My struggle with the first paragraphs of Talei Namnom the other day brought to mind an attempt I made some fifteen years ago to translate the untranslatable: Mala Kamchan’s Jao Jan Phorm Horm, which won the 1991 SEA Write Award – before the author veered into horror and ghost stories and I lost his trace.
The title word by word translates as ‘Princess Jan Perfumed Hair’, which in keeping with the spirit of this elegiac novel I’d rather render as ‘Lady Jane of the fragrant mane’.
The story is simple: a Lanna princess on a pilgrimage to the Golden Rock in lower Burma must decide whom of two suitors she will wed when she gets there. Shades of Khun Chang Khun Phaen? Much more than that: a mixture of folk tales from northern and central Thailand, and above all a mixture of mainstream Thai and Northern dialect (the whole book in Thai is studded with explicative notes) to enthralling musical effect. Untranslatable, then, at least to dialect-poor me: an English version would beg for Welsh or Scots; a French one for Breton or Corsican.
Nonetheless, I tried, without telling anyone, and it took me so long I never went beyond the first two pages. Here they are.
The moon gone, stars vie for brightness, shimmering like glass beads inlaid in a swathe of black cloth, with flashes and twinkles large and small, far and near. The cold glare of some stars seems frozen-still. The dazed blinking of others is like simpers of sundry asters engaged in fondling banter. Some have the stark white gleam of a maid’s eyes stealing glances at young men behind her mother’s back, and some the grim dullness of cinder under ash.
In the chill, birds sing. The predawn wind whizzes at the skirt of the woods, setting the trees abuzz. Pitch-black the darkness. The first daub of light on the sky is still a long way off. Numb with cold, fledglings plead for their mother’s bosom. Oh mom let this chilled child share the warmth of your wings.
The taut jungle resounds with ambient tiger threats, now far, now near, as if hanging around half-blending, pretending to be man to lure, pounce, then drag human quarry away to feed on. A curlew whistles sharp curlicues of sound. Its fluttering chant, so chilling as to make one’s hair stand on end, has been going on for quite some time. As white-haired, dry-skinned elders mutter among themselves, when the curlew sings the tiger’s drawing near.
Prostrated, I humbly pay respect.
There seems to be chanting around as if in a ceremony of homage to the teacher, praising him as an old hand of Earth, Heaven and Hell. In the core of the thick jungle where congresses of trees spread far and wide, there is the constant shrill drill of cicadas. Rill and rock frogs call out from distant water sources. In dawn-repelling darkness, men rest. Foreign yet clear chanting breaks into the sound of leaves falling and of a deer browsing. There is a squelchy snort as if the deer is choking on blood. The tiger, the yellow tiger, the tiger in blurred stripes, the big tiger must already have clamped his jaws on her.
Cold oh so very cold. So lonesome when one is far away from home. In the dense jungle still very much pitch dark comes the distant scansion of a Northern song. Who is it that chants in the dead of night, chants in a deep cool drawl through depths of virgin jungle?
Cold oh so cold under the fifth-month wind
Cold numbing the chest to painful heat
Cold the fog cold the mist under the slapping of wind gusts
Cold freezing the depths of the forest
Cold numbing flesh is less chilling than cold in the heart
Cold of mist and woods clothes can keep out
Cold in the breast no amount of wear
No length of thick blanket can warm
Twice a tiger roars in a distant vale. The choir of sylvan insects, down to the teeniest, shut their beaks tight. The crickets hold the ruckus of their wings. The instant the rumour of the tiger dies out, they resume their whispers which swiftly swell to shouting pitch, in a pulsating bustle that seems to bid farewell. The thinning night will soon put the stars to sleep. Orange jasmine will blossom, its fragrance sweet. Divine Aurora and her son Dawn are coming. The Sun, Lord of the sky, will then his rays send forth. The insects’ sustained song thus bids a longing goodbye to the love that was.
Cold oh so very cold. Tiny bleeping fireflies put forth flecks of light as they grope their way through dark jungle confines. A blip here a blip there, then nothing, then a new flicker like a shooting star reaching ground. A single firefly flies as if in pursuit of its mate, frisking away from the flock amidst the vast texture of trees in deep jungle. The flip-flap of a wing is heard. Snuffed now, the tiny firefly. A misty-eyed bird must have flexed its wings then clamped its beak and already gobbled the mite down.
The stars seed the sky with a broadcast of candlelight
Forlorn ’mid the woods, roaming nights slept in grass
Erring adrift, manhood running wild
Away alack from the belovèd wife