Thursday, 11 June 2009

Heated Worms and Delicious Bodies

A certain English-language paper had me in stitches a few days back when it gave a literal translation of an Indonesian expression in one of its front-page stories. The story quoted a person as saying, in reference to the recent KPK chief’s arrest, “They were like heated worms. They felt insecure when Antasari lost control of the KPK.”

Obviously the person quoted was using the expression “cacing kepanasan,” which in Indonesian refers to a situation that makes a person “wriggle around” in panic, like a worm in hot weather. (Perhaps the nearest English equivalent is “antsy.”)

This expression, as far as I know, doesn’t exist in English. Worms can have many peculiar attributes and do all manner of things, such as reading books (a bookworm), winning someone’s heart (worming one’s way into somebody’s affection) or fighting back (in the “worm that turns”), but the idea of worms being heated in a microwave oven like some leftover spaghetti is quite novel, hence my tickled-to-pink reaction.

I suppose linguistic expressions, which by nature are cultural whimsicalities with the words often having no relation to the actual meaning, generally don’t lend themselves well to a literal translation into another language; the words often become completely meaningless expressions in the translated language.

For example, a person caught doing something they’re not supposed to, if literally translated from Indonesian, would be “caught soaking wet” (“ketangkap basah”), whereas the English equivalent is “caught red-handed.”

Bahasa Indonesia, not unlike the English language, is full of the most colorful expressions that, if literally translated, create some ridiculous, nonsensical sentences that are funny in the spoken language but unacceptable in print for obvious reasons — our heated worms being one example.

For example, Indonesians who are under the weather say they are “tidak enak badan” (their bodies don’t feel well). But “enak” also means delicious, so ill Indonesians who like to practice their English often say in jest “my body is not delicious.”

Joking is one thing, but getting the wrong end of the stick is another. What may begin as mere slips of the tongue can become a habit over time and later on be treated as acceptable, with the meaning of the words ending up butchered.

Take the expression “golden handshake,” for instance, an expression made of two distinct, easy words. The number of times I’ve heard it referred to in this country as “golden shakehand” is enough to make me start believing that there is such a word.

And perhaps there is. Perhaps a golden handshake is what companies give to employees when they leave after years of great service, whereas a golden shakehand is what Indonesian companies give to employees who finally agree to an early retirement after years of being deadwood.

Another Indonesian expression that leaves me all at sea is “free sex,” something English speakers probably hadn’t heard since the days of flower power, but which is still widely used in this country to describe sex outside of marriage.

As a matter of fact, I read a newspaper headline that went, “Regency told to avoid free sex in bid to slow HIV/AIDS rate.” What on earth is a regency doing indulging in free sex, while what it should be doing is creating free schools? Incidentally, what exactly is “free sex” anyway? If anything, sex that can increase one’s chances of getting HIV is more likely to be paid sex rather than free sex.

Actually, the term “free sex” here is a direct translation of the Indonesian “seks bebas,” sex outside the confines of marriage — whether paid or unpaid, safe or unsafe — which is highly frowned upon. However, the positive connotation of the word “free” here, in the sense of being liberated and not conforming to the strict moral values of a hypocritical society, is more likely to conjure up images of carefree bacchanalian orgies from the Woodstock era, which is a lot more appealing than the idea of sex within marriage as being “unfree.”

But this kind of message might give rise to an “ill feel” among young people against authority. The term “ill feel” actually has nothing to do with the more familiar “ill feeling,” but stands for ilang (from hilang, meaning “lost,” and the English word “feeling,” thus “ill feel”). So what do we have? A lovely new word meaning “turned off” or “put off.”

Thank God for linguistic creativity. Or, better still, “thanks God,” as many Indonesians would say.

(First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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