Indonesian wordplay

As a brief follow up to the post earlier this week about Bahasa Indonesia mutability and Indonesian’s themselves being open to wordplay and experimentation, I thought I should mention the band Shorthand Phonetics – an indie rock outfit from Bandung. I first noticed them via my friend Dina‘s twitter stream and fell for the Mogwai reference.

Then of course, I discovered that they were on the absolutely world class Yes No Wave Records (disclosure: last I saw, Dina and Yes No Wave’s Wok the Rock (twitter) were an item) – an amazing outfit that release Indonesian music via Creative Commons licensing and the internet. One of the reasons I love this idea is that old hoary of Doctorow‘s “obscurity is worse than piracy” – Indonesians can’t afford to purchase music like we can in the West (those of you that still do spend retail money on it), and would be hard pressed to see their music released or listened to outside the archipelago. (disclosure: another reason I like Yes No Wave is that Wok, and all the mes56 crew, is a/are wonderful host/s and friend/s).

Shorthand Phonetic have the wonderful capacity only really explored by the edges of rock music, more extensively by outsider music, of writing a song title that makes you want to listen to the music:

  • 01. …Cause Asian Vampires Are the Most Vicious of All the Vampires
  • 04. I Really Gotta Learn to Use Less Words Cause Y’know […] For Efficiency.
  • 05. “To the Girl I Think Might be Similar to the Girl Flight of the Conchords Were Thinking About When They Were Writing “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)””
  • 10. “Natalies for Glasses IV (”Remember when I said, “Yes, joining Castle would be a very bad idea for me but I’m joining anyway,” and followed it up with a string of maniacal laughter while playing Mass Effect and I queued up “橙” by チャットモンチー and “One More Sad Song” by the All-American Rejects for you to hear? Look where it got us…look where it got her. I’m wanted to quit, by the way. But I won’t, I guess. Cause I love you guys! But I dunno…”)”
  • 02. “We’re All the Pirate Bay (Poorly Thought Out Elaboration Pop-Punk-Post-Hardcore-Whatever Version by Attention Deprived Indie “Band”)”
  • 09. “Natalies for Glasses II (Yesterday I Found a Needlessly Long List of All the Obvious Pros and Masochistic Cons of Never Seeing You Girls Again I Made In One of My Old Notebooks, Realised How Stupid Making That List Was, and Gained Confidence to Slow Down. Takk.)”
  • 08. “My Alice Can Kill You, My Alice Can Kill You Dead”
  • 04. “Love Is Evol Spelled Backwards (Bet I Can Beat Your “Final Fantasy X” Completion Time…If I Actually Had a Playstation 2 That Is)”
  • 04. Some Dude (Taught Me This Song During Form Two…I Think He May Have Ripped It  Off From Somebody Else…But That Doesn’t Matter Now) [acoustic ver.]

All of these songs and more are available as free downloads from the band’s Yes No Wave site. Have fun!

TAUS calls for open data

Translation Leaks manages to allude to Wikileaks without actually using it contextually, but does end at the conclusion I’ve been advocating since I started working in translation:

One aspect of the future of translation, however, is easily overlooked: the importance of ‘data’. ‘Data’ replaces the role of ‘translation memories’ as the key to efficiency. A jet engine with a thousand times the power of those 1980s propellers. Data drive translation engines. Data will control the quality and the efficiency of translation in the future. Whoever has access to the data controls the future of translation. Privileged or monopolized access to data will jeopardize the blossoming of a 21st century translation industry. Ownership of translation memories – translation data – is therefore an important and sensitive topic of debate. The legal argument will not help us much longer in this age of translation leaks. Data are mined, scraped, masked, shared and used by everyone from individual translators to large global corporations. Attempting to make a legal case against the unauthorized use of translation data will probably not work. The practical argument is all that counts, and once translations are published, there is no way to control the leaks. And to be honest, wouldn’t you rather turn the whole argument round? If your translations are not confidential, why not simply share these data with everyone who can use them to improve the efficiency and quality of translation as a whole. What stops you from doing this?

Emphasis mine. Spelling/grammar mistakes TAUS’s.

