Polysystem Theory and Translation: a practical case in a multilingual context of Indonesia | October 2014 | Translation Journal

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Polysystem Theory and Translation: a practical case in a multilingual context of Indonesia


This article discusses an interconnection between the Polysystem theory and translation. It also portrays a competition between Bahasa Indonesia Baku (BIB) – the Standardized Indonesian, translated literature and regional vernaculars for the dominant position within the national literary polysystem of Indonesia. Translated literature plays a significant role in this literary polysystem because it enriches domestic literature and promotes BIB as the national language and, at the same time, it also raises the position of the vernaculars up to the national and regional levels. Politically, BIB always occupies the central position; meanwhile, both translated literature and regional vernaculars hold the peripheral one. However, the notion of the Polysystem theory in translation suggests that both positions are not stable and, therefore, the three systems can interchangeably gain these positions.


1. Introduction

Indonesia, geographically, is an island country with a multilingual and multicultural community that leads her into a nation-state promoting BIB as the national language and 746 vernaculars as the regional languages. BIB is obligatorily introduced through education and government institutions and other relevant national agencies including translation and interpreting groups. Accordingly, BIB, translated literature and regional vernaculars are part of the national literary polysystem. Each operates individually and therefore they strive for domination of the center. In this competition the stronger will always be the winner.

What the Polysystem theory is all about and its connection with translation is discussed in Section 2 and an intersection between the three systems is described in Section 3. Following that is a brief discussion in Section 4 and a conclusion in Section 5.

2. Polysystem Theory and Translation

“The polysystem is conceived as a heterogeneous, hierarchized conglomerate (or system) of systems which interact to bring about an ongoing, dynamic process of evolution within the polysystem as a whole” (Shuttleworth and Cowie 1997, p.176). Baker and Malmkjaer (1998/2001) refer to the first part of this definition by arguing that,

“Polysystems can be postulated to account for phenomena existing on various levels, so that the polysystem of a given national literature is viewed as one element making up the larger socio-cultural polysystem, which itself comprises other polysystems besides the literary, such as for example the artistic, the religious or the political. Furthermore, being placed in this way in a larger sociocultural context, ‘literature’ comes to be viewed not just a collection of texts, but more broadly as a set of factors governing the production, promotion and reception of these texts (pp.176-177).”

This argument is in line with Even-Zohar’s (2005) redefinition of Polysystem as “a multiple system, a system of various systems which intersect with each other and partly overlap, using concurrently different options, yet functioning as one structured whole, whose members are interdependent” (p.40). In addition, he points out that, “these systems are not equal, but hierarchized within the polysystem” (p.42), therefore, “the various strata and subdivisions which make up a given polysystem are constantly competing with each other for the dominant position” (Baker and Malmkjaer 1998/2001, p.177). In regard to the literary polysystem, “there is a continuous state of tension between the center and the periphery, in which different literary genres all vie for domination of the center” (p.177). This implies that the translated literature also exists as a part of the polysytem of a given national literature because, “translation is no longer a phenomenon whose nature and borders are given once and for all, but an activity dependent on the relation within a certain cultural system” (Even-Zohar 1990, p.51).

3. BIB, Translated Literature and Regional Vernaculars Vie for Domination of the Center

Within the national literary polysystem of Indonesia, the government has the language policy to promote BIB as the only national language and as a literary system which is compulsorily used in education, government, business, journalism and other institutions. Accordingly, this national language ideology impacts on (1) the position of BIB; (2) the position of the translated literature, and (3) the position of the regional vernaculars.

First, it is inevitable that BIB is at the center of the national literary system. It is the only national language that has been historically and politically promoted throughout the country as the national identity since 1928. Enormously, it is promoted through written materials by various authors in different literary genres such as children stories, technical instructions, cooking recipes, etc. It is also promoted orally in the form of educational programs through both local and national radios and televisions. In addition, BIB has also reached remote areas through the work of both VCD and DVD producers. Such products make the BIB literary system stronger and as such, it is in the position of opposing other literary systems. Regarding this, Harry Aveling in his article, published in Kritika Kultura, Issue 6, November 2005, concludes that ‘although the [BIB] system is dispersed across the archipelago, its center prestige rests in the national capital, Jakarta. The Indonesian literary system stands in opposition to the various “regional” literary systems: the Javanese literary system, written in Javanese (from Central and Eastern Java); Balinese literary system, in Balinese (from Bali); Minangkabau literary system (from Central and Western Sumatera), and so on. It also stands in opposition to other literary systems using the same language, but called Bahasa Melayu, Malay, to be found in Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore’ (Aveling 2005, p.16). This suggests that other regional vernaculars which still exist orally may stay outside the BIB literary system. They are peripheral or weak in system because they do not have a recognized written repertoire. The absence of these vernaculars from the formal register has given space for BIB to become a stronger system in most regions across the country.

