marcel barang

The brotherhood of translation

In English, Reading matters on 20/08/2012 at 7:11 pm

There are so few translations of the best of Thai fiction (apart from the work of you know who) that the publication in English of Uthis Haemamool’s 2009 SEA Write Award winning novel Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi, translated by Peter Montalbano as The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi (Amarin Printing, Bangkok, 2012, 524 pages, 595 baht), must be broadcast and applauded.

Never mind the clunky title, perhaps an attempt at humour.

Never mind that the translator’s philosophy, so ingenuously exposed in his preliminary ‘Note’, is radically different from mine (‘A translation from one language to another can never be a one-to-one correspondence of words and phrases, as no two languages have identical sets of these’; ‘When using Thai words or names that had to be transcribed in the English alphabet, it was impossible to be completely consistent’; insistence on leaving Thai terms of address in the English text, presumably for local colour; ditto for Buddhist Era dates; use of end-notes instead of footnotes [but then, there are as few as … 60, not counting the 27-page Glossary entries]; and so on).

Never mind that, in the same ‘Note’ and in the same vein, we are told that ‘Thai has no frequently used, general word for “cousin”’ – Thai has got two: หลาน (larn, which also can mean ‘grandchild’) and ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง (look phee look nong).

Never mind all that.

The important thing is that the translation reads well: Peter Montalbano can write and he and his four helpers have a fairly good grasp of the Thai language. Since Uthis’s way of writing in this book is not always pellucid, perhaps Montalbano’s sui generis version is better altogether than my dogged word-to-word, sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph approach would have been.

You be the judge of that.

When Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi was awarded the SEA Write prize three years ago, the Bangkok Post asked me to translate a few pages of it. I gave them Chapter 1. Here is how it starts:

My name is Kaeng Khoi; my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, my name wasn’t Kaeng Khoi; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are names of districts more so than names of persons, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about such an unusual name to bestow on a child, and why my father was adamant he had to call his progeny with names both dignified and full of hope he was proud of, paying no attention to the mockery of relatives and people around him.

Father told me of various events in the past after he had determined I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and able to remember those events as lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he was getting on for forty-four.

Peter Montalbano’s version:

My name is Kaeng Khoi Wongjujeua. I didn’t always have the first name; actually, it was only two years ago that I changed it, from “Lap Lae.” Of course I realized that if you already knew me, a name change might be confusing at first – at the very least, for a while you might wonder how to address me – but I made the change anyway.

You wouldn’t be likely to see either of these names, “Lap Lae” or “Kaeng Khoi,” attached to one person. In fact that would be quite strange, as neither is the sort of moniker you’d want to hang on your child or grandchild. Names they are, to be sure, but – as you and everyone else should know – they weren’t intended for people, but for places. They actually refer to two particular districts, in two different provinces.3 Still, a name is supposedly given to a person for a reason, right? And my father insisted on giving his children names that were dignified and indicated high expectations, and he didn’t care how much neighbors and relatives made fun of them. So please bear with me as I try to explain this for you.

When Pa decided I was old enough to make sense of his words and store them away as lessons for life, he told me about various periods and events in his own history. This happened one evening when I was nine years old, and Pa was about to turn forty-four.

If you want to continue the comparison, buy The Brotherhood… and go to Thai fiction in English, where I’ve just uploaded the entire first chapter.

