Below the Written Tip of Translation: Cross-medial Interaction in Malay



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Below the Written Tip of Translation:

Cross-medial Interaction in Malay
Amin Sweeney
Prefatory Note from 2009

A New Book Published by Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia

On the 8th December this year, I was presented with a book just published by KPG for I was one of the contributing authors to the book. Indeed, my article had been a paper in the proceedings of the seminar in Paris which form the basis of this book. Indeed, all my expenses for the trip to Paris had been funded by the French government. The original article, in English, I translated or perhaps better “transculturated” into Malay/Indonesian seven years ago. The English version had received the touch of a copy editor, Ms. Rosemary Robson. The final versions were sent to me by EFEO.*

Although KPG is the publisher, in the case of this book in the Indonesian edition, entitled Sadur Sejarah Terjemahan di Indonesia dan Malaysia, it is clear that KPG merely published the materials handed down to them by EFEO without presuming to make changes or offer comments. Thus, only when friends at KPG and I leafed through the pages did it become apparent that my article had disappeared from Sadur. More accurately, it had been excluded from the book by EFEO without any notification to KPG or myself. Now that merits a crooked smile, for only one Malaysian was invited to attend the seminar in Paris. Me! However, this Malaysian counts himself fortunate to have escaped incarceration in the Tugu Selamat Datang (Welcome Monument) together with the names of other contributors to the book. Stifling… Just take a look at the cover. Only two people escaped. They’re on top of the monument, waving in relief.

This is not the place to speculate about motives. Who knows, one may find signs of wrath-ignition in the following article which is served up in its original form, including some material from the abstract, from seven years in the past.

It is high time for radical change in the field of Malay literary studies. This, essentially, is the message of the following article. This change will not happen in the West, where the field is approaching extinction. The future has to be in Malaysia and Indonesia.

For many months, before finally putting two fingers to keyboard in an attempt actually to write coherent sentences rather than simply dashing off odd notes, I had been espousing the fond conceit that producing a paper for this project would be a smooth operation. The espousal was reinforced by the director of this project, who encouraged me to bring together various relevant ruminations I had produced in the past. Over the last weeks, cold reality froze my conceit. I finally began to digest the nature of the project and realized that almost all my ruminations over the years have relevance to the area of discussion I chose for this project, which was interaction between the oral and the written. Bad choice, it seems, for while the projected volume will swell to over a thousand pages, individual contributions are limited to many fewer than that!

This project on translation is truly gargantuan, involving an effort to nudge some eighty scholars into cooperating to produce an inte­grated volume. All too often, when conference proceedings are turned into a book, the result is still a slew of some dozen disparate articles capped with a desperate attempt by the editor to demonstrate that there is unity and development. Here, the project directors have clearly invested much effort into facilitating the production of an integrated volume. The plan allows contributors to see their place in the whole book and encourages us to contact authors writing about ‘proximate domains’. These are excellent ideas. However, some questions arise concerning the rationale underlying the structuring of the project. How did those ‘proximate domains’ become proximate? I am not com­plaining! We contributors were repeatedly given every opportunity to provide input. In my case, however, it was only after immersing myself in thinking about the project and trying to write something that, too late perhaps, questions began to surface.

In the proposal, we read: “By ‘translation’ we mean all kinds of adaptations, renderings and transpositions, including oral ones.” After this foreboding use of ‘including’, it comes as no surprise to find that there is an overwhelming emphasis on ‘texts’—the words ‘text’ and ‘texts’ occur 48 times in the proposal—and there is never any doubt but that written texts are intended, for oral and textual traditions are clearly distinguished. Yet in the section of the proposal concerning performance, there seems to be some slippage over the understanding of ‘oral’. Regarding topics worthy of study, we read:

Cases of oral translation (performance of mabasan in Bali, reading and simultaneous translating of Malay texts in Lombok). Traditional literatures were mostly oral; did the translations have a different status? Examples of oral texts (performances or tales) translated (or re-created) into Indonesian oral texts before being put into writing (if ever).

I would suggest in response (in reverse order): firstly, the notion of an ‘oral text’ in this context seems to represent a teleological somersault: the scholar who hears a tale orally composed in performance may anticipate the text he hopes to produce from recording it (once fixed, it becomes a text!)1 This tendency results from the centuries-old con­ditioning of the print literate to view the oral as some kind of unwritten writing, leading to the now thankfully obsolete contradiction in terms: ‘oral literature’; secondly, ‘traditional literatures were mostly oral?’ It is not clear what is meant by ‘traditional literatures’, for in section one it was stated that: “We will make no distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ literatures.” Suffice it to say that no literature can be ‘oral’. Thirdly, the examples given of oral translation seem to be text-based, and this is confirmed in a personal communication by our project director.

To the literary scholar whose whole life has been focussed upon books, it cannot but seem entirely reasonable that a history of translation should be concerned with ‘texts’ and ‘works’. Until quite recently, it was taken for granted that access to the Malay oral tradition was via ‘Folk Literature’, and there was little awareness that this was a corpus of literary material produced by Malay scribes on British initiative, having but a tenuous connection with oral tradition. Of course, from a practical point of view, it may seem an impossible undertaking to attempt a study of translation from an oral foreign discourse into an oral Indonesian equivalent, at least from a historical perspective. Yet “The main objective of the project is to consider the history of translation in Indonesia and Malaya [sic!] in all its dimensions, all periods of time (9th to 20th centuries), all languages (foreign and Indonesian), and all domains of writing and intellectual activity (literature, religion, law, science, etc.).” This is already a vast field to cover but it considers the dimensions only of the written, of so-called ‘works’. Two points emerge from this:

1) In the context of discourse as a whole, translation of texts represents the written tip of a huge spoken iceberg. During the time taken by a scribe, clerk or scholar to translate one written work, there would have been—and still are—thousands of translations being transacted in the oral domain.2 These could range from the directive of the Arab nakhoda to his Malay-speaking mualim: “Ask them where we can moor the boat and find lodging,” through the religious teacher’s translations of hadith; or the exposition in Malay of oral Thai mantra; yes, on through the translation of my Malay instructions to the lady barber just arrived from Canton, to the attempts by the academic to explain to his students in Malay the intricacies of orality-literacy studies.

