#AsiaNow Speaks with Stuart Robson

Stuart Robson is an Adjunct Professor in Indonesian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and is author of The Old Javanese Ramayana; A New English Translation, published by the Institute of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa (ILCAA) within the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo, in 2015, and winner of the AAS A.L. Becker Southeast Asian Literature in Translation Prize for 2019.

What is the book about?

As you will know, the Ramayana is a famous classic of world literature, originating from India and existing in a number of different versions. The present version is a literary one (that is, as distinct from folk), written in the Old Javanese language and dating from the second half of the 9th century and the early decades of the 10th century, and composed in Java.

It follows the plot of the Sanskrit Valmiki version, but is an independent work of literature, with its own special qualities. Unfortunately the name of the author is unknown.

Being an epic, it is hundreds of pages in length. It is divided into 26 chapters, termed sarga. It is written in verse form in accordance with metrical patterns derived from Sanskrit prosody, but here applied to Old Javanese, which is an Austronesian language. This type of poetry is called kakawin, and the Ramayana established the tradition for a number of more such works in later centuries, up to the end of the Hindu period in Java, and continued in Bali.

The manuscripts containing the Ramayana and other Old Javanese works, in verse and in prose, were written (incised) on palmleaf and needed to be regularly recopied, both in Java and later in Bali. The clerks were so accurate in their work that the text was transmitted down to the present day in an almost perfect form. This is due to the high respect in which the texts have been held.

Reading the story, we are inspired by the dramatic narrative, the beautiful descriptions, the wonderful psychological insights of the author (or authors), and the many religious and philosophical messages.

How did you come to study and translate this work?

The study of the Old Javanese Ramayana by Western scholars (as distinct from indigenous ones) dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Dutch scholar H. Kern published a critical edition of the text and commenced making a Dutch translation, followed by H.H. Juynboll, in instalments over a period of many years. They were followed by many more who contributed their scholarship, and we pay homage to them all.

My own interest in the Old Javanese Ramayana dates from the 1980s, when I was working at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, a major centre of Indonesian studies. At that time, E.M. Uhlenbeck was professor of General Linguistics and Javanese, and used to read a chapter of the Ramayana per year with his students, making a syntactical analysis using materials from the text.

A major breakthrough came in 1982, with the publication of the Old Javanese English Dictionary of Professor P.J. Zoetmulder. Prior to that, we were often struggling to understand the meanings of the words. In 1980 an edition and English translation of the Ramayana had appeared in three volumes, but both were scarcely usable.

It was not until I returned to Australia in 1991 that I thought of the Ramayana again, and by 2009 had made good progress, encouraged by my friend and colleague Willem van der Molen, a professor of Philology and Old Javanese at the University of Indonesia and Researcher at the KITLV in Leiden. It is due to his kind support that the work was finally finished and checked in 2013.

What obstacles did you face in this project?

The field of Old Javanese language and literature is still far from being well developed. There is a lack of critically edited texts, let alone translations. What a contrast with the situation in some other Asian countries, such as Japan, with its strong tradition of indigenous scholarship. The elegant English translations of Japanese classics by Donald Keene, for example, are an inspiration. In the past Old Javanese was a Dutch monopoly, but in the postwar period is has become an international enterprise, with both Indonesians and others from around the world contributing equally.

While translating the Ramayana, I discovered repeatedly that words were either missing from the dictionary or were assigned incorrect meanings. I had to do some comparative research, looking for parallels in Modern Javanese or Malay, and even made interesting discoveries in Sundanese. Every time I solved one of these puzzles—and there were hundreds—it was a matter for celebration. It takes a dyed-in-the-wool philologist to get excited about one silly little word!

In some places the language of the Old Javanese Ramayana is surprisingly simple and clear, perhaps because it was intended to be recited and perceived by ear, but in other places difficult to interpret. Furthermore, its language is more archaic than later works of the same genre; it even has sets of conjugated connective particles, for example.

Finally, another obstacle, if I may call it such, is the proprietary attitude of certain Sanskritists, who want to impose their own conventions regarding spelling—perhaps because the Ramayana originated from India and Valmiki wrote in Sanskrit. Indian culture did indeed spread into parts of Southeast Asia, but the Old Javanese Ramayana is very much a product of Java and the Javanese.

Do you have a favourite among the many characters populating the Ramayana?

The Ramayana is the tale of the adventures of Rama. He has a younger brother, Laksmana, and a beautiful wife, Sita. Sita is kidnapped by the king of the demons, Rawana. In the struggle to recover her Rama is assisted by the army of monkeys, in particular Hanuman. But among all these I am attracted to a demon maiden, Trijata, the daughter of Rawana’s brother Wibhisana, who is a faithful companion of Sita in her captivity.

After the death of Rawana, when Sita is preparing to be reunited with Rama, he unexpectedly has a change of heart, rejecting her as having been too long with the enemy. At this point, Trijata dares to speak up in the assembly, not only defending Sita’s purity, but also blaming Rama for his stupidity. And Rama is supposed to be an incarnation of the divine! See 24.175. This girl is my hero.

What other books do you recommend for reading on Old Javanese literature?

First, one should consult P.J. Zoetmulder’s Kalangwan, a Survey of Old Javanese Literature (1974) as a reference.

Second, there are several recent English translations that give a feeling for this genre, the kakawin. Examples are: the Arjunawiwaha (2008); Bhomantaka (2005); Sumanasantaka (2013); and Ghatotkacasraya (2016).

Most importantly, for reading the Old Javanese Ramayana translation, we should consult its companion volume, the Old Javanese text, critically transliterated from Kern by Willem van der Molen, and also published in Tokyo in the same year.

What are you doing at present?

In fact I have been retired for many years, and have weak eyesight and shaky hands, among other infirmities of old age, but can’t resist the temptation to translate more, all in an effort to remind the world that Javanese and Old Javanese exist, and moreover contain much of interest for those working in Asian Studies and more broadly. So keep an eye out for new publications!