Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Category: Indonesian Literature

Fairly Prepared

The preparations for Indonesia’s turn as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair reflect both the excitement and frustrations of contemporary Indonesia.

This year Indonesia is to be the Guest of Honour at Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair in the world. This is a great opportunity for Indonesian literature to be the centre of attention on the global stage.

For those interested in Indonesia and Indonesian literature this is an exciting time. Indonesia’s appearance at the fair is an opportunity to celebrate the cacophony of voices in Indonesian literature that have contributed to the vibrant public sphere that has emerged since the fall of Suharto’s military dictatorship.

A recent issue of the online magazine Inside Indonesia reflects this sense of excitement, as is conveyed in the subtitles of the articles it carries:

Pam Allen – Young Indonesians are leading trends in Indonesian writing and publishing

Meg Downes – ‘Fragrant literature’ is giving way to a diversity of literary voices and identities

Hendrik M.J. Maier – The story of Indonesian literature is a fragmenting journey from national myth to bewildering multiplication

Details of those attending the Book Fair suggest that at least some of this diversity will be on show. Among the list of publishers one that stood out to me was Mizan, a publisher with an Islamic slant, which has published (besides much else) some very interesting books on the relationship between Islam and Politics. Another is Marjin Kiri, a left wing publisher whose representatives seemed to have had a very productive time networking at the fair in 2014 according to their account in Indoprogress. Yet another is Lontar, who have done amazing work in translation of Indonesian literature.

However, an endeavour on this scale was never going to be free from the tensions of contemporary Indonesia. One issue has been bureaucracy, with Goenawan Mohamad, chairman of the National Committee, decrying the ‘bureaucratic absurdity in the funding system’. There has also been squabbling over the selection process for authors going to Frankfurt. The leaking of the list of authors attending, before it was announced in Indonesia, did not give the impression of smooth organisation. Moreover, whilst the official theme is ‘17,000 Islands of Imagination’ others have pointed to the stranglehold of Jakarta (and Java more widely) in the publishing industry, with one publisher lamenting the underexposure of authors from Eastern Indonesia. Yet another point of tension is the legacy of the political violence of 1965-6, with controversy over the degree of prominence given to authors of works related to these events at the fair.

However, whilst there were always going to be problems and complaints, this should not obscure the positives I mentioned above. Moreover a recent study found that only 4-5% of the poetry, fiction and drama published in the United Kingdom (my home country) was translated from another language. There is a whole other literary world out there that Britain is largely missing out on. If Indonesia’s appearance as the Guest of honour can lead to the greater dissemination and accessibility of translations of Indonesian works then it is to be celebrated.


Translation – Chairil Anwar: Goodbye (Selamat Tinggal)

Another translation of a shortish poem from Chairil Anwar. As with all my translations Chairil Anwar’s poetry, once I had finished I compared mine to Burton Raffel’s translation (viewable on Google Books). I have talked before about the ambiguity inherent in Anwar’s works, and the comparison between the translations demonstrates it again. For example Raffel translates ‘angin lalu‘ ‘the wind blowing by’, whereas I have translated it as ‘the winds of the past‘, the difference hinging on the multiple meaning the word ‘lalu’.


I look in the mirror

This face covered in wounds
Whose is it?

I hear a roaring cry
… in my heart?…
Is it just the winds of the past?

Yet another song
Flutters in the pitch black night


It all thickens, all coagulates
All unknown to me…!!!

Selamat Tinggal

Aku berkaca
Ini muka penuh luka
Siapa punya?
Kudengar seru menderu
… dalam hatiku?…
Apa hanya angin lalu?
Lagu lain pula
Menggelepar tengah malam buta
Segala menebal, segal mengental
Segala tak kukenal… !!!
Selamat tinggal…!!

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.

Translation – Chairil Anwar: To a Beggar (Kepada Peminta-Minta)

Another of my translations from Chairil Anwar’s poetry collection Deru Campur Debu (The Roaring Mixed with Dust) can be found below.

