Relay Translation: a necessary evil or a hidden blessing?

Eliza Handayani

First published in In Other Words, issue 42, Winter 2013

Many people ask me: do I recommend literary translation via a second language? My answer has been practical: Many books written in languages other than English are translated into Indonesian from an English translation. Therefore, rather than only condemning the method, we had best find a way to improve the working process of relay translation.

My experience in the Literary Translation Program at the Jakarta Arts Council (2007-2009) convinced me that the way is to connect the Indonesian translator with the English-language translator or the author (provided his or her English is good enough to allow in-depth communication with the Indonesian translator). This is the experiment we conducted in the literary translation workshops in Jakarta 8th-13th October 2012, a collaboration of my initiative Inisiatif Penerjemahan Sastra and the British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT).

There were two groups translating from the Dutch, working on three excerpts of the novel Dover by Gustaaf Peek. One group translated directly from the Dutch, led by Dutch-into-Indonesian translator Widjajanti Dharmowijono, and the other worked from an English translation, led by English-into-Indonesian translator Anton Kurnia. The English translation was produced by Dutch-into-English translator David Colmer, based on the consensus translation done by the Dutch-into-English group at BCLT International Literary Translation Summer School, July 2012.

Here is a comparison of the two Indonesian translations:

Relay
Di kota kedua dia tak menemukan tempat untuk parkir (a space to park). Jalan yang dicari sudah dia temukan, tapi kedua sisinya dijejali (stuffed with) mobil. Tony mengemudi berputar-putar, berharap ada yang pergi. Dia kedinginan, berkeringat, dan baru sadar belum makan atau minum sejak lama. Kehabisan kesabaran, dia berhenti di tengah jalan (in the middle of the road), melompat, berlari, lalu menekan bel. Saat tak ada tanggapan, dia menggedor-gedor pintu. Kembali ke mobil boks (the van). Membuka kunci (the key/lock), pintu belakang (the back door) terkuak.
Direct
Di kota kedua ia tidak mendapatkan tempat parkir (parking place). Ia menemukan jalan yang dicari, tetapi kedua sisinya telah dipadati (full with) mobil. Tony berputar-putar berharap ada tempat kosong. Ia berkeringat dingin. Saat itu ia baru sadar, ia belum makan dan minum. Kesabarannya habis dan ia parkir tepat di depan rumah yang dituju (in front of the house). Ia turun, berlari, menekan bel. Karena tak ada jawaban, ia memutuskan menggedor pintu. Ia bergegas kembali ke kendaraannya (the vehicle). Gerendel (the latch) dilepas, pintu (the door) terbuka.

Tempat untuk parkir” and “tempat parkir” signify two different things: a space to park and a place or structure for parking. Since Tony is only looking for space to squeeze his car into, “tempat untuk parkir” is the more fitting translation.

And then there is a matter of context: according to David Colmer, in the original Gustaaf Peek did write that Tony parked “in front of the house,” but when translating David had felt he needed to explain that, unlike in Australia or Jakarta, streets in the Netherlands were often so narrow that only one car could go through at a time. Therefore in the translation he made Tony parked “in the middle of the road,” thus made it clear that Tony blocked the other cars behind him.

Because of this we have two translation versions where in one Tony parked “tepat di depan rumah yang dituju” (perhaps missing a sense of how narrow the road is), and in the other Tony “berhenti di tengah jalan” (missing the information that he also stopped in front of the intended house). It is possible to combine the two: “Tony berhenti di tengah-tengah jalan tepat di depan rumah yang dituju” (Tony stopped in the middle of the road, in front of the intended house).

Another example of how the English translation provided more information on the context than the original:

Direct
Tiga orang lagi berdiri, memegang kantong sampah (holding garbage bags), dan turun dari kendaraan.
Relay
Tiga lagi berdiri, menenteng kantong kotoran mereka (holding bags of their excrement), lalu keluar. 

I immediately wondered: why were they holding “kantong sampah” or “kantong kotoran”? Does it contain garbage or these people’s belongings that they stuffed into garbage bags because they don’t have any luggage?

David then told me that in Holland undocumented immigrants were often given garbage bags for vomiting and relieving themselves during long trips. So those people were really holding bags of excrement (“kantong kotoran”), this information would be lost if translated into “kantong sampah” (“garbage bag”).

When it comes to nuances, there are noticeable differences between the two translations as well.

