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.