Skip to main content


Letter of Sultan Bayan of Maguindanao to the Spanish Governor-General Domingo de Zabalburu (1703), Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain, MP-ESCRITURA_CIFRA,63. [cropped]


This conversation addresses questions of terminology and more concretely the tension between foreign concepts and indigenous agency in negotiation processes and the various translation processes involved. As we have discussed elsewhere, concepts and thoughts and their shifting meanings have constructed our modern idea of diplomacy without paying sufficient attention to other regional frames or epistemes. Yet, terminology affected the diplomatic repertoire of all parties involved and played out in manifold paradigms such as kinship (for instance in terms like father or brother), prestige or constructed ambiguity, or more concrete in the addresses of diplomatic counterparts. The larger question to be asked is whether abstract political concepts such as sovereignty work across regions and languages and what is the role of a certain vocabulary in this case. In this conversation Peter Borschberg and Hans Hägerdal take a critical look at the terminology used in their respective fields of diplomatic relations and approach the question of how the very terminology of exchange was translated and by whom.

Reflecting on the uncountable historical documents that have informed Peter Borschberg’s interventions in Southeast Asian history, he reminds us that translation is not only about words. He stresses that local languages and the understanding of local terminology offer a crucial first step in making connections and unlocking understanding.

Over the past three decades I have been working extensively with texts that offer different levels of formality, from official treaties, to affidavits, reports, memorials, or inter-factory chatter. In my experience, the less formal a document is, the more likely the author will resort to casual shorthands to reference institutions, practices, or titles of nobility. Translation involves more than just putting words from one language into another, it is also about cultural outlooks, expression of religion, and world views. Sometimes terms could not be easily translated, say from Malay into Dutch, because the original word itself was not sufficiently clear or differentiated. Take for example the term negeri: It could mean a settlement – of unspecified size – and it could also mean the country or the land, and in a contemporary sense it also means nation. In the early seventeenth century, the Dutch documents sometimes left this expression standing as negerij – or Negerey in German – because it was not always clear what exactly was being referenced. Or, take the word berjanjilah – it could be used to reference a verbal promise or a written contract. Sometimes we can reconstruct what exactly we are dealing with based on the context, but that is not always the case. When addressing European rulers in formal diplomatic missives, the Malay and Javanese rulers phrased their opening paragraphs in certain ways. They describe themselves as a ruler who owns (or is seated on) the throne that is located in a specific negeri (city? country?) and address their European counterpart in the same manner. Take for example the letter in a letter from about the year 1671 or 1672 from the Sultan of Banten (Java) that was addressed to the king of Denmark. The opening reads: “This is a letter expressing the sincere and honest feelings of His Majesty Sultan Abu’l-Fath of Banten, owner of the Royal Throne in the negeri (country? city?) of Banten … towards the king of Denmark, called King Christian, son of King Frederic, owner of the Royal Throne in the negeri (country) of Denmark, a king whose bravery is famous in the lands above the wind and in the lands below the wind; he is a most noble and faithful king, wise in ruling everything on land and sea and in enforcing the royal customs in the country of Denmark” (Voorhoeve, 1975: 272-3). The shorthand translation of this would be the “This is the letter of the king of Banten to the king of Denmark”, but that is not how the official document it is phrased. When we carefully read these openings, we can learn a lot about Malay political values and moral priorities. Take for example the idea of nama or reputation (“whose bravery is famous in the lands above and below the wind”) as well as the king’s primordial task of respecting adat or customary law (“… who is wise in enforcing the royal customs”). Milner discusses and contextualizes these in his various publications. Malay and Javanese titles are another area to look at. Rajas were routinely referenced in reports and treaties as princes or kings, as were indeed other high-ranking officials with essentially gubernatorial responsibilities. In the treaty of 1609 signed by the VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, Dutch East India Company) with the adipati Sambas, the latter became the “king of Sambas”, and in the treaty they imagine him to be a king who rules over a territorially defined kingdom. The Europeans on the ground in Southeast Asia may have possibly known better, but what about the VOC officials in Amsterdam? What did they think when they read a copy of this treaty?

Conversely, there are issues when the Dutch try to translate their political institutions into Malay in the seventeenth century. In this context I sometimes reference the effort at “translating” into Malay the formal title of the Dutch States-General in whose name treaties were being signed by the Dutch East India Company. So, the phrase “Their High Mighty Lords, the Estates General of the United Provinces” was translated in modern Malay Romanized spelling as “orang kaya-kaya sekalian dari negeri Wolanda/Holanda” or as closely as possible the “Very powerful orang kaya who have come together from the negeri of Holland”. So, the delegates of the Dutch States General are described here as “orang kaya” who have come together (assembly) in the negeri (country) of Holland. The idea of a federation of provinces is completely lost in this translation, and not unlike in contemporary everyday usage, Holland is equated with the Netherlands as a whole.

Hans Hägderdal discusses how tensions between local languages and imported concepts influenced negotiation processes in island Southeast Asia.

Many contracts and diplomatic letters from Maluku were evidently drawn up in Malay, which gained currency in eastern Indonesia with the spice trade and generated local variants in Ternate, Bacan, Ambon, and other islands. In addition, local languages like Ternatan were also used for writing purposes. Up to the late 17th century, there are not many preserved documents in non-Western languages which leaves us with the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch versions. Some aristocrats in Ternate and Tidore mastered the Iberian languages, but we also know of mardijkers (Christian Asians under European jurisdiction) who were trilingual, speaking Ternatan, Dutch and Malay and assisting as intermediaries. The few diplomatic Malay letters which have been preserved show significant differences with European translations that serve to enhance the superiority of the European part. For example, a letter from the Sultan of Ternate to the Portuguese king in 1522 repeatedly speaks of “Sultan Portugal” protecting (memeliharakan) Ternate, while the Portuguese translation insists that “it is a country of Your Highness [of Portugal]”; thus, a protector becoming an owner. This is also an example of the distinctly Muslim title sultan being extended to other rulers; in other Southeast Asian contexts, Hindu rajas on Bali and Buddhist rulers of Arakan could be termed “sultans”.

For the islands of southern Maluku, the lack of literacy made paper documents obscure for local elites, though the rituals accompanying the creation of alliances would have been highly significant. A large number of “contracts” were drawn up with stateless island communities as a way to ensure VOC monopolies. The paragraphs were probably soon forgotten since diplomatic efforts failed to be renewed on a regular basis. Thus, in the west coast villages of Aru a first contract was made in 1623, followed by negotiations in 1646 and finally a new contract in 1658. Significantly, these contracts failed to address the position of the old dualism between the Ursia and Urlima bonds (Siwa-Lima), which severely limited their relevance or even possibility of adherence to local groups.

Add new comment