Beyond Translation: Bridging Cultures and Languages

5 min readMay 4, 2023

In every line of work, there’s often a crucial profession that doesn’t receive the attention or recognition it deserves. It’s not until their absence, when we desperately need their expertise, that we truly appreciate their importance.

“Hello” in many languages
Source: Linguistic Society of America

As I stepped off the plane at Ahmad Yani International Airport in Semarang, Central Java, that morning, I felt the familiar anticipation of a typical workday ahead.

My agenda was filled with visits to European government-donor-funded pilot projects. But this time, it was different: a group of foreigners from the donor government ministries and embassy would be joining us, the project team.

From Jakarta to Semarang, source: Resourceful Indonesian (with modification)

That’s where Mr. Parulian came in. He had been our trusty interpreter for the past three years, accompanying our missions to cities and regencies across various Indonesian provinces.

I must admit, I used to underestimate the job of an interpreter. I thought it was a simple task to convert spoken languages from one to another. But when I had to do it myself, I realized just how mistaken I was.

I’m not a language expert, a trained interpreter, or a native English speaker. Interpreting is definitely not my strong suit. I often found myself analyzing what was said instead of translating it. If I disagreed with a statement, my mind would race to develop counterarguments, leaving me at a loss for words.

Mr. Parulian, on the other hand, possesses remarkable skills: attentive listening, sharp memory, multitasking abilities, and a strong ethical foundation to convey the intended meaning while maintaining impartiality.

Our mission in Semarang was to provide technical assistance on environmental issues, with a focus on the small local tofu industry.

Mr. Parulian’s expertise as a professional interpreter was crucial for facilitating communication between stakeholders: local government officials, NGOs, communities, and, of course, the funders.

A tofu factory, source:

Now, you might think that artificial intelligence could eventually surpass or replace Mr. Parulian’s skills. While that might be true in some aspects, AI has yet to replicate the cultural nuances and context that a human interpreter can provide.

During our visit, such nuances became apparent. When local government staff answered “yes” to questions from the embassy or ministry staff, it didn’t always mean they agreed.

Saying “yes” (or “ya” in Bahasa Indonesia) can sometimes be more of an expression of acknowledgment than a definitive agreement. This might stem from a desire to preserve harmony, steer clear of confrontation, or demonstrate respect.

Illustration of “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (unity in diversity)
Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” (unity in diversity), source: Enny Mamito’s Pinterest account

In Indonesian culture, communication often goes beyond the spoken word. Non-verbal cues and gestures play a significant role in conveying meaning, especially when politeness and indirectness are valued.

Mr. Parulian handled these situations masterfully. He translated the answers and provided written notes to the foreigners, explaining the possible intentions behind the responses. This allowed for a deeper understanding and moved the discussion to a more meaningful level between all parties.

At the tofu factory, we faced another challenge: informal conversations with factory workers who mostly spoke Indonesian with a Javanese accent or sometimes mixed Javanese words. Indonesia is a diverse country with over 1,300 ethnic groups and around 700 living languages, including Javanese.

Illustration of people in traditional dress, unity in diversity
Unity in Diversity, source: yak online

Mr. Parulian, a Bataknese from North Sumatra, wasn’t fluent in Javanese. So, I stepped in as his assistant, translating Javanese words and interpreting slang, humor, and context for him to convert into English.

When we asked the factory workers why they seemed so relaxed and unpressured in their work, they replied jokingly, “Alon-alon asal kelakon.” This Javanese proverb translates to “slowly but surely” or “take your time, as long as you get it done.”

It highlights the significance of patience and persistence, emphasizing that steady progress towards a goal is preferable to rushing and making mistakes along the way.

Paddy rice in Indonesia
Rice field, source: Mongabay Indonesia

The history of the Javanese people as an agrarian society likely influenced this proverb. In agriculture, patience and a steady pace are crucial for achieving long-term success. Crops need time to grow, and farmers must work consistently and diligently throughout the planting, growing, and harvesting seasons.

This proverb embodies the wisdom of adopting a measured, patient approach to tasks, which is characteristic of agrarian societies that rely on the natural cycles of the land.

The question of whether their response aligned with the factory owner’s intentions for increasing productivity is a separate matter altogether.

As we navigated the language barrier, I realized the challenges were not one-sided. Just like us, the foreign delegates were also non-native English speakers.

Communicating between two non-native English speakers can present difficulties, as limited vocabulary, grammar issues, cultural differences, accents, and nonverbal communication can all pose challenges.

Thankfully, only high-ranking embassy and ministry officials, who I presumed had extensive training and international experience, joined us that day, which lessened these difficulties.

If there were foreign interns or less experienced consultants joining us, Mr. Parulian would have had to put in even more effort, including addressing language interference.

“Hello” in many languages
Source: Havervord College

Mr. Parulian expertly navigated these challenges, thanks to his global travels as a seaman and years of experience as a professional interpreter. He also diligently studied the cultural and professional backgrounds of the foreigners in advance.

Our journey to Semarang was a resounding success, with all stakeholders achieving their objectives. Mr. Parulian’s invaluable contributions were instrumental in bringing us all together and ensuring mutual understanding and cooperation.

In every line of work, there’s often a crucial profession that doesn’t receive the attention or recognition it deserves. It’s akin to the supporting characters or sidekicks in a TV show or movie- Robin to Batman, Dr. Watson to Sherlock Holmes, Samwise to Frodo, or Dory to Nemo.

Batman and Robin
Batman Comic Cover — P 2013, source: Hollywood Reporter

These individuals play a critical role by offering assistance, guidance, or even comic relief, and sometimes they serve as a foil to accentuate the main character’s qualities.

It’s not until their absence, when we desperately need their expertise, that we truly appreciate their importance. In the development aid sector, and on that particular day, Mr. Parulian was our unsung hero.

His contributions might never have been acknowledged in project reports, publications, news, or social media, yet he and other interpreters like him are indispensable to our success.




Mother & aid practitioner 🌏 | Exploring cultural bridges 🌐, aid industry insights 🔍, and cherishing life's simple pleasures 🌸