  1. Thank you, Marcel, for your complimentary words.
    My philosophy of translation pretty much tallies with what is expressed so well in David Bellos’ wonderful book, *Is That a Fish in Your Ear? – Translation and the Meaning of Everything* (, and I hope some of that is reflected in my translator’s note which prefaces the book. When you write that this philosophy is “ingenuously exposed” in my notes, I hope you aren’t remarking on the ingenuousness as an “innocent or childlike simplicity,” or substance “marked by lack of subtle analysis or consideration,” which are among Webster’s meanings. If you mean “frankness,” or “candor,” then I’ll certainly take those meanings, and thank you again.
    I do want to comment on a couple of things you mentioned.
    First, regarding the words for cousin, which you list as หลาน (laan) and ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง (look phee look nong), I do want to say that of course I’m familiar with both of those. หลาน, though, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard used as “cousin,” but – in addition to “grandchild,” which you mention – seems more commonly used as “niece” or “nephew.” It would be indeed news to me to find this was a word for “cousin.” In any case, by itself it certainly wouldn’t express the precise relationship of cousinhood. ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง, on the other hand, does express an exact equivalence to the “cousin” relationship. But I don’t think my statement, “Thai has no frequently used, general word for ‘cousin,’” is in error, because ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง isn’t used frequently. I don’t believe it’s used once in Uthis’ entire book. I have only heard it used when there’s been a need to express a precise relationship which doesn’t seem to have as much significance in Thailand as in the West. Words like “พี่ชาย,” “พี่สาว,” “น้องชาย,” and “น้องสาว” (generally understood as older brother, older sister, younger brother, younger sister”) are more frequently used to describe a cousin. So I stand by what I wrote in the “Translator’s Note:” Thai has no frequently used, general word for “cousin.”
    Secondly, I’m not sure why you call the title “clunky.” And certainly I have no idea how it could be seen as an attempt at humor. Leave it to the reader to judge, I suppose. But there are numerous reasons for this title. “Brotherhood” has many meanings. It can refer to the relationship between brothers, which is absolutely central to this book, especially since, as we’re told at the outset of the story, the second brother takes the name of the first. Then, too, the word can express a closeness and kinship transcending the family, as in “the brotherhood of man.” It can also mean a professional association, as in “United Brotherhood of Carpenters.” Finally, it may have the connotation of a secret society (“Brotherhood of the Wolf,” “Brotherhood of the White Temple,” “Brotherhood of The Rose”). Especially since Kaeng Khoi, as we are told at the outset, is even more a place name than a personal name, this sense of the word gives the title a special additional significance. It can be read as the kinship of these two brothers or as an indication that the district of Kaeng Khoi has a secret society which calls that place home. I chose the title largely because the word “brotherhood” has all these associations.
    I thank you very much for saying I write well . . . I did my best, but then, one can always do better, no? I do wonder, though, what you mean with “he and his four helpers have a fairly good grasp of the Thai language .” I did this translation alone. While I do give well-deserved credit to a proofreader who is a friend, to my final English-language editor, to my daughter, and to Uthis himself, who checked each chapter as I finished and made some very helpful suggestions, this translation was really mine and mine alone. I first learned Thai 47 years ago when I was a teacher in a small town on the banks of the Mekong, and have devoted a lot of time and effort to learning it well. I hope I have more than just “a fairly good grasp” of the language by now! Always room for improvement, of course, and I am still working on it, but I’d rate my grasp just a bit higher than “fair.”
    In any case, you’ve written the first review, and while maybe it’s a little mixed, you’ve certainly been nice to me with it in general, and I welcome that. I do want to note that the link you provide at the end of your review goes to your own translation of the first chapter, not mine – it was probably an oversight that you didn’t mention that. Thanks for all, once again! from Peter

  2. Thanks for your welcome and thoughtfully cautious comment.

    Let’s go back to each point:

    – I used the term ‘ingenuously’ in all of the meanings your dictionary lists. In fact, I was puzzled to see a ‘Translator’s Note’ to begin with, going through the well-worn translator’s circus act of meritorious tightrope walking – and assumed (knowing nothing about you until now) that you were a newcomer to the trade, as this is what newcomers to the trade do: the proof of the pudding is in the eating, not the wrapping. I apologise now that I know better.

    – about หลาน, you are right to point out that it usually refers to nephew or niece rather than cousin, but also (look it up in, say, the Oxford River Books English-Thai Dic), in a loose way, to cousin, the proper and more usual word for which is ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง, which, contrary to your experience, I’ve met often enough both in texts I translate and in daily life here in Bangkok (the last time, actually, only three days ago by a fussy female neighbour of mine) – we seem to have different Thai contexts, practice and experience. Are you still in Thailand, by the way?

    – about the ‘clunky’ title, I’m perfectly aware of what ‘brotherhood’ in its various connotations means (why do you think I titled my entry ‘The brotherhood of translation’?) and I thought that any reader, before reading the book, would understand it as ‘the brotherhood of a place called Kaeng Khoi’, which would be a serious misinterpretation, and, having read it, would understand it as ‘the brotherhood of one (fellow called Kaeng Khoi)’, some kind of a joke post facto. Perhaps it would have been better to keep the Thai title?

    – I apologise also for misunderstanding the assistance provided by the four ( actually five) persons you mentioned. In the absence of any description of their respective roles, I assumed wrongly that they were all knowledgeable in Thai and had participated in the deciphering and interpretation of the original text, as my daughter and one or two of my neighbours would with my output. I stand corrected.

