Cowboys and Indonesians

India, the West Indies and the East Indies are all completely different – the result of historical confusions among Europeans. Unusually for European languages, Dutch has retained the word “Indisch” as the demonym for the former East Indies and people are always mistranslating it as Indian instead of Indonesian.

Okay, it’s a bit of a silly title for the post. But it shows immediately what the problem is.

  • it’s OK in historical contexts when the “East” is also present, in the same way as West Indian is perfectly normal English
    VOC = Dutch East India Company
    Nederlands Indië = Dutch East Indies
  • the food from that part of the world has to be described as Indonesian, if you can’t be more specific (Javanese or whatever). Particularly because Indian cuisine is widely recognized in the rest of the world!
  • the shortened form “Indo” in compound words like Indo-Dutch should be understood OK in English. But translating it as Indian will again always be wrong.

And be careful, by the way, about how you refer to Native Americans/First Nations. As we’ve just seen from the rebranding of the Washington Redskins, it’s a touchy subject. And who can blame them?

Prevalence: moderate. Much more common than in English at any rate, given that Indonesia was formerly a Dutch colony.
Frequency: very high. Translating the modern state Indonesië and its demonym Indonesisch correctly is no problem. But slip-ups with Indisch and Indië are commonplace.
Native: no. Coming from Birmingham (not Alabama – the English one, which has a high Indian ethnic population) and being a fan of a good curry, I got thoroughly confused by this one myself when I first came to the Netherlands.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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