2) If such a major domain of translation (and it is a vast potential research project in itself) is not amenable to a historical approach, this may not bode well for hopes of producing a coherent and integrated history of translation as a whole. Indeed, we might ask at this point: why write a history at all, even of written translation? European scholars of the nineteenth century tended to write histories as a matter of course, even though their topic might have little to do with history, for history was the prime way to organize knowledge of all types. Winstedt’s attempt to write a literary history of traditional Malay literature using an outdated model of the history of English literature succeeded in hiding what was important to Malay tradition, asking of it rather questions that were irrelevant and producing a scrambled chronology. It revealed nothing of a Malay system of discourse but contextualized a part of Malay tradition in the realm of English literature and then excoriated it for not matching up to English standards.3

Hooykaas felt that knowledge of Malay literature was too scanty to permit Winstedt’s brand of chronological ordering, and attempted to organize his writing according to a different pattern. His work Perintis Sastra (1961) thus consists of a series of short paragraphs, each dealing with a separate topic. Yet the fact that Hooykaas and Winstedt shared the same presuppositions and were equally committed to the diachronic approach ensured that his apparent attempt to dispense with a chronological filing system served only to underline his concern with chronology and his commitment to the historical model, for the result was a reverse chronology. It also drew attention to the absence of an alternative system. The proposal states: “The final publication will follow a thematic order rather than a linguistic or chronological one.” In this history of translation, if there is to be no chronological order, does this represent a flight from the diachronic? If the tentative plan represents a portent of the thematic order, how will it address the aspect of development, by which I mean both the development and evolvement of the aspects of translation addressed and the development of the book? So far, we are presented with twelve themes each containing from five to fourteen, often seemingly very disparate, sub-themes. Whence the theoretical glue that will bind these materials into a coherently developed argument? In the absence of either type of development there can be no history, but rather a survey. The glue of my choice would be epoxy resin prepared by mixing the contents of two tubes, one labelled ‘The Noetics of Translation’, the other ‘The Rhetoric of Translation’.

Well, all very well and good! One of the strengths of the proposal is precisely that the project directors have not imposed an overarching approach, so it is not for me to suggest one. Let us accept furthermore that this project is essentially a study of the translation of written works. This does not mean, however, that what lies below the written tip of Indonesian translation can simply be tucked away in a neat section on say, ‘orality’ much as ‘folk literature’ was slotted into Winstedt’s history of Malay literature. There is a misconception abroad that the main focus of my work is this thing called orality. Serving as an external reader of philological dissertations has proved instructive for me. Candidates have been known to exclaim: “Oh that book of yours is on my shelf but I haven’t finished it” on having it pointed out that I have written as much about written tradition as about anything oral, though endeavouring to treat each in the context of both.

An iceberg metaphor might not seem to hit the right spot for a paper being written in Jakarta. Yet much of that ‘written tip’ resides in much colder climes. Indeed the most authoritative writing on that written tip emanates from lands swept by the winds from the cold North Sea. Yes, those old manuscripts residing in air-conditioned, humidity-controlled luxury in London and Leiden never had it so good. It is hardly surprising that many scholars of traditional Malay literature should imagine that these manuscripts are in their prime element. Well, noetically, things change radically! Most scholars of traditional Malay literature once proud to be identified as ‘philologists’, now bolt for cover from that term faster than rabbits into burrows. And the manuscripts? In Malay terms, they are the beneficiaries of an alien system which created the concept of preserving all manner of artifacts, which, in the culture producing them would have long been consigned to the garbage heap. We reap great benefits from the European system, but let it not be forgotten that they are benefits in European terms. And while Malays have naturalized the concept—yes we have our air-conditioned collections in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta—let it not be forgotten that this was not the Malay way of preserving tradition.

Those manuscripts actually had a life! They were performed in a living society. They were written to be performed and to be heard. They were written for a listening audience, most of whom were not conversant with letters. The scribes were consummately attuned to their noetic economy, which was orally-oriented.

Thus, much of my work over the past decades has been con­cerned with the relationships between oral and written composition in Malay. Only by studying their interaction can one begin to understand the workings of either for, since the advent of writing in the Malay world, the development of neither tradition has been independent of or even parallel to the other. On the one hand, writing caused the displacement of large areas of the oral tradition and transformed much of what survived. On the other hand, oral habits persisted in written composition throughout the age of manuscript culture: the principles of oral composition were still required for effective communication with a listening audience familiar only with an oral/aural tradition. Thus, a vital distinction to be made is not merely that between oral and written composition, but also between aural and visual consumption. Indeed, the same ‘literary grammar’ was used to generate both oral and written composition schematically, although both traditions developed their own conventions in accordance with the different media involved. Even in this age of print and mass literacy, many areas of Malay-speaking society still reveal a strongly oral orientation. Everyday speech was also schematic. The various levels of discourse reflected a general state of mind.

Studying the noetic system of Malay discourse involves examining how knowledge was shaped, communicated, retrieved and preserved in various media: the oral system of composition, both stylized and non-stylized; then through the range of manuscript, print and electronic culture. This cross-medial study of Malay composition is no less formidable a task than achieving cross-cultural understanding, and no less important for those who work only with texts, be they chirographic or print. For those scholars, there may be no perceived reason to bother with such issues; the comforting physical tangibility of book or manuscript allows them to indulge themselves in the old idea of reliability and accuracy, for the text is simply one object to be turned into another object. But the traditions one studies are not merely objects of scrutiny placed in a state of suspended animation before the scholar. They are traditions of communication and persuasion shaped in the interaction between speakers/writers and audiences: conventions that form and reinforce verbal communities. The same goes for the scholar’s own tradition, of which his writing is a manifestation. The scholar of the traditions ‘we’ study is the product of a changing noetic system studying a changing noetic system, his own or another. And it is the very interaction between the systems involved in such study which contributes to much of such change.4

In this paper, therefore, I shall endeavour to make my con­tribution relevant to the scope of this volume as a study of written translation. Thus, my aim is not to cover ‘the oral’, for I aim to cling to the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, I rather relish the notion of presenting a cautionary tale!

In the following, I present some examples of translation modes. A few are cross-lingual; almost all are cross medial. They include language produced in writing and speech by foreigners for an Indonesian audience; pronouncements on how translation should be undertaken; scholars’ interpretations of media shifts and their use of registers. Some of these examples provide remarkable insights for their time; more demonstrate the risks of textual tunnel vision; all are salutary lessons on the effects of taking one’s print-literate givens too much for granted. Ironically but inevitably most of the sources from the past appear in writing; sometimes very atypical writing.

An awareness of a text as a transaction between an author and audience, both implied in the text, brings with it the realization that a most daunting task for the translator is the reshaping of the audience he perceives implied in the text. Without that awareness, all efforts taken to establish the ‘correct’ meanings will still produce an ineffectual transaction. Particularly when there is a sizable cultural difference between original and target languages, extensive cultural translation may be needed in order to postulate an audience whose cultural literacy—in Hirsch’s (1988) sense—matches that of the intended reader.

One of the most widely used books on Malay literature has been Hooykaas’s Perintis Sastra (1961), which is a translation of his Literatuur in Maleis en Indonesisch (1952). Apart from the fact that the translation is often meaningless unless one has the Dutch original to hand, there has been no attempt either by author or translator to adapt the text to suit an Indonesian or Malaysian audience, so that analogies and illustrations from European culture are used to introduce Malays to Malay literature! Thus, for example, on page 90, the student is expected to gain some insight into the language of the penglipur lara by being told that ‘In Europe, the words charme and carmen have the same origin’; on page 19, the remark that few composers are as free in the form of their poems as the priest Guido Gezelle from Flanders is used to clarify a point on ‘sound values’ (nilai bunyi). Although Hooykaas claims in the Dutch version (1952:4) that the book is specifically intended for Indonesians, the audience actually postulated turns out to be a European one, that is, one which could learn to understand Malay discourse only through an understanding of Dutch discourse. He was still writing for Dutch students, for he knew no alternative. He thus introduced Malay literature to Indonesians as a very foreign entity.

