The Desawarnana: Boners in translation

Java in the 14th Century, translated and edited by Theodore G. Th. Pigeaud, 1960

The Desawarnana of Mpu Prapañca, translated and edited by S.O. Robson, 1995

  • Indonesia, #1
  • Borrowed from SF library
  • Read: April 2017
  • Rating: 2/5 (Pigeaud translation), 2.5/5 (Robson translation)
  • Recommended for: Salty academics

The Desawarnana, also known as the Ngara-Kertagama, is a 14th-century Javanese poem describing the travels of Prince Hayam Wuruk as he tours his realm. There seem to be two options for reading this poem in English: Pigeaud’s 5-volume translation with extensive notes and supplementary materials, published in 1960, and the significantly slimmer single-volume edition produced by S.O. Robson in the 1990s. I chose to start with Pigeaud, because it was easier to source from the San Francisco library and because, to be honest, I’m a little bit of a masochist about academic texts (especially those focused on the middle ages (especially when they’re about epic poetry (as my bachelor’s degree in medieval studies will attest))).

I couldn’t find any descriptions of the individual volumes of Pigeaud’s work so I just blindly requested a few and crossed my fingers. Volume I, “Javanese texts in transcription,” turned out, rather unsurprisingly in retrospect, a direct transcription of the Old Javanese poem, using roman characters but the original Javanese language. Vol. III, “Translations,” is the poem translated into English–a fairly direct translation, judging by the fact that the text is, to the casual reader, basically gibberish. Making little headway with these two, I quickly requested Vol. IV (“Commentaries and Recapitulation”), along with the Robson text. Pigeaud’s notes, though voluminous, were fairly helpful. Robson’s notes were all about translation and clearly intended for an academic audience, but his translation was a marked improvement on Pigeaud’s.

San Francisco, 2016

If you’re curious to know exactly what I mean by this, here’s a sample of the same stanza translated by Pigeaud:

  1. Lands, out of the way, Buddhistic, entered into the Presence at the side of the road, its trees were meagre.
  2. Respectively: of Galanggang, also those of Badung, not far away, and Barungbung,
  3. Not stayed behind Er-Manik too. Possessed as dominions by Yānatraya is their legal relation; they remembered (the fact).
  4. The honoured dharmādhyaksha (bishop), soon regaled then [sic] with food and drink, was well pleased.

And by Robson:

Remote Buddhist villages drew near by the edge of the road where the trees were sparse;
To enumerate them, they were Glanggang as well as Badung not far off and Barungbung;
Even Er Manik was there—it too falls under the domain of Yānatraya, it recalls,
And the Superintendent was promptly regaled by them with food and drink, to his satisfaction.

I ended up reading Robson’s translation with Pigeaud’s notes, which was slow but manageable (until I had to return them both to the library and read the final ten or fifteen stanzas photocopied and note-free). I was thinking it would be really nice if someone would publish a readable translation like Robson’s along with some notes for the casual reader (like Pigeaud’s, except ideally pared down to about 10% of their original length and detail)…but then I realized that there is absolutely no reason for anyone other than an academic to read this poem, which is, essentially, a catalogue of place-names with brief descriptive interludes. It makes it a wonderful resource for anyone who is trying to reconstruct the history and geography of medieval Java in painstaking detail, but not a very enjoyable reading experience. It’s not even a very well-written poem, which the academics are keen to acknowledge, though it is formally quite interesting (each stanza is written in a different style and meter, which I imagine is quite something if you’re able to read Old Javanese). There’s a nice essay about it by scholar A.J. West, who takes delight in the poet’s rather unexpected disclosure near the very end of the poem:

Prapañca took delight in five things;
Putting on a funny speech-defect,
Going red in the face, refusing to go to bed,
Having erections, and suddenly cracking jokes

Los Angeles, 2005

I mean, to each his own, I guess. He sounds like a really fun guy (and an unlikely Buddhist monk, but who am I to judge?). This is the 96th stanza out of 99, so it’s probably not worth reading the entire poem just for that bizarre interlude. I did, however, enjoy the dry barbs of academic infighting that are apparent in the annotations of both texts. Pigeaud takes particular exception to the previous work of an academic called Stutterheim, and dings him wherever possible. On a single page of Pigeaud’s notes I found the following statements:

“This confirms the view that these stanzas refer exclusively to the situation outside the main wall. Stutterheim seems not to have been sure of this fact.”

“Stutterheim identified the Majapahit wanguntur with the sitinggil of the modern Central Javanese kratons, which proved confusing…The sitinggil probably is a structure belonging to a later period. Stutterheim’s frequent mention of it is out of place.”

“The eastern part of the wanguntur was dedicated to religious worship. St.’s [not even spelling out his name now, cold] suggestion that this was a separate religious courtyard is not borne out by the text.”

Robson, in his turn, has a little dig at Pigeaud: “the literalness of Pigeaud’s translation is unacceptable because it takes no account of the requirements of English syntax. Javanese word-order cannot be copied in English, and there is no justification for giving a one-for-one rendering of all Javanese words, including even particles.”

Which, to be honest, seems fair.

Aside from these bits of scholarly bitchiness and the occasional gleam of an exceptionally ridiculous verse (see below), this text was a bit of a slog. However, I’m glad that I was able to source a couple of pre-Dutch invasion texts from Indonesia; this and Blossoms of Longing gave me a little bit of insight into the lives of the Javanese upper classes prior to European contact.

I will leave you with this, and let you decide for yourself whether Prapañca was throwing shade or was just incredibly bad at choosing his metaphors (or, option C, whether medieval Javanese musical standards differed fairly radically from our own):

The King’s songs put them under a spell, amazingly apt
Comparable with the cries of a peacock on a branch in their poetic beauty,
Like honey and syrup mingled in their delightful sweetness,
And resembling creaking bamboo in their awesomeness, breaking one’s heart.

San Francisco, 2016

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