In the translation world, it is very important to provide the client with exceptional linguistic service and a high-quality finished product. What do you do, then, when the client asks for Bahasa, and you assume you should translate into Malaysian, when they really needed Indonesian? And what exactly is the difference? They are both called Bahasa, and by all accounts are very similar.

The islands of Southeast Asia have, for centuries, been a global hub of travel, trade, and commerce. As such it has developed into a myriad collection of peoples, cultures, and languages. Island societies, however, have a tradition of developing pockets of very different cultures, as islands are often easily accessible by boat, but cut off from other societies by large bodies of water. The island nations of Malaysia and Indonesia are no different.

Both Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are standardized “isolects” of Malay, a major language of the Austronesian family. (The term “isolect” is a neutral term, often used in Malayic linguistics, to refer to those Malay languages that are neither strictly a language nor a dialect. However, for simplicity in this article, I refer to them both as languages.) Yet, while both these languages are considered “Malay”, they differ greatly because of how they were impacted by the geography of the islands, and how they were historically influenced by outside interaction.

Sanskrit, the earliest linguistic influence on the islands, came from India in the form of Buddhist and Hindu traders. Next came Muslim traders who brought both a significant Arabic influence (most often seen in borrowed vocabulary), as well as a potent Islamic influence that created the area’s prevailing religious culture.

The largest language influences, however, came during the years of European exploration and colonization. Portuguese influence came in the early 1500s, but was restricted primarily to the islands of Indonesia, as the English had control over the areas to the north. The Dutch arrival in the 1600s pushed Portuguese influence out, and treaties with the English solidified Dutch rule in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies), and English rule in the Malaysian archipelago and northern coast of Borneo. These colonial influences irrevocably changed the Malay language in two very distinct ways.

Bahasa Malaysia

Bahasa Malaysia (or Malaysian in English) refers to the standardized and official language of the nation of Malaysia. The term “Bahasa” simply means “language of.” Therefore, Bahasa Malaysia translates as “the language of Malaysia.”

While “Malaysian” is the name given to the version of Malay found in Malaysia, it is nearly impossible to identify a “standard” dialect of Malaysian spoken indigenously in Malaysia. For example Bahasa Malaysia, the standardized and official dialect of Malaysian business and government, is similar to Bahasa Melayu, the dialect commonly spoken in Peninsular Malaysia. However in East Malaysia and Brunei, they speak a dialect called Bahasa Baku that differs in vowel pronunciation and tends to be spoken much faster.

One of the major ways Malaysian differs from Indonesian is its influence by and incorporation of the English language. When speakers of Malaysian incorporated English vocabulary, they rarely changed the pronunciation of the word. For example, the word “immigration” in Malaysian is “imigrassen”. While the spelling has changed, the pronunciation has little to no variation.

Bahasa Indonesia

Indonesian (the standardized and official language of Indonesia), on the other hand, has been strongly influenced by both Portuguese and Dutch occupation. For example, immigration in Indonesian – “imigrasi” – takes a distinctively Dutch form (“immigratie” in Dutch). Indonesian also has a tendency to modify incorporated vocabulary. Some vocabulary that may have a similar root or sound among several languages (such as “school” in English is also “school” in Dutch and “escola” in Portuguese) becomes “sekolah” in Indonesian.

Furthermore, there are specific words that have very different meanings in each language. For example, “budak” in Malaysian means “children,” but in Indonesian it means “slave.” Polisi in Malaysian takes the English pronunciation and means “policy” (such as an insurance policy). In Indonesian, however, it means “police.” But the Indonesian word for policy is “polis,” which is the Malaysian word for police.

It is commonly said that Indonesians can understand Bahasa Malaysia, but Malaysians have difficulty understanding Bahasa Indonesia. This is often attributed to the greater number of words borrowed from Portuguese and Dutch, as well as a greater number of indigenous languages that have shaped local vocabulary and speech patterns.

Multiple variations

Between Malaysia and Indonesia, there are over 100 distinct Malay isolects. These isolects are characterized by mixing Malaysian and Indonesian with vocabulary and syntax from local indigenous languages. Some of the larger include Iban (spoken by the Iban people of northern Borneo), Minangkabau (native of western Sumatra), Javanese (also called Bahasa Jawa, is a mix of Indonesian and the Sanskrit-based indigenous language of Java), and Riau-Johor Malay (this dialect group is spoken in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula and in the Riau archipelago in Indonesia, and it bears the closest resemblance to the national standard language of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei). Because of the strong local influences found in these isolects, they can sometimes be mutually unintelligible from other isolects.

Written language

Both modern Malaysian and Indonesian use a Latin alphabet called Rumi, although Indonesian uses a different orthography and incorporates accent marks, both commonly found in the Dutch and Portuguese languages.

Back in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the height of Muslim influence, there was an Arabic-based writing system called Jawi. Slowly, however, European colonization of the area made the Latin alphabet the primary orthography. Although Jawi still exists today, mostly as a co-official writing system (with Rumi) in Brunei, efforts are being made to preserve Jawi script and revive its use among Malays in Malaysia.

It is important, therefore, that the next time you are asked to translate Malay, be careful and make sure to clarify which language they are referring to. It can save both you and your client a lot of trouble and headache.