Slik Insults: Lost in Translation

1 Sep

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As a language, Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of Indonesia’s many different peoples, is famously easy to learn.

It is not tonal, has sweet FA by way of grammar and syntax, a generally regular stress pattern and a word order and pronunciation not wildly dissimilar to English.

So, having bought a dictionary in Makassar, I figured I’d cope OK as we head east across this vast nation. At our cheap hotel in the little silk town of Sengkang, however, it became abundantly clear that not all dictionaries are created equal.

cover of Indonesian-English dictionary: Kamus Praktis Indonesia-Inggris Inggris-Indonesia Edisi Terbaru

Now, my Practical Dictionary of Indonesian-English and English-Indonesian (Kamus Praktis Indonesia-Inggris Inggris-Indonesia) is an Edisi Terbaru. Which I believe means something like “aeroplane edition” or “airport edition”.

Although, for all I know, it could mean “badger’s arse edition”, since terbaru is one of many common Indonesian words which does not appear in the dictionary (and, given it’s on the cover, it’s probably not a typo).

Ever since a first attempt at “too expensive” emerged as “also experienced”, I’ve handled this lexicographical opus with the linguistic equivalent of tongs.

We were in Sengkang to see not only the floating houses on the nearby lake, Danau Tempe, but, in particular, the silkworm farms in the hills.

Floating house on bamboo raft, Danau Tempe lake, Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Now. “Silkworm” is not a word I would expect to find in a pocket dictionary, in any language. “Silk”, yes. “Worm”, yes. “Silkworm”, no.

I inspect the dictionary. “Worm” is AWOL.

For someone raised on Langenscheidt, Oxford and Collins, where even the humblest pocket edition has been edited, copy-edited, sub-edited and proofread by squadrons of anally bilingual editors, linguists and lexicographers, the Indonesian dictionary experience has been a major culture shock.

(It’s rather like the Athens street map experience. You know. Those almost-but-not-quite-alphabetical street maps they flog from kiosks, just to confuse you.)

Never mind, I think. I’ll say “insect” instead. “Insect” appears in the English-Indonesian end of the dictionary. The dictionary’s author, who has wisely chosen to be identified only by his or her first name, has selected a translation, not for the first time, which does not appear in the Indonesian-English end.

Sod it, I think. “Tomorrow I want to see silk insects,” I say, or think I say, in Bahasa Indonesia.

The girl on reception stares at me blankly.

The nine-year-old’s language strategy for Indonesia is different from mine. He is going on Google Translate. Typing in a bunch of phrases he intends to use regularly. Listening to the audio a few times, printing them out, then carrying a printout wherever he goes.

Were it not for the general absence of printers in this neck of the woods, it would be a masterful strategy.

Watching me struggle, he remarks, rather smugly, “That’s a crap dictionary. I don’t know why you bother.”

“But I want to see the silkworms!” I say. “Don’t you want to see the silkworms?”

“Yes,” he says, wearily. “But she CAN’T UNDERSTAND YOU.”

Z is a natural artist and very good at drawing things when he needs to make himself understood. I can’t draw for toffee. I also, I realize, have no idea what a silkworm looks like.

In the interests of comprehension, I draw something that I think looks a bit like a caterpillar. I write on it the dictionary’s version of “silk insect”.

“Tomorrow. I. Want. Look. Slik. Insult,” I say, again, pointing at the words and the picture.

This produces a result…


The girl says something including the words insect and room, and yells for a sibling.

“No, no, OK, OK,” I say in Bahasa. “Room good. Room good. Tomorrow. I. Want. Look. SLIK. INSULT.”

I draw another silkworm. It looks, I now realise, not dissimilar to a turd.

She looks at the drawing. She looks at me. Her expression is, well, a little concerned.

Having spent nigh-on eight hours on an allegedly four hour journey to this town which was supposed to be a convenient halfway point on an, erm, eight-hour journey, I have developed an irrational attachment, bordering on fixation, to the silkworms, so I persist.

I draw a thread coming out of the silkworm. “Insult. Make. Slik,” I say. “Want. Look. Tomorrow.”

Our incomprehension is mutual and absolute. Although we do now have a charming blue biro sketch of a turd on a string to focus our minds.

I would like to enlist Z at this point. But he is slumped on the sofa exuding something not dissimilar to teenage embarrassment.

I draw another turd, making wiggly worm motions with my left hand. To show the spinning process, I give it a spiral string, making spinning motions with my left hand.

To the unbiased observer, my expanding turd gallery now includes a turd on an old-school phone cord.

“Tomorrow,” I begin again…

Her sibling appears from somewhere. “Can I help?” he asks. In ENGLISH!

“Yes!” I say. “We would like to see the silkworms.”

“Silkworms?” he says.

“Yes!” I say. I spell out each part of my statement in Indonesian and English. “Saya – I. Bisa – want. Melihat – look. Sutera Senggra. Silkworms.”

