marcel barang

Wrapping the baby in swaddling clothes

In English, Reading matters on 04/10/2012 at 12:21 am

Yesterday (Tuesday) was pleasurably busy: Saneh Sangsuk was here to go through Under a demented sky, my translation of his latest masterpiece. He found half a dozen errors (some of a stupid kind: ‘cane sugar’ for ‘palm sugar’, ‘clogs’ for ‘sandals’ and the like) and spent some time explaining a few bawdy lines – such as the lewd song whose first verse is ‘Pee nee som sa Pee na som-o’, which became crystal clear when I knew it referred to breasts: ‘Lemons this year, melons next year’ – and a few cusses, such as tchet!, which he explained was a rude interjection used to chase dogs (all the ruder as being used by our nun heroine to dismiss her husband). We agreed on ‘You mangy dog!’ followed by the easier ‘You devil!’ (marn!).

Saneh, whom I’d been trying to contact even before I left for France, had called me a couple of days earlier under his own steam, as it were, to inquire about our baby’s health. He had turned off his phones (he’s got two now!) because, he said, he was fed up with people calling to tell him why he would get the SEA Write this year and with people calling to tell him why he would not get the SEA Write this year, disturbing him in his current writing spell, a novel on … euthanasia.

In the event, I was the one who informed him of which work the award went to last week! I tried several times to foist the damn book on him (I’ve got two copies, remember?) but he wouldn’t take it: he’s writing; he has no time to read – or so he said.

My thanks to the hermit of Phetchaburi for interrupting his schedule for a day just to come and see me in Bangkok, where he hadn’t set foot in months.

He must have heard a lot, though, before turning off his phones: he regaled me with reports of what some critics had said about this book, one female professor in particular (whose name he conveniently couldn’t recall) who found it repellent and unworthy of the holy SEA Write, which everyone knows crowns pious works for prissy ladies which innocent children can be trusted to read too without being laid astray.

Passages such as these, I guess:

[About the husband:] But even so he came round to see me who was a nun, no longer concerned with the world, clad in the robe of sorrow, living a life of simple peace of mind and merely persevering in the search for the absolute truth, whereas in reality he was most pleased with the practices of the nude heretics, those so called Sky-clothed that clad themselves in wind. He or his parents would invite such practitioners to eat – Sky-clothed with coarse, broken feet caked in dust, Sky-clothed with dirty hands, Sky-clothed with mottled complexions, their flesh full of rashes from the bites of ants, horseflies, mos­quitoes, midges and mites, Sky-clothed that squatted on the ground to wolf down their food, their penises hanging down to the ground, their testicles hanging down to the ground. He and his parents were devoted to the Sky-clothed. He was mystified by the daring of the Sky-clothed, didn’t see that the daring of the Sky-clothed was absence of shame. …

[Encounter with a bandit, who tells the mother of the snake-bitten child:] Let me have a look at his wound. He moved and sat up. Don’t, I said. I don’t want to see his wound yet. I can’t stand looking at it. And right then I laughed and then I cried, feeling such a throbbing pain in my chest that I didn’t know what to do next besides walking ahead, running ahead or tumbling about ahead. That man slipped his hand beneath his loincloth with a straight face, grabbed his penis and shook it to make it swell erect, smiled pleased to see its turgescence and spoke again as if talking to himself, Nabob Paiti’s wife, is it? And coming alone too! I should have this defile you but since you hug the corpse of your child and have entered the jungle alone like this, you must have lost your mind. Look at yourself. What’s the point of raping a mad woman like you? And what’s that black thing clinging to your left ear, the size of your little finger? That’s a buffalo leech, you know. His face took a disgusted expression that was plain to see. Well, let me have a look at that child of yours. I said, No need, elder brother. I have to hurry. And I discreetly heaved a sigh of relief when he said, Suit yourself. I motioned to take a step but I was startled out of my wits when he shouted, Wait! …

[Of bawdy drunks:] Their drums beat loudly, Ta-toom! Ta-toom! Ta-toom! Resonating, their bandoh were all shivers, their oboe was shrill and provocative, their lyre aggressive and caustic, their cymbals, clappers and gong a fluid addition. And the songs they sang? … They sang, Lemons this year, melons next year. If you want a man, don’t be afraid to fall pregnant. They sang, Poor Sita, you’ll have to wait for your hubby Till your yoni gets mouldy. They sang a song about a goofy trooper who returns to base too late and explains the reason for his difficulty with My woman’s got hair down there aplenty It’s such a jungle and so hot Before getting through to reach the spot The monks’ morning bell’s ringing. Vulgar, obscene songs of worldly people that spent their lives in a whirlpool of worldly pleasure, had thought only for the whirlpool of worldly pleasure and performed their various occupations for the sake of worldly pleasure only. …

Literature at its best. Positively disgusting indeed!

I spent the rest of the day entering the corrections, checking up Indian place names and Indian names, and sending the result to my favourite editor who will work her magic on my English. Publication in about a fortnight, I guess.

Another copy is with Le Seuil, Saneh’s French publisher…

  1. Thank-you once again Marcel for translating and making these fine thoughts available to those of us who Thai language impaired. Hemingway, I believe, used the melons metaphor but missed the lemons.

  2. Je viens de découvrir votre blog en même temps que je découvre avec gourmandise la littérature thaï. Très bonne surprise !
    Y-a-t-il une chance que ce roman de S.Sangsuk soit traduit en Français ? Je suis avec intérêt les péripéties de votre traduction de Si Phaendin. J’ai adoré Plusieurs vies…
    Je suis avec plaisir la fenêtre que vous ouvrez sur le monde thaï. Merci.

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