To a Beggar

Ok, ok, I will face Him
Surrender myself and all my sins
But don’t look at me again
My blood will freeze

Don’t recount again
Face coverd in pockmarks
Pus weeping from it
Whilst walking you wipe it

A sound with each step
Groaning each time you look
Dripping from the air you come
Collapsing now and then

Troubling my dreams
Hurling me against the hard earth
A caustic feeling on my lips
A roaring in my ears

Ok, ok, I will face Him
Surrender myself and all my sins
But don’t look at me again
My blood will freeze

Kepada Peminta-minta
Baik, baik, aku akan menghadap Dia
Menyerahkan diri dan segala dosa
Tapi jangan tentang lagi aku
Nanti darahku jadi beku
Jangan lagi kamu bercerita
Sudah tercacar semua di muka
Nanah meleleh dari muka
Sambil berjalan kau usap juga
Bersuara tiap kaumelangkah
Mengerang tiap kau memandang
Menetes dari suasana kaudatang
Sembarang kaumerebah
Mengganggu dalam mimpiku
Menghempas aku di bumi keras
Di bibirku terasa pedas
Mengaum di telingaku
Baik, baik, aku akan menghadap Dia
Menyerahkan diri dan segela dosa.
Tapi jangan tentang lagi aku
Nanti darahku jadi beku.

Translation – Chairil Anwar: Patience (kesabaran)


A can’t sleep
People chatting, dogs yapping
The distant world fades away
The darkness a stone wall
Pounded by incessant noise
Besides fire and ash

I want to speak
My voice is gone, my strength flown
Enough! Nothing’s happening!
Its a haughty world, take heed

The harshness freezing river water
And life no longer lives

I repeat the past again
With ears covered, eyes closed against the glare
Awaiting the inevitable abatement


Aku tak bisa tidur
Orang ngomong, anjing nggonggong
Dunia jauh mengabur
Kelam mendinding batu
Dihantam suara bertalu-talu
Di sebelahnya api dan abu

Aku hendak bicara
Suaraku hilang, tenaga terbang
Sudah! Tidak jadi apa-apa
Ini dunia enggan disapa, ambil perduli

Keras membeku air kali
Dan hidup bukan hidup lagi

Kuulangi yang dulu kembali
Sambil bertutup telinga, berpicing mata
Menunggu reda yang mesti tiba.

Translation – Chairil Anwar, My Friend and I (Kawanku dan Aku)

My Friend and I

We’ve both walked a good while
Piercing the mist
The rain drenches us
Ships stiffening in port

My blood congeals. I’m full to the brim.

Whose that chattering…?
My friend’s just a skeleton.
Lashing flaying vitality

He asks what’s the time?

Very late
Vanished, all purpose lost
And movement is meaningless


Kawanku dan Aku

Kami sama pejalan larut
Menembus kabut
Hujan mengucur badan
Berkakuan kapal di pelabuhan

Darahku mengental pekat. Aku tumpat

Siapa berkata-kata…?
Kawanku hanya rangka saja.
Karena dera mengelucak tenaga

Dia bertanya jam berapa?

Sudah larut sekali
Hilang tenggelam segala makna
Dan gerak tak punya arti.

Poetry of the Indonesian Revolution (Translation)

A Series of Poems Give a Glimpse of Semangat Revolusi Indonesia (The Spirit of Indonesian Revolution)

There are a series of Indonesian newspapers and pamphlets from the 1930s and 1940s made available on the site of NIOD, the (Dutch) Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. One of the pamphlets is an August 1946 edition of Soeara Pesindo (Voice of Pesindo) a publication of the leftist nationalist paramilitary organisation Pesindo (Pemuda Sosialis Indonesia, Indonesian Socialist Youth). It contains, amongst other things, a series of poems. Below I translate these. They give a glimpse of the martial fervour of the Pesindo and also highlight some intriguing cultural links. The religious language of The Martyr’s Call (Panggilan Sjahid) is interesting given that Pesindo sometimes came into conflict with pious/santri Muslim groups (see, for example, p. 21 of Anderson, ‘Military Aspects of the Madiun Affair’ Indonesia, April 1976). Another of the poems is attributed to Putera  (Pusat Tenaga Rakjat, Concentration of the People’s Power), a Japanese Sponsored organisation designed to co-opt an elite of Indonesian political activists, hinting at some of the complex interplay between fascism, nationalism and socialism in Indonesian revolutionary politics.

