Indonesian language is not easy as I thought it was

.As an Indonesian, I sometimes translate sentences from Indonesian to English and English to Indonesian for practical reasons and for fun. People -especially monolinguals- often don’t realise how difficult the act of translating can be. But, when it comes to translating dialogues, there is a disparity regarding the level of difficulty.

I personally find Indonesian-English a lot easier than English-Indonesian. While it is not the case for every native English speaker, many of them do speak colloquial dialects which are relatively intelligible to the standard register. Translating from Indonesian into English is not a hassle for me; I don’t feel weirded out about translating vernacular Indonesian sentences into standard(ish) English ones.

It is not as hassle free the other way around.

From what I observe, there seems to be an unspoken rule which mandates that every foreign language sentence -even ones written/spoken in vernacular English speeches- must be translated into standard(ish) Indonesian. On the surface, it seems to be a life-saving rule as the Indonesian language has many vernacular speeches of its own due to the country’s cultural diversity; determining which ones to choose would be nightmarish.*

But, I personally hate the “life-saving” rule. Why? Because no one -literally no one- speaks standard Indonesian as their everyday lives! People try defending it by asserting its status as the “proper” dialect. But, their defence will always be flimsy for two reasons.

One, linguistics does not believe in “proper” and “improper” dialects; they are all equal. Two, regardless how “proper” it is perceived by the masses, it is exclusively used in texts and scripted speeches; consequentially, dialogues written in it will always sound laughably rigid and unnatural.

I don’t know if Indonesian as foreign language classes ever tell students about how Indonesians speak in our daily lives. It would be a disservice for them if that wasn’t the case.

Don’t get wrong: I do think we need to learn standard Indonesian and we need to learn it formally. But, at the same time, we also need to learn the daily lives speeches from the street, as it is the only place where it can be “properly taught”.

And, because of the aforementioned sheer diversity of Indonesia, we also have to familiarise ourselves with more than one vernacular dialects. The only way to do that is to interact with as many Indonesians as possible, even better if they grew up in different regions.

That’s easy to do if you live in highly-populated cities with lots of migrants like Jakarta or, my hometown, Batam. But, if you live in a place with low number of migrants, you have to take the initiative of visiting other places. The further away, the better.

Of course, exposure can be achieved through media and pop culture consumption. But, the problem is Indonesian cultural industry is very Jakarta-centric. While non-Jakartan dialects have made appearances, the variety is strictly limited and their presence is almost solely used to stereotype non-Jakartans. It’s like trying to learn the many varieties of English and yet you learn by only consuming LA, New York and/or London productions.

Once you master a language’s standard register and its many vernacular speeches, you have become truly fluent.

The statement above is an obvious fact for truly multilingual people. But, it is not for some, who still believe standard registers are the only dialects worth learning, who still fail to realise that daily lives communication is as important, if not more.

Oh, and while it is not entirely related, I should also mention Indonesian names. They can add complications for foreigners who are struggling with Indonesian phonology.

Not unusual for any languages, there are indeed anomalies to it. But, most of the time, Indonesian words are pronounced as they are written. Once you get the general rule, uttering them would be as easy as a walk in the park.

Well, not really, because you have to deal with Indonesian names.

For one, there are Indonesians whose name use the Dutch-influenced old spellings, in which “c” is written as “tj”, “j” as “dj”, “y” as “j” and “u” as “oe”. Admittedly, there aren’t that many Indonesians with such names. Unless you dabble with colonial era artefacts, you almost never encounter the old spelling.

There are also Indonesians who bear foreign names, especially Arabic and western ones; the former is common among Arab-Indonesians and highly religious Muslims, while the latter is common among some Christians and Indonesians of Eurasian descent.

The Arabic names often have “kh” and “sh” spellings, which are almost never used in Indonesian language. With western names… well… it is no secret many of them are not always pronounced as they are written.

Then, there are parents who make their own rules.

I don’t know whether this is common among the masses or not. But, there are Indonesian celebrities who love giving their children “weird” names. There is a couple who name theirs Btari and Btara, even though they could have spelled the names as Betari and Betara (the “e” is a schwa (well, “e” is almost always a schwa in Indonesian)). There is also another who name their son Xabiru, even though they could have spelled it as Sabiru (as X is barely used in Indonesian, especially as the first consonant in a word).

Just because you master the phonology and orthography of the Indonesian language, that does not mean you have mastered Indonesian names. They are an entirely different beast.



I don’t know why I used to see Indonesian as an easy language. Maybe, it has something to do with grammatical tenses, which exists in English and doesn’t in Indonesian. But then, Indonesian (and Malay in general) has a strong affixes game which puts English’s to shame; it took me many years to truly appreciate their power. I guess my underestimation of Indonesian language was driven by cultural cringe.

But, at the same time, I also have a more compelling reason why I prefer to write in English over Indonesian.

In English, I can easily write in the standard register while still employing a conversational and even a personal tone. In Indonesian, doing so in the standard register is near impossible because my mind always associate it with absolute formality; if I try to sound conversational, I always end up sounding like a robot who tries to sound human and fails.

Of course, I could have simply written my blogs in vernacular Indonesian. I can comfortably chat in it. So, surely, writing blogs in it shouldn’t be a biggie, right?

Well, it is.

I want my blogs to maintain some level of formality. In English, I can add many colloquialism here and there and it would blend with the formality really well. In Indonesian, I have to restrain myself from using too much colloquialism, unless I want it to stick out like an infected sore thumb.

English allows formality and colloquialism to mingle with each other. Indonesian abhors the union, insisting both must stay segregated at all times.



*My fellow Indonesians would probably think I am making an issue out of nothing.

The thing is we do have a colloquial dialect that is not only understandable to virtually every Indonesian, but is also culturally neutral. If standard Indonesian is too rigid for you, the neutral vernacular would make a great alternative. No need to rummage all over the archipelago just to find the perfect dialect for the dialogues.

I don’t think this vernacular is rigid and unnatural like standard Indonesian is. But, the cultural neutrality makes it boring.

Speaking for myself, I do think regional accents and dialects are nicer to listen to. There is something inexplicably nice about them. Not only they sound genuinely friendlier, they can also amplify the playfulness, wittiness, frustration and anger of our words. They add liveliness and dynamism to dialogues.

Wouldn’t it be nicer if Indonesian translations of foreign works employ some regional colloquialism instead of the lifeless neutrality?

I first had this thought when I noticed how awful the dialogues in the Indonesian translation of Harry Potter are; the books are littered with attempts to use “proper” language, with results that only deserve nothing but laughter and pity.






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Author: The Stammering Dunce

I write blogs. I love to act smarter than I really am and I pretend that my opinions are of any significance. Support me on Patreon:

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