Sunday, 18 November 2012

mentera semerah padi

the incantation of semerah padi9

hey! let flow the embodiment of kersani1 steel,
that becomes mercury2,
and fills the veins of my haunch3,
that i may stand,
steadfast and dignified,
as a malayan warrior4 of old.

hey! ten pieces of betel leaves5,
that i clench together with,
cloves that beget you6,
thick sanguine blood,
that fills my veins,
that i may stride,
steadfast and dignified,
like a rooster that crows7.

wherever i may roam,
is where i settle and call home,
as long as i may ardour a task,
i shall perform to the best of my abilities8.

quoted in malay:

mentera semerah padi

Hei! kersani mengalir lah dikau
Menjadi raksa
Mengisi belikat punggungku
Agar aku bisa berdiri
Tegap dan segak
Bagaikan laksmana Melayu

Hei! sepuluh helai daun sirih
Ku gentas bersama
Bunga cengkih jadilah dikau
Darah merah pekat
Mengisi uratku
Agar bisa aku berlangkah
Gagah dan tampan
Bagaikan sijantan yang berkokok

Di mana bumi ku pijak
Di situ langit ku junjung
Alang-alang menyeluk pekasam
Biar sampai ke pangkal lengan

Aku seru mentera pusakaku
Mentera semerah padi 

translation notes:

1. kersani is one of those words that gets lost in translation. there is no specific word for it in english, much like how the eskimos have handfuls of words which translate into the same word, 'snow'. except that kersani in itself does not mean anything, but is somewhat an adverb to describe a type of metal that is commonly associated with malay rituals to strengthen themselves for battle, or to ward of dangers or curses. i am not entirely certain what metals or metalloids would come under the categorisation of kersani, but it seems to be more related to the 'spirit' and 'appearance' of the metal than the chemical composition.

2. to have a metal become mercury is an odd thing, even for song lyrics. i can only assume that this reference is not to mercury in itself, but the nature of a mercurial substance - fluid but congealing, possibly silvery, giving the impression of strength and endurance. i am more inclined to use the word mercurial, but the literal meaning is lost.

3. 'belikat punggungku' is a phrase hard to translate. belikat in itself, again, has no meaning, but can be taken to mean the substance, or a vein, or even an artery; while punggung literally means buttocks. the previous lines lead into this sentence, where a metal is used to imbue the writer with superhuman strength or fortitude, the metal in itself becoming part of the writer by flowing through his veins. additionally, the reference to his posterior goes on to lead into the next few sentences about being able to stand, and to be steadfast in the writer's task.

4. laksamana is actually a specific rank in the old malaccan empire, roughly translating to the position of admiral. however, i felt this unfit, as the stature of the writer is more a common warrior or even a conscript defending his lands rather than an admiral leading the ranks of a fleet. in addition, the term bagaikan indicates this a simile, hence a more figurative translation is more relevant than a literal one.

5. besides the fact that there is no specific collective noun for leaves (unfortunate, that if it were something else, i would be able to write, 'ten leaves of xyz'), i would point out the relevance of betel nuts in the malay culture. quite possibly a traditional centrepiece brought to malacca by the indians via trade, the nuts and leaves of the betel tree are commonplace amongst the elderly, where they are chewed for a distinctive taste, and for the red dye (though i have no inkling as to why you would want to dye your teeth red). in traditional weddings, it was once a symbolic 'offering', though i see this happening less and less, and is possibly now a dead cultural remnant, at least amongst the more modernised malays. interestingly enough, it is not featured at all in the indian wedding ceremonies (at least none of the ones i have attended).

6. it is uncommon to associate cloves with betel, the former being a mainstay in malay cooking. however, i have observed the elderly to chew cloves on their own (and having tried, the bitter taste is too strong for my buds). more commonly, cloves are one of the 'empat beradik' (literally, four siblings) of spices used in pretty much every malay dish - cloves (bunga cengkih), star of anise (bunga lawang), cinnamon (sticks) (kayu manis, literally 'sweet[ly] sticks'), and cardamom pods (buah pelaga). in addition, the following words of 'jadilah dikau' is an interesting choice. it would appear to mean 'to make you' or 'make yourself', but that has neither figurative nor literal meaning in the text. i only presume the writer to mean that he makes of the spices, and incorporates it by ritual into his own, hence granting himself powers similar to that thereof the kersani steel from earlier.

7. again, possibly inherited from hindu roots, the rooster is symbolic of strength, iridescence, the sun, and a plethora of other similar traits. animism being a mainstay of hinduism (though not a defining or even particularly prominent feature of the religion), has been adulterated with culture and other religions to form a melting pot of references which may still reflect their origins, or have taken on new meanings relevant to the malays during the malaccan empire (at this time, being predominantly islam).

8. the final verse is composed of two peribahasa or proverbs in malay:

'di mana bumi kupijak, di situ langit kujunjung' literally means, where i may step, there is where i uphold the sky. it refers to the life of a nomad, who calls home wherever he has to, wherever his travels brings him.

'alang-alang menyeluk perkasam, bar sampai ke pangkal lengan' literally means as long as (i am) delving hands into perkasam (which is a type of preserved or pickled fish), (i) may as well do so till i am elbow-deep in it. i never really understood this, for who would want to put their hands into such a thing? but we were all taught at an early age that this is to mean that, if you do something, you might as well do it right.

9. initially i was having trouble translating the title, for i wanted it to be near perfect in literal and figurative meaning. mentera and padi are easy to translate, respectively meaning 'incantation' and 'rice' / 'paddy'. however, 'sermerah' caught me off guard. i had thought it to mean relating to the hue of red, or 'as red as'. however, with a little research, it seems that 'semerah padi' is actually a place in indonesia (thank you film by p. ramlee).

p/s: i started off with this rough translation because this song is both literally and symbolically an epitome of malaysian literature and song. i know full well that i have not done the song and its writer (m nasir) any justice in my translation, but i figure, if am to even try to integrate some of my heritage in this blog, it might as well be something that i am damn well proud of. more iterations or even similar entries in the future, i hope!


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you, etc

Ooi Mun Kong

Anonymous said...

I always figured that "Semerah padi" was a reference to "cili padi" - So I'd translate the song title as "Pepper-red Mantra".

Rocky said...

Thank u for the wonderful post !!

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Anonymous said...

I think the belikat really refers to a bone connected to the buttock.

farah said...

This was really helpful, especially your explanations. You've done well to translate the song and provided useful context to go along with it. I've always been intrigued by the song's possible meanings and also the usage of the words in the lyrics and so far, your explanations have been the best out of the ones I've read on the net. Thank you!