The word by word or any other kind of approach when translating Thai fiction faces two big hurdles: one is dialogue; the other, royal language (rarcharsap). Translating See Phaendin (Four Reigns) right now, I am grappling with both, along with a further complication: the great variety of address between people of different age, sex, family status and social background, something no Western language is equipped to deal with adequately.
Dialogue is usually where the most idiomatic expressions are in use, and where layers of meaning are likely to pile up. Wherever possible the structure of the conversation should be kept as it is, but in order to convey shades of meaning and yet keep the exchange natural, lifelike, rewrite is all too often necessary (keeping in mind the time and place of the novel to avoid anachronisms and the character’s social and personal makeup to avoid implausibility). Phloi in Four Reigns doesn’t talk like any woman in The White Shadow, nor does she talk like her maid.
In the course of the seven hundred plus pages of Four Reigns I have translated so far, I must have on first draft typed a thousand times ‘Phloi asked’ and ‘Khun Preim answered’: this boring routine is to be pared down to a minimum in the final version, that is, preserved only when necessary to the understanding of the dialogue.
More difficult to solve is the problem of how characters address one another. When in English there is the one ‘I’, the Thais have the choice of Phom, Kraphom, Kha pha jao, Chan, ’Ichan, Dichan, Koo, Ua, Rao, Noo, Larn, Pa, Na, Lung, Poo, Ya, Ta, Yai and many others (plus the options of using none of the above or else using nicknames) – and each word speaks volumes about the person’s status or frame of mind. When this is not to be lost in translation, one is compelled to alter the phrasing of what is said to introduce the right nuance.
This can be demanding but is nothing compared to the nightmare of reproducing palace speech, royally bestowed titles, ceremonial paraphernalia and the like – you know, things like Somdeitphraborrommaratchineenart to say Her Majesty the Queen. Rarcharsap or high language (and its variant when addressing top monks) is a Sanskrit overlay on normal Thai further petrified by protocol. Imagine Chaucer English with Teutonic frills. Judging from this one middle-aged taxi driver the other day who couldn’t think of the word for ‘surgeon’ (salyaweit) I guess that not a third of the populace understands royal parlance readily for all the compulsory 8pm palace news on TV – how many can actually practise it is anybody’s guess. Nonetheless, this has to be tackled, and it has to be tackled while keeping footnotes to a bare minimum.
A novel is not a guidebook or a sociology manual; a literary translator is rarely in the pay of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. In the worst cases, a glossary at the back of the book is in order to please the finicky reader – I had to do this for The Murder Case of Tok Imam Satorpa Karde by Siriworn Kaewkan, a novella replete with Jawi, Malay and Arabic words whose foreignness is essential to the book’s climate.
Many translators of Thai fiction earn their living as teachers and in this unrewarding labour of love practise what I call the pedagogical approach to translation, resorting to numerous learned footnotes that distract you from the story. Sometimes they get carried away: in a recent French translation of a well-known Thai novel, we find in the text ‘the house by the khlong’ with a footnote saying ‘Khlong in Thai means canal’. It does, but why isn’t the house by the canal in the first place?
This calls to mind another frequent abuse: the peppering of an English translation with Thai words, presumably for local colour. It might be all right for a writer such as Salman Rushdie to indulge in a sowing of unexplained Hindi terms to dazzle you, but it certainly isn’t for a translator when no local colour is meant in the original text. With a little ingenuity, the phakhama turns into a length of chequered cloth and the khaen into a reed mouth organ or panpipe, even if sometimes tuktuk is the right word rather than (motorised) three-wheeler.
A more enjoyable difficulty is the play on words Thais are so fond of. They seldom translate straight. So it is up to you to find equivalents or, if you can’t right there, turn a later innocuous phrase into wordplay to keep up with the spirit of the piece.