate the poetry of Chairil Anwar?

Reading the translations of Chairil Anwar on this blog one might fairly ask ‘what’s the point?’ Chairil Anwar  has been translated into English more than any other Indonesian poet – so why bother when there are so many other things one could translate instead.

One reason is availability – yes there are English translations of Chairil Anwar’s work, however they are not necessarily easily available to the casual reader, or at least not for free. In conjunction with this the copyright period for Chairil Anwar’s works has ended (copyright for literary works in Indonesia being 50 years after the death of the author) so I don’t need to worry about treading on anyones toes in terms of copyright.

The other reason is that the ambiguity of many of Chairil Anwar’s poems makes retranslation particularly interesting. In a couple of my earlier translations (Aku / I and Kepada Kawan / To A Friend) I highlighted how differing translations of one or two words can radically alter the meaning of the poem. This ambiguity was noted in Ian Caldwell’s (rather scathing) review of Burton Raffel’s translation of Chairil Anwar’s works:

Chairil’s poems are filled with linguistic ambiguities and syntactic possibilities which result in deliberate vagueness and uncertainties of meaning. These ambiguities naturally present problems of selection and interpretation for the translator: different translations are possible, and words have to be supplied to complete the meaning of a poem.

It is partly this elusiveness that makes translating Chairil Anwar’s poetry both challenging and rewarding.