If my concern were merely to emphasize the need to repostulate one’s audience when one’s work is translated into the language of a culture very different from one’s own, there would be little more to be said on the matter. The significance here of these illustrations intended for a Western audience, however, lies in the fact that many of them have become ‘topoi’ in Malay/Indonesian literary studies. Guido Gezelle, certainly, did not attract much attention, but generations of Indonesian students can attest to the necessity of memorizing what a ‘carmina’ is in order to describe a pantun. A further example is Hooykaas’s account of how Overbeck witnessed the creation of a pantun (1961:78). This again has often been used to teach Indonesian and Malaysian students about the composition of pantun!

The most bizarre example of mispostulating an Indonesian audience occurs on page 61 of Perintis Sastra. In a section on end rhyme, Hooykaas analyses not a Malay pantun, but a syrupy creation in English by Wilkinson (1924:54), which is not even a translation of a pantun, but a pretty, ego-centred Victorian conceit based on a rather poorly-structured and badly-balanced pantun.


I lose a pearl, amid the grass

I love a girl but love will pass.



It keeps its hue though low it lies

A pearl of dew that slowly dies.



This was based on:

Permata jatuh di rumput.

Kasih umpama embun di hujung rumput.



Jatuh di rumput gilang

Datang matahari hilang.


Winstedt (1961:184) could not resist pointing out in a footnote that: “Actually the Malay means something different.” He then proceeds to give his own translation, which is no great improvement:



You drop a pearl, ’t will keep its hue.

You drop a girl. For fleet as dew;



Above the sward and gleam the same.

Love melts before a never [sic] flame.

We see from these examples that for Hooykaas, Malays were very much ‘the other’. For Malay readers, Hooykaas was equally ‘the other’. And the Malays depicted in Hooykaas’s writing were the Malay readers’ other’s other! Their own discourse was fed back to them as something quite foreign to them. Yet colonial authority, vested in the printed word, had an aura of sacred authority. Students had problems relating what they were taught to what they knew. One result was that much of the material taught was simply learned by heart without being digested. The problem is that this approach became naturalized; students were not even aware that they did not understand what they were ‘learning’. Indeed it came to matter little what was taught. Thus appeared, particularly in Indonesia, dozens of horrendous little text books on literature full of topoi not understood by the authors themselves and often having not the vaguest relevance to Malay or Indonesian literature.5 The situation is no better in higher education. A vast amount of material finds its way into theses and dissertations that is not understood by the writers. A major problem is that the writers are unaware that they do not understand; indeed the very nature of what understanding what they read involves is not something examined. This may be seen from an observation of people’s comprehension of newspapers and news on television, not to mention the often incredible Indonesian subtitling of foreign video movies.6 These subtitles often produce a new story! I was surprised that a number of friends, all university graduates, had a significantly less than perfect understanding of what they read or heard. Yet they had not been aware of this until I started asking questions. For in an editorial in Kompas (25 August, 2000), words such as sirkumstansi, lakonik, appeal, and kredibel caused problems for several persons. One thought that lakonik was derived from lakon. In television interviews, one hears phases such as track record, electoral threshold and human capital development, which many people do not understand. Likewise for non-Javanese Indonesians, the enormous amount of Javanese vocabulary used in Indonesian is often imperfectly understood. My point, however, is that these uncompre­hended items of speech just seem to sail by unnoticed. The whole nature of comprehension requires attention.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a young Dr. van Ronkel was en voyage for the Indies aboard a pilgrim ship taking a contingent of Indonesian hajis home from Mekka. The captain, on hearing that one of his passengers was a language expert newly graduated from Leiden University cum laude, asked van Ronkel to make an announcement informing the pilgrims that they could collect their food and drink on producing their tickets. Once the pilgrims were assembled on deck, van Ronkel produced the following speech.

Maka adalah nachoda bahtera ini memberi ma‘lumat kepada sekalian djema‘ah Hadji, bahwasanja sekalian tuan2 Hadji akan diberikan makanan dan minuman bilamana waraqah dari bahtera ini dipertundjukkan kepada tuan nachoda.

Bafflement ensued and eventually it fell to the head seaman to convey the message. He brandished a thick bamboo stick and bellowed:

Heee, apa kowe tidak mengeeerti?…Kalau mau makan kasi lihat tiket…..Ayo, lekas ambil makan….!

Instant reaction! The hajis rushed off to get their food while the officers and crew collapsed in mirth. This incident, recounted by Bagindo Dahlan Abdullah (1950) who must have heard about it from van Ronkel, seems to have been a watershed for van Ronkel; it impressed upon him how ‘Malay’ for previous generations of scholars was the written language of times long gone and was of but limited use for one who would converse in the spoken language. For Europeans conditioned in print culture, little difference in idiom was expected between written and spoken language when both were supposedly being used ‘correctly’. And, of course, writing could be honed at leisure into the most developed form of speech. For van Ronkel this was not simply a cross-cultural experience; the cross medial translation of his words impressed upon him the gap between the idiom of traditional written Malay and that of everyday speech. The type of speech used reminds us, too, that attention must be paid to registers, to which I return below. Van Ronkel’s experience also shows us how the mispostulating of an intended audience may be rectified more rapidly in an oral than in a written transaction, for the immediacy of the situation (especially with a hungry audience!) allows the swift reaction and subsequent feedback impossible for readers, as of Perintis Sastra. But in both cases, it was not the intended audience that recognized the mispostulation, but rather the unintended: the seamen and myself respectively. As noted, Malay and Indonesian readers of Perintis Sastra had no complaints. This whole question of comprehension is rather reminiscent of audiences of some genres of Malay stylized oral composition, where not all the language used is expected to be understood.

This brings me to a another example involving Hooykaas, whose fame as a scholar of Balinese religion is beyond challenge; yet he did not speak Balinese. In 1968, I was informed by some relatives of I Gusti Ngurah Ketut Sangka living at the puri in Krambitan, Hooykaas’s research pied à terre, that Hooykaas sometimes spoke to them in Old Javanese. They were hugely impressed: “His language was so refined. Even we didn’t understand a word!” When I asked Hooykaas about this, he simply chuckled. What then might at first sight seem to be another mispostulation of audience if semantic transparency be taken as the criterion turns out to have been a rhetorical (and ritual) tour de force for the ‘speaker in the text’, whether or not this was the ‘biological’ Hooykaas.

