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Common Problems and Errors of Translation into Bahasa Malaysia

Sun 02 Jun 2019


Common Problems and Errors of Translation into Bahasa Malaysia | Goh Lay Hua

Christian Federation of Malaysia, Seminar on Translation

Common Problems and Errors of Translation into Bahasa Malaysia



For some time I had been wondering why it is that translation, no matter how competent, often reads like a “foreign language”. What do we mean when we say, instinctively, “it sounds wrong.” It is often difficult to explain this feeling. The readers’ reaction in saying “it sounds wrong” is like that of the music-lover listening to a recording of a symphony and saying “somebody’s out of tune”, he cannot identify the instrument, but his ear tells him that somewhere in the orchestra one of the players has hit a false note.


At the same time, I wanted to know what problems were common to Christian translators in our country translating into Bahasa Malaysia (BM), irrespective of the source language from which they were working on.


I decided to begin, therefore, not with translation in theory but with translation in practice. This means looking at the difficulties faced by translators in the course of their work and at some of the errors and outfalls that occur in translation.


Attached to this paper is an Appendix of some of the errors and problems in translation of the book ‘Brunei Berdaulat’ first published in 1984 by Federal Publications (S) Pte Ltd., Singapore for the Government of Brunei Darussalam. My choice of this book instead of locally translated Christian materials is clear. The book is generally of high editorial standard, translated by a team of native speakers and whole sale is not affected by a critical analysis of the translation. My inclusion of this Appendix is simply to further hep us towards understanding of the nature of the errors in translation and to indicate how they might be overcome.




It can be generally said that in all translations there is none without difficulties. Underlying all the complications of translation is the fundamental fact that languages differ radically one from the other and that there are people who insist that translation is impossible.


Even the titles of articles and books on the subject question translation as a legitimate area of human endeavor. For example:


       “Translation is meddling with inspiration”

       “Translation – The Precarious Profession”

       “Translation – The Art of Failure”

        “Translation – The Polite Lie”

         “Translators are Betrayers”

         “Almost all translations are bad”

         “Translation – The Thankless Task.”


In short, practically no translation of significance has ever seen the light of day without incurring the displeasure of the general public.


It is unfortunate that translation is perhaps more often criticized for its defects than praised for its merits. The faults of a bad translation are immediately apparent, the virtues of a good one are often passed unnoticed. Yet, even as some believe translation is impossible, we cannot deny that our world is translating every minute and will continue to translate. And we know how throughout the centuries those whose efforts in Bible translation have been especially blessed by God in the life of the church were deeply conscious that the message which they were rendering was in a special sense God’s word, not man’s. It is in prayerful dependence upon the One who inspired the prophets and the Apostles of old that someone today can make this same message ‘a living fire’ in the hearts of men and women in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Islands of the Seas.

THE WORD ALONE (Lexical Problems)




The failure to recognize words and their characteristics, as lexical units, including the different shades of meanings possessed b a word is one of the main causes of errors in translation. For example:-




To administer an estate

Mengurus harta

To administer justice

Melaksanakan keadilan

To administer law

Menjalankan undang-undang

To administer to the needs of the poor

Membantu keperluan golongan miskin

To administer first aid

Memberi pertolongan cemas

To administer an oath

Menguruskan angkat sumpah

To administer a country

Mentadbir negara


The problem of multiple meanings is especially important and relevant in translation. A translator’s misconceptions, wrong choice of word and various types of misjudgment may land him up with an appallingly ridiculous translation. Consider the following errors that occur in translation.





She cannot meet those conditions.

Dia tidak dapat menemui syarat-syarat itu.

In BM, “orang tidak menemui syarat-syarat”. The correct choice of word should ‘memenuhi’.

She met with an accident yesterday.

Dia telah bertemu dengan kemalangan semalam.

In BM, “orang tidak bertemu dengan kemalangan. Orang ditimpa kemalangan.

Pastor Solomon is coming this evening and we are going to meet him in the airport.

Pastor Solomon akan sampai petang ini dan kami akan pergi menjumpainya di lapangan terbang.

“Menjumpai” is a literal translation of ‘to meet’. The appropriate word should be ‘menyambut’.

Peter, I want you to meet Paul.

Peter, aku mahu awak bertemu dengan Paul.

Again, the word ‘bertemu’ is an inapproapriate rendering. A more appropriate translation should be, “Peter, aku ingin perkenalkan Paul kepada awak.”


If a word is inappropriate, it is also usually because it has been used out of its customary context. The problem for the translator is that he is dealing with two contexts, that of the source language and that of the target language. What is appropriate in one is not necessarily appropriate in the other. Unless a translator is keenly aware of such a problem, he may land up with mismatching the lexical items between two languages. The following example has many specific terms. However, there is no general word for ‘carry’ in Bahasa Malaysia.





