Translating Pronouns and Proper Names: Indonesian versus English

This article presents the differences in the pronominal systems of the Indonesian and English languages, the secondary senses of certain pronouns in their use, and the ambiguities caused by culture-based given names. Detailed discussion of each is provided with some examples that commonly occur in written texts. Some ways on how to deal with these problems are also recommended in each topic discussed.


Translating pronouns and proper names from Bahasa Indonesia (hereinafter referred to as 'Indonesian') into English and vice versa requires a translator to have an adequate understanding and command of both linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of both the source language and the target language. Most words, including pronouns, have more than one meaning. These meanings are often called secondary meanings. The secondary meaning of a pronoun is determined on the basis of its use in the target language and not on the basis of its form in the source language. It is dependent on the communication situation or on the context in which a pronoun is used.

Culture-based proper names in both Indonesian and English introduce ambiguities when translated. Indonesia is a multi-ethnic country having a variety of culture-based given names which must be carefully studied by the translator to ensure that he uses accurate third-person pronoun substitutes when translating into English. Animal names, particularly, pet names using human names, require an extra effort from the translator to ensure that the names in the translation are indeed pet names.


Indonesian has a pronominal system that is different from English. Such differences must be taken into account by the translator because they present a real challenge. The following table shows the differences between the two systems.


1st person
2nd person
3rd person

Table 1

1st person
saya / aku

2nd person

both genders
both genders
kamu / anda
3rd person
Ia / dia

Table 2

First-Person Pronoun Notice that Indonesian distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive. English has simply one subject pronoun for FIRST PERSON PLURAL, we. We may at times be talking only about the speaker and someone else other than the hearer, and at other times about the speaker and the hearer. In Indonesian, there are two first-person plural pronouns. Kita means we and you; that is, it is inclusive of the hearer. Kami means we, but not you; that is, the HEARER is not included and this form is, therefore, called exclusive. Inclusive means that the hearer is included in the FIRST PERSON PLURAL form and exclusive means that the hearer is not included. Thus, before an English sentence like 'We believe we can do this' is translated into Indonesian, a translator has to find out if we means kita (inclusive: both writer/speaker and reader/hearer) or it means kami (exclusive: only writer/speaker). In order to discover the correct meaning the translator must study the paragraph or the whole text and the communication situation in which this sentence exists. By so doing he can come up with only one of the following translations:
  1. Kami yakin kami bisa melakukan ini.
  2. Kami yakin kita bisa melakukan ini.
  3. Kita yakin kita bisa melakukan ini.
  4. Kita yakin kami bisa melakukan ini.
In contrast, translating Indonesian pronouns kita or kami in a particular context into English the translator simply uses we. The meaning component of either inclusive or exclusive would be lost when translating from Indonesian into English.
The secondary sense of kita in Indonesian dialects of Engrekang (South Celebes/Sulawesi) and of Minahasa (North Celebes/Sulawesi) violates the Indonesian Usage Standard. For Engrekang, kita means 'you' SECOND PERSON SINGULAR and/or SECOND PERSON PLURAL whereas kita in Minahasa means 'I' FIRST PERSON SINGULAR. Thus, when translating an Indonesian sentence like 'Kita harus menelepon isteri kita', a translator should first ensure the meaning of kita is we, you or I. If the source text is from Engrekang the accurate translation would be You must call your wife and if it is from Minahasa it would be I must call my wife. This is also important for an interpreter that when interpreting an oral speech he must find out whether the speaker is from Engrekang or from Minahasa.

Also, kami in the first clause of a sentence in an Indonesian formal letter such as Bersama ini kami memberitahukan bahwa......(Literally: Herewith we advise you that .........) is accurately translated as Herewith I advise you that....when the writer is not representing a group of people. In this case FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, I should be used because kami (we: exclusive the reader) is always used in each Indonesian formal letter as a formal and polite way of a writer expressing himself. In contrast, an English text like I am very pleased to advise you that.... should be translated as kami dengan senang hati memberitahukan bahwa... Thus, if the translator discovers that kami is used to represent a group of people in a formal letter it should be translated as we, whereas I is always translated as kami in every formal letter.