How to say OW! in different languages

There’s a thread on Reddit discussing the sound or expression made when sudden pain is experienced. As you would expect, some are expressions, others are “the word for ouch”, a subtle difference maybe, but one that translators take quite seriously. Here is an edited list of highlights:

In French it is “aïe!”, in German is “aua”, but some say “autsch” too, sounding like the English “ouch”. In Poland, “aua”, and the same in Slovenian. In Danish it’s “Av!” – preferably followed by “for helvede!” (“god dammit”). In Spanish it is “huy”, but in Mexican Spanish it’s “¡ai!”. In Brazilian Portuguese: “Ai, Porra!”

Ouch in Tagalog is “aray”, in Urdu/Hindi, it’s “Aie!”, Indonesian is “Aduh” and in Cantonese and Mandarin, “Ayah”. In Khmer and Thai it is “Oy” (โอ๊ย). Koreans, especially women say “Aigo!”, men seem a little more likely to say ” Aish!”

In Japanese it’s “itai” (痛い), although it’s usually contracted to “ite” (いて), is considered funny when expressed “itetetetetetete” (いててててててて) – a tradition that comes from Anime perhaps – and can also be pronounced “itta” (いった), typically by young males.

In Arabic it’s “Akh!” and in Afrikaans “Eina!”, pronounced “ey na”. In Swahili, it’s usually a high-pitched “eh!” that is more or less aspirated. Men and women both. Also, it is customary for anyone within earshot to reply with a sympathetic “pole”, pronounced ‘poh-lay’.

Of course, a collection of people online will always lead to the ridiculous (and in some cases NSFW):

In Python

print "ow"

In C

fprintf(stdout, "ow!");

The city that never sleeps in…

My partner’s sister currently lives in Vietnam and has posted a funny piece on the Vietnamese word for, well, rodent (and cucumber).

You know how Eskimos supposedly have hundreds of words for “snow”? Well, by extension, you’d think the Vietnamese would have hundreds of different words for “rat”. Surprisingly, they only have one word, “chuột”.

Her observations are helped with lots of colourful photographs which makes it quite easy to read and chuckle along with. Here is another piece on a visit to the supermarket with all the expected weirdnesses that cross cultural supermarkets enjoy.


In a previous post I promised to re-print an essay by my friend, Indonesian academic Nuraini Juliastuti (aka Nuning: tumblr, twitter) on the mutability of Bahasa Indonesia. The essay, translated by Camelia T. Lestari, is from the original insert that came with the Punkasila (Myspace) album “Acronym Wars”:

The Language of Punkasila

Danius Kesminas, whom I know, does not speak Indonesian. Initially, upon arriving in Indonesia late last year, he had little comprehension of the social, cultural and political conetxts that define this diverse archipelago. So how did he get so interested in the abbreviations of things in Indonesia?

Reading articles in the Indonesian mass media or books about the country, you never elude the pervasivness of acronyms or abbreviations. Reading a book Entitled The Politics of Indonesia by Australian academic Dr. Damien Kingsbury, Danius could not escape the ubiquity of abbreviations. Page after page, he turned to the index to decipher the meaning of the countless acronyms he encountered. Studying acronyms and abbreviations and eventually using them as entire song lyrics in a  band he formed – PUNKASILA – was how Kesminas got to understand Indonesia.

PUNKASILA is a combination of two words: Punk and Pancasila which are merged into one word to form PUNKASILA. (Pancasila, literally ‘five principles’, is the emboddiment of the unitary basis of Indonesian nationhood. Pancasila is an invention that is open to interpretation and has been manipulated for political purposes. The genius of Pancasilaas propaganda, condensed through its motto ‘Unity in Diversity’ is to unify the wide ranging cultures of the dominion and to suggest that that it is the five principles that they have shared since time immemorial). When PUNKASILA is uttered in Indonesian it becomes Pangkasila, of which the loose interpretation is ‘the severing of the principles’. Do they refer to the moral principles of Pancasila? Who knows? Whatever!

PUNKASILA is comprised of Danius and Hahan (vocals), Rudy Atjeh and Iyok (guitars), Janu (bass), Moky (drums), Krishna (keyboards) and Wimo (home made noise mnachine). All members are students of the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) who also have their own bands.

So what about PUNKASILA’s lyrics? Here is an example of the song texts:


PKI x 2
PKI x 2
Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party)
Penggemar Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Fans)
Penggemar Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Fans)
Partai Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Party)
PKI x 2
PKI x 2
Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party)
Partai Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Party)
Penggemar Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Fans)
Penjahat Kelamin Indonesia (Indonesian Sex Offender)
PKI x 2
PKI x 2

As Indonesian citizens, we are used to dealing with a large number of acronyms and abbreviations. Although they can be confusing in the sense that we constantly encounter novel formations, as soon as there is a hint of their meaning we comprehend them mechanically.

