Translator Dynasties in Dutch Java

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 115-118:

Despite the concerns of the government in Batavia about the planters in Surakarta, and the occasional uprising of a discontented populace — as in 1855 — things were generally settled and satisfactory for both colonial rulers and landleasers. The lease of land put money in the pockets of the inhabitants of the Principalities, and most of the planters treated the local residents in a less arbitrary manner than did the apanage holders. The European presence became more and more accepted. Indeed, the leaseholders were essential for all parties: for the Dutch officials who thereby increased their influence; for the royal courts, who made money from the system; for the local population, who probably experienced an initial improvement in their living conditions; and, finally, for the business life of Semarang, because the Principalities formed a good market for imported goods. Even Europeans who were not leaseholders profited from the commercial activity in the Principalities. Most of them in Yogyakarta found employment on the plantations, while one-third of the European male population worked in the civil service. A handful of Europeans set up as tradesmen or ran a shop.

There is nothing to support the view that the Javanese and European worlds, like oil and water, refused to mix. Daily life contradicted this notion. Nevertheless, an aspect of colonial ideology chose to emphasise the distinction between the rulers and the ruled. It thus became part of the colonial structure to have translators render speeches into the local language on ceremonial occasions when royalty, colonial civil servants and planters gathered. Translators who were recruited from the local European community were known to be the confidants of both residents and Javanese royalty. Their position was one requiring tact and delicacy. It would seem that many translators saw themselves more as part of the local royal court than as colonial civil servants. This might explain why Johannes Gotlieb Dietrée, interpreter in the residency of Yogyakarta from 1796 to 1825, was Muslim.

In the Principalities, and especially in Surakarta, the study of languages became a family tradition. Best known among these linguistically oriented dynasties are the Winters and the Wilkenses. Carel Friedrich Winter was born in 1788 in Yogyakarta and moved to Surakarta when he was seven years old. There, his father, Johannes Wilhelmus Winter, was appointed a translator for Javanese languages. The young Carel Friedrich did not seem to be learning much at school, so his father taught him at home, and in 1818 the young man became an assistant translator at his father’s side. When his father left for Semarang in 1825, Carel Friedrich remained in Surakarta as a translator. Three years later he assumed the extra task of secretary at the newly established Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths. This was followed in 1829 by his appointment as the director of the brand-new Institute for the Javanese Languages in Surakarta. This institute had been set up to teach Javanese languages to employees of the Binnenlands Bestuur [‘Interior Administration’]. When the institute was closed down in 1843, Carel Friedrich lost his position. There had been an inspection of the institute by four residents, who had produced a devastating report on the quality of education there, and on Carel Friedrich as a teacher. His command of Dutch was judged to be very poor, and because he was “a son of the country” (an inlands kind) he failed to gain the respect of the students, who all came from the wealthy Netherlands and Indische bourgeoisie.

Despite all this, when a new training college was set up in 1843 in Delft, the Netherlands, for civil servants to be employed in the Binnenlands Bestuur, they could not do without Carel Friedrich Winter and his proficiency in Javanese. The professor of Javanese in Delft, Taco Roorda, was undoubtedly a great linguist, but he taught a language that was not his own as a medium of daily speech. He benefited greatly from the assistance of Carel Friedrich, who made a large number of translations for him. It would seem that despite Carel Friedrich’s sporadic elementary schooling, his Dutch was not so bad after all. This also appears in the translations he made of official documents, which have been preserved in the archives. The linguistic scholar Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk remarked somewhat maliciously in 1864 that Roorda was not teaching Javanese, but Winterese. Carel Friedrich earned his place in the history books, however, when the susuhunan [ruler of Surakarta] granted him permission to bring out the first Javanese-language newspaper, named the Bromartani, which was intended for the aristocratic circles of Surakarta. The newspaper contained scientific articles, economic reports, announcements of births and deaths, notices about forthcoming public sales of household effects, and advertisements.

In most cases, translators are seen as go-betweens, but they were go-betweens for the government only in their capacity as translators of official documents and for ceremonial occasions. They were not normally required to act as intermediaries when Europeans and Javanese met. In Yogyakarta, in particular, there were close and warm relations between the leaseholders and the sultan.

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Filed under education, Indonesia, language, migration, Netherlands

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