This is not a throwaway anecdote chasing a cheap laugh. I recall jukeboxes long in the past where one might insert a coin not for loud music but for silence. An inventory of the jukebox’s potential performance would have to include no-music along with the music. Similarly, in studying translation, we must look at no-translation. I mean by this the stratagem of producing language not intended to be understood. As touched on above, some genres of Malay stylized oral performance such as Wayang and Main Puteri present a variety of linguistic usages which are opaque to the audience. Indeed the performers themselves can often provide only the most idiosyncratic explanations and may resent being asked for meanings. The power is in the opaque. Shortly before he died, Tengku Khalid, last patron of the arts in Kelantan, gave me a mantra written in Jawi, with a note that I was to make use of it. It read “Kum kum dal kum.” The stratagem may be described as ‘the functional meaningless of ritual language’.7

Particularly in the Main Puteri and in ritual performances of the Wayang and Mak Yong, there is much that is opaque to the audience. Here we observe the gap between the ostensible audience and the intended, indeed, postulated audience. The ostensible listeners are the spirits addressed. The intended rhetorical impact is on humans! Thus, when scholars attempt to translate their recordings of such a performance, it is wise to resist the print literate’s desire for ‘transparency’, for otherwise they will be in the company of Carol Laderman (1991) whose wish to clear up all obscurities in translating a performance of Main Puteri led her to the creation of a transaction that never occurred, producing rather a display of the creative abilities of performers turned informants to produce imaginative yet idiosyncratic answers to her questions. In translating such performances, I personally prefer to create philological problems in the English reproducing those facing the philologist of Malay. For these are no manuscripts to be purged of perceived corruptions.8

Perhaps a quick cross-medial hop is needed to demonstrate that the ‘no-translation’ stratagem cannot be conveniently cordoned off. Philologists are consumers, too! Indonesians are still rhetorically empowered in this area. Indeed there is an ongoing battle between authors and audiences. Take light bulbs. Phillips bulbs are expensive but reliable. The package has information in Indonesian and English. Light bulbs manufactured by Indonesian companies lack credibility. So one is unlikely to find a light bulb claiming to be ‘made in Indonesia’. Rather, one encounters a variety of apparently Japanese light bulbs, for there is no Indonesian information provided. Everything on the packaging is written in Japanese apart from the company’s name, which is clearly Japanese. A little investigation reveals that let’s say, Toyofuji, is based in Tangerang! Yet Indonesian audiences are not stupid either! People tend to be cautious when a product provides descriptions only in Japanese or German, another favourite. So we buy Phillips. One up for the Dutch!

It seems that economic concerns reign supreme! In Perintis Sastra, Hooykaas and his translator apparently imagined that they were hitting their rhetorical target; Likewise perhaps, the newspaper editors; and Hooykaas’s implied speaker as a success in Old-Javanese-for-Balinese. My point is that whereas the implied authors of these texts were ambivalent, confused or humorously deceptive, the Indonesian audiences did not choose to reject the role assigned them as audience. But when we get down to purchasing light bulbs, Indonesians know how to evaluate!

The watershed perceived by Bagindo Dahlan in the intellectual development of van Ronkel was not, alas, a watershed for Malay studies in general. Some seventy years after the van Ronkel episode, another newly graduated Leiden language expert began teaching at a Malaysian university. His salary was slow to materialize, so he wrote a one sentence memo to the University Registrar: “Aku ma‘lumkan padamu bahwa aku belum menerima gajiku.” It may seem that my quoting this is merely for poetic balance! After all, if it were a typical example of the field in the seventies it would not have provoked mirth. Yet just some two decades previously—and long before—the reactionary antics of C.C. Brown provoked no hilarity; rather they had the respect of contemporary mainstream colonial scholarship. I shall resist the temp­tation to dwell on earlier pronouncements such as that Kelantanese is ‘incorrigibly lazy in its pronunciation of terminations’, not to mention ‘primitive’. I shall focus rather on his later, outlandish pontifications about translation in his A Guide to English-Malay Translation (1956a). He rails against the use of ‘modern Malay’, which he equates with Indonesian. Writers of ‘modern Malay’ and Indonesian are simply translating from English, he avers. Syllogistically-challenged Brown! Go to step three and confront your enthymemic fallout: all writers of Indonesian know English!

The thrust of Brown’s book is that Malays should write as they speak. He provides a tolerable ‘modern Malay’ translation of an English sentence (well, yes, actually, the English sentence was translated by Brown from a sentence in the Sejarah Melayu!) Of course, that ‘modern Malay’ sentence must be denounced and the ‘writer’ must face Brown’s inquisition: “But if he first asked himself ‘how would I say this in Malay’, he would realize that:” blah blah blah. Brown then presents the ‘correct’ translation. It is the original sentence from the Sejarah Melayu!: “Segala orang Melaka pun hairan terkejut menengar bunyi meriam itu.” Well, sorry Mr. Brown. That is not the way Malay people spoke in 1956, for there was still a huge gap between the written and the spoken language.

Brown’s equating the language of the Sejarah Melayu with that of correct Malay oral parlance would be amusing, rather than sinister, were it not for the fact that Brown had colonial power. He was an examiner in Malay! At the time he wrote, he had just completed examining over a thousand essays written by mainly Malay students, who were to be penalised for writing in ‘modern Malay’ and not in the idiom of the Sejarah Melayu.

Brown’s insistence that Malays should emulate the language of manuscripture such as the Sejarah Melayu and eschew the use of ‘modern Malay’ would, if successful, have hindered intellectual development and restricted ‘abstract’ thought: the Sejarah Melayu itself was moving away from the oral tradition. Were twentieth century Malays to have espoused the language of the Sejarah Melayu, they would have been moving in a counter direction taken by the scribe(s) of the Sejarah Melayu himself. Of course, Brown was not as obtuse as he presents himself. He clearly knew quite a little about orally-oriented written composition in Malay. His whole agenda was to keep it orally oriented. Aurally-consumed manuscript literature was focussed on narrative action: it needed the dramatising of speech; what would become abstractions in visually-consumed texts had to be presented in concrete narrative examples. Brown was adamant in denying the Malay language any development. Any notion of reported speech had to be translated into direct speech; any threatening abstraction had to be disarmed and turned into narrative. In this he was at one with the likes of Winstedt, who was implacable in his opposition to Malay intellectual development. Winstedt, for example, condemned the Taju ’l-Salatin as being written in ‘atrocious’ Malay. Yet it was works such as this that pioneered Malay abstract thought. If it be thought that I am being intemperate, turn only to William Roff’, who considered that Winstedt “did more to circumscribe Malay educational progress, and to ensure that the Malay peasant did not get ideas above his station, than anyone else before or since” (Roff 1974:139).

When we consider Brown’s diatribe against modern Malay as mere translation from English, two thoughts come to mind: first, much of the ‘modern’ Malay being produced at the time seems difficult to fault. One need consult only the language of Memoranda Angkatan Sasterawan 50. Asraf, Usman Awang and Keris Mas, for example? Brown clearly sought out the worst examples he could find. And his own ‘correct’ examples were sometimes off the Malay planet. Secondly, if Brown was so opposed to the influence of English on Malay, one must ask why was his own spoken Malay so anglicized?