Acronyms are used to denote organisations, schools, offices, names of streets and even applied to abbeviate certain phenomenon or characters such as “Bumil” for Ibu Hamil (Pregnant Mother) and “Lansia” for Lanjut Usla (Elderly Person). It seems that anything can be abbreviated in this country.

What is the process for the creation fo these acronyms and abbreviations? It is just the same as the way we acknowledge them. The creative process is so simple. There is no special rule. In Indonesia, there is a kind of agreement or massive consensus at work in “making things possible”. Take the capital letter of each word or remove the first or second syllable, for instance, of the name of an organisation or distinctive phenomena and thus, as abbreviation is created. The same formula is applied for making “plesetan” (word play) whereby signification is distorted from the real meaningby an acronym or abbreviation. PKI stands for Partai Komunis Indonesia (Indonesian Communist Party) but it may also become Partai Komik Indonesia (Indonesian Comic Party) or Partai Kaos Indonesia (Indonesian T Shirt Party). Kopassus is Komando Pasukan Khusus (Special Force Command) but it may also stand for Komando Pasukan Suka Susu (Milk Lovers Force Command or Tit Lovers Force Command).

There are no fixed meanings. Anything may have a double meaning and desire to hise something within. What we need to recognise is that we can endlessly find new meanings in abbreviations. By creating a new version we are also concealing something. It is such a play and practice of language that reflects the broad political and cultural activities in Indonesia. Every aspect of it can be re-interpreted acronym after abbreviation, letter by letter.

Apropos the strategy of “making things possible” in Indonesia, we may in fact embody a tradition or accomplishment whereby sentences are combined regardless of whether they relate to one another. Our daily life is filled with such texts. Their sometimes farcical similitudes are endlessly sought and connected as in the lyrics of this recited children’s play song which is largely nonsensical and essentially impossible to translate into English:

Sim Sim

Sim sim terimah kasih
Sim simpan duan rambutan tan
Tanduk ular mati ti
Tikus main di loteng teng
Tenggok ayam bertelur lur
Lure jalannya laju ju
Jual minyak wangi ngi
Ngitung uang serapak rak
Rakus makanan babi bi
Bintang beribu-ribu bu
Bulan hanya satu tu
Tulis di papan tulis lis
Lihat kebunku cing
Penuh dengan buaya
Ada yang meringis dan ada yang merongos
Setiap hari mau kusiram
Semut merah mawar melatikus
Semuanya indomie
Bapak pegang tongkat ibu pegang sapu
Bapak naik pangkat ibu jadi guru
Naik Kapal kecil takut goyang-goyang
Naik Kapal besar tidak punya uang
Jalan malam-malam takut ada setan
Main korek api takut kebakaran

Sim Sim

Sim sim thank you
Sim keeps the leaf of the rambutan
Shake the horn dies
Mouse plays in the attic
Look at the hen laying eggs
Lure walks fast
Sell perfume
Count money by the penny
Greedy the meal of a pig
Thousands of stars
Moon is one
Write on the blackboard
Look at my garden
Full of crocodiles
Some grin some are bucktoothed
Everyday I water
Red ant rose jasmine
Everything is Indonesian noodle
Father holds a stick mother a broom
Father gets a promotion mother becomes a teacher
Get in a small boat afraid of rocking
Get in a big boat no money
Walk at night afraid of ghosts
Play with matches afraid of fire

In the above text, we find a coalescence of Indonesian and Javanese song lyrics composed using the formula of combining words and sentences as long as they are pleasing to the ear. The last syllable or word of the one sentence prefaces the next without considering whether the resulting inter-sentences are reasonable or not. The strategy is for the text to keep moving forward so that the song can be sung together and the playing continues. These things matter in the process of acronym and abbreviation creation in this country.

Indonesia is an adaptive language. It is easy to mess with, very flexible malleable, absorbent and can be combined with anything. The creation of acronyms and abbreviations – or word play – has to involve feeling, accessibility, have an internal logic that is enjoyable to use and satisfying to hear.

How is this unique phenomenon and Indonesian practice acknowledged by Danius Kesminas? For him, all those acronyms and abbreviations are distilled into mere sounds. They are the sounds of letters without meaning.