“Silk factory?” he asks.

“No,” I say. (We’ve seen silk weaving. We’re not averse to seeing it again. But we are on a silkworm mission.) “NOT a silk factory. Silkworms. A little insect that makes silk.”

I brandish my turd gallery.

“My English not very good,” he says. “I call my friend for you. He speak English very good.”

We retire to our room. The lights are on but the electricity ain’t home.

“You need to go and get someone,” says Z.

“Yes,” I say. “Just let me look in my dictionary.”

There’s nothing more calculated to inspire experimentation in a foreign language than the knowledge that there’s someone on site who speaks more of your language than you do of theirs but not enough to get all Parisian about it.

I look up electricity, broken and fan, and descend. “Electricity room 19 broken,” I say confidently. “Fan…”

“Fan tidak bagus?” he asks. “Fan no good?”

I wish I’d thought of that.

The lake?
Sugar palms and bright grasses emerge from the flooded shores of Danau Tempe lake, Sulawesi, indonesia.

It was beautiful.

The silkworms? Well…

When the friend, Subayir, a charming chap of 70, arrives, it turns out the silkworms were off duty that day. (Dead, technically. But I like to think of them as resting.)

Silkworms around Sengkang follow a regular monthly schedule. On the 1st of the month the boxes of eggs hatch. The larvae emerge, eat mulberry leaves and sleep for the first twenty days, then spin a kilometer of fine thread from the 20th of each month to the 25th, when their cocoons are boiled to clean the thread. This is then spun with fifteen other threads to produce a single strand of silk.

We arrived on the 30th…

Anywise. Subayir and I chat for a while. He inquires after a friend of his from London. “He lives in Chelsea. Four windows on the top floor, with a house in Dundee. His name is Bob Fleming. Do you know if he is well?” (Me: “Ummm…. Well, London’s a big place, you know. Like Makassar. Maybe ten times as big as Makassar…”)

Subayir in the doorway of a floating house on Danau Tempe, Sulawesi, Indonesia, framed by pink bamboo and corrugated iron.

We chat about religion. “You don’t have mosques in London, of course.” “Oh, we do now. There are many Muslims in London. We have fifty at least, maybe more.” “You have fifty mosques in London?! [Indonesian, to friend: “She says there are fifty mosques in London! Fifty mosques!”] But surely they are small mosques…”

We chat about the Japanese occupation, the holes in the hills and the two years that the river ran dry after they left.

And, almost en passant, he tells me the Indonesian for “silkworm”.

It’s ulat sutera. Or, basically, “silkworm”.

In the interests of science, I look up ulat in the Indonesia-Inggris end of my dictionary. It says “ulat: worn; carterpilar; larva”. Neither “carterpilar” nor “larva” appear in the Inggris-Indonesia end. “Worn” does.

The Indonesian translation means “exhausted”.

*: If you’re in Sengkang, Subayir is a mine of information on everything from madrassars to silk, and does a damn fine trip around the lake. You can find him through the Al Salam II (Al Salam dua) hotel. We paid him 120,000 rupiah and saw a zillion herons.

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22 Responses to “Slik Insults: Lost in Translation”

  1. Caroline September 1, 2010 at 7:49 pm #

    Despite years of fine art study I think my silkworm would have looked like a turd on the end of a telephone line too. I laughed so hard at this. And also started planning travel-related pictionary games for Christmas Day! Stunning lake. x

    • MummyT September 1, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

      OH, so glad to make you laugh. Totally up for pictionary. Z is a ninja. I need to do a piece on his approach to languages. He doesn’t like to speak them. But will correct mine. Stresses and all…

      Totally up for pictionary. Think S has a job. So not sure where that leaves the November stage of our Oz plans. Thinking of stripping a couple of weeks out at the beginning and spending them in Indonesia.

      have you seen Sir’s account of the Toraja funeral we went to today, yet? H.I.L.A.R.I.O.U.S. I looked round after they sacrificed the buffalo thinking he might have fainted (I was feeling a wee bit unsteady…) But he was upright. What a trooper…

  2. mish September 2, 2010 at 1:18 am #

    Lost In Translation cracked me up too – very funny.
    Have just read Z’s riveting account of the funeral – what an absolute gem!
    M x

    • MummyT September 2, 2010 at 2:08 pm #

      He wasn’t particularly keen to do a blog post, it has to be said. But I said it was time for him to do some writing… I had hoped for a wonderful description, full of colour and sound: he really got my hopes up when he said “Mum, the buffalo did jump in the air when they cut its throat, didn’t he?”. But, I guess, being the little perfectionist he is, he sort of dropped that bit…

  3. Snap September 2, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    T, I could just visualise the whole silkworm conversation, with turdy illustrations. Stray took the time to learn the Thai ‘Elephant Song’ and near the end of our last holiday learned that one of the words he was singing was s!!t. No wonder he got some laughs and strange stares…he did however get a discount from the laundry lady for his efforts.