Larson (Larson, 1984 : 126) mentions that, in English, it is not uncommon to hear a speaker begin a talk by saying "Today we are going to talk about such and such." The speaker then begins to do all of the talking. This form is called editoral "we" in English. The editoral "we" is a secondary sense of the pronoun we in which the plural form is being used with a singular meaning. English also uses the pronoun we when the object being referred to is really you: that is, SECOND PERSON. Notice the following examples (data from Eunice Pike):
  1. Nurse: It's time for us to take our medicine now.
  2. Nurse: Shall we take our bath now?
  3. Mother: Let's be quiet, shall we?
  4. Teacher: We' re not going to shout, we'll walk quitely to our places.
  5. If a child is lost, the one who finds him will say to his mother: We couldn't find mother. We couldn't find Daddy and we were so frightened."
If we had been used in its primary sense, then the nurse would be taking the medicine, the mother would be quiet, the teacher would not shout, and the person who found the child would be frightened. We know that this is not the case. In each of these examples, we is being used in a secondary or extended usage. The component of SYMPHATHY is being added by using the FIRST-PERSON pronoun rather than the SECOND PERSON. Larson further indicates that an American politician will often use I , FIRST PERSON SINGULAR, when addressing an audience even though you, SECOND PERSON, would seem more correct. For example, he might say : "If I don't pay my taxes....." It takes the audience out of focus and is a way of being stern without being too direct. "If you don't pay your taxes," would be too direct and impolite.

Second-Person Pronoun

Translating you into Indonesian from a formal letter, an announcement, a formal speech script and some other written messages needs to be carefully studied. An English clause like Herewith I advise you ........ may be translated into Indonesian in several ways:
  1. Bersama ini kami memberitahukan kamu (anda) ....
  2. Bersama ini kami memberitahukan bapak...
  3. Bersama ini kami memberitahukan ibu
  4. Bersama ini kami memberitahukan saudara
If the addressee is either an adult male or an adult female with a higher social status you is translated using the second person familiar form bapak or ibu (see Table 2) the primary meanings of which are father and mother, respectively, while saudara means either brother or sister in its primary sense and is used if the addressee has a similar social status with the writer and/or if the writer is in a higher status. Although kamu (anda) is a formal form of the second-person pronoun in the Indonesian pronominal system, it is considered impolite to use these pronouns to address adult readers except younger ones. So, bapak, ibu, saudara in a second person familiar form are preferably used to replace kamu (anda) to show politeness in addressing adults. In English there is no component of meaning which distinguishes familiar from formal in the second person. So, if one is to translate into Indonesian every time the English pronoun you occurs, the translator has to decide which Indonesian form he should use, bapak, ibu, saudara or kamu in singular or bapak-bapak, ibu-ibu, saudara-saudara in plural . He will have to make this decision on the basis of the use in Indonesian (as the target language) and not on the basis of the form in English (as the source language).

In contrast, when a translator translates an Indonesian sentence like 'Kami mengundang Bapak/Ibu/Saudara untuk menghadiri pernikahan anak kami' into English an inaccurate and unnatural translation will result if the translator does not know the use of bapak, ibu, and saudara in this context. He will then produce a translation like this 'We invite Father/Mother/Brother/Sister to attend our son's wedding' The accurate, clear and natural translation should be We invite you to attend our son's wedding.

Third-Person Pronoun

In translating a third-person pronoun from Indonesian into English a translator faces the problem of whether ia (dia) (-nya) is translated as he (him) or as she (her) because Indonesian only has ia (dia) without distinguishing gender. For example in the sentences like:
  1. Ia membayar utangnya.
  2. Saya mengundangnya.
These sentences can be translated into English as follows:
  1. He paid his debt (Sentence # 1)
  2. He paid her debt (Sentence # 1)
  3. She paid her debt (Sentence # 1)
  4. She paid his debt (Sentence # 1)
  5. I invited her (Sentence # 2)
  6. I invited him (Sentence # 2)
If the two Indonesian sentences are standing alone without context, any of the above translations is acceptable. However, if they are parts of a paragraph in a discourse, a translator must discover which version is the accurate and natural one.

On the contrary, when translating a third-person pronoun from English into Indonesian, the component of meaning, masculine or feminine, would be lost when using Indonesian pronoun ia (dia). In English it is clear that he ( him) refers to a male person and she ( her) refers to a female person but this is not the case for Indonesian.