My Weapon (Sabarjati)

It’s not a rifle I always carry
Not a sharp shining sword
Not a pistol bound to the waste
But something
Tightly enclosed in the chest

Not bullets to supply me
Not a grenade in the hand
Not a knife in the pocket
But something
Ready to annihilate the enemy

My heart brave, totally prepared
A weapon within I always bring
Always my friend in battle
With my soul it will be fused

My Weapon

The Martyr’s Call (Fauzi H.)
Trumpets resound in uproar
blown by mother’s martial heroes
Near and far young men and women
in every village, quarter and inlet
They are aligned, united in feeling
With one sole conviction-
freedom to the end of days
Or destroyed and turned to dust–

Heroes of the motherland
Beside you upholding truth–
Onward attacking the traitors
Your death upon God’s surety
A spirit beautiful and sweet
Whilst your name sparkles
Remembered down the ages—

The Martyr's Call


White hot the belly of the mountain!
Now and then an earthquake is felt
A thundering sound answers the lightning!
A tongue of fire flickers
in a cloud of black smoke
going up into the sky
like a giant’s incense!

If the mountain erupts
Splitting the earth, a terrifying flow?
If the mountain erupts?
spewing flaming rocks
burning the Phoenix, Bird of the Gods
so it transforms gloriously
in the Indonesian Fatherland?
A flood of lava may overflow
Bloody lava burning red!


Flowers of the Revolution

Ah multi-coloured flowers
Fresh flowers
Flowers of the heavens
Flowers of the sky
don’t be dispersed,
scattered, don’t drift,
Don’t you suppose
more distinct, more radiant,
more fragrant, softer,
Because oh flowers
If you’re rent asunder,
You will be picked by the scoundrel
Be made waste flowers
Because of that, oh flowers
Don’t consider the colours
Don’t regard the fragrance
All become
Flowers of the revolution
Flowers of the nation
Flowers of independence

Flowers of the Revolution

Idus’ Surabaya and ‘tremblingness’ in the Indonesian Revolution

One issue covered in my previous review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire was the psychological impact of the Japanese occupation in Asia. Following on from this theme I have been reading Surabaya, the classic Indonesian short story by Idrus.

Sutan Sjahrir, Indonesia’s first Prime Minister, used the word kegelisahan (tremblingness, restlessness) to describe revolutionary Indonesia. Part of the context was the profound dislocation as a result of Japanese occupation, recalling ‘As I look back on the Japanese period, it is clear to what extent everything in the Indonesian community, spiritually as well as materially, was shaken loose from its own moorings’.

To me Surabaya captures that sense of ‘tremblingness’, a society coming loose from its moorings, better than any other piece of literature. Set loosely around the events of Surabaya in late 1945 it begins with the Japanese capitulation

People were drunk with victory. Everything had exceeded their dreams and expectations. All of a sudden their valor emerged like a snake out of a thicket. All their self-confidence and patriotism bubbled over like the foam on a beer. Rational thinking declined, people acted like beasts, and the results were eminently satisfactory. People no longer had much faith in God. A new God had arrived, and he was known under various names: bomb, machine-gun, mortar.

Throughout the story there is a profound sense of the world turned upside down, with Indonesian ‘cowboys’ and Allied ‘bandits’ roaming the scene and refugees flooding from the city, Characters are wracked by madness or sexual disorder. Patriotism and courage jostle with paranoia, brutality and hypocrisy.

People were brave enough in the face of enemy cannons—but how terrified they were of enemy spies! This terrible specter howled like a hurricane over the cities and inside the hearts of men, leveling everything in its path—courage and rationality alike. Everyone suspected everyone else, and to free themselves from the torment of this specter they killed one another.

It is a supremely evocative, historically important and in some ways profoundly disturbing work. Thanks to the Indonesia Journal, it is available in English translation to download for free from their archive.