    By the way…I’ve see all sorts of boats and many water villages, but never a house boat quite like the one in your pic.

    PS. if you make it to Brisbane and I’m still here, don’t hesitate to knock on my door.

    • MummyT September 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

      We will be in Brisbane without fail! Z’s father lives there now, so we will be spending certainly Z’s birthday (19th Nov) and almost certainly Xmas there too (possibility of Melbourne for Xmas, where his cousins are, but we need to discuss as an extended family). So totally, totally up for meeting up…

      • Snap September 3, 2010 at 6:09 am #

        We leave early on the 21st October, so if you make it before then? You are always welcome to crash here, although we’ll probably we camping in the lounge room on a matress the couple of weeks prior 🙂

        Anyway, I’ll keep track of you until then.


      • MummyT September 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm #

        Aw! What a shame. We’ll still be in Indonesia. That’s assuming I can afford the bribes for a visa extension. If not, we’ll be in PNG. Anywise, not Australia… What is your first stop?

  4. Nick September 2, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    that interesting there’s a town in north-east singapore also called sengkang

    • MummyT September 2, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

      I noticed! Trying to find Sengkang on Google Maps, all they would offer was Singapore. So I put the nearest town on my map. Figured life was too short to add a new town to Google Maps.

  5. Helen September 2, 2010 at 5:16 pm #

    So funny, another really great post. I wonder if Samuel Johnson has spun his way out of his grave yet.

    • MummyT September 2, 2010 at 7:39 pm #

      LOL! I’ll ask the dictionary…

  6. Anne-Marie September 3, 2010 at 3:02 am #

    So funny! and what a contrast to the goriness of the funeral post, which enthralled me. You’re making fantastic use of your time in Indonesia – it all seems a lot more authentic than Malaysia.

    • MummyT September 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

      It is *very* authentic. On the downside, we are looking at a very, very authentic journey to the Togians on Monday. Begins with a 14-hour (minimum) bus journey — still bruised from the 8 hour overnight bus out of Ranau which ended up taking 24 — to Poso, the capital of the central region. (Leaves at 8.30am: if it were a night bus, it would be more bearable, but it’s an early start to get in in the middle of the night.) Then 6 hours (minimum) in a minibus to Ampana. Then 7 hours on a boat. I was going to break the journey somewhere nice, but if anything overruns we could end up stranded for Eid so I don’t think I can risk it.

      Part of me is wishing we’d had more time in Indonesian Borneo. But it was the prospect of an initial 23 hour minimum bus journey (can run to 2-3 times that EASILY) over bad roads with absolutely NOTHING to see to Balikpapan, which is, well, a city. Then another 30 or so hours to Banjarmasin, which is a city I would have liked to see.

      Anywise… Simon’s sounds fun from sir’s blog. Looking forward to talking on Sunday. We will have been whitewater rafting! Buffalo market comes to town tomorrow. More gore and colour. xxx

  7. LaboriousLiving September 3, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    This absolutely made my morning! So damn funny!

    • MummyT September 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

      Oh god. I went out this afternoon with the dictionary to buy some tweezers. (Tweezer, in the dictionary.) As per, there was nothing in the Indonesian end for any of the translated words, apart from one of them meant with. Started saying the words. Then showed the dictionary to a pharmacist, another pharmacist, and a supermarket. All looked mystified, before supermarket chick directed me to a hardware store next door. It appears I’d been asking for some botched translation of pliers. I mean. It was a wiry hair. But it wasn’t that bad!

  8. Snap September 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    Actually Chiang Mai is going to be our first and last stop…this time, for a year. We do hope to travel a weeny bit into neighbouring countries, those we haven’t seen and back to see friends in others.

    • MummyT September 3, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

      Wow! We really liked Chiang Mai, I have to say. Lucky both of you…

  9. edgar September 8, 2010 at 2:31 am #


    LOL about your post on the silk worm post:) I always (try to) buy a dictionary to try and communicate with the locals. Not always successful and I’m quite good at languages. What I have learned over the years however is a. how to pronounce the language and b. how does one alter the base or nucleus words. I’ll explain: In Bahasa Indonesia for instance words are altered with suffixes and prefixes. Baru means ‘new’ and terbaru means ‘most new’ or ‘latest’, so now you now you bought the latest edition:) Baru probably is in that dictionary:) For the rest, I haven’t come across a Indonesian-English dictionary yet that wasn’t filled with (funny) errors like worn-worm:) I have 5 of the same publisher and well words seem to mean different things over the years:)

    Thanks for making me laugh!:)

    • MummyT September 14, 2010 at 11:04 pm #

      Edgar, thank you for your kind corrections. If you have a handle on what the per-prefix means, that might be helpful too… and the men-? I just looked up terbang, saw airplane, and figured it was an adjectival suffix…

      Sedikit, sedikit, as they say;-)


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