The other day, camera-compulsive Siriworn Kaewkan took pictures of Marcel Barang in situ and then sent him his four best shots, mammoths in megabytes terms. The light-chiselled profile understandably was chosen by all to view the man at his handsomest and Kosin Khao-ngam rendered it in masterly crayon, but I find it’s the other three that best reflect what I am and my jaunty view of life: the scale of wrinkles on the forehead, the beady eyes, the flabby flesh around the mouth – it’s what being sixty-eight, give or take a few days, means and feels like.
Comme dit la chanson : On n’a pas tous les jours soixante-huit ans ; ça n’arrive qu’une fois seulement.
Sixty-eight actually is a meaningless number. I’m looking forward rather to 69. Perhaps I shall, come next June, publish a compendium of 69 Thai short stories – I can afford to: I’ve translated more than a hundred of them so far, it’ll only be a matter of being choosy. When on the spur of the moment I tell my brother this over the phone, he says Wow that’ll sell, then after a moment of unusual reflection adds: Do they practise sixty-nine in your part of the world? How would I know? I’m single.
I spent most of Tuesday handling the paper version of a Thai culture ministry’s anthology in three languages: Thai, Vietnamese and English for an excellent choice of five Thai and five Vietnamese short stories and twice that many Thai and Vietnamese poems. Its title: Lotus blooms in the stream of literature. At 794 pages, it’s a hefty volume, very well printed as usual. Available for the asking from OCAC, Ministry of Culture.
For once, its English third is in good and often beautiful English, thanks to that section’s editor, Ora-Ong Chakorn, who is also a top translator from the Thai into English. Too bad however that she might not have had access to or time for all the texts: when I undertook to read the (three Vietnamese) stories I or she hadn’t translated (we corrected each other’s copy), my biro went busy circling misprints, erratic punctuation and other lapses. Also, most of the biographical notices at the back are in clunky English. For instance, about Do Chu: ‘He is a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam and has joined the Writers Association of Vietnam since 1971. After his secondary education, Do Chu had served in the military since 1963 until the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He then moved to work for the Writers Association of Vietnam…’ So many errors in so few lines. A little bit of homework, dear reader: turn this into proper English.*
Also, one obvious mistake at the beginning of ‘The boat in the distance’ by Nguyen Minh Chau, as translated by Nam Son and Wayne Karlin, was overlooked by the editor: ‘My boss was a man of great imagination. He came up with so many initiatives that he often annoyed us. One occurred a few months back when he expressed his discontent with what we had been doing.’
Reading this, you must conclude that the boss is now dead, which nothing in the rest of the story confirms. Rather, the first two sentences should have been written in the present tense.
Peeking over at the Thai version, translated from the Vietnamese by the very gifted Morragotwong Phumplab, of course there is no problem of tense (Thai has no conjugation), but the surprise is that the text is twice as long and runs over two paragraphs (as does the Vietnamese version):
‘Our boss is a man of deep creative thinking. Many times he comes up with lots of innovative ideas but sometimes they are too much and they tire us out.
Several months ago, as we planned the work for the following year, the boss told us that he wasn’t happy with the work of the past year.’
Are we reading the same story?
For all that, this collection of short stories and poems is highly enjoyable. Going through these short stories, I have a hunch that, overall, the Vietnamese tales are more humane, more loaded with human experience and the weight of war, than the Thai ones, which tend to be more cerebral, although there are tigers and ghosts on both sides of the Khmer divide. But this suspicion would need much closer reading to be substantiated.
* He is a member of the CPV and he joined the WAV in 1975 (or: and has been a member of the WAV since 1975). After his secondary education, Do Chu served in the military from 1963 until… He then went to work for (or: He then worked full time for) the WAV…’