It seems that ‘registers’ simply cannot be ignored. Van Ronkel clearly learned something about cross-medial transactions. Unlike Brown, who wished Malays to write as they spoke (well, yes, as they should have been speaking!), van Ronkel had learned that they did not speak as he had imagined they spoke. Brown learned nothing. Brown’s injunction that one should write as one speaks could have been conceived only in a mass-literate print society. Such a notion would have been anathema to members of the exclusive coterie of scribes, whose whole existence depended on not writing as one spoke. But Brown strangely imagined that Malays spoke the language of the Sejarah Melayu. In writing about Malay dialects, he awarded ‘grades’ depending on how closely they approached the language of that one text.9 So these Malays should have been speaking the way they should be writing, which is the way they should be speaking! In essence, Brown still subscribes to the conventional wisdom of Valentijn and Werndly through to de Hollander10 and almost to van Ronkel that writing is the purest form of the language.

But what of the variety of registers in Malay? I have no idea how van Ronkel graded the translation of his announcement. ‘Low Malay’ perhaps? He probably did not subsequently emulate that style. Yet it hit exactly the right register in the context. It was correct Malay! This view would have aroused the ire of Malay language teachers during colonial times and beyond! In Malaya, Malays used different registers when talking to people of other ethnicities. As with van Ronkel’s translator, Malays would use what is dubbed ‘bazaar Malay’ in certain situations when speaking to other Malays. Yet none of these registers was taught by Malay language teachers to their British pupils. Indeed, the language taught had little resemblance to the language spoken by Malays, including those very teachers! Yet those pupils were also clearly adhering to a standard of their own. Munsyi Abdullah gives us an exhaustive exposé of the problem in his Hikayat Abdullah. So many of his pupils’ insistence on producing Malay with jalan bahasa Inggeris drives Abdullah to distraction. Their Malay is pure translation. Yet when he quotes Englishmen, they are depicted speaking in what has clearly become a conventionalized literary patois. The idiom was still that of the hikayat, but interspersed with features such as inversion of noun or pronoun with ini/itu. For example: dia mau bunuh sama sahaya; ajar sama sahaya baca Melayu; boleh kasi khabar sama sahaya; hari ini juga selesaikan itu pekerjaan; sahaya boleh kasi mengertinya. The same idiom is employed when Malays—and Abdullah himself—speak to Englishmen. Abdullah is clearly bowing to an existing convention,11 for he puts this idiom into the mouth of his own pupils, including those he considers to have learnt well!

The convention survived well into modern times. In a short story from 1959, titled Mereka tidak Mengerti, Keris Mas (1992:648ff.) presents a wickedly funny and very thinly veiled portrait of an ex-colonial official, ‘Bill’. The English translation patois is much in evidence. In the following, ‘Bill’ and his ex-driver are engaged in conversation. One should note that the driver responds in the same patois.

Apa macam sekarang, Amat? Ada baik? Ada senang?”

Baik juga, tuan.”

Kerja ada bagus?” ……. “Oh, ya, awak ikut saya punya nasihat. Mesti panggil tuan. Ada mengerti?”

Wah, tidak boleh itu macam, tuan….”

The convention survived because it was based on the actual speech of so many British living in colonial Malaya. When I speak of a translation patois, I anticipate an objection that the Malays who employed it to Europeans were not translating, for they were those who did not speak English. It was a patois of translation because it was reinforced generation after generation by English speakers of Malay.

Yes, here we can flout the how-many-children-had-Lady-Macbeth fallacy and peek behind the scene created by Keris Mas. For I knew Mubin Sheppard well—oops, I mean ‘Bill’. How about “Boy, ini teh sangat tebal!” Yes, that was Sheppard sitting on the veranda of the Kota Baru resthouse in 1968 complaining to a waiter (in pure Colonel Blimp) that his tea was too strong. This man of no glottals gained something of a reputation among Malays as a Malay scholar. Malays expected Europeans to speak thus. I introduced him to Dalang Awang Lah, the greatest shadow-master of modern times, and was intrigued by his insisting that Awang Lah’s Hanuman puppet was ‘sangat halus’, even when Awang Lah stressed that it was kasar. When the dalang grew quite irate, I had to explain to Sheppard, who was becoming quite bewildered, that the dalang was not being overly modest, for in that context, halus in Kelantanese means ‘small’, not ‘refined’, and that in repeating that Hanuman was kasar, Awang Lah was insisting simply that his puppet was big, not coarse! Kelantanese visitors take an inordinate time to make their excuses and depart someone’s house. Sheppard simply shot to his feet and bade Awang Lah: “Terima kasih. Selamat malam.” Yes, “Thank you. Goodnight!” A man of but one register. In English, too…

Mubin Sheppard provided closure to a long-standing tradition: how Europeans should speak Malay. In 1958, as a sergeant in the British army on national service, I was sent from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore for a six-week course in Malay. My delight was that I had already been learning to speak Malay by mixing with the lower order to the extent that I was accused of going native. The staff-sergeant in charge of the course needed none of that. For him, every word in Malay had a direct equivalent in English. He asked for the Malay word for ‘depend’. I suggested ‘bergantung’ or ‘tergantung’. “No,” he barked. “‘Depend’ is ‘berkait’.” Oh yes, his upper-class English accent was manifest only when he spoke Malay.

It took me some time to realize that the British colonial agenda for teaching Malay was a tad skewed. The kind of Malay that I spoke was clearly not appropriate, for I was lowering myself to ‘their’ level. One must maintain some distance. Sheppard had this distance down to a tee. He was among the last of a colonial line of exponents of the translation patois. They did not think in Malay, and God forbid that they should exhibit Malay body language and descend to the level of natives! The patois of translation had a single register. It was, at best, elevated kitchen Malay.

When I began with the example from van Ronkel, I was using the term ‘oral’ to mean ‘spoken’, without further complication. The speaker might be literate or not. A problem lies in the definition of the terms ‘oral’ and ‘orality’. It is surely unnecessary to argue that while literacy is needed to produce written expression, it is not identical with written expression. While literacy is the ability to read and write, few people would use ‘orality’ in the sense of ‘ability to speak’ [Havelock (1982:44) is an exception; but he uses quotation marks for ‘orality’]. ‘Orality’ used thus would cause problems when collocated with ‘literacy’, and literate people are still able to speak. But are they still oral? Perhaps only in the second sense; an oral exam, for example, may be one of the most literate of exercises. ‘Oral’ when juxtaposed with ‘literate’ may possess a very different significance from ‘oral’ when juxtaposed with ‘written’. ‘Oral’ in the first sense led to the fairly recent coining of the term ‘orality’, which reflects an attempt by scholars to break through the barriers of their literacy in order to appreciate the noetics of those who do not possess writing. ‘Illiterate’ is still a valid term for ‘nonliterates’ or ‘orals’(?) in a society aspiring to ‘universal literacy’. But the use of ‘non-literate’ or ‘pre-literate’ to describe a condition that we might equally as well describe as ‘pre-illiterate’ is an imposition rather like, say, imposing the rules of English grammar on Malay. For we are studying a different noetic economy: the oral system. The irony of the situation in which we find ourselves is that the study of ‘orality’ cannot but be a literate activity, and still cannot be defined except in terms of ‘literacy’.

