Found in translation

8 Feb

Since moving to Jakarta, I’ve been trying to learn Bahasa Indonesia, the most spoken, but certainly not the only language in Indonesia. In fact, one of the first things I learned is that there was actually “Jakarta Bahasa”, a city-specific slang. Sure, that’s not going to be complicated at all.

Although my Bahasa has improved a decent bit since I arrived – I can now reliably order 1 more water in a restaurant, and prevent taxi drivers from getting lost on the way to my house, I am still taken by surprise by the language all the time. So now, at just about the 6-month mark, I thought I’d put together a list of my favourite Bahasa words.

Belum. Google Translate will tell you this means “not yet”. But it’s so much more than that. It’s what someone will tell you when they really have no idea when something is going to happen. It’s what someone will say to be polite, when what they’d probably tell you if they were a native English speaker would be “no”. I think it expresses what I’ve observed of Indonesians so far: ever-hopeful, ever-future looking, and always happy. Belum is all about possibility.

Besok. This word is first cousin to belum. The textbook translation is “tomorrow” but much like the Spanish version of the word, is probably better interpreted as “sometime in the future”. A friend’s internet was out for more than a week, and each day the answer in response to her “when will it be back on” was “belum, besok”. Hmm. When, exactly?

Sudah. This is definitely my favourite word in Bahasa. It means somewhere between “done”,”already” and “finished”. It’s what a waiter will ask you before clearing your plate, and it’s also the response to the question. It’s a word defined as much by punctuation and context as anything. “Sudah makan?” could mean “Have you already eaten?” or “Are you ready to eat?”. And at the end of the day, when you are ready to go home, you are definitely “sudah”.

Kemarin. The first time I read this word and looked it up, the translation was “yesterday”. And it mostly is. But it could also mean last week, or last month. If you mean really in the past, you can say it twice. I guess “previously” would probably be the best way to think about it. It’s kind of like how besok could mean tomorrow, or not.

Sampai. This one really confused me. It loosely translates as “until” but (you knew there was a but, right?) unlike English, this “until” doesn’t imply the change of condition has already happened. It’s more like when we use the English word “to” in order to describe a range, as in “4 to 6” or a period as in “up to” . Indonesians speaking in English would say “4 until 6”. Not wrong, exactly, but not always clear. Witness a conversation I had before moving here, regarding the status of my work permit.

Office person: I haven’t received any information until now. Me (optimistic that new information has arrived): OK so what are the next steps? Office: Well maybe I will be able tell you tomorrow. Me (looking at phone with puzzlement): OK?

You may notice that all these words are somehow connected to time. An Indonesian colleague’s theory is that since there is no tense in Bahasa, time doesn’t matter as much as it does in the West. (He said this to me after I complained that meetings never started on time, even though people were fixated about having meetings in their schedules). He’s probably right. I suppose these words exist to provide context and meaning, albeit somewhat vaguely. On the other hand, I like to think of them as more expressive of a different attitude to time, a way of being more “present” or more “now”. And that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s like the ever-hopefulness of “belum” – it hasn’t happened yet, but stay alert to what’s going on, because it just might.


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