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Stuart Owen Robson: For the love of language

  • Ika Krismantari

    The Jakarta Post

Melbourne | Wed, August 21, 2013 | 01:11 pm
Stuart Owen Robson: For the love of language (JP/Ika Krismantari) (JP/Ika Krismantari)

(JP/Ika Krismantari)

In his grey suit and flat cap covering his thinning white hair, Javanese linguist Stuart Owen Robson looks just like a typical Western man from the outside, but deep down, the man may be a true Javanese.

You can tell from how he speaks to others. The words flow from his mouth in a soft spoken manner that mimics the way most Javanese talk. His pronunciation of Javanese words is almost flawless. Even though he confesses he cannot speak the language fluently, people will be surprised at how eloquently he cites a Javanese phrase from an ancient manuscript.

'€œIki ceritane negara ing Majapahit, nalika panjenengane Prabu Kenya [this is a tale of the kingdom of Majapahit, at the time of the reign of Prabu Kenya],'€ Robson quotes the first line from the famous Javanese legend Damarwulan.

He said that Damarwulan was one of the stories that attracted him to studying the language further.

'€œIt is beautiful, lovely stuff,'€ he said.

His first exposure to Javanese occurred when he was studying for his undergraduate degree in Indonesian and Malayan Studies at the University of Sydney in the early 1960s. As part of the program, he studied Javanese.

'€œThe first time I heard Javanese from my old professor Prof. FH Van Naerssen. He was of mixed Indonesian and Dutch background and he spoke Javanese beautifully,'€ he said.

As if it was love at first hearing, the young Robson decided to focus on studying Javanese.

'€œIt'€™s quite different from Indonesian. Ask yourself, what'€™s the difference between the feeling, the rasa, of the words besar (big) and gedhe (big),'€ he said.

For the love of the language, the man has travelled to different parts of the world to discover the meaning of old Javanese texts. He went to Leiden in 1965 to do research into a middle Javanese kidung called Wangbang Wideya. The research was then published as a book.

After that, Robson went to Indonesia to learn from language expert PJ Zoetmulder and he assisted the professor in completing an old Javanese dictionary, which was published in two thick volumes in 1982. The publication is still regarded as a significant resource in the study of the Javanese language.

From Indonesia, he went to New Zealand to become a lecturer before returning to his home country to become associate professor at Monash University. The 72-year old is now retired.

Robson explained that his journey to different countries to study and teach Javanese and Indonesian was part of his mission to contribute to the development of Asian studies in Australia.

'€œMy aim in life has always been to accumulate as much knowledge as I could gather and bring it back,'€ he said.

Despite Australians'€™ waning interest in learning foreign languages, Robson believes he sees positive signs in the number of people who are studying Indonesian.

'€œWe hear a lot about India and China these days but I believe Indonesia is actually more important for Australia. Why? Because it is right bloody next door,'€ he said.

He believes that learning Indonesian is the key that will draw people to learn local languages, including Javanese. Therefore, in addition to his work on Javanese texts, he has composed a course book Basic Indonesian to guide students in their exploration of the national and local languages.

Born and bred in Sydney, Robson has always been fascinated by foreign languages. His interests in language developed when he discovered books on Japanese grammar when he was still in high school. The books belonged to his grandfather, who was a military officer.

He started studying Japanese at university but it was fate that led him to study Indonesian and Javanese. The fate that grew from love and turned into passion. Robson explained how he would scream in joy when he was able to define one old Javanese word. He admits that such a discovery still excites him even now.

This explains why after four decades of delving into the subject, the septuagenarian shows no sign of slowing down. His days are still filled with translation work; he says his only hobby is finishing his translations.

He has just completed a new English translation of the old Javanese Ramayana, written some time in the 9th century. He is seeking a publisher for the 600-page book.

Apart from the book, Robson says that his work his far from done. He explains that there are still hundreds of texts needing to be translated.

He has also quietly written a novel titled I am Sri. The novel, which is for private consumption, tells
the story of a Javanese woman striving to become successful in love and life.

'€œI was so absorbed in it, because it was very meaningful to me and in fact it seemed more meaningful than all the actual academic work I had ever done,'€ he confessed.

This personal project shows that Indonesia, in this case Java, is more than just work for the man. To some extent, he even considers it as home. He has travelled to different parts of Indonesia but he says Muntilan (a district in Magelang, Central Java) is the place where he feels the most comfortable.

'€œI love to go into the villages ['€¦] I like to go wandering in sawah [rice fields]. I have some very
good friends. They are just like family. You feel very close to them,'€ he says.

Apart from the people, Robson also enjoys the local food, mostly perkedel (mashed potato patties), semar mendem (steamed glutinous rice rolls) and keripik (chips).

Unfortunately, the last time he visited his second home two years ago, he fell sick. His wife Prateep Changchit, a teacher of Thai and an artist, has since prohibited him from going back.

'€œBut I would love to go again some time before I get too old,'€ he muses, stressing his unending love of the land, language and the people.

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