Acronyms and abbreviations reduce to mere sounds, sung by a band dressed in military fatigues made from hand painted camouflage batik with embroidered emblems of academic art grades and armed with machine gun shaped guitars are the complete package of a parody for us all. It is entirely a parody of social, political, religious and militaristic meanings hidden in those very acronyms and abbreviations.

Nuraini Juliastuti
Kunci Cultural Center
Yogyakarta, Indonesia, October 2006

There are a number of aspects to Punkasila that interest me with this essay being the foremost. I mentioned language mutability to a colleague at Monash that taught Bahasa Indonesia and he didn’t agree with the thesis, although he’d not read this article either. I think that language mutability (see this piece attributed to Mark Twain, and Valerie Yule has spent years looking at this) is both important and fascinating – power is exercised through language, but more often than not, language changes from the bottom up. Lyrically this album shows this to be true, and personal experience and conversations in Indonesia would support the theory, showing that even punks from Yogyakarta have the opportunity to effect change.

As for the album, the music is great – punk music made by amazing musicians – for eg, first time I saw Rudy play guitar, with the band Zoo at the Yoygakarta National Museum (aka Gampingan), there were fireworks shooting from the neck of his guitar. Punk rock, just how I like it.

Unfortunately, the artist that bought this project together, Danius, is largely irrelevant and otherwise fairly dull as an artist. Displaying the type of kind of entitlement expected from Generation Y rather than his native Generation X, and the deliberate lack of political analysis undermines the Punkasila project’s potential as well as baring his lack of intellectual ability on an artistic level for all to see:

Formed … in 2006, PUNKASILA is a fluid and collaborative project which includes graduates and current students from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta. PUNKASILA play custom-made, hand-crafted mahogany guitars simulating hybrid M-16s/AK-47s and wear camouflage-patterned hand-painted batik, tailored as military fatigues. PUNKASILA’s debut album, “Acronym Wars” was released in Indonesia in 2006. PUNKASILA give voice to the cacophony of acronyms representing the disparate political, military, religious, cultural and bureaucratic organisations that constitute the Indonesian body politic. Since Soekarno’s reign, acronyms have represented a real site of ideological struggle. Between 1950 and 1965 this phenomenon was defined as the period of “acronym wars”. PUNKASILA have set these acronyms to a frenetic, progressive-punk-rock idiom. Each song repetitively iterates a specific acronym, invoking its popular inversion using plesetan – a peculiar Indonesian word play or subversive double-speak. The name, PUNKASILA, which literally means “punk principles”, derives from Pancasila, the five ideological tenets devised by Soekarno as propaganda to create a unitary basis of Indonesian nationhood. Although PUNKASILA’s repertoire and appearance as a cultural outlaw militia suggests provocative intent the project is more a celebration of new-dawn, post-reformasi openness than critique, ambiguously straddling the fault between taboo, parody and humour.

It has the same empty ring to it that buzzword bingo does – lots of syllables, but nothing to say.

Elsewhere collaborators have noted that “Kesminas still knows nothing about Indonesia, knows nothing about Indonesia. It seems this ignorance was used to the artist’s advantage, for he came from Australia to the creative environs of Yogyakarta without any sense of the ‘other.’ He didn’t perceive any ‘boundary-crossing’ in the project, which has allowed him to avoid the all too common baggage of ‘cultural exchange’ and ‘ethnic crossover’.”

I would contend that as a result of this lack of boundary crossing, he delivers a good idea, but because the militarism and masculinities (as two examples) are never questioned or lampooned exceptironically“, it unfortunately leaves the project as an empty shell. Recently Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens in their Twelve theses on WikiLeaks note the underlying problems that this attitude causes:

Thesis 3

In the ongoing saga called “The Decline of the US Empire”, WikiLeaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it being able to inflict quite same damage to the Russian or Chinese governments, or even to the Singaporean – not to mention their “corporate” affiliates. In Russia or China, huge cultural and linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, which would need to be surmounted. Vastly different constituencies are also factors there, even if we are speaking about the narrower (and allegedly more global) cultures and agendas of hackers, info-activists and investigative journalists. In that sense, WikiLeaks in its present manifestation remains a typically “western” product and cannot claim to be a truly universal or global undertaking.