    – I’m puzzled by your last point about a link to my own first chapter. What I tell my readers is to buy your book and carry on the textual comparison, if they so wish, between your version of Chapter 1 and mine. What’s wrong with that? Besides, I’m not aware that I can link to any digital version of your book. Is there one? Or is it you meant a link to some selling point of your paper novel? I never thought of that, silly old fogey that I am who thought a picture of the cover and the usual references to publisher, price, etc. were enough for potential buyers to find their ways to a bookshop. Mm, I should move with the times and enter the 21st century.

    More fundamentally, although you do write well and your version reads well, I consider that what’s on offer in The Brotherhood… is your style rather than the author’s – something which to me is crucial who translate year-round a different author with a different style every other week in, I hope, different styles as well, because I endeavour to stick to what each writes and how he or she goes about it, no more no less: I do not give myself the right to reshuffle the order of sentences in a paragraph or rewrite that paragraph altogether unless absolutely necessary.

    Of course, I wasn’t going to make this point explicit in my posting and stab you in the back, as it were. We are linked in our common love of Thai literature and, at your level of clunky excellence, I welcome you and more like you to a Thai literary translation field I’m spooked and tired of practically owning. Is this condescending enough for you? ;-)

  3. It is great to see two minds discussing the ins and outs of literary translations. We’ve all got much to learn from both of you.

  4. Yo, Marcel!

    I was just getting ready to answer your e-mail when I discovered you’d posted exactly the same comments here. So I’ll respond in the public forum one more time, at the risk of boring the other readers, 5555! (Other readers, that’s an inside joke . . . 5 in Thai is pronounced like “ha.”)

    Regarding my comment the link to your version of Uthis’ first chapter, I mentioned it because I myself had been confused. You mentioned uploading the first chapter, and I was wondering if you somehow had an electronic copy of my version, so I followed the link to find out. If I’d been posting the link, I probably would have clarified what version I was referring to, but who knows? Anyhow, for my version, I guess whoever’s interested will just have to go out and pick up a physical copy.

    Going back once more to the “Brotherhood” title, it wouldn’t be any sort of a misinterpretation at all to think of it as “the brotherhood of a place called Kaeng Khoi.” To spell it out again, I like the ambiguity. It could refer to either the two brothers who share a name or to inhabitants of the place (Kaeng Khoi District) where most of the action happens. That’s the beauty of the title, or, as I think of it, its poetry. The function of a title is to pique the reader’s interest the subject. This one does that by generating the questions “what is this brotherhood all about?” and “Who or what is Kaeng Khoi?” It is echoed in the first chapter when Lap Lae says, “I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I had a big brother, four years older. His name was Kaeng Khoi. I realize that mentioning my brother at this point may make things even more confused and perplexing . . . but please, indulge me little bit more, and I believe this muddle will clear itself up, and in the end won’t be confusing at all.” Of course, it’s extremely confusing, and the end is a long way off at that point, but again, therein lies the poetry. The reader has to resolve this confusion by him- or herself.

    Our philosophies of translation are, indeed, quite different. But the writing style I use in this novel, while in a sense “my own style,” is not close to the style I’d use if writing my own novel. Look at it this way: reading Uthis’ novel in Thai, I hear his voice. Since most of the English readership will only see gibberish when looking at the Thai, I attempt to put his voice into a language they will understand. It’s his voice I’m attempting to reproduce, not my own. To me that means trying to make the English version sound as natural to an English readership as the Thai is to a Thai readership. I did try very hard not to leave anything important out, and in fact worked closely with Uthis to make sure I was getting it the way he intended it. My intention was not to use the same sentence structure and find the strictest literal translation of each word and phrase, but to bring to life the voice I heard when reading the Thai. This was Uthis’ wish as he expressed it to me.
    Maybe the most obvious difference between the printed versions in English and Thai can be seen in the paragraph breaks. I broke paragraphs much more often than occurred in the Thai, because proper writing in English would require it for clarity. As for shuffling the order of sentences, and occasionally, paragraphs, I did that only rarely – though yes, there are examples of it in the first chapter – and never took it lightly. And I don’t think any significant content has been left out. I could give detailed examples, but that would likely put to sleep most anyone reading this post!

    I do suggest that, if you haven’t yet come across it, you take a look at the book by David Bellos which I mentioned. The very first example he gives is of a poem in French which was translated into English by numerous people, and he uses this to introduce his extremely well-thought-out theories, which I found consonant with my own. It’s a very well-written book.

