marcel barang

On literary translation from the Thai (1)

In English on 25/08/2009 at 5:32 pm


Literary translation is, among other things, a perpetual fight between exactitude and clarity. This is the perennial tug of war this translator has with his editors. Not all phrasings are mutable from one language to another – I don’t mean idioms, but turns of phrase often specific to a writer, with or without infringement of grammatical rules. They are the limit to the practice of word by word translation which is, I believe, the basis of literary translation.

Word by word translation? How can this be from a language where words are written without spaces between them, where there is no punctuation, verbs have no tenses, any number of synonymous adjectives can be strung together and personal nouns are often dispensed with? These are false objections. Average proficiency in Thai is enough to make them disappear: as you read along, the punctuation is – almost always – obvious, down to the comma or the breathing space. In the old days (meaning until about less than a century ago in the case of writers such as Ya-korp) entire books could be written without a single space; these days, the standard practice is to separate elements of a sentence with spaces, and proper spacing is a mark of good editing. The current fashion is to sprinkle the text with question marks, exclamations marks, brackets, dashes and ellipses (one contemporary writer, the would-be Céline of Thailand, uses ellipses instead of spaces – how tedious when you don’t have the wayward doctor’s nerve!). In fact, I keep telling the writers I know that this is pollution from the West: these marks are almost always redundant as there are words in the text that imply question, exclamation or hesitation. But it seems to be a lost battle. Indeed, the example comes from on high: in the couple of adventure stories he translated from the English, the king of Thailand brought the complete set of Western punctuation into the Thai text. The result was so perplexing no-one else since then has gone the full Monty. The only case that can be made of useful punctuation is for quotation marks, needed to know who says what. But even that can be taken care of by paragraph adjustments, as many Western writers have known for decades.

Verbs need no conjugation as there are words in the sentence telling you whether the action is past, present or future, or any other subsidiary tense. The piling-up of adjectives with similar or close meaning can be a problem for the translator, though, as can the absence of personal nouns and pronouns, especially in dialogues.

Probably to prevent misunderstanding as most words are short and accented as well as for euphonic reasons the Thai language is replete with doublets or triplets. In most cases, one word suffices to translate them. The typical example is phairoh phroh phring meaning ‘beautiful’ (to the ear), when either phairoh or phroh on their own have exactly the same meaning. Strings of adjectives – three, four, five of them – are more delicate to handle: whether to translate them individually or as one or perhaps two is a matter of context, sense and style. There is no fast rule.

(I had a good laugh a couple of years ago over an email I received from a fresh Langues-O’ graduate who berated me for daring to put synonyms side by side in my French translation of Ngao See Khao (L’Ombre blanche, The White Shadow). When you translate from the Thai, he proclaimed, the rule is to use only one. He also couldn’t stomach my piling up of three or more adjectives with or without commas ‘when in French the rule is to have the last one preceded by “et”’. As Leonard would say, someone has got a hole in his culture.)

The absence of personal pronoun may or may not be a problem. Pai rong-rian (go school) is a perfectly good, complete Thai sentence. Usually, the context makes it obvious who is going to school or went or will go. Where it can be puzzling or totally confusing (even sometimes to the Thais, and they often express themselves this way on purpose) is in dialogue. I often stumble there, and it takes the very learned Khun Na, my Thai editor, to set me right.

There is also the infamous case of Tang Suea (The Path of the Tiger), Sila Komchai’s short novel in which a zealous editor got rid of almost all pronouns to make it more krachap (concise), à la Hemingway. When Khun Phongdeit and I translated this work in early 1994, we had rows over the meaning of some sentences which we eventually had to ask the author to settle. I remember one particularly mystifying passage: my assistant insisted it was about dewdrops falling through the tree where the hunter has taken refuge, whereas I thought it was the approaching tiger making the dead leaves around the tree rustle – that wide a disagreement. The trodden rustling leaves were what the author had in mind.

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