Poetry is a never-ending lesson in precision. The distillation of thirst, the evocation of experience, the cauterization of an open wound. Between the poets of the world and their various works there is a common acknowledgement of restraint—there is only so much we can do with words, and only so much words can mean. Claude Lévi-Strauss originated the term “floating signifier” to describe language that has only vague or contextual denotation, and in our contact with literature we gradually come to understand that such abstraction is the enemy of poetry. So we step gingerly around the words we know contain too much to unpack. Words like “hurt,” or “death,” or “love.”
Floating signifiers are especially insecure in translation, in which one often has to choose between music and intention, double meanings or single ones, visual effect or faithful retellings. They present a particular dilemma because a floating signifier in one language may not be one in the other. The Chinese language, painting with a full palette of the pictorial, the symbolic, the historical, and the literal, has a tangibility that does not lapse into the vague as easily as English does. Ernest Fenollosa, in his (flawed but admirable) studies, characterized Chinese characters as a medium for poetry. It is not that Chinese is inherently more possessive of the elusive idea of poetics, but rather that the facets of Chinese language that enchanted Fenollosa with their invocation of poetry are also what result in headaches for translators. We do not count our losses in translation. Instead, we admire the growth a poem may undergo as it leaves its writer’s hand and wanders onto the page, how it may cross oceans and national borders, how it lives, how it is alive, the way we know language to be.
Welcome to the seventh and final installment of A World with a Thousand Doors—a multi-part collaboration with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival to showcase previously untranslated contemporary Indonesian writing. This week, we feature three poems by award-winning Indonesian writer Cyntha Hariadi, translated by Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Indonesia, Norman Erikson Pasaribu.
We suggest reading installments one, two, three, four, five, and six of the series if you haven’t already. We also recommend the final reflection by Festival attendees Norman Erikson Pasaribu and Tiffany Tsao, Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Australia.
they used to paw the sky, squeeze the clouds
they fought the wild crows, bargained with the gatekeeper of heaven
these hands—they took down the moon, put it here to light this bedroom
they tickled the sun, so it shone longer, brighter
now, they cave in every time I raise them up
they squeal in pain at the mere task of tying up my hair
sewn-up to this chest, they can only wait
for the saviour to stop its never-ending sob READ MORE…
Excerpted from the novel Nayla by award-winning Indonesian writer Djenar Maesa Ayu, this piece continues our series, A World with a Thousand Doors—a showcase of contemporary Indonesian writing. This showcase is brought to you in partnership with this year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, where Djenar will be appearing as a guest. For more on the ethos behind A World with a Thousand Doors, read our preface to the series, and stay tuned for further installments.
Choosing the Perfect Safety Pin
Nayla looked closely at the safety pins neatly arranged on the table in front of her.
In the past, whenever Nayla saw these sharp objects, her body would tremble in fear. She would remain quiet for a long time until her mother eventually forced her to pick one. Her frequent hesitations led her mother to reach out and slap her hard across the face to force her to choose.
In the past, whenever Nayla saw her mother strike a match, her body would shake in terror. Her mother would take Nayla’s chosen safety pin—obviously the smallest one—and burn it long enough to rid it of bacteria. Once Mother was satisfied that the pin was sufficiently sterilized, she would plunge it into Nayla’s groin. Nayla would squirm and squeeze her thighs as tightly as she could, attempting to minimize the pain. She would cry. She would struggle against her mother’s actions, which made Mother even more furious.