The Ballads of Pronouns

Languages shape how we think. People who use different languages think differently; switching between languages, whether in speech or just in your head, literally change how you think. I’ve got like a zillion beef that starts with this phrase, but I’ll try to stick with one for this post: pronouns.

Ah, the magical element of pronouns. Without it, our sentences will be a bland mess of names and objects. Funny thing is you monolingual English-speakers may never realise how lucky you are to be blessed with so many usage for your pronouns. I’m a bilingual, I bask in this blessing half the time, and when switching to the other half, Indonesian, I have to wrangle with my head to cross the gap. I lose the blessing, although there are always some other merits.

On It

For example, it. Such a wonderful word, it. Without it you’ll be stuck repeating the same nouns over and over again. Fun fact: Indonesian has no it. We have no second-person pronoun usable for dead objects. “A cat jumps onto the table, knocking over a vase. It falls and crashes to the ground”. Note the “it” I used to begin the second sentence. If you want to translate that to Indonesian, you have to change the “it” to, approximately, “that vase”, which has about the same level of awkward as it does in English. (We can’t say “the vase” either; Indonesian has no definite article like “the“). Imagine having a string of sentences that start with that it. A translator’s nightmare.

But there are other blessings that we received in return. Nowadays the English-speaking world is conflicted on the use of singular third-person pronoun they. Previously, all we had to work with was either he, definitely male, or she, definitely female. What if we’re talking about anyone in general, which can be male or female? What if, more recently, we’re talking about someone who doesn’t identify with either male or female? Use one or the other, and you’ll be accused of bias, use both in a sentence, he or she, and congratulations, your essay is now 80% pronouns.

We never really bother to think about genders at all. We don’t even have a word for gender.

This is never a problem in Indonesian. We only have one third-person pronoun usable for people, with two variations that differs only in vague nuance: dia and ia. We can use either whether we’re talking about a man, woman, a being with infinite gender, or someone with no gender whatsoever. Consequently, we never really bother to think about genders at all. We don’t even have a word for gender. In the eye of our languages, we’re all the same.

On the other hand, we can’t have a story starring a female character and a male character, and have the two interact relying solely on he and she without ever stating their name. “She looked at him through the corner of her eyes. He gave her a smile in return. He put his papers back and tipped his hat. How do you do, he said. Just fine, she replied.” This simple story is a nightmare for English-to-Indonesian translators. To translate it we’ll have to lose most of the brevity; basically we’ll have to rewrite the entire thing.

But our first-person pronoun is really where my beef is at.

What do you call yourself?

English, bless you, have I. A simple word, I’d say the simplest word in the English language. One letter long, always capitalised. You can use it over and over again and it’s so commonplace it won’t turn stale. In comparison, this is how you can translate I into Indonesian:

  1. Saya: in formal documents, when speaking to someone of authority, when trying to put yourself down. Use this in an informal context and you’re a freaking laughing stock. Use this well in an informal context, and damn, you deserve a medal
  2. Aku: most neutral form, on first glance. Use it formally, in a professional setting, and you sound like a self-centered asshole. Use it informally, and you might sound like you’re trying too hard.
  3. Gue / Gua: super informal. In a formal setting, avoid at all cost. In a relaxed, informal setting, with your friends, use it all the way, and you’ll sound like a slick, cool, city boy/girl, or you might sound super rude. If you’re a nice polite person,  using this is crossing the event horizon.
  4. Ane: a mixture when you’re trying to make a middle lane. Done wrong, and it sounds awkward.
  5. Ai: transliteration of English I.  Awfully out of fashion. What are you, some kind of self-centered teenager?
  6. Aing: Completely unrelated to the English I. The Sundanese version of “gue”, complete with its rudeness and city-slickness.

And that’s only as much as I can observe in Jakarta, the capital city and where I live. Indonesia has a bazillion languages used throughout the archipelago. Each places, even when using Indonesian, has these local differences sprinkled all over it.

The first two are the only ones formally acknowledged, but as I’ve mentioned, neither is appropriate for use within some informal contexts. You can’t have a story about two young city-living buddies chit-chatting with the un-informal aku and not have a dose of dissonance.

I’ll also have to note that these multiple versions are only commonly used verbally; they only rarely made it to paper. The reasons is pretty obvious, but the convention also bleeds out to fiction writings. A story about two young city-living buddies chit-chatting? A conservative writer will have them use the un-informal aku anyway, dissonance be damned.

The result is that foreign literature always taste foreign…

So how do our translators work with the super-powerful English I? Most just stick with the formally acknowledged saya and aku. The result is that foreign literature always taste foreign, much more so than foreign-to-English literature would taste in English. People in foreign-language story always feel like people in stories, not real people. That dissonance is given.

What do you call other people?

Having all these different versions with their different nuances is also a thing with the singular second-person pronoun. In English, we have the almighty you, whose only flaw is that it can be both singular and plural. In Indonesian, in counterpart to the list above: Anda, kamu, lu/lo, yu, maneh.

The different use of singular first-person pronoun can be used to tell others how one feels about oneself and one’s relations with the other person, but at least it’s just you. The second-person pronoun, on the other hand, is a dangerous godawful bridge that you have to cross. Would using kamu be too demeaning? Too stiff? Would the other guy be okay with being called lu?

[Sometimes] we just ditch the second-person pronoun entirely

When speaking to someone above you, like parents, an upperclassman, or your boss, we just ditch the second-person pronoun entirely, and if we have to do it, use the name or title directly. I can’t really give an example here because it’ll be impossible to directly translate into English.

The “ditching pronoun, just use name or title” also apply to first-person pronouns, more often by the one with the higher rank. You wouldn’t ever call your parents with you, likewise, parents hardly ever refer to themselves with I. They’ll use the same versions of “dad” or “mum” that their children call them.

This can have hilarious/confusing results in (badly) translated subtitles for family films. Whenever a parent have a long talk with their kids, the translators would just switch out all the I with “dad” or “mum”, to the point that it’ll become unclear if they’re talking about themselves, if they’re the kids, or if the “mum” or “dad” is really someone else.

Translating is hard

All these complications, and I’ve only touched the pronouns. What does all this tell us? My biggest beef.

Translating is hard. Translating is bloody hard. You think it’s as easy as changing out all the words? It very well ain’t. Translators literally have to modify their brain, literally have to think twice about everything they’re translating. It’s not just the words. It’s also how we think.

Languages are wonderful, beautiful tools we use to see the world around us. It’s also wonderful, beautiful tools we use to tell others how we see the world around us. Being a translator is a noble job that bridges understanding between people. Just please don’t screw it up.


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