To carry heavy weight on the shoulders.


To carry things over the shoulder with a pole; carry or balance on the shoulder.


Carry in a litter or slung from a pole between bearers.


To carry up something


To carry astride the hip or back


To carry something on top of the head


To carry something in the hand


Carry in the palm of the hand


To carry something with the hands and arms straight down


To carry on the back


To carry a child, etc., on the shoulders.


Therefore, in translating from English into BM, the translator will have to choose from all words for ‘carry’ each time he is translating the one English word. The text will need to be studied carefully in order to choose the correct choice of word. However, when translating from BM, a single English word is sufficient, i.e. the word ‘carry’. Tis will be used unless the manner in which the object is being carried is crucial to the focus or theme of the context. Then a descriptive phrase will need to be added in English to make clear the contrastive meaning components found in BM words. For example, in translating ‘menjunjung’, the translator would have to add a descriptive phrase, ‘to carry on the head’.


While such problems can be resolved by the intelligent use if the dictionary, there are those which lie beyond the dictionary. For the dictionary is concerned with words, not with how words are used or put together. Very often I hear people say, “Of course I can tackle a translation on that subject. I have a dictionary on it.” Such naïve confidence in dictionaries is the mark of a novice in the translating world. A dictionary is never comprehensive enough to answer all the queries that arise from the fascinating diversity of subjects and concepts. Its definitions may be inadequate and even wrong. It will be probably not give enough contextual information to pinpoint the appropriate rendering. The dictionary is, no doubt, a useful research tool but the information it contains needs to be corroborated by other sources; by the gradual accumulation of knowledge, and experience and the exercise of an enquiring mind. What I am trying to say is that a certain amount of data can usually be secured from dictionaries and other aids, but there is no substitute for a complete mastery of the languages a translator is working in. Unless there are good language ‘experts’ there can be no good translators.




This grammatical word class is among the hardest things a translator has to deal with translating into BM. They are particularly intricate in conversation where an error could mortally offend someone. For example, in English ‘you’ can be applied to a President or a beggar. But it is not so in BM. There are as many as ten expressions or more the word ‘you’ can be translated into depending on the social-linguistic level (engkau, anda, kamu, awak, tuan, hang, puan, ni, awak). And our translation can sound completely awkward and unnatural when we use wrong pronouns. For example, we sar ‘Engkau’ to God when we pray. This pronoun is to be used only with very close and fundamental relationships. Wrongly used, it is the height of rudeness. Likewise, we do not use ‘saya’ for ‘I’ in a prayer to God instead we use ‘aku’ or ‘ku’. ‘Saya’ is too formal to be used in a prayer to a personal God. ‘Aku’ is to be used only with people to whom you can use ‘engkau’. Another common mistake made is the translation of the word ‘we’, which can be translated by either ‘kami’ or ‘kita’. ‘Kita’ includes the person  you are speaking to. ‘Kami’ does not. So, when we translate “We are all human beings” into BM it will be “Kita semua manusia.” But it is certainly not alright to translate “We climbed the coconut tree” as “Kita  memanjat pokok kelapa itu” in describing a childhood escapade of yours, for surely I would not wish to be included and would not relish being included. Therefore, in translating a prayer to God, it is utterly wrong to use ‘kita’.


The translator must also remember that there are extended usages (secondary senses) of pronouns. Whenever a pronoun in the source language is being used in a secondary sense, there is a potential translation adjustment which will have to be considered by the translator. Thus, the second person plural pronoun of English would probably be translated with a First Person Plural Pronoun. For example,


       “You may not know how your prayers can change people.”

            “Kita mungkin tidak tahu bagaimana doa kita boleh mengubah seseorang.)


Another use of ‘kita’ is for the general ‘one’. For example,


       “One can dispute that life and death, dearth and plenty are in the hands of God.”

       “Kita mungkin tidak sependapat bahawa mati hidup, senang susah ditentukan oleh Tuhan.)




It is not my purpose in this section to dwell on the details of the problems of theological terminology. That alone merits another paper by itself. However, I wish to append two main problems, namely, accuracy and consistency in using theological terminology in BM, look at the approaches to its solution and then offer some specific suggestions for translators who work in an unregulated environment.


Accurate and consistent use of terminology in translation is essential if monolingual readers are to understand the message of the original writer. It would be ideal, if all translators would translate accurately using the same terminology consistently. However, as translators, translating into BM, we are at present faced with several problems which make it difficult to be accurate and consistent. They are:


a)    Translators have to deal with a language which is constantly in the process of change.

b)    Each translator brings a different education and point of view to the job. This causes great linguistic drift or what we might call ‘language proliferation’.

c)     A dire lack of standardization and coordination in the use of terminology and insufficient information on the available terminology.

d)    Problems of linguistic correctness and acceptability in the use of certain terminology.


