Why translate the poetry of Chairil Anwar?

by indonotes

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.