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Cultural (Un)translatability in Kurniawan’s Man Tiger


Translating literary works from one language to another is never easy—especially when the two languages have huge different paradigms. Incommensurate modes of thinking and understanding under different paradigms would make it impossible to translate certain terms or phrases, that finally they are kept within the text without being linguistically transferred. This phenomenon in a context of broad translation is called as cultural untranslatability.

I encountered untranslatability when I read the English version of Eka Kurniawan’s Lelaki Harimau (Man Tiger). The English translation was done by Labodalih Sembiring, and I gotta be honest: it is one of the best translated Indonesian books that I have ever read. The book is beautifully translated without dismissing the figurative and poetical aspects. However, despite the splendid translation, I noticed that there are certain Indonesian terms which are kept as they are. They are not translated; and stand with the English language equally and, of course, proudly! Right after I read the first page, I found three Indonesian words that are left untranslated which are kangkong, mujair, and nila. The translator’s decision to leave out these words is interesting to observe, because, as a matter of fact, they all can be translated to English. Kangkong, for instance, is linguistically called as kale in English. Mujair (mujjair) and Nila (parrot fish) are the names of fish that are universally known and certainly have English translations. Renouncing them in Indonesian might appear to be a daring decision to some, because readers who do not speak Indonesian would have difficulties in understanding the text. Therefore, it is apparent that in this specific page, untranslatability is done deliberately. I would argue that cultural barrier and incommensurate paradigms are not the case. Instead, it is all a matter of preserving cultural values to maintain Indonesian unique characteristics.

Leaving the words kangkong, mujair, and nila reinforces the preservation of cultural values. The word kangkong, for example, when translated directly to English, means kale. However, kale as understood by the community that speaks and understands English is not the same with kangkong as known by the Indonesian people. They are of different kinds of plant, yet shares the same literal translation. Therefore, it can be agreed-upon that what is understood as kale in a universal context is not the same with the one in Indonesian context. It is better, then, to leave the word kangkong as it is—because it bears a nation’s understanding towards the word’s meaning. This understanding, then, can be classified as a cultural value.

Interestingly, this deliberate untranslatability adds to the beauty of the translated version of Man Tiger. By preserving the Indonesian words, there are values that bring along cultural and Indonesian unique characteristics. This preservation is important, especially if applied to Eka Kurniawan’s work, as he represents picturesque Indonesia in his narration.
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