Very often users of translation are frustrated by our lack of accuracy and consistency in our work. Therefore, those who are ‘bilingual’ will prefer to read the original; those who are not, will ‘make do’ with the translation. This is hard for the translator to admit, or it implies that translation is always second-best. But second-best does not necessarily imply second-rated. Translation need not be a poor substitute for the original if we are accurate and consistent in our translation. Let me propose several suggestions which may help toward achieving accuracy and consistency in the usage of theological terminology in BM:-


a)    To set up a regulatory body or a centralized control. It will improve consistency. It will also contribute to improved accuracy by concentrating the responsibility for terminology research to a small group of people who can be trained in the work and presumably trusted to do it well.

b)    In the absence of formal regulation of terminological usage, the individual translation is responsible for his own work. He is encouraged to do his own terminological research and then to share the results of his research with others who work in BM either through publications or newsletters. This will improve accuracy. Consistency can be achieved by pooling the results of the research done by many translators and making it available to all. To illustrate this point, we have been consistently using ‘Juruselamat’ for ‘Saviour’ and ‘keselamatan’ for ‘salvation’. In my own terminological research, I find out that from the linguistic point of view both renderings are inaccurate. The more correct and acceptable words in BM are ‘Penyelamat(Saviour) and Penyelamatan(salvation). I then counter-check with local reputable Malay linguists and other sources and they all confirmed my ‘suspicion’. I then make this finding available to my students and other translators. We must understand that solving the problem of consistency may not necessarily solve the problem of accuracy.


We should all also take advantage of the terminology other translators used by adding it to our card files or terms. Such card will allow space for storing the source-language word and its equivalent in the target language. The entire source and target sentences where the particular terminology is used can be also be written on it.


c)     Translators who are serious with their work must continuously receive translation training. Translation training is important since it is quite impossible to translate without a very high level of competence in both the source and target languages, and very difficult without some understanding of the subject matter and the nature of translating. Examples of translations produced without such essentials are often comical and their effects can be disastrous. Since many of us did not have a formal training in translation, workshops, conferences or seminars such as this will greatly help us to improve our translation skills. Besides such seminars give us the opportunity to share our problems and solutions, to establish personal contacts with people who can be helpful.

THE WORD ORDER (Structures)


Whatever material a translator is working from, he will be taking the content of the source language and reshaping it in the form of the target language. One of his main problems is that he cannot help being influenced by the form of the source language. Once thoughts have been given a particular shape – set down in certain words in a certain order – it is hard to conceive of them as having a different shape. As soon as the form of the source language dominates, the translation suffers. Consider the following translation:-


Source Language:

“My personal prayers vary according to the experience and needs of each day, but one prayer is never omitted: ‘O God, don’t let me die without having really lived and really loved’”.


Target (Receptor) Language:

Doa peribadiku berubah-ubah menurut pengalaman dan keperluan tiap hari, tapi satu doa tak pernah diketepikan: ‘Oh Tuhan, janganlah biarkan aku mati sebelum aku benar-benar hidup dan aku benar-benar berkasih-sayang!’”


The above translation is an example of what I say in the beginning, ‘it sounds wrong’. The translation is perfectly intelligible, but it is disturbing. The translation may not be necessarily ‘bad’; it is no doubt faithful, yet the native reader will still feel uneasy. He will almost certainly hesitate at the words, ‘menurut’, ‘diketepikan’, ‘peribadi’,  which are awkwardly used for the context, not mentioning the expressions such as ‘doa peribadiku’, ‘doa tak pernah diketepikan’, which do not strike one as formulations a Malay writer would spontaneously have used. It would seem here that the translator has been unable to free himself from the structuring of thought and the word order of the English. Compared the first translation to the second translation below:


Doaku sentiasa berubah hari demi hari, bergantung pada pengalaman dan keperluan pada hari itu, namun satu doaku yang tak pernah kulupakan ialah: ‘Ya Tuhan, janganlah kau ambil nyawaku sebelum aku benar-benar hidup dan berkasih-sayang!’”


It is no accident that, in most parodies of translation, it is the ungainly word order and awkward choice of words that are most held up to ridicule. As soon as we read a translation as in the first we feel the ‘foreignness’ and ‘it sounds wrong’.