    As for the translator’s note which prefaces the novel, it is not only newcomers to the trade – as you appear to suggest – who write such, and I certainly didn’t write it with the intention of providing a caveat of any sort, or a “wrapping” for the “pudding” of the translation. I was merely hoping to give the reader additional insight into the process I spent hundreds of hours with, and a little linguistic and cultural context for the version of the novel they were about to read. I find the process of translation from Thai fascinating, and hope that there will be those who find my observations on it as interesting, as well. Of course I am much more interested in readers’ reactions to the body of the work, and am happy to let that speak for itself. But my translator’s note really should not be seen as an apology, or an expression of insecurity about the work itself. I wouldn’t have allowed the book to go to publication if I hadn’t had confidence in its integrity.

    Back to หลาน: I still can’t find any dictionary that translates that as “cousin.” I don’t have the Oxford book you mention, but in any case I believe that the word really has to refer to an intergenerational relationship rather than one of first cousins. And regarding ลูกพี่ลูกน้อง, of course that means “cousin,” and of course people use it. My point is that it’s less in use than is our Western term. That’s a cultural thing: Thais simply don’t attach as much significance to that particular familial relationship as “we” do. Can’t speak for your experience, but that’s mine, and I think that it’s a valid viewpoint, and germane to the points I was making.

    Hope this all isn’t too contentious. I do appreciate your welcoming me into the “brotherhood of translation.” I look forward to many spirited exchanges in the future. Perhaps we’ll actually meet someday. And – while of course you’re completely entitled to post more public responses on your own website – I would like to invite a more private exchange on e-mail. I think these will be my own last remarks here on this particular review. Thank you for the opportunity, and believe me, I do appreciate your interest in the book!

    from your brother in literature,

  5. A few follow-up remarks, then, before we close down this Lap Lae–Kaeng Khoi brother-enemy exchange.
    – Saying that one’s translation style is different from one’s own writing style proves nothing: in translation, one is necessarily constrained by someone else’s wording and attention to things one would not necessarily think worth expressing or expressing in exactly the same way.
    – ‘I did try very hard not to leave anything important out’; ‘I don’t think any significant content has been left out’: good for you, but literary translation is not just a matter of content but of style, i.e. how that content is presented, the tempo of the text, its music, the things it underscores, soft-pedals or passes over in silence: you don’t play organ music with an accordion nor do you render an aquarelle with charcoal crayon.
    – That ‘proper writing in English would require [breaking paragraphs] for clarity’ is preposterous. Whose English? Henry James’s? Elmore Leonard’s? The one you learnt at school? This is as lame a perennial excuse as how these things are said in proper English, in other words the Genius of the Language, whose broad shoulders many amateur and, alas, professional literary translators straddle with impunity and prestige. (Some gab-gifted Thai translators butcher foreign writers to great acclaim and not only get away with it but are courted and revered – I won’t mention names.)
    – I too find the process of translating Thai ‘fascinating’, or rather engrossing, but I don’t feel the need to brag about it or rehash what a short dozen of beginners state every time they have toiled their sweaty way through a Thai novel to completion: Thai is a tonal language, Thai has terms of address we don’t have but lacks in this and that, Thais don’t count dates as we do, etc., see how fiendishly difficult it all is but I haven’t done so badly, have I. Come on: we are craftsmen, not prima donnas.
    – Mind you, in my Thai-English blog, I do point out concrete translation problems as I go along (and have the impertinence of singling out authors’ shortcomings or lapses): I do this to help out language students and would-be translators (and even authors, many of whom lack competent editors), but wouldn’t dream of doing it as introduction to a novel.
    – On a side issue: I had a good laugh when I read your funky explanations about how hard it was to transliterate kinship terms and I wrote in the margin ‘Why the fuck doesn’t he translate or ignore them instead?’ – pardon my French.
    – Anyway, I’m looking forward to your next translation to measure how much your style has evolved, even if it happens to be Uthis’s current novel, SEA Write Award material, because, as you must be aware, his style has changed from one novel to the next. Will yours?

    Cheers from


  6. I’d love to meet you both for coffee. One on Tuesday; one on Wednesday.

  7. […] führte Prof. Trisin aus. Als Beispiele nannte und erklärte sie unter anderem die Romane The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi von อุทิศ เหมะมูล Uthit Hemamun („Uthis Haemamool“); คนแคระ […]

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