Kesminas has also chosen a soft target – he notes himself that acronyms are everywhere in Indonesia. Without being able to find anything political to say, he has let a great opportunity slip away. At no point are power structures in Indonesia critically interrogated outside of the those natural aspects of punk rock which first came about in the mid 1970s. At best, Punkasila is educative to Western audiences culturally. At worst, an exploitative joke.

The Punkasila album really is a great listen, and the essay by Nuning is an fascinating cultural insight into Bahasa Indonesia – but it’s always good to remember that the vehicle is just as important a factor.

Word Lens

QuestVisual have come out with a fascinating iPhone app (that I’ve yet to test) that translates English<->Spanish in photos on the fly – it really is quite amazing to watch. I’d love to know how they do it, or more about Quest Visual, but there isn’t much more than an intro from the author.

It doesn’t work on handwritten text or stylised text, but nor does it need an internet connection to work and best of all, it comes at the price we can all afford.

Universal Subtitles update

Last week there was an update to Universal Subtitles. Without a doubt the two biggest were the ability to add subtitles to any video on your site with a single line of code:

<script type=”text/javascript” src=””></script>

But it also included some big name collaborations – one with the MIT Open Courseware project, for a subject called “Teaching College-Level Science and Engineering” (more info on the OS blog), and the other with Wikipedia – Wikicommons have added it to their beta video player.

Other news includes the amazing contributions by Mirabai Knight subtitling 30 videos in 30 days, and the encouraging news that the Participatory Culture Foundation (the people behind Universal Subtitles) deciding that the software was at a good enough standard to direct their attention to getting more people using it:

The upcoming release will focus on volunteering and community, which form the core of the Universal Subtitles ethos. We’re feeling strong about the platform and are ready to make a push here. This is thanks to everyone who has made suggestions, given feedback, reported bugs, and tested the software!

If only the rest of the translation technology industry was so exciting and open.

<edit> 20101216
Overnight the pop group OK GO!, better known for amazingly interesting music videos than musical ability, teamed up with Universal Subtitles to have a Translation Party resulting in 15 completed translations within an hour.

<edit> 20101217
OK GO are reporting 93 translations in the 36 hours since they started. Pretty damn good, really.

Google translate for Apps users, on-screen keyboard for all

Two interesting new updates on the Google translate blog. First is the availability of Google translator toolkit for Google Apps users. It comes free with a Google Apps account – to which Monash has recently moved all staff and students. I will be checking the availability of this for us tomorrow, and am hoping that it is available. There are a lot of issues surrounding the Translator Toolkit – copyright over translations and TMs, privacy of data and making translator’s redundant being the biggest – but that doesn’t make me any less excited about this move. One advantage for me is that I would be able to use it in class as a translation tool, without the difficulties I’ve experienced so far with other translation tools (running in shared environments, running on locked down systems, licensing, etc). Another is the ability to show my students that they are going to need to very carefully think about how to position themselves in the market now that translation is so readily available so quickly and cheaply. Again, without being able to read the future, I would suggest bespoke and expert translation services, with a strong privacy focus are potential solutions.

The second update from Google is a usability improvement – the addition of an on screen keyboard for the input language:

With this launch, we’ve added on-screen keyboards for these languages: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Maltese, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese, Welsh, and Yiddish.

Some of you may be familiar with our “Phonetic typing” feature – for a few languages such as Arabic, you can type a word as it would sound in English (e.g. “marhaban”), and see the letters transformed to Arabic (e.g. مرحبا)* before being translated. The new on-screen keyboards do not interfere with phonetic typing for languages that support both – when the keyboard is open, phonetic typing will be disabled.

Personally, I’ve got Character Palette on my toolbar for easy insertion of unusual characters, and my experience with translation students has shown that most multi-linguals know how to change keyboards or keyboard layouts between languages relatively quickly, but it’s a very handy edition for the non technical.

* Yes I can see this encoding problem. If I could fix it I would – I believe it’s a WordPress issue. My database charsets and collations are set correctly, I’ve pasted the text in from a text editor, I’ve checked the background html, I’ve checked my browser encoding… Basically I’ve done everything possible at my end to make sure it’s correct. Don’t ask me why it’s not working. WordPress. Bloody php apps.**

** That’s what you get when you work with Google’s tools 🙂 I was composing this post in Chromium, the Ubuntu equivalent of Google’s Chrome browser. Sure enough, move to Firefox, and it all comes good suddenly. My disrespect for php apps remains, however. For the record it’s a code snob thing, for as you can see – I use them quite extensively.