Reference was made above to the use of similar principles of composition used in both manuscript and stylized oral traditions. A major shift occurred with the advent of mass education, widespread print literacy and the growth of a reading public. One might say that in Malay tradition the move from the chirographic to the typographic caused a more major shift in modes of composition than did that from oral to chirographic. Again, one does not easily find clean breaks. As noted, even in this age of mass literacy, a strong oral orientation still survives in some areas. And, shifting the significance of ‘oral’ in mid-sentence, we may say that this ‘oral orientation’ is found in both written and oral composition! And in the oral expression of both ‘orals’ and literates. So we are indeed also examining the ‘orality’ of literates. I therefore prefer the term ‘oral orientation’.

For our predecessors, the only possible frame of reference was, on the one hand, writing and print, and on the other the everyday language of conversation. In such a milieu, it was no easy task even to become aware of the existence of such an entity as the stylized oral form, let alone comprehend its significance. The spoken word of nonstylized discourse was seen as an unwritten, indeed defective, form of writing. In taking down an oral tale, therefore, the logical procedure was to have it tidied up and put into an acceptable form. It may perhaps seem strange that although scholars had certainly heard the stylized form (e.g., Maxwell 1886), they did not consider it worthy of further investigation or even recognize it for what it was. The reason is that they equated it with the language of the book. The confusion of these media is particularly well illustrated by a number of European reports which clearly confuse the stylized performance of orally composed tales with the chanted recitation of manuscripts. Newbold (1839,II:327), for example, speaking of the fondness of the Malays for hearing recited the Hikayat Hang Tuah, proceeds to describe what has to have been a penglipur lara performance, where the teller may be heard ‘relating portions from memory of these popular romances’. Indeed, the confusion persists to this day, as may be seen in Milner (1982:4, 38): For example (p. 38), “Rulers also had their own storytellers, Penglipor Lara,57 who read aloud Malay tales to the populace,58” the first footnote reference being to Skeat’s mention of the Kedah storyteller, the second to hikayat reciting in Sumatra as described by Anderson (1826). On page 4, a very useful reference to the reciting of hikayat in East Sumatra is provided. But in the next paragraph we are told that ‘these storytellers’ were often wandering minstrels of the type described by Maxwell, who were oral tellers (Sweeney 1987:82).

The fact that the presentation and consumption of both written and stylized oral composition appeared—and sounded—so similar to the uninitiated apparently led some European observers who saw a teller performing without a text to assume that he had learned it off by heart.

It may seem an impossible task to learn anything about the spoken word—let alone translations into it and out of it—prior to the electronic age: Malay scribes would translate speech only into the written dialect. Europeans would deal only with the ‘pure’ written form. Yet there were a few loners who provided some brilliant insights. I have written elsewhere (1987: 102ff.) about the contributions of Marsden and Clifford. Marsden relates his failed attempts to produce a Malay pantun. This leads him to ruminate on the speech of Sumatrans in general with splendid results. Clifford was seemingly writing fiction. Yet he provides penetrating insights into the Malay speech system of his time. Oh yes, sorry, this was in English, so we are still on translation! Clifford was worlds apart from his junior colleagues Brown and Sheppard, who shunned ‘isolation’, which meant no English company. Clifford clearly thrived on the company of Malays, especially village people. Indeed he often dressed as a Malay. Sheppard’s memoirs (1979) reveal his envy of Clifford (and dislike of Brown!), but Sheppard could not emulate him, for Sheppard was a man of but one register.

The insights of Marsden and Clifford are particularly illuminating for they are focussed upon discourse in general. So many literary scholars and folklorists have tended to carve out from the domain of oral societies those forms of speech, such as narrative, which they perceive to parallel genres of ‘literature’. Only by studying the discourse of a society as a whole do we learn something of the general state of mind permeating all media. Marsden and Clifford took note particularly of areas of everyday speech which drew upon the stylized form. Voorhoeve was many years ahead of his contemporaries in his study of Sumatran oral traditions and the role of writing in those traditions. One of his major findings was that the ‘rhymeless line’ of the Sumatran tales is the basic Malay story form. Indeed, these short parallelistic stretches of utterance are the basic units not merely of narrative, but also of the kata adat, incantations, and indeed of the pantun, and ultimately, after literary refinement, of the syair form. Whereas scholars in the past have seen this ‘rhythmical verse’ as ‘the Malay’s first essay in poetry’ (Winstedt 1958:145), it should be noted that the motive was not ‘poetic’ in the modern sense. This method of processing speech was a highly pragmatic way of storing knowledge orally. True, Voorhoeve rues the neglect of this ‘poetic’ form by writers of ‘classical’ Malay prose. I do not accept this negative assessment of that ‘classical’ Malay style, which I consider to be the inevitable result of the development of a written dialect in the hands of an elite anxious to emphasize the exclusive nature of its craft. Yet Voorhoeve was writing decades before even the idea of ‘orality’ was conceived.

Voorhoeve was not concerned with cross-medial translation per se although he was paving the way in that direction. I hold that any investigation of the development of Malay manuscripture—or indeed literacy in Malay—must focus upon these basic units. Indeed, in certain extant texts of traditional (i.e., manuscript) Malay there are indications of the influence of these units of speech. Examples of such texts are the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai and the Silsilah Kutai, in both of which we encounter instances of the short, mnemonically-patterned stretches of utterance so typical of oral style. Kern provides some extremely helpful observations. He notes the occurrence of a considerable number of ‘short rhythmical passages’ of ‘stereotyped descriptions’, which alternate with the prose parts of the work but are not distinguished from them by the format. Even more importantly, from his examples we are able to see how with writing, the original rhythms begin to break down, the only parts able to preserve their form somewhat longer being the relatively fixed runs. Yet while I have argued that some degree of mnemonic patterning was still needed in aurally consumed writing, the strong patterning of the orally composed tales, found especially in these runs, was no longer functional for preserving the text. Clearly, we are observing here what should be an entirely expected feature: the transition from an oral to a written style. Kern, however, did not see these developments in such terms. For him, as for so many other European scholars, this was no development, but ‘rather a retrogression’; the language was being ‘corrupted’. Yet if we apply the logic of this view to Europe, we would still be communicating significant knowledge in ‘rough rugged’ verses akin to those of Beowulf.12

The morass in which an orthodox philologist may find himself when he rigidly applies his methods to a work in the schematically composed Malay tradition is seen in the study of the Hikayat Seri Rama carried out by Zieseniss (1963), whose conclusions are accepted by Winstedt. After comparing the Shellabear and Roorda van Eysinga versions in his translation summary, he becomes aware that the work will not yield to the tools of the philologist in search of an archetype. He notes a close relationship between the two versions, but is stymied by the contradictions and other differences, and forced to conclude that the two versions ‘can only have arisen by means of oral tradition’ from ‘the same original source’ and that ‘this original Ro[orda] + Sh[ellabear] version cannot, as the contradictions show, have possessed a clearly defined form’ (1963:180). However, a comparison of the many passages in the two versions with almost identical wording reveals that these similarities are typical of a written style, and that the relationship can only have been chirographically controlled. The two versions are the product of schematically creative copying of an earlier version or versions, some of which is preserved in both versions. It is not necessary to resort to a primary oral tradition in order to find the causes of a lack of ‘clearly defined form’.

