some words can never quite be translated

tiga malam sajamu meninggal
rinduanku sebagai sebulan

The key word in the above malay pantun (poem) is rindu, a word in Malay and Indonesian that can be translated roughly as yearning or longing but doesnt quite convey the entire meaning of it. While rindu can be applied to pretty much anything one has affection for such as one’s homeland or one’s relatives, rindu is pretty central in most love songs and poems in Malaysia and Indonesia. In that context, “pining” may be a better translation. There is also a connotation of nostalgia which gives rindu the notion that what one misses is an idealised version of reality and that any reunion will never match one’s expectations.

While Bahasa Malaysia/Indonesia has always been a second language for me, it’s a very close second language as it was my primary and secondary schooling medium of instruction. I cannot remember having to learn it even if I do have many memories of struggling with it in Malay class. That subject was always my bane in school. In major exams, I used to get an A for all my subjects but struggle through malay with a bare pass.

Anyway, in spite of all of this, the emotional resonance of certain malay words and phrases has still stuck in me and it is that emotional resonance that is difficult to convey in translation. None of the english words have the right flavour. For them to have it, a whole culture of love songs, an entire stock of memories of behaviour and emotional reactions from friends and grownups when they used the word has to come with it.

A memory that comes to me quite clearly is that of a female friend’s response to me when I asked her why she seemed so down. “rindu“, she said succintly and quietly with a mix of sadness, longing, irony and indulgence. I guess it is the indulgence that gets me, the idea that you are allowed to indulge in missing someone, that it is like an illness that will then permit your friends to comfort you.

So, that’s my state at the present, composing malay poems about longing in my blog. I’m sure my high school malay teachers would be proud.

tiga malam sajamu meninggal
rinduanku sebagai sebulan

seminggu setengah kita berpisah
setahun sehingga kita berjumpa

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