marcel barang

On literary translation from the Thai (2)

In English on 25/08/2009 at 6:03 pm


So far so good, but doesn’t what precedes disprove the word by word approach?

Not really. Translating word by word is not to be taken literally: you would end up writing pidgin at best. ‘Go school’ will never a proper English sentence make, as my German friends will tell you. What I mean by ‘word by word translation’ is paying attention not simply to the meaning of a sentence or paragraph – the duty of translators of non-literary texts – but to the order in which words are written and sentences cobbled together. Simply put, Hemingway doesn’t build his sentences the way DeLillo or Mailer or Updike does. Thai writers may not be as well-known as those giants but the best of them are just as painstaking at their task.

What is at stake here is style. All good writers have their own. And style is not a matter of meaning but of phrasing, that is, which words in which order produce that harmony of sound and rhythm without which a text is flat. A literary translator’s job is to render an author’s style, not substitute to it his or her own, which unfortunately tends to be the prevalent trend in Thai translation, whether into or from that language.

Some Thai translators are brilliant writers so famous for their golden pen that it doesn’t matter who it is they traduce: it is always their prose that readers lap up. They rate bigger names on book covers than the authors.

On the English side, when some fifteen years ago I went through the small batch of Thai short stories that had had the Great Honour of being Translated Into English until then, I was flabbergasted to see that in almost all cases they had been thoroughly ‘retooled’.  (And only a couple of months ago, I had a nasty row with a couple of ruthless editors of a purported Asian literary magazine who claimed the right to rewrite at will already published short stories translated (by me) from the Thai and ‘turn shaft into bricks’, as one of them put it, presumably for them to sell better : the Kentucky Fried Chicken approach.) As a rule, their all-important first paragraphs had seen their sentences displaced, reshuffled, sometimes dispensed with or entirely rewritten, presumably in order to ‘achieve a better effect’, ‘make them punchier’ or – the perennial excuse of amateurs – in the name of ‘the genius of the language’.

Le génie de la langue a bon dos, as we say in French. It is easy to blame it on the genius of the language. Let’s put the poor fellow back into his lamp, shall we.

My approach is radically different. I believe it is an insult to an author who has taken great pains over the spread of his word-cards to scramble it and reshuffle the pack. If a paragraph is composed of sentences 1, 2, 3 and 4, I will endeavour to preserve that sequence. Only if the end-result is clunky will changes be introduced as a last resort. But this is very seldom the case with good writers.

In fact, the sentence by sentence and word by word approach works surprisingly well, and the merit is with the author, who provides the patterns.

Concerning the word sequence in a sentence, there is a very simple and very effective trick I use as often as I need, which is to ask myself, when faced with an unusual pattern of words: how would they say that in plain Thai? And then try to measure the difference and reproduce in English what I perceive it to be. This works for entire sentences, phrases and words in some cases as well.

The standard practice of literary translators everywhere I’ve read about in interviews seems to be: ‘I first read the book once or twice to imbibe myself with the flavour, the music, the style of an author and then endeavour to reproduce them.’ I don’t do this. Of course I’ve read the novel or short story before, sometimes months ago, yet I am not at all persuaded I’ve caught ‘the flavour, the music, the style’ well enough to ‘reproduce them’, but trust they will emerge by themselves. I start with the first paragraph, sentence per sentence, line by line – and then go on to the next and the next.

The first stage of the work thus consists merely in entering English gobbledygook into the computer, word by word by word by word, with minimal use of dictionaries. When I don’t know a word or can’t find the one I want, I type the sign ‘=’ to look it up later. There must be no cheating, so I enter even those words that are best left un-translated, such as ‘kor’, on the outside chance that they may have their role to play. It’s drudgery, but it’ll pay in the next stage.

The second stage is where the literary transmutation takes place, where sentences are forged, words found or changed to play on an English (or French) partition what my inner ear reads in Thai. This is where the moulding of sentences is fun – whether they are composed of just two words (pai rong-rian) as could be the case with Chart Korbjitti or whether they run over a dozen pages, as often with Saneh Sangsuk, or anything in between. More on all this in another post.

With very contrived grammatical structures, finding the appropriate equivalent in English can be a challenge, arduous but pleasurable, even if at times I have to outguess or even correct the author, from a linguistic and logical standpoint – an example of this is in the last lines of the first paragraph of the two versions of Lap Lae posted in the last few days: having to change ‘as my father was’ to ‘and why my father was’ because of a sueng (which) which I believe should not be there.*

There is yet a third stage, after the text has been checked line by line against the Thai and corrections entered. It consists in forgetting entirely about the original text and rereading the English version to track down the odd phrasing or sore word.

That’s when the genius of the language may be allowed out of the lamp.


* To learn about the author, Uthit Haemamoon (yes, I have decided to switch to my system of transliteration, which privileges pronunciation over Pali-Sanskrit roots that make the author spell his name as Uthis Hemamool), go to:
Disregard the
Nation’s translation of the title. It cannot be ‘Mysteries of Kaeng Khoi’ because 1) the word lap-lae means ‘screen’ or ‘blind’, so at best it could be ‘The Kaeng Khoi Blind’, and 2) Lap Lae and Kaeng Khoi, besides being names of districts as we know, are here names of characters that turn out to be one and the same, and the author means it this way, since in the title he separates the two names … by a comma. He would have been better inspired using a dash or a slash.


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