Direct
Terdengar bunyi ketukan (A knocking was heard). Ia menoleh ke belakang. Salah satu lelaki yang masih adamenekan jari-jarinya ke kaca pembatas. Tony terkejut melihat wajahnya yang kepanasan (a feverish face). Tiba-tiba lelaki itu muntah ke kaca. Tangan Tony tergelincir dari kemudi. Kendaraan mulai oleng. Tony kembali menatap ke depan, meluruskan kemudi. Ia menoleh sekilas: laki-laki yang muntah tadi menyandarkan wajahnya yang belepotan ke kaca. Ia harus berhenti (He has to stop).  
Relay
Gedoran keras (A loud banging). Dia menoleh dan melihat jari-jari ditempelkan di kaca pemisah. Seraut wajah merah padam (A flash of reddened face). Tiba-tiba lelaki itu muntah mengotori kaca. Tangan Tony tersentak, mobil pun oleng sebelum dia mampu mengendalikannya lagi. Tony segera menoleh. Wajah lelaki yang muntah itu menempel di kaca yang berlumur muntahan, lelaki lainnya terkapar di lantai mobil. Tony terpaksa berhenti (Tony is forced to stop).  

Listening to Gustaaf Peek reading and introducing his work, I got a sense of his writing style: short, punchy, sensual sentences. Thus in the example above I prefer the relay version: “Gedoran keras. … Seraut wajah merah padam” (“Loud banging ... A flash of reddened face”) than the direct version: “Terdengar bunyi ketukan … Tony terkejut melihat wajahnya yang kepanasan” (“A knocking was heard ... Tony is startled to see a feverish face”).

A knocking may be slow and relaxed, but banging is always loud and full of immediacy (due to anger, impatience, or panic). “A feverish face” is also more abstract than the vivid “a flash of reddened face”—and the rhythm of the sentences fit more with Gustaaf’s style.

Furthermore, the two examples above give us two versions of Tony—one that feels he has to stop his car (“Ia harus berhenti”) and one that feels that he was forced to stop his car (“Tony terpaksa berhenti”). “Has to” (“harus”) is more general than “was forced to” (“terpaksa”)—if Tony feels he has to stop, I get a picture that this Tony cares more about his passengers than the Tony who only stops because he feels he was forced to. Which is the real Tony?

Sometimes small differences have big impact:

Relay
Semua jendela ditutup sehingga di dalam rumah lebih gerah daripada biasanya. (They closed all the windows so that it was hotter than usual inside the house.)
Direct
Karena semua jendela tertutup, di dalam rumah lebih panas dari biasanya. (All the windows were closed, inside the house was hotter than usual.)

The atmosphere in the relay translation is more frightening, because I immediately wonder why did they shut all the windows even though it was so hot inside? The direct version read like mere information: it was hot inside the house because all the windows were shut. We didn’t get the sense that the windows were intentionally shut (the prefix “di-” implies intention, “ter-” does not).

Occasionally describing something more generally can animate the text better:

Direct
Ia mengecilkan suara televisi hingga irama putarankipas angin yang tergantung di plafon mengalahkan bunyi sirene dan suara orang-orang berlarian­ (the sounds of people running).
Relay
Dia kecilkan suara TV sampai hanya bunyi kipas angin di langit-langit yang terdengar mengalahkan bunyi sirene dan langkah-langkah orang berlarian (the footsteps of people running).

I prefer “the sounds of people running”, because it evokes more than just their footsteps, but also their hurried breaths and their screams.

Generally, however, using specific words work better. “Ia mengipas-ngipas dengan koran bekas” (he fanned himself using an old newspaper) is more vivid than “Ia menggunakan koran lama sebagai kipas” (he used an old newspaper as a fan); “Seseorang menyenggolnya” (someone bumped into him) is more informative than ”Seseorang membangunkannya” (someone woke him up)—the second made us ask: how? By shaking him, by pouring water on his face?

Often getting the precise information is crucial for readers to really get the story.

Direct
Seperti yang lain di dalam kabin (the cabin), Tony berteriak dan memukul-mukul dinding yang tuli.
Relay
Seperti yang lainnya di dalam peti kemas (the container) itu, Tony berteriak dan memukul dinding yang bergeming.

Someone in a cabin (could be a cabin in the woods, cabin of airplane) is less worrying than someone in a container.

Direct
Ia membuka kemejanya yang basah (he took off his wet shirt), menendang sepatu sampai lepas, meregangkan tubuh, tersengal-sengal, seolah dadanya akan mendapat oksigen lewat kulit (as if his chest could get oxygen through his skin). Sia-sia. Suara-suara yang ia buat terdengar di sekelilingnya (he could hear the noises he made around him). Ia mengecilkan diri (He made himself smaller).
Relay
Tersengal-sengal, dia robek baju basahnya (he ripped off his wet shirt), menyentak lepas sepatu dan meregangkankan tubuh, seakan membiarkan kulitnya bernapas (as if letting his skin breathe). Percuma. Dia bisa mendengar suara-suara yang sama dari sekelilingnya (he could hear similar noises from around him). Dia meringkuk lagi (He curled into himself).