Proper Names
In two Indonesian sentences like (1) 'Mananir merayakan hari ulang tahunnya and (2) 'Amazane lupa undangan yang diberikan kepadanya' it is difficult to tell whether Mananir or Amazane refers to a male or a female name and -nya as a possesive or object. Possible translations for Sentence 1 are: (a) 'Mananir celebrated his birthday party'; (b) 'Mananir celebrated her birthday party' whereas Sentence 2 are: (a) 'Amazane forgot about the invitation given to him'; (b) 'Amazane forgot about the invitation given to her'. If the above Indonesian sentences are parts of a text like:
Mananir merayakan hari ulang tahunnya. Isterinya menghadiahkan sebuah dasi untuknya. Amazane lupa undangan yang diberikan kepadanya sehingga ia dan suaminya tidak hadir (Mananir celebrated his birthday party. His wife gave him a tie as a present. Amazane forgot about the invitation given to her so she and her husband did not show up),

then the translator can easily and accurately identify Mananir as a male name or a husband because the supporting phrase isterinya (his wife) provides him a clue to do the translation as in Sentence 1a. Also, Sentence 2b is the right one because of the phrase suaminya (her husband). A given name to a person in some particular places in Indonesia is usually a local, culture-based name. Such a name always forces the translator to decide whether it is a male name or a female name.

However, this is not a problem for translating all substitute words that refer to the proper names from English into Indonesian because Indonesian has only one word -nya as object or posessive and ia (dia) as a subject in a clause or a sentence.

In addition, names of domesticated animals cause ambiguities in translation work. Notice the following sentences:
  1. Bruno menghabiskan makanan di atas meja karena ia lapar.
  2. Jakob menjatuhkan pisang yang diberikan kepadanya
  3. Manis tidak mau makan di piringnya
The names of Bruno, Jakob, Manis are referring to the pet names. These are only three out of hundreds of names found in different parts of Indonesia. In English there are also pet names which are similar to human names. If a translator does a literal translation or word-by-word translation without reading a text thoroughly he can translate ia in Sentence 1 as he or she, -nya in Sentences 2 as him or her, and -nya in Sentence 3 as his or her. Basically, Bruno is a dog's name, Jakob is a bird's name, and Manis is a cat's name. These pet names are commonly found in Indonesia (Papua Province) and they are used to name either male or female pets. Bruno and Jakob are basically male human names and Manis commonly refers to a female human, but, these names are always used to name pets without distinguishing gender. Thus, the translation for each of the sentences above should be:
  1. Bruno ate up the food on the table because it was hungry.
  2. Jakob dropped the banana given to it.
  3. Manis did not want to eat on its plate
However, if the pets are personified by a writer in a paticular text, the use of he, she,him, her or his is acceptable in the translation. If this is the case, the translator should be very careful to study a text in order to avoid ambiguities in using proper names for the pets in Indonesian texts
Accordingly, it is important that a translator be aware of the use of a proper name and its cohesive devices or substitute words in a particular communication situation or cultural context. He will then look for the appropriate devices of English for use in the translation. A careless literal translation from Indonesian into English will almost certainly destort the meaning intended by the original author.

Indonesian and English have the following differences which affect translation.
  1. The Indonesian first-person plural pronoun distinguishes between kita (inclusive) and kami (exclusive), but English has simply one word, we. From their usage kita and kami are not merely referring to we but kita may also refer to either I or you (both singular & plural) and kami may refer to I when they are used in different communication situations. Similarly, in English the first-person pronoun we may have the meaning of I and you in some contexts.
  2. The Indonesian second-person pronoun has two forms, familiar (bapak, ibu, saudara) and formal (kamu) when translating the English pronoun you into Indonesian. In English there is no distinction between the familiar and formal forms of the pronoun.
  3. The Indonesian third-person pronoun has two exchangeable words with the same meaning ia/dia without distinguishing between masculine and feminine, whereas English has two words he and she which distinguish gender.
  4. A name given to either a person or a pet is mostly a local, culture-based name in Indonesian. English also has different way of naming a person or a pet. Such an unfamiliar proper name brings ambiguity for the translator to decide if a particular proper name is for a male person or a female person and/or a pet, particularly, when translating Indonesian substitute words ia/dia, -nya into English. But, this is not the case for translating either pronominal or pet substitute words from English into Indonesian.
Therefore, a translator should compare carefully differences in the pronominal systems, discover the secondary senses of pronouns in their use, and identify the proper names of both the source and the target languages in order to provide an accurate, clear, and natural translation.

© Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 2006
Last updated on: 03/19/2006 00:53:57  


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