Learning about Indonesian language, history, society and culture

Category: Poetry

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

Translation – Amir Hamzah: Silence

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.

Translation – Chairal Anwar: To a Friend

This is one of my favourite Chairil Anwar poems, bursting with a vitality combined with a sense of foreboding. Again, like Aku (for which see my previous post), the driving rhythm that the poem has in Indonesian is rather lost in translation.

I wrote this translation before referring to other translations, particularly that by John Echols, in Indonesian writing in translation (available to view free online at the Cornell Modern Indonesia Collection). When I read Echols’ translation, there were a few bits of his that I preferred, and some bits of my version that I preferred.  On one significant point I am somewhat undecided. Echols translated ‘putuskan’ as ‘to part’ whereas I have gone with ‘to resolve’ or decide. Both of these are plausible to me, but cast the poem in a somewhat different light: is this poem about parting words in the shadow of death or about two friends resolving together to blaze a trail regardless?

To a friend

Before fate draws near and betrays,
Grasping from behind when we’re not looking,
Whilst blood and feeling still surge in our breasts,

Not yet consigned to despair nor trembling,
Not forgetting how suddenly the night envelops,
A fluttering red sail disappears into the gloom,
Friend, let’s resolve here and now:
The fateful moment that draws us also strangles itself!

Fill the glass to the brim then empty it,
Scour the world and turn it upside down,
Embrace women, leave them if they seduce,
Choose the wildest horse, spur it on,
Don’t bind it to the day and night
Destroy everything you’ve made,
Dissapear without inheritance, without family,
Not begging forgiveness for all your sins,
Not taking leave of anyone!
Let’s resolve once more,
The death that draws us will feel the sky’s stillness,
Once more friend, one more line:
Drive your sword in up to the hilt,
Into anyone who dilutes the honey with water!!!

Kepada Kawan
Sebelum Ajal mendekat dan mengkhianat,
mencengkam dari belakang ‘tika kita tidak melihat,
selama masih menggelombang dalam dada darah serta rasa,
belum bertugas kecewa dan gentar belum ada,
tidak lupa tiba-tiba bisa malam membenam,
layar merah berkibar hilang dalam kelam,
kawan, mari kita putuskan kini di sini:
Ajal yang menarik kita, juga mencekik diri sendiri!
Isi gelas sepenuhnya lantas kosongkan,
Tembus jelajah dunia ini dan balikkan
Peluk kucup perempuan, tinggalkan kalau merayu
Pilih kuda yang paling liar, pacu laju,
Jangan tambatkan pada siang dan malam
Hancurkan lagi apa yang kau perbuat,
Hilang sonder pusaka, sonder kerabat.
Tidak minta ampun atas segala dosa,
Tidak memberi pamit pada siapa saja!
Mari kita putuskan sekali lagi:
Ajal yang menarik kita, ‘kan merasa angkasa sepi,
Sekali lagi kawan, sebaris lagi:
Tikamkan pedangmu hingga ke hulu
Pada siapa yang mengairi kemurnian madu!!!