marcel barang

Double translation: how to butcher a text

In English, Reading matters on 31/01/2013 at 4:35 pm


No one can deny that double translation, convenient as it might be, is a crime in literary terms. At the instigation of the Thai Ministry of Culture, I’ve now become a criminal and a reluctant accomplice in the maiming of at least one text.

For some time the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture has been putting together a trilingual anthology of Vietnamese short stories and poems. As, I suspect, no one could be found at the last minute to translate from Vietnamese into English, I was asked to handle two such stories from their Thai versions. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and I’ve spent much of the month obliging.

The longer text (over 8 000 words) was a pleasure to read and translate: a gripping story going as far back as the war of independence against the French, told both tongue-in-cheek and tear-in-eye in fluid and rich Thai that presented few real difficulties.

On the other hand, it was obvious that the shorter Thai text, dealing with the supernatural, had had parturition problems: the work of an academic, it had been more than a little spruced up (in red) by a well-known writer. As I set about deciphering that prose, my suspicion grew that it lacked literary finesse – what with the words ‘after that’ being repeated 29 times in the course of 5 600 words – and quite possibly accuracy.

Pho and nuoc mam aside, my knowledge of Vietnamese holds in three syllables: bao chi fap (French journalist) which were very useful during my Vietnam War holy days as they meant ‘Don’t shoot!’ As a translator from the Thai, I shouldn’t have to mess around with the original text, but that’s just what I found myself forced to do: the story had a funny-sounding title (who has ever heard of เสือสีน้ำตาลดำ, a ‘black-brown’ tiger?) and many non sequiturs or obscurities even my most learned Thai neighbour failed to make sense of.

Viet-English instruments of linguistic torture online are unanimous: mun means ‘ebony’ and ebony is neither black-brown nor brown-black. They are also unanimous in failing to record the words man nguyen in their original constellation of accents (which I can’t reproduce here), a regrettable absence as that expression keeps appearing in the words a stuttering young man addresses to an older man – and is left as ม่านเหงียน (marn ngian) in the Thai text.

When I asked the Thai translator for clarification by email, drawing his attention to a dozen perplexing points, he merely translated into awkward English what he had stated in opaque or improbable Thai (In two cases this was helpful, I admit.), insisted his tiger was ‘black-brown’ and that Man Nguyen was a person’s name. How could that be, sir? The old man the younger man addresses already has a name, Grandpa Canh, and, more significantly my dear Watson, in the original Vietnamese text, the words man nguyen, which appear often, are always italicised and without capitals.

I asked around and, thanks to a good fairy, was able to elucidate the sore points, including the elusive man nguyen: the expression translates as ‘Oh dear!’ or ‘Oh my!’ or perhaps even ‘Ouch!’ So much for the translator’s fluency in the language.

At this level of incompetence, there is much to be feared that other parts of the story that sound all right are in fact ridden with inaccuracies. Let’s hope against hope that the original writer isn’t fluent in English or else is also fluent in Thai. As I’ve made quite a few changes to the unsatisfactory Thai version anyway, I’ll insist for mine to bear the mention ‘Adapted from the Thai of So-and-so’ rather than ‘Translated from…’

Man nguyen … man nguyen…

  1. Glad you’re back.

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