marcel barang

Translation blues

In English, Reading matters on 05/06/2011 at 10:56 pm

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There are so many ways to butcher a text in translation.
Let’s take two antinomic examples: one oversimplifies; the other explains too much.
This afternoon, I gave myself time to compare the first few pages of two novels in English with their original Thai texts.
Of the two, the ‘simplified’ one (Nippan’s Butterfly and Flowers) is the worst, as it also suffers from poor editing. Here is its first paragraph, as translated by Sripen Srestasathiern:
“Huyan” lived with his father, a brother and sister in a tiny house built on the monastery’s land. His brother was 12 years old, his sister was 10.

If I were to edit that paragraph with no knowledge of the Thai original text, it’d read like this:
Huyan lived with his father and his brother and sister in a tiny house built on monastery land. His brother was twelve years old, his sister ten.

It isn’t the fashion in English to put character names between quotation marks.
Which monastery? We haven’t been told yet, so it must be generic.
Unlike dates, temperature, precise amounts of money and the like, age numbers are spelt out in a novel (the ‘10 and over’ rule is best left to the press).
Two ‘was’ in one sentence is one too many.

Actually, the text, translated pretty much word for word, says this:
Hooyan lived with his father in a small house built on monastery land, along with his two younger siblings, brother Dunya who was twelve [years old] and sister Akhreya, aged ten.

That first paragraph is made of one single sentence, not two.
Why did Ms Sripen suppress the siblings’ names when obviously the author wants them there?
Why disregard the fact that brother and sister are younger siblings, implying that Hooyan is older?

This is innocuous compared to what happens in part of a dialogue three pages later. In it, Punja (Hooyan’s father) complains about the changing times. Here is Ms Sripen’s version:
“Things are getting worse. The fish mongers no longer transport their goods by train because now there are trucks. Transporting fish in trucks is cheaper and trucks can go right to the market. Who the hell makes these trucks?” Punja swore. But realizing swearing was not right, he hurriedly said…

On the face of it, this reads well and is fine. But the text says something like this:

‘Everything is bad these days. Fishmongers no longer send their fish by train but by lorry. Lorries are cheaper. Rubber traders also use lorries. They go right to the customer. What devil has made things turn out like this?’ Punja swore, but when he thought this wasn’t right, he hastened to add…
Never mind ‘lorries’ versus ‘trucks’ – preferring Yankee speak to British mother tongue is no sin. What’s a sin, and a deadly one, is to have missed out on ‘rubber traders’: what the author is adroitly telling the reader in those few spoken lines is that fish and rubber are the primary commodities of the area.

The Fang of the Fire Tiger by Mala Khamchan (pronounced kham.jan) is a much better translation – despite a few oddities here and there (‘to cure a leg’; ‘the wind let out a pleasant breeze’) or mistranslations (‘decapitate’ for thalok nang hua, which means ‘skin off the head’ or ‘disfigure’) here and there –, served by fine editing by Peter Hall – who surely had no access to the Preface signed by ‘Prisna Pongtadsirikul | Director – General [sic] | Office of Contemporary Art and Culture | Ministry of Culture’, or to the ‘Notes from the Translators’ by Patsita Charoenrakhiran and Pattiya Jimreivat which readers could well have done without).

I must however say that the first few lines start rather dully: the language of the translators here doesn’t match the author’s, mainly because of that stumbling block, the necessary use in Thai of the word siang, meaning ‘sound’ or ‘noise’, which is better rendered in English with active verbs, if at all.
Consider:
siang puen lueanlan pluk moo barn hai tuen tae kai yang mai khan | siang takoan woakweik wa suea khao barn suea khao barn… dang sapson ma tae thai moo barn |kroh rua thee | siang tee peep | siang dek daeng…

Here is what we read:
A piercing sound of gunfire woke the villagers from their sleep before daybreak. There was a sound of people shouting, “A tiger’s broken into a house! A tiger’s broken into a house!” The commotion was heard from the fringe of the village, accompanied by the signaling sounds of bamboo tapping and bucket rolling, baby’s crying…

How about:
Gunfire burst out, waking up the village before cockcrow. There were boisterous shouts of ‘A tiger’s broken into a house! A tiger’s broken into a house!’ coming out confusedly from the far end of the village. Bamboo sticks clapped the alarm. Cans were kicked. Infants wailed…

For all that, the translators show that pedagogical tendency to explain to clueless foreigners what it is that they are reading of the complexities of Thai life, often in a mystifying way. For instance:
Kaewhueang got up from her bed, using what little space was available in the communal bedroom, and made her way down the ladder to the backyard alone.
‘Using what little space was available in the communal bedroom’ is not in the text (kaeohueang luk jark thee norn trong thoang barn ma khon diao sao rao kradai lang long pai larn barn) nor does it make any sense in the context.

This being said, both novels as translations are infinitely superior to those anthologies of Malaysian and Cambodian writings from the same OCAC outfit I wrote about in previous posts (see ‘One out of ten’, 27.12.2010; and ‘Truth Globalize (sic)’, 4.11.2010).

  1. Dear Mr. Barang,
    Thank you for your comments on my translation. I will appreciate if you take it out from the website. I wonder why you said my translation is the worst. If it’s the worst, why it’s better than those of the other contries’ translators, according to your last paragraph comment. What kind of logic do you have? I’ve learned from Khun Sangrawee that she asked you to comment on my and the others’works, but I don’t think that you’ll do it publicly like this. I hope you will take your comment out as soon as possible.

  2. In this blog, Khun Sripen, as a literary translator from the Thai I comment on translations and on literary works with the hope of educating and/or entertaining my readers. I see no reason to censor myself in my own blog. Even though I do name names, I do not conduct personal attacks. My criticism is factual and, I believe, nuanced: if your translation is the worst of the two, it’s because it was poorly edited or not edited at all; yet both the translations I review are much better, as translations, than the anthologies I mention.

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