Second, any translation from foreign languages into BIB is partly guided by the national language policy. In practice, the Indonesian translators supporting this policy tend to focus on BIB while ignoring other informal varieties such as Indonesian colloquial across the country, particularly when translating literary works. In addition, the interference of linguistic features from foreign languages into BIB has also occurred in translation products. Consequently, such a trend has so far disappointed some readers. For example, Dr. Salim Said, a regular reader, complains, “I’m tired of reading the translated books, particularly, from English into [BIB] because their meanings are often different from the original texts” (Abudira 2011). Benny Hoed, the Head of the Indonesian Translators Association, also points out that the BIB translation quality remains low due to the lack of translators’ training and the absence of quality measures for proper translation (Kompas, 2005). In his speech at the Fifth Asian Translators Forum of FIT -2007 conducted in Bogor, Indonesia, Hoed emphasizes that the improvement of the translator’s professionalism is an absolute requirement if Indonesia wants to compete with others in the global arena. He also adds that until now there are still a lot of complaints about the quality of the translation products rendered from foreign languages into BIB (Antara News, 2007). This situation implies that some translators remain playing a solo role in producing their final translation drafts and publish them without involving an editor. In short, some foreign language texts translated into BIB do not appeal very readily to Indonesian readers. The texts still appear too foreign and readers are alienated by the untranslated cultural context, and by the lack of language they experience daily. In practice, therefore, the translators should be aware that relevant dimensions of language variation have to be applied in order to avoid a rejection by readers. The ideal is that the translation should enjoy a good reception by the readers. If this happens, it will affect the position of translated literature within the national literary polysystem.

Third, it would follow from the above discussion that any translation from foreign languages into a particular regional vernacular would most likely occupy a lower, more peripheral position than translated texts in BIB. However, while translated texts in such a regional vernacular may initially have this position within the national literary system, this does not mean that those vernacular translations will remain in such a position forever. If such translations culturally conform to the expectations of their readers they may raise their position within this recipient culture. For example, Papuan Malay (PM) remains an oral language but it has been playing a very dominant role in daily communication among the West Papuans for centuries. This vernacular may occupy the central position when a translation is made into it as the first translated literature. It will be a newly emerging literary form which will also bring PM up to the central position within the West Papuan new literature

4. Discussion

BIB, translated literature, and regional vernaculars are part of the national literary polysystem of Indonesia. They interconnect with each other even though they are not equal, but hierarchized within this multiple system. In this respect, translation plays an important role to promote both BIB and vernaculars in their own domains and, at the same time, it enriches them with new vocabularies in technology and other relevant fields. Ideologically, translating regional vernaculars into BIB will develop BIB vocabulary with a regional nuance which strengthens the national culture as implied in the motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika). On the contrary, when translating foreign and/or BIB texts into regional vernaculars, particularly the oral ones, this would make the speakers aware of and proud of their own identity within this nation state. If these oral vernaculars are politically supported by the local authorities to use in education sector and other relevant sectors their existence will then compete with BIB.

Following this, Even-Zohar (1990) points out that when we produce a translated literature we actually introduce “original elements into the system” (p.178) and this product also conforms, “to already existing models” (p.178). These “primary” and “secondary” models and types (Snell-Hornby 1988, pp.23, 24) suggest that the translated literature may occupy a primary or a secondary position in the national literary polysystem. In this respect, the above discussion demonstrates that the translated literature occupies a primary position when it introduces new vocabulary items into BIB and vernacular repertoires, including some new features of foreign and/or regional cultures. It also keeps this position when it produces a written form of an oral vernacular. Meanwhile, it dwells in a secondary position when it conforms to the BIB and vernacular rules whereby a translator has to comply with those applicable standard systems while doing translation. In so doing, the translated literature supports and upholds the existing system of BIB and vernaculars.

Thus, there is an intersection between the three but at the same time, an internal opposition among them for the dominant position is inescapable. It can be implied that the position of translated literature is not stable. It depends very much on the subject and/or the content of a source text (ST) which will be translated into the target text (TT), i.e., either BIB or vernaculars. It also depends on the national language ideology that requires every author and/or translator to comply with the BIB system. In this case, BIB permanently occupies a primary position; meanwhile, both translated literature and regional vernaculars hold a secondary position. Even-Zohar acknowledges that this secondary position is a “normal” one for translated literatures.

5. Conclusion

There are some strengths and weaknesses that contribute to the position of translated literature within the national literary polysystem of Indonesia. Competitively, BIB, translated literature and regional vernaculars contend for dominant position within this multiple system. However, politically, BIB has been promoted as a national identity through various significant means and therefore, unsurprisingly, it gains the central position, whereas both translated literature and regional vernaculars rest at the peripheral position respectively. Apart from this political constraint, the position of the translated literature is also destructed by the publication of negative assessment by readers on translation products through mass media. This assessment comes out as a result of lack of collaboration between translator, editor and publisher, and also the lack of capability of a translator to apply both linguistic knowledge and translation skills in his/her translation work. However, the polysystem theory suggests that both translated literature and regional vernaculars can also enjoy a primary position.

Inevitably, translated literature has become an integral part of the national literary polysystem of Indonesia. This is proven by the fact that an abundance of translated materials from all genres is available in almost all bookshops throughout the country. So, regardless of its peripheral position, it actually enriches domestic literature in terms of knowledge on all aspects of life.


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Benjamin's publishing company

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