Seventeen years ago, I undertook to select, translate and publish the twenty best novels of Thailand under the label Thai Modern Classics.
One of those twenty was See Phaendin (Four Reigns) by Kukrit Pramoj.
So, prior to publication of my anthology (the 20 best novels of thailand, TMC, 1994 – revised edition 2008, see thaifiction.com) that started the TMC publishing programme, as I did with every author or their heirs, I sent the relevant chapter of it to MR Kukrit for permission to publish. Each chapter consisted of a biography of the author, a presentation of the story with substantial excerpts, and my own assessment of the work.
As a journalist during the previous decades, I had known MR Kukrit, indeed in the early days (1976) had been briefly his neighbour in Soi Praphinit and had witnessed his fabled residence being ransacked by drunken police officers, had interviewed him a couple of times and failed to please him and his dog Samsee.
To my consternation, the author had his secretary send me a short note in hemiplegic Thai denying me the right to translate his work on the grounds that my translation approach couldn’t possibly do justice to his work.
No need here to retrace the history of Thai Modern Classics, its premature demise in 1988 and resurrection in due time, but as a set of eBooks available on thaifiction.com. Suffice it to say that, by early 2009, having translated all but two of the twenty novels and having decided not to retranslate Nikhom Raiyawa’s Taling Soong Sung Nak (very well translated already by Richard C Lair under the title High Banks Heavy Logs) I was left with Four Reigns.
By then MR Kukrit was long dead.
As the yearly pilgrimage for visa renewal took me for the last time to Soi Suan Phlu in March 2009 I just sauntered over to Kukrit’s Heritage Home, as it is now called, and was lucky to find there its managing director, ML Rongrit Pramoj, who, in the course of a most pleasant conversation around his father and this book, declared himself wholly in favour of my translating the novel. He told me, though, that the copyright holder wasn’t him but his sister, ML Visumitra. He called her on his portable (she was in England that day) and I briefly talked to her, to the effect that she was concerned about possible complications given the existence of another book in English purporting to be a translation of See Phaendin, which was being reprinted.
That book, Four Reigns, by ‘Tulachandra’ (the pen name of a now deceased husband and wife team who were distant relatives of the author’s on his mother’s side) is, as I explained at length, an adaptation in English of Kukrit’s novel, written in their own style and at times quite at odds with the original. It is by no means the faithful literary translation such a masterpiece deserved and I proposed to undertake. I left and got to work.
Sometime in late November, having completed Book I (‘First Reign’, amounting to almost half of the entire work), I went to leave a copy for ML Rongrit and ML Visumitra at Kukrit’s Heritage Home, with a letter welcoming comment, suggestions and corrections. As the taxi neared the house a late season downpour blinded us. There were a few women in the reception pavilion. To my shame, I was racked with colic and had to use the loo. I was told to take my shoes and socks off and was provided with an umbrella: the loo was just beyond a cataract from adjacent gutterless eaves.
I went on with the translation of Books II, III and IV and rounds of checking against the Thai, English editing and, on June 14, with a printout of the 350,000-word-long translation ready in Word format, I called ML Rongrit.
I reminded him of our conversation of fifteen months earlier, told him I had completed the translation and would be happy to come over and give him a printout of it, and what did he think about Book I anyway?
What Book I? When? Never heard of it. He’d inquire about it. He did mention again the Tulachandra book objection and ended the conversation by saying he must consult with his sister.
That was two weeks ago.
Last week, I got fed up waiting for an answer. Mulling things over, I decided: to hell with the right to publish – let alone the right to translate, which is mine regardless. Maybe I’ll get it eventually. In the meantime, I’m going to format the book and get it printed, at my own expense, in just a few copies with the mention on the cover: ‘Complimentary copy – not for sale’.
I’ll drop one at Kukrit’s Heritage Home. I’ll reward my four editors with one each. I’ll give one to my boss, Sondhi Limthongkul, without whom I’d never have been able to translate not just Four Reigns but the whole TMC series anyway. Perhaps I’ll keep a copy to present at the October book fair to the Crown Princess, who has been known to complain that See Phaendin has never been properly translated. And I’ll keep a copy or two for me to gloat over and leave eventually to my daughter as keepsakes.
That’s what I was busy with these past few days: formatting 908 pages and a cover ready to go to print. Now you know.
Tomorrow, I’ll get in touch with the printer.
PS: On that same day, June 14, I called up Prof Nittaya Masawisut, after hunting her phone number, to find out what was happening about Thutiyawiseit and permission to publish by the Bunluea Fund now that the red storm is momentarily over. She told me they would meet on June 23 and let me know about the modalities of the contract. I’ve just realised today is June 28. If only I could afford a secretary!