marcel barang

Translation as detective work

In English on 21/04/2011 at 8:56 pm

Translating Dorkmai Sot is no picnic. I know this by experience, having gone ages ago through her novel Noblesse oblige (Phoo Dee ผู้ดี).
One short story of hers, Phonlamueang Dee (พลเมืองดี – The good citizen), has featured in all local anthologies ever since she penned it in 1947, and I’ve been tackling it lately.
It’s about the differences of perception between Bangkok denizens and provincial folk, through a tongue-in-cheek account of the tribulations of one particular ‘good citizen’ during the war whose sense of right and wrong doesn’t tally with that of the locals in the riverside village where he has taken refuge with his family to escape bombings in the capital. Incidentally, there is also a dig at the Phibun government which had tried in 1942 to regulate Thai spelling and, more importantly here, the way people’s names should be handled. In brief, the story is fun to read.
But it requires sleuthing qualities of a translator: in her often convoluted prose, our Fresh Flower occasionally loses sight of her subject, which one has to reinstate for her nolens volens (there’s a case in the very third paragraph).
But that’s par for the course, as well as the pruning of pleonasms such as ‘khao reep taeng tua doi reo’. (Oh, but that’s the way they wrote in the old days, says my daughter. Yeah, right: try to reep taeng tua doi cha. It reminds me of the French ‘monter en haut et descendre en bas’.)

More vexing was ‘the case of the drum’, as I’ve come to call it.
One native lad is getting ordained as a monk and here comes the orchestra for the ceremony. Not your traditional Thai orchestra, mind you, as you would expect in the boondocks, but a very portentous, a very farang one, with ‘euphonium, baritone, cornet, first oboe, base snare drum and… klong ma-likan’ – huh! What sort of drum is that?
Neither my half-dozen Thai-Thai and Thai-English dictionaries nor the Thai-English dictionaries online (for which I had to painstakingly assemble the word in Thai) had a มาลิกัน entry. Not a trace on the net, except as a person’s name or surname. I searched in both languages for percussion instruments and found dozens, but no ma-likan drum. I asked my daughter, but what to expect from a 24-year-old lawyer, even if Rajini schooled? Whom did I know who was closer in age to Dorkmai Sot (1905–1963)? I sent an SOS to a Thai poet probably suffering from fibromyalgia…
Should I just jump over said drum, then? No can do: the blasted instrument features in the story no fewer than three times.
Could ma-likan be the transliteration of some farang word? ‘American’, perhaps? No, not with a long ‘a’ and an ‘l’. Marican perhaps, but not ma-likan. Which other word, then?
After a bad night’s sleep, my brain told me: Isn’t there a Scottish clan called Mulligan? That could fit. Go and check. So I typed ‘mulligan drum’ and, lo and behold, the British queen’s own Mulligan Guards, complete with their own drums, jumped off the screen.
So, touch wood or cow’s skin, Mulligan Guard drum it is! You read it here first.

But that’s not all.
On the third page, there is a seven-line paragraph describing the configuration of a traditional Thai country house, complete with number and orientation of rooms, doors, windows, partition walls, and then some. I read it in Thai and didn’t understand the Thai. I translated it as best I could in English and didn’t understand the English. I tried to draw a plan of the house, starting from the first line and then again from the last, and soon gave up. I asked my daughter to read the paragraph and draw a plan. After half an hour and many frowns, she too gave up.
The next day, I went to the office and had a total of eight word wizards in three separate groups read and draw, which led to much shaking of heads and darkening of paper (and even the screen of an iPad) to absolutely no avail. I left a photocopy of the page with one editor, who gave me his word he’d try his best to make sense of the puzzle.

As soon as I have a digital version of that infernal paragraph, I’ll arrange for its publication on the internet with the promise of a substantial reward to whoever, Thai, farang, friend or foe, is able to come up with a plan of the house accounting for all the rooms, doors and windows as described therein.
Meanwhile, of course, the translation, otherwise finished, is stalled.


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