And keeping up with the spirit of a piece brings us back to what is needed to mould words into sentences. Words have meaning, connotations and sonority. ‘Gunnel’ and ‘gunwale’ mean the same but have different sounds and appeals, one mainly to the confirmed sailor, the other to the landlubber. You have to know when to use one or the other.
Thai is a feudal, vertically stratified language, and social relationships have a tremendous hold on it: on the one side, relations of power, from king to pauper, from master to servant, from boss to clerk, from skipper to hand; on the other, family relations, which are also relations of power within the clan. Even relations within a married couple are unequal: no-one says phom–khun or chan–theur when talking to one’s partner, but phee–nong (usually elder–younger brother/sister): it’s so much cuter, and yet pernicious. In The White Shadow, Saneh Sangsuk shows that there is no equality in Thai-style love; he might well have a point. Which doesn’t augur well for Thai-style democracy either, but that’s another matter.
If French still has tu and vous in current usage, English has long got rid of ‘thou’ and only uses ‘you’. Thus of necessity are many nuances of Thai lost in translation. But what remains is the need to assess and if possible reproduce the social and affective levels of language used, as well as the music of a phrase or sentence, which altogether account for style. At a simple level, a worker doesn’t talk like a university professor; at another, as we have seen, Martin Amis doesn’t write like his father.
Let’s take an example about the right pitch of language. This is the beginning of The Murder Case of Tok Imam Satorpa Karde, as translated by someone else:
I, Mr. Pracha Wongkosin, Governor of the Province, am speaking the truth when I say that my coming to Tanyongbaru at this time was solely to call on and console the villagers and family of Tok Imam Storpa Karde. There was absolutely no sinister motive whatsoever.
Though by position, I am a representative of the State, yet I tell the truth when I say I have not come to cajole or find fault with the people of Tanyongbaru in any way.
Even without looking at the original, it should be obvious that this is clunky, not just because of the ungainly ‘though … yet’, but because words like ‘call on’, ‘console’ and ‘cajole’ do not belong here. A provincial governor doesn’t talk like this.
Here is my version, written months earlier:
I, provincial governor Pracha Wongko-sin, wish to state in all truthfulness that my visit to Tanyong Baru this time was only to give moral support to the villagers and to the late Tok Imam Satorpa Karde’s family and had no other purpose whatsoever.
Even though as governor I am a representative of the State, I must admit truthfully that I didn’t come to win over or find fault with the people of Tanyong Baru in any way.
A translator’s temptation is often to substitute a ‘better’ phrasing to the author’s: ‘improving’ on a text is just as bad as under-translating it. Time and again, I must confess, I have to force myself to choose the less glamorous, the less precise term or idiom the text requires, as in terms of stylistic affinity I am closer to, say, Saneh Sangsuk than Chart Korbjitti – not that Chart is imprecise: he goes for simpler language.
In terms of rhythm too, it is essential to respect the swell of a sentence, which gives a text its breath, its music. When an author builds an entire paragraph on a single sentence running over ten or twenty lines, it is a gross error to split that sentence into three or four or five chunks: salami slicing turns Victorian prose into chick lit. When the translator is a good writer, readers who have no Thai fall for it, though usually translators that resort to such tricks are also lacklustre writers, more often than not of the academic variety.
This brings me to a wider point: as with any other language, a good translator from the Thai must be first and foremost a good writer in English (or French or whatever), as long as he or she has the modesty to put his or her talent at the service of the Thai author and turn as much as possible into a chameleon or, even better, a ghost.
What pleased me most when L’Ombre blanche came out at the turn of the century was that the dozen of ecstatic reviews that followed all seemed to take it for granted that Saneh Sangsuk wrote in French. The translator as the Invisible Man: you can’t beat that.