Translating and Transliterating Marxism in Indonesia
Modern Asian Studies
In the 1910s and 1920s, when Indonesian communists first seriously engaged with Marxism, they faced the questions of how to translate Marx's concepts from Dutch, the language in which they generally encountered them, into Malay, the lingua franca of the Indonesian archipelago, and how to make these ideas relevant in an Asian and largely Islamic context. Focusing on three aspects of Marxism—the 'scientific' nature of communism, class conflict in feudal and capitalist society, and the
... between communism and Islam—I argue that Indonesian communists alternated between transliteration and translation in their exposition of Marxism. Transliterating 'universal' Marxist categories such as proletarian (proletar) and capitalism (kapitalisme) allowed Indonesian communists to speak in global terms and strengthened their claim that Marxism was a science with a universal terminology. At the same time, there was a process of 'localization', whereby foreign Marxist materials were translated to bring them closer to local cultural norms. Malay substitutes were found for Marx's typology of classes and historical eras, while Arabic terms associated with Islam were used to add a moral dimension to the Marxist critique of capitalism. These translations grounded Marxism in Islam and Indonesian history, but also elevated vernacular terms to universal status by eliding them with Marx's categories. The resulting style of Indonesian Marxism was multilingual. From the 1930s, however, Indonesian nationalists consciously moved away from transliteration, devising a more thoroughly Indonesian political vocabulary to replace Marx's terms, though one still clearly influenced by Marxism.