We see from Zieseniss’s postulation to the effect that two manuscripts sharing many identical passages could have derived from an oral archetype that his understanding of ‘oral tradition’ was extremely vague. As is natural for literates in whose thought processes writing is fully interiorized, Zieseniss could view oral composition only in terms of writing. For him, the oral archetype was a sort of unwritten writing: it was fixed in form and clearly indistinguishable from written language. Yet in oral tradition, the idea of a fixed text of such length is alien; where relatively fixed passages occur, they are highly stylized, possessing strongly emphasized mnemonic patterns. But, as I have stressed ad nauseam, this tendency to view oral composition in terms of our literary schemata is even reflected in the use of the term ‘oral literature’.13

A similar appeal to oral tradition is made by Teeuw (1964) in order to suggest a possible explanation of the similarity between parts of the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai and the Sejarah Melayu. Yet these similarities can only be the result of chirographic control. The wording is too close—especially as the degree of mnemonic patterning is low—for such passages to have been transmitted orally (Sweeney 1967, 1987:31).

However, it should not be imagined that confronting a mnemonically-patterned text will necessarily nudge the philologist into considering the possibilities of oral composition or schematically-created written composition employing oral principles. In 1979 and 1980, Drewes published the texts and translations of three Acehnese poems. The first, Potjut Muhamat, was, he decided, an epic. He observed the considerable difference in wording among manuscripts.

This situation….affords a clear insight into the genesis of Achehnese epics…after they had been committed to writing. One may safely assume that none of the manuscripts contains the text of the epic as recited by the poet himself. Moreover, a poem of this length must have taxed the poet’s memory to a high degree. Slips and variations were hardly unavoidable, so that from the very beginning the text was not an unvarying quantity. But the poet somehow parted with his copyright when his text was written down and put into circulation. In the circumstances, owing to this very circulation, a final version was prevented from coming into being (1979:6-7).

Here we have a prime example of scholarship comfortably insulated from the intellectual mainstream of the late twentieth century when the book appeared. By that time, the Parry-Lord approach had been tested on all manner of material—commencing with ‘epic’—world-wide. I, too, had contributed a variety of materials from my research on oral tradition and composition in the Malay peninsula. Indeed, it had become clear to me that the principles of composition perceived by Lord as the hall-mark of oral (as in nonliterate) composition were also employed in written composition of the Malay manuscript tradition when the intended audience was still aural. Drewes was seemingly oblivious of all this; he was still mired in conventional wisdom long demolished; his observations were based on no evidence; there was no argument.

For Drewes, the poets of Acehnese ‘epic’ were, with a single exception, highly literate. Of one group, he tells us that they ‘were persons of a higher educational level than the average person’. They composed their epic poems without recourse to writing, and then recited them by heart. A minor spanner in these works was that one of the poets lacked this high educational level: “He was illiterate but his profession required that he have a great command of language…” (My italics). So, the implied conclusions waiting to be drawn can be only the following: prior to being committed to writing, these epics were a prime example of unwritten writing, created by people whose whole life was writing, but who, for reasons known only to Drewes, decided to compete for the Guinness Book of Epic by demonstrating their literary skills without writing a word in a feat of memory unprecedented.

The strong point of Drewes’s two books of translations from Acehnese is that they provide a wealth of information. The weak point is that Drewes does not profit from it. The three works he translates employ the same poetic metre. He sees ‘feet’ and the ‘iambic’ where I am hearing Voorhoeve’s perceptions on the basic line of Sumatran poetry. The works all reveal the pull of what Lord would term ‘oral-formulaic’ composition. Not a word about this from Drewes. To the contrary, the formulas and formulaic expressions of his originals are hidden in the translations, and his English gives us print-literacy variety where the Acehnese gives us the subtle repetitions of word music. If the translator is consciously endeavouring simply to produce a comfortably readable English translation, one cannot complain. But one might then expect a word or two about the composition of the original in his introduction.

For example, in the Hikajat Ranto, the insertion of a piece of ‘poetry’ (Genre? The whole ‘epic’ is poetry) is signalled by the following:



Djeunoë lên bêh saboh sa’é, (line 270)

and Bahkeu lên bêh saboh sa’é, (line 375)

or, in inverted order Lên bêh djeunoë saboh sa’é, (line 67)

and Lên bêh tamsé saboh sa’é, (line 383).

None of the formulaic flavour of this comes through in translation. Note also that the word beutapiké in Beutapiké adoë radja (line 270) and in Beutapiké wahé adoë (lines 375 & 383) is translated respectively as ‘think it over’ and ‘reflect on/upon these’. And adoë, in the two instances of Beutapiké wahé adoë (lines 375 & 383), is translated respectively as ‘my younger brothers and sisters’, and ‘young people’. And what happened to radja in adoë radja?

The texts of the Hikayat Ranto and the Hikajat Teungku di Meuké’ present themselves as written composition. Note, for example, the references in both to the use of paper and ink. Although both texts reveal formulaic composition, this need not be taken as an indication that the texts were orally composed. Furthermore, while the Hikayat Potjut Muhamat is perceived by Drewes as originally some form of recited unwritten writing, parts of this work, too, were composed in writing. Drewes speaks of manuscripts ‘prepared’ (?) by Snouck-Hurgronje’s clerk for the use of Snouck and Drewes himself: “To a copy of a MS. of 1900 lines that he prepared for my use he added no less than 1231…” “MS. C numbers 2711 lines, to which, in my copy, T. Muh. Nurdin has added 89 lines. I have incorporated most of them into the text printed below….The final lines contain only the usual request for the reader’s indulgence.” (my italics). Hello?

