beyond the binary – a note on translating

This is the translator’s note I wrote for the UK edition of Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Tilted Axis Press, 2019). It was not included in the Australian edition by Giramondo Publishing, but I think all readers of the poetry collection in English will find it informative.


It is difficult to express the extent to which working with Norman Erikson Pasaribu on this translation has been a transformative experience. (Perhaps hardly surprising: the trans—‘across’—of translate and transform is one and the same.) I was unsure of my abilities when it came to poetry and very grateful at how involved in the process Norman was willing to be. We ended up working so closely together that I feel the binary labels of ‘translator’ and ‘author’—i.e. translator or author, translator not author—ring somewhat false. They imply our roles in bringing about the English edition of Sergius Seeks Bacchus were separate when, in reality, they were mingled and merged.

There was no one method we used; it depended on the poem. Sometimes, I would produce a draft translation based on the original poem and then from there, Norman and I would exchange edits and suggestions. Sometimes, Norman would tweak the original Indonesian version for me to translate in order to achieve a certain effect he wanted for the English version. In a few cases, Norman had created his own translations of the poems prior to working with me, and I would refer to these in order to create my own. For ‘Happy Idea’ and ‘Are You Still There at the Station’, Norman created new English versions based on my translations, which we then edited together. There were times I listened to audio recordings of him reading the poems so I could better internalize the tone and rhythm he sought for each one. Often, we would think we were finally satisfied with a poem, only to revisit it later and decide it needed either drastic alterations or more fine-tuning. Always, I relied a great deal on the notes and personal experiences Norman would share with me in our online conversations, where the bud of literary partnership blossomed into fast friendship. And I depended constantly on Norman’s encouragement to be daring—to be less literal, more poetic; less inhibited, more playful; less logical, more personal.

As we continued to work on the poems, continued to correspond, something else happened. I found Norman’s words, my translations of Norman’s words, and our conversations seeping into me, unsettling my self from myself, altering my thoughts, perspectives, opinions, emotions. I already tend to be an empath when it comes to translating (I’ve likened it in other spaces to surrogate motherhood or spirit-channelling), but sometimes I would find myself reduced to tears or devastated by the sadder poems, as if by translating I were consuming their sorrow into myself, as if their sorrow was speaking to my own sorrow, coaxing it out of my bones. I also became more aware of the heteronormative assumptions and privilege on which so many of my thoughts and values rested. Honestly, I don’t think I can ever go back to being the person I was before. I hope I don’t.

Whenever I say I’m the translator of Sergius Seeks Bacchus, I always find myself elaborating what that role has meant in this context: the author and I have worked together so closely on these poems that “translator” isn’t the right word at all. What I really want to say is that I and Norman are the translator, not just I. And I also want to say that I feel as if I am more than just the ‘translator’ (in the narrow, prevalent sense of the word)—Norman’s poems have become part of and spring from me as well.


The translation of this collection into the book you hold in your hands required a dismantling of the translator/author binary. But it also opened my eyes to the extent to which the English language has imposed limitations on my ability to think about gender in fluid, rather than binary, terms. English is the language I am most fluent in, although my parents and grandparents are Chinese-Indonesian. My parents spoke to me in English and sent me to English-language-medium schools, even in Jakarta where I lived for six years. Though I heard my parents and other relatives speak Indonesian and sometimes spoke it myself, it was only when I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley that I started to improve my Indonesian by taking language classes and reading Indonesian books.

Because English tends to be my default language, when I see the Indonesian third-person pronoun ‘dia’ I instinctively assign it a gender, translating it into ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’. I do the same for ‘ia’ (an alternate form of ‘dia’). And the possessive ‘-nya’ (‘her’/his’). In reality, these pronouns are genderless: ‘dia’ could be a she or a he, a him or a her. The same with ‘ia’ and ‘-nya’. In this sense, these pronouns are akin to the English-language gender-neutral singular pronouns ‘they’/’them’/’their’. But whereas with English, these pronouns are only just starting to be taken seriously and are (lamentably) sometimes criticised as invalid or ungrammatical, in Indonesian, the genderless pronouns are utterly conventional—the traditional norm.

So how did the gendered pronouns of English affect how I as a translator approached the genderless pronouns of Norman’s poetry collection? It meant my brain assumed that every ‘ia’ and ‘dia’ was concealing whether someone was a ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’. And in poems where there were no indicators of whether the ‘ia/dia’ was a she or a he, I assumed it was necessary for me to find out which one they were and to translate accordingly—this in a collection about queerness and fluidity, much to my shame. Even worse, more often than not I would assume that the ‘ia’ or ‘dia’ was a ‘he’—thus exposing the extent to which I was translating with a thoroughly colonised mind. Norman would issue gentle corrections via WhatsApp. Mortified, I’d apologise. I began asking him before I would start translating a poem whether an ‘ia’ or ‘dia’ was male or female, still not realising how utterly insufficient this still was and that my thinking needed to be completely rewired. Finally, we had a conversation where I commented that the English translation of some of the poems were forcing them to ‘come out’ because the gender of the ‘ia/dia’ was being made apparent. And then he observed that since I grew up with English as a first language, I tended to read some of the poems as straight because I was used to having all pronouns be gendered. Whereas to him, because ‘dia’ and ‘ia’ were nonbinary, he saw the same poems as obviously queer.

