I’m in the process of working on a short piece for New Mandala on Islam in a post-BN world. In the course of doing this, I’ve been reading carefully some of the goals of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). I do this in Malay because I can read Malay fairly fluently, but to communicate this meaning to non-Malay speakers I have to find an English gloss.
I find this really, really difficult. Here’s an example from the PAS website. PAS argues that its goals include
Memperjuangkan wujudnya di dalam negara ini sebuah masyarakat dan pemerintahan yang terlaksana di dalamnya bilai-nilai hidup Islam dan hukum-hukumnya menuju keredhaan Allah.
Now I would like to render this into English. As far as I can tell, I know in my mind exactly what this means. And I can produce a word-by-word translation very easily.
|to fight or struggle for||the creation of||in||state||this one||a||society|
|Islam||and||the laws||to go towards||pleasure||Allah|
I bet that most readers could read my word-for-word translation pretty easily and get the exact gist of this. But even though I know that the words mean, and I know what the overall meaning is, I cannot render this in the form of a natural English sentence that sounds “right” to me. One possibility is just that I’m not totally fluent in Malay, but I don’t think that that’s it, because I don’t encounter this problem when I’m speaking Malay. The difficulty seems inherent to the act of translating.
Why would this be? Perhaps this is something that the linguists have thought about, and certainly this is a problem for people who do literary translation. It strikes me that the problem is somewhere in the syntax-semantics interface: I am trying to retain semantics (meaning) but changing syntax (sentence and phrase structure). When we speak or read, we don’t ever separate syntax from semantics–the two are inextricably linked. When we self-consciously translate, we are forced to preserve one while changing the other. This is just a hypothesis. But it might also explain why I often find it difficult to respond when people say “can you say XXX in Indonesian” even though my Indonesian is pretty good.
I’d be curious as to whether I’m the only one with this problem.