Here we see a tantalizing but lost opportunity to examine the interaction between oral and written composition. There was apparently no need for the scholar to get out and listen. Even if no ‘epics’ were available, an investigation into various other genres of stylized oral composition in performance would have revealed much about the mental set informing the ‘epic’. It may be that the cross-medial adaptation of stylized composition in Aceh resembled the situation in Minangkabau: when the kaba was written, it often retained its verse form and idiom. This was very different from the practice of Malay court scribes who converted stylized verse form into the exclusive prose idiom so roundly condemned by Voorhoeve and Kern. Indeed, this is the case also of Malay prose originating from Pasai, as we see from the Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai. Of course, Malay court writers were consummate producers of schematic composition using the principles associated with oral formulaic composition, but again, this idiom was exclusive to the written dialect. The pantun remained the only genre produced both orally and in writing in a common idiom.

The best-known material resulting from cross-medial translation is that referred to as ‘folk literature’, produced under colonial aegis. I have written extensively on this subject—it may seem interminably—and I shall not initiate a rerun here. Suffice it to say that the materials adapted into writing from the stylized form took a circuitous route, as they were dictated in everyday speech, the only material surviving unscathed in the written texts being a number of relatively fixed runs. Thus, the process of adapting both stylized and non-stylized oral material into writing followed the same pattern, for no adaptations were made directly from performances in the stylized form. Despite the names of British ‘editors’ attached to the published editions, the actual work was undertaken by Malay writers, who sensibly converted their materials into conventional hikayat. Despite his wide-ranging claims, Winstedt had little hand in this work, as was noted as early as 1956 by Kern (Sweeney 1987:89). But it is time for one more quote:

The similarities between the oral folktale (penglipur lara) and the literary romance have long been noted, although it should perhaps be mentioned that most scholars were conversant only with the written adaptations of the oral tales produced under the auspices of the British (Sweeney 1973). Hooykaas (1947:120) found that the penglipur lara tale and the literary romance merged into each other, and that it was difficult to distinguish between them. Winstedt (1923:29) remarks that ‘structurally’ the penglipur lara tales ‘have the outline and machinery of all Malay romance’, although in the same paragraph he paradoxically describes the former as the ‘cream of Malay literature’, while the literary romance is ‘tedious and a slavish copy of Indian models’. As we have seen, this similarity is to be explained by the fact that, in spite of the different media involved, both the oral and literary forms were created with the methods of schematic composition for a listening audience (Sweeney 1987:93)

The ‘cream’ was those ‘metrical passages’ which Winstedt wrongly imagined were poetic islands in a sea of ungrammatical prose. Those passages were runs; the whole tale was performed in the same ‘metre’. Winstedt’s view became the conventional wisdom for decades.

Scholars thus knew the ‘oral folktale’ only after it had been converted into a written hikayat! There was not much to distinguish the two forms, apart from the runs. If one wonders why Malay scribes did not convert the stylized ‘oral folktale’ into the ‘literary romance’ prior to the colonial period, the possible answer is a) perhaps they did. The preserving of runs seems to have been on British initiative; b) why would they need to? They had all the materials and techniques needed to whip up a fine hikayat for a listening audience without having to dig out a teller. What could he do that they could not? And he did not use their idiom.

Soon after independence, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka embarked on an impressive programme of recording oral tradition. A number of these tales were transformed into literature and published in book form. The process of transforming the tales recorded both in everyday speech and in the stylized form initially followed the model employed by the scribes working on the penglipur lara tales at the turn of the century under British aegis. But there were differences: there was no longer any necessity for the ‘scribe’ even to meet the teller; the telling was now electronically fixed and could be repeated ad infinitum. Secondly, while the scribes working for the British had been transforming the tales into the written style of their day, the writers of the sixties were, consciously or otherwise, emulating the ‘classical’ Malay of those old scribes, even though this was the idiom of neither the tellers nor the writers. We might call this process ‘retraditionalizing’ the traditional. For the tales to be recognized as traditional, they had to be clad in traditional literary garb. The writers did not seem to be overly impressed. Judged as literature, they felt, these tales left much to be desired. Official forewords would emphasize the richness and vast scope of the heritage which had to be unearthed and preserved. Editors, however, often stress how easy it is to find fault with these tales, noting how unfortunate it is that they have lost their original qualities, pointing to errors and changes from ‘correct’ speech, observing that the tales are ‘all the same’, and finding that, as the tellers are concerned ‘merely’ with entertaining their listeners, they pay little attention to content or plot.14 Winstedt was still not exorcised.

The pioneer effort of the Dewan in the field of professional storytelling was Selampit, published in 1959, a tale derived from the performances of Mat Nor, from Kelantan. The recording, said to be of a very abbreviated rendering, has been reworked by two hands into ‘the form of written literature’, and almost nothing remains of the original idiom. The Tarik Selampit does not employ the widely known ‘metrical passages’. Yet in the literary reworking, the model of printing ‘rhythmical prose’ or runs in short lines has been applied to all the dialogue, which is thus presented in the format of blank verse and employing an idiom reminiscent of the syair form of poetry. Indeed, on occasion, a syair rhyme is introduced:

Ayohai adinda Intan Baiduri,

Penawar dendam, penglipur hati

Lamanya kakanda tidak memandang wajah adinda suri

Rindu kakanda tidak terperi.

All this is the work of the writers working for the Dewan. Occasionally, some of the original idiom comes through, as in the italicized portion of the following:

Salah seorang dari kita tiada tewas;

Marilah kita mengadu kesaktian di bumi



Di padang luas saujana,

Padang di jalan empat bercabang tiga

but the shape and rhythm, and meaning of the original Tarik Selampit formula—padang luas saujana padang; di jalan empat bercabang tiga15—has been lost. Hardly a trace remains of Kelantan idiom

These remarks on the Tarik Selampit are a little potted ponti­fication from my book Malay Word Music. They are not intended to do justice to the work of adapting this oral material into literature, for I have discussed those issues there and elsewhere at inordinate and profligate length. They are presented purely as background for what follows.

In a book entitled Tasawuf dan Sastra Melayu; kajian dan teks-teks, Vladimir Braginsky (1993:66-67) writes:

Di samping itu kita pun tidak bisa mengabaikan bentuk rima yang bersinambung pada seluruh empat larik dalam setiap stanza. Jika kita sejurus melepaskan diri dari definisi Hamzah tentang syair, barangkali kita akan mengenal prototipenya dalam salah satu bentuk lisan Melayu. Inilah yang disebut puisi-puisi tirade, dalam mana rima-rima atau asonansi-asonansi yang bersinam­bung menyatukan larik-larik dalam kelompok-kelompok yang tak sama panjangnya. Puisi semacam ini mengingatkan kita kepada tirade-tirade dalam epos Perancis atau Turki Kuno (sebenarnya saj’ Qur’an itu pun merupakan sajak tirade. Sajak-sajak tirade dikenal oleh banyak tradisi puisi rakyat Nusantara…, termasuk rakyat Melayu yang melestarikannya dalam cangriman, nyanyian, dan terutama dalam epos-epos lisan di Semenanjung Malaka. Di bawah ini sebuah contoh dari epos Kelantan, Cerita Selampit:

Ayohai anakanda buah hati pengarang lim




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