Lost In Translation?

At the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, held on the island of Bali in October, a German poet by the name of Martin Jankowski bluntly stated that any poet writing in a language other than their native tongue was little more than an epigone. In Germany, he maintained, the poet would be “laughed out of town.”

In response, a discussion was recently held at a bookstore in South Jakarta.

Debra Yatim, an Indonesian poet who writes in English, moderated. The panel consisted of Mikael Johani, a poet who recently published a collection of English poems; Nelden Djakababa, whose articles and short stories have appeared in various English publications; Remy Sylado, a poet and novelist; Roswita Nimpuno-Khaiyath, a translator; and John McGlynn, who translated Pramoedya Anta Toer’s later works.

The first two writers were in the “pro” corner and the other three took the other side of the debate.

Some interesting arguments were raised. Nimpuno-Khaiyath, who is of Dutch and Indonesian heritage, said it was a shame that Indonesian readers couldn’t read writers’ works in their best form: in their own language.

Remy provided an example of a Indonesian writer writing in Dutch, who eventually found herself in the no-man’s land of the Dutch literary scene.

Years ago, the poet Sapardi charged that only writers writing in Bahasa could be considered Indonesian writers.

His statement naturally provoked an instant response from writers authoring works in ethnic languages like Javanese.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages

This kind of misunderstanding, if you think about it, is akin to bigotry or chauvinism.

It’s understandable to hear these remarks from translators, for aren’t they in the business of reconstructing original works into other languages?

They may be overly concerned about the “incapable” hands of local translators spoiling the beauty of their own language in another language.

This sentence itself is loaded with irony.

We’ve heard of an Australian translator translating jalan tikus, the local lingo for a shortcut byway, as an alley infested with rodents!

But to hear these remarks from a poet is to my mind unforgivable.

Of all writers, a poet should know that there are three types of languages: ordinary language, immediate language and essential language.

The first two are basically “decipher languages”: they function as signifiers for meanings, and as such are basically dead languages. Their only function is to serve as an exchange between a word and the designated meaning.

The language that a poet moves in is a fluid language, described by Blanchot as the whole of languages; it is the language of essence. A poet uses this fluidity, shuttling between nothingness and the ungraspable expanse of immanence, to affirm his or her probe in words, which, however, once properly set down in words, will inevitably be consigned to the totality of language, thus fading away again into nothingness.

To accuse a writer writing in a language other than their own of being an epigone is tantamount to saying Yo-yo Ma should stick to the erhu, the two-stringed bowed Chinese instrument, instead of the double bass. Or to disregard such great writers as Joseph Conrad, a Polish national, writing in English; Milan Kundera, a master Czech novelist who writes in French; or Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a Thai national writing in English and considered by many to be Chekov’s equal.

Maybe to this poet from Germany, or to many here in Indonesia who cling obsessively to their own language, these are exceptional writers. They are, without a doubt. More importantly, though, they are great thinkers — great regardless of the language they choose to revel in.

In another time, they could have written in Latin. It was the language of the day.

In the end, language is just an instrument. It is the thought, or the music, that a writer or a musician plucks out of the instrument that counts.

Those who can’t see beyond the instrument are necessarily earthbound by the logical intricacies of language.

A version of this article was published on December 30, 2008 in The Jakarta Globe.

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