It was clear prior to this conversation, but even more glaringly so afterwards that without our close consultation and correspondence, my translation would have run the very likely risk of reinforcing and reproducing the heteronormative and binary narratives that Sergius Seeks Bacchus was written to challenge. Norman was also responsible for suggesting a revision of the manuscript to translate various instances of the third-person singular pronouns as the gender-neutral ‘they’, ‘their’, and ‘them’. The results of this crucial intervention are ‘Footnote to 33’, ‘Change’, ‘Update on the Left-Behind Woman’, as well as ‘Happy Idea’ in which, importantly, God is now no longer a ‘He’ but a ‘Them’. But of course! Of course, ‘the three-branched God—the tree-like god—’ is a Them!


People often talk about what is ‘lost in translation’. Indeed, the phrase has become positively banal. But what about that which is wilfully or unconsciously erased in translation to simplify foreign writers and their writing in order to make them easily comprehensible for an English-reading audience?

Thinking beyond binaries means being able to process multiplicity. Norman is more than just a queer Indonesian poet. He is a queer Batak poet from Indonesia. He is a queer Toba-Batak poet from a working-class background from Indonesia. He is a queer Toba-Batak-Indonesian poet from a working-class Christian background. Please hold these simultaneously in your head. Sergius Seeks Bacchus is the confluence of them all. Queerness is not lived in a vacuum; it is mediated through culture, class, and belief.

‘Poetry’, which takes as its theme the heartache of a lifetime of silenced queerness, is articulated through a melancholy Batak-language pop song about self-imposed exile—the Batak tradition ofleaving one’s home to seek a livelihood elsewhere. In ‘Erratum’, the rejection the protagonist endures for coming out is also the ejection from his Toba-Batak home—a warm nest lined with specific cultural practices and traditions into which he was welcomed at birth with kisses and feasting and joy. In ‘Curriculum Vitae 2015’, being Batak (i.e. an ethnic minority; Bataks make up about 3.5% of Indonesia’s population) and Christian (i.e. a religious minority in Indonesia) means that the queer protagonist is on the margins of the margins—out of place in his body and family, which in turn are out of place in the place they reside. There are also the markers of Batakness in names, words, speech patterns, and images throughout the poems that come across in English less clearly or not at all (for example, Christian images and terms, or references to the Bible and saints, because of the influence of Christianity on contemporary Batak culture).

If Batakness is an inalienable part of a queer Batak’s identity, despite rejection from their Batak family and community, the same could be said of the relationship between Christianity and the queer person of Christian background. As the poems indicate, religious affiliation is not necessarily a matter of choice. Biblical stories and verses, religious traditions, theology, and history cannot be unwoven from the fabric of the mind and heart of someone raised Christian. But they can be reworked, reshaped, into new theologies—ones critical and questioning, ones hopeful and queer-affirming. New gospels for the queer community. Heavens where Saints Sergius and Bacchus stroll the streets hand in hand in broad daylight, rather than confining their love to the subterranean parking garage of a third-rate-and-therefore-relatively-deserted shopping mall. In this sense, the Christian dimension of many of the poems fulfil a function similar to the speculative dimension of poems like ‘Seeking Another Earth […] and ‘A History-to-Come of Helmbrellas […]’. Queer individuals are loosed from the confining scripts written for queers by others, and set free in heaven, a post-alien-invasion Earth, outer space.

One also has to take class into account in order to understand Sergius Seeks Bacchus. The queer lives of Norman’s poetry abide in the material world and have material needs. They have jobs that leave them exhausted at the end of each day and the start of the next. Their bodies live in rented rooms and boarding houses, with parents and with roommates. They lease cars they can’t afford. They try to work out how to buy fancy tech for their kids’ birthdays. They commute by koasi and bus all the way from Bekasi because it’s too expensive to live in the city proper. The rich may not have to convert their life experiences and hardships into revenue and expenses, but those who operate on a slim margin (see ‘Lives in Accrual Accounting, Yours and Mine’) don’t have much of a choice. Staying financially afloat is important because the price is high for being queer and poor. Respect, tolerance, and physical safety require money. Ask Christy from ‘Cooking Instant Noodles at the End of the Rainbow’. Ask the waria of the dystopic-but-also-factual ‘Scenes from a Beautiful Life’.


I hope that readers will recognise the miracle that this collection is, and the miracle that this translation is, and the miracle that Norman Erikson Pasaribu is, and the miracles that are the queer lives for whom these poems are a testament and a dedication. This is for all who walk alone in the dark, so they will hear from every window on every building on both sides of the street, voices reaching out, ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’ ‘Salam!’