A good translation must therefore be one that reflects the naturalness of the linguistic structures utilized in the receptor language version. When we say that the Scriptures are natural in form, we are simply saying that, written as they were by native speakers, they fell within the bounds of natural Hebrew, Aramaic or Koine Greek. The word-building capabilities, unique patterns of phrase order, the way clauses are connected into sentences, the use of words and their combinations, the syntax, the morphology – all were natural. This characteristic of the original should also be found in a translation i.e. to say rather that force the formal structure of the original language upon the receptor language, the effective translator must make changes necessary to reproduce the message in the distinctive natural forms of the receptor languages. Therefore, exhibiting strictly the same grammatical and stylistic forms of the original in the receptor language would produce awkwardness or strangeness thereby distorting the meaning of the content. For example, in Mark 1:4, the Greek employs a nominal in construction, ‘baptism of repentance’, which means ‘repent and be baptised’, but translated into BM using the same structure, the resulting phrase will be ‘pembaptisan dari pertaubatan’, (meaning baptism originating from repentance). This not only distorts the original meaning but the native reader is unable to understand how baptism can originate from repentance. Moreover, in BM, terms which express events (and both ‘baptism’ and ‘repentance’ are events, not objects) are expressed more naturally as verbs, rather than as nouns. Therefore, it is essential to change the nominal form of this Greek phrase into a corresponding verbal expression in BM. A meaningful change of the form will be, “Bertaubatlah dan serahkan dirimu untuk dibaptis’ (Repent and give yourself to be baptized).


In short, a good translation must conform to the receptor language in order to produce an acceptable rendering. Such an adjustment to the receptor language will produce a translation that bears no obvious trace of foreign elements. This involves two principal areas of adaptation, namely, grammar and lexicon. Grammatical adaption involves adjustments such as shifting of word order, using verbs in place of nouns, and substituting nouns for pronouns. On the lexical level, it involves the adjustments of lexical structure of the source language to the semantic requirements of the receptor language.




(a)  Shifting of Word Order

“It was during his reign that the English first appeared in Penang.”


Orang Inggeris mula-mula muncul di Pulau Pinang semasa pemerintahannya.


Pertama kali orang Inggeris muncul di Pulau Pinang ialah semasa pemerintahannya.


(b)  Using Verbs in place of Nouns

      “His downfall from the throne was a sudden affair.” 

      Dia jatuh dari takhta kerajaan secara mengejut.


(c)   Substituting Nouns for Pronouns

      “The lady was baptised yesterday.”

       Dia menerima baptisan semalam.


(d)  Adjustment of Lexical Structure

      “She broke my heart.”

       Dia membuatku patah hati.


A literal translation of “She broke my heart” will be “Dia mematahkan jantungku.” However, in BM, we do not have such lexical structure. We use the verb ‘break’ or ‘mematahkan’ for breaking a stick or a piece of chalk, but certainly not ‘mematahkan hati’.




By heading this last section ‘Who reads it anyway?’, I want to draw attention to the ‘suspicion’ that nobody really bothers to read translations. Or, that if it is read, it is read with a certain grudging reservation. Leonard da Vinci said:

“He who can go to the fountain does not go to the water-jar.”

                 (Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks, O.U.P)


Leonardo was talking, of course, of composition. His advice to painters was ‘go to the objects of nature rather than those which are imitated from nature’; paint from life, not from a copy of life.


The translator, if he is honest with himself, knows that the reader turns to the translation nearly always because he cannot go to the original. He drinks from the water-jar because he cannot go to the fountain, yet precisely the majority of our up and coming generation are/will be those who cannot go to the fountain but the jar’s water is nonetheless important. Translating Christian materials into BM is a necessary choice.


And translators like you and I have the greatest influence over their drinking habit from the water-jar. If they read a sentence such as the following:


“Setelah belajar untuk melepaskan diri dari keadaan yang tidak enak dengan tidur sebagai seorang bayi, adalah tidak menghairankan bahawa berjuta-juta orang dewasa mendapati diri mereka tidur bila mereka dihadapi oleh masalah-masalah yang lebih suka mereka tidak pedulikan, sementara ia juga memberi kefahaman ke dalam asal-usul gangguan jiwa, di mana pesakit sedih itu sentiasa penat dan hanya mahu tidur terus-menerus.”


his natural reaction will be: “Why go on?   He does not know whether or not the original was equally flaccid, but he does know the translation is unreadable. Therefore, the challenge for us is to make sure that those who could not go to the fountain will keep coming to the water-jar.


NB: This paper was first delivered on 4 August1987 at a Translation Seminar organized by Christian Federation of Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia Committee. The recommendations then may have been overtaken by new developments in the last 3 decades, nevertheless the linguistics recommendations continue to serve as a useful guide.


Related References:

Historical Overview of Bible Translation in the Malay-speaking World, Goh Lay Hua