Merobek baju” (ripping his shirt) gives a more desperate sense than merely “membuka kemeja” (taking off his shirt). But “seolah dadanya akan mendapat oksigen lewat kulit” conveys more of the uselessness of the act than “seakan membiarkan kulitnya bernapas.”

And then a matter of clarity: is it the echo of his own voices that Tony is hearing (“suara-suara yang ia buat terdengar di sekelilingnya”) or are the people around him making similar noises as he (“dia bisa mendengar suara-suara yang sama dari sekelilingnya”)? I think it’s the latter.

Translating dialogue is also very interesting—in excerpt 1 Tony speaks broken Dutch (translated into broken English for the relay group), which have to be translated into broken Indonesian. In excerpt 2, the characters spoke Indonesian, but rendered in Dutch by the author and then into English by the translator. This then had to be translated into Indonesian.

Direct
Tony menarik kerah baju laki-laki yang tergeletak, beberapa kancing tercerabut akibat ketergesaannya.
- Baik. Tidak apa-apa. Teman saya, kebanyakan minum. Dasar tolol. (Fine. Everything’s fine. My friend, too much to drink. Dumb.)
Relay
Karena panik, Tony menyentak kerah orang yang tak sadarkan diri itu sampai kancing-kancingnya berlompatan.
- Enggak apa. Enggak masalah. Teman, mabuk. Bodoh. (All okay. No problem. Friend drunk. Stupid.)

I feel in the direct version Tony’s “Dutch” was a bit too fluent.

In Indonesian, which has a large gap between spoken and written form, there is the problem of rendering authentic dialog without sacrificing tidiness and grammar. One of the solutions is to use less formal words, like in this example “dia” is less formal than “ia”:

Direct
- Bagus. Jangan sampai ia pergi.
Relay
- Bagus. Jangan sampai dia pergi.

Same with “kau” and “kamu” (both mean “you”)—the latter is slightly more usual to be used in conversations.

Direct
- Ke mana? (Where to?)
- Kamu pasti tahu. (You must know where.)
- Tidak, aku tidak tahu. Kamu mau ke mana? (No, I don’t. Where are you going?)
Relay
- Ke mana? (Where to?)
- Kau tahu ke mana. (You know where.)
- Tidak, aku tak tahu. Memangnya kau harus ke mana? (No, I don’t. Where are you going?)

In this instance, both versions still sound not so natural, perhaps because I hardly ever heard anyone say, “Tidak, aku tidak/tak tahu” in conversation. If I where to edit it, it may look something like this:

- Mau ke mana? (Where are you going?)
- Udah tahu masih nanya. (You already know, why are you still asking?)
- Udah tahu apaan? Memangnya mau ke mana sih? (What are you talking about? Where are you going?)

Udah” is the conversational form of “sudah”, “nanya” the conversational form of “tanya” or “bertanya”, and “apaan” of “apa.” My rendition of the dialog makes it sound very Jakarta, though, whereas Marlon and his family live in Central Java. It is possible though that they speak Jakartan, especially if they watch a lot of TV, but my translation may lose some local color as well.

Another point about cultural differences: the two groups differed on how Marlon and his sister should call their parents: “Ibu-Ayah” or “Mama-Papa”? The direct group thought that since Marlon was of Chinese descent, it is more likely that their family uses “Mama-Papa”. But Marlon’s mother is from Solo, and his father wanted to assimilate and become Indonesian. Thus I think it is equally likely that they use “Ibu-Ayah”. Besides, many ethnic-Indonesian children call their parents “Mama-Papa”, it doesn’t necessarily signify that the family is of Chinese-descent. I think what matters more here is consistency.

Some participants suggested: they want an editor to be present during the workshop and help the translators to polish their Indonesian translation, help determine which connective to use, etc. At first the suggestion sounds odd to me, because one of the goals of the workshop is to develop translators’ skills, and this means not only their language skills, but also their writing skills. A good literary translator must also be able to write well in the target language, know which connective to use, etc. Later on I was reminded that an editor’s presence might spur the translators to pay closer attention to the details of their work. I agree with this—something to consider for next year’s workshop. It is also good to have publishers observe translators at work—it may inspire more respect for translators’ work.  

Another thing I learned: relay translation can be a blessing—that is if the first translator had taken the care to explain some cultural nuances that may be lost to readers from outside the country of origin. So instead of “lost in translation”, we found more contextual explanation within the first translation. Of course this depends very much on the care and quality of the first translator.

Eliza HandayaniComment