marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘OCAC’

Bulan Sastra

In English, Reading matters on 18/09/2016 at 9:45 pm

bulanThat’s the title of a superbly produced and edited anthology of short stories and poems by Thai and Indonesian writers published in three languages by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) of the Thai Ministry of Culture. I edited the English section. This 660-page-long trade book is available free of charge upon request to OCAC, whose mission is to distribute it to all manner of public libraries for the promotion of regional literature. Trust me, it’s a great gift.


They’re out!

In English, Reading matters on 27/10/2014 at 7:38 pm

Last Thursday I attended, at the Sirikit convention centre where a national book fair was in full swing, the launch of the Ministry of Culture’s Eternally Love and Friendship Thai-Lao, a hefty anthology of short stories and poems in three languages … plus Latin place-holding material (don’t ask). I’m sure the Lao and Thai sections are perfect, but as the title shows, the English section is in a sorry state. If much of it was properly edited by Prof Ora-Ong Chakorn (I contributed three translations of Thai short stories), the Lao stories and poems weren’t edited at all. And it hurts. Here are the first sentences of these stories:

A man stood beside road N.6,section from Naxou to Longchaeng.

If gods are really existed, they should be irritated with Phouvanh scolding.

The house of mine is situated in front of a forest pagoda.

I poured most of the bottle of beer into my glass, lifted it, and drank slowly.

Twenty years passed. Dongphileo is a secretive jungle to me.

And on the poetry side there are things like:

A lot of poverty is still gloomy | Sheltered the lives in remote areas

A new big clock is hanged on the wall

My uncles! Poverty is not fallen from the sky! [This from a poem suitably entitled ‘Party Direction for Development People Contributed with Combined Heart’.]

May I live with you with side by side | Until I pass away, I’d live closely with your side

Open your minds widely as the planet be | Sharing loves sharing hopes to everybody

Old saying work without design don’t start it [in ‘New Village Should be Nearly the City’]

This paddy rice field is very lovely

Miss Sopha lived in a village nearby a mountain | She’s known how to weave silk tissue when youngster

The nipples of my mother are nice looking [ah, finally, some good, emotive English!]

What a shame for a collective work that reportedly took ten years to make and whose 2000 copies will be distributed in school and university libraries for the most part.

The good news on that day, however, was hot-off-the-presses copies of another anthology and three novels to which I have contributed in the past couple of years for the ministry.

antho41Anthology of Thai Short Stories since the 1930s by 41 Thai Writers I highly recommend you get a copy of from the ministry’s OCAC office. I contributed a final round of editing to it and, although I had no access to the final layout (more on this in a minute), here are nearly 700 pages of almost good to very good short stories, one per writer, in readable English.

The three novels are The Moonlit Shore by Prachakom Lunachai, Grey Skies over Plai Na by Wat Wanlayangkul and Chabon by Thirayut Daochanthuek. I edited the first two – the former on life at sea, the latter on village shenanigans. Twenty years ago, when I established my list of the 20 best Thai novels, they were in the batch of five ‘almost ran’.

Since Thursday I’ve taken the time to read Chabon in its entirety, and I know why I discarded it: quite simply, the life of an old man in the mountains, the last chao bon (i.e. man up there, man of the hills), is boring and rather depressing in the end with its message of failed idealism. Thirayut Daochanthuek (currently a monk) is no Cormac McCarthy and this is not The Road. The translation reads well and is probably faithful but it could have been better edited: as I read along I found dozens of misprints, boobs and prissy blunders (an old man in the boondocks does not ‘urinate’, he pees, sir!), rashes of uncalled-for italics (yet absent when needed), fanciful transliteration, and a punctuation that is neither fish nor fowl, neither Brit nor Yank, a mixture of ellipses and N-dashes. Methinks the editor, Michael Crabtree, is either Ozzie or Kiwi or Boer or none of the above. (27-year-old American football player, Google has him!)

All five books are beautifully produced except for two things: unwieldy, substandard binding and not quite professional text layout. Regarding the two novels I edited, my explanations and instructions regarding how to get rid of widows and orphans (one-liners at bottom and top of pages) and how to even out lines were ignored – and orphans and widows and stretched lines there are aplenty, as in the other three volumes, the more’s the pity.

Curiously, the well-fed credit page bears no mention of any printer. Given the brutal binding and overall quality of the product, I’d say it’s Amarin Printing.

One shy of sixty-nine

In English, Reading matters on 20/06/2013 at 7:22 pm


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.

lotus bloomsI 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…’

On Thai visa extension and other forms of torture – 2

In English on 01/06/2013 at 12:44 pm

Thu 30, 2pm. The ministry’s certificate, which has reinstated mention of a fiscal year (the next one, ending September 2014) and, except for that mention, is identical to the one provided last year that earned me the extension of both visa and labour permit, still doesn’t satisfy the current team of officials: yes, it does state I am employed by the ministry but it does not specifically ask Immigration to extend my visa by one year! The head of section (Khun N, a charming young woman with a sense of humour but tough as nails) calls up the OCAC office, and I’m told to go back to the ministry to pick up a newly worded certificate and bring it back to them today. They must be joking! ‘What time do you close here?’ ‘Four thirty.’ ‘No can do.’ Even she must face that fact. In despair, I offer to be given the ‘seven-day ultimatum’ to give time to the ministry to correct and sign the document. This means risking expulsion if … New chat on the phone. On an A4 page, Khun N writes down the changes she wants made to the certificate (why wasn’t this done two days ago? Short answer: different head of section). ‘Take this and fax it to your office. Wait for the fax of the corrected certificate and bring it back to me before four thirty. And bring me back the original first thing tomorrow or else…’

So I go down one floor, fax the corrections and wait. Thirty minutes later, the burr of the fax machine is heard again. I can’t believe my eyes: here is copy of the final certificate and it is duly signed! I must have impressed the director general for him to condescend to do in less than half an hour what it took him two days to do previously. Khun N has me pay the 1900 baht fee so that there is no hiatus in the visa extension process on file, though my passport will only be stamped tomorrow when I hand over the precious certificate.

But what about the labour permit, then, which also ends today? Well, too bad, the Labour Ministry is almost an hour away and will be closed to new business by the time I get there. So I go back home.

Fri 31: yet another early rise. By a quarter to 8am, I’m back in the same armchair in the inner corridor – I even scare the old housecleaning lady. I don’t have to wait long: contacted by phone, the young woman who talked to the N1 section chief and arranged for the certificate to be signed says she has left the documents in an envelope on her desk for me to pick up and run away with. So it is another trip to Immigration. As soon as she sees me, Khun N motions me to come in and my passport is duly processed in a trice. We exchange pleasantries and next, I’m queuing anew for a re-entry visa (just in case I need to leave this country in a hurry).

The traffic is fluid and I’m at the Labour Ministry by 11:30am. I pick up ticket number 188. As tickets in the 140s are being processed, I know it’ll be another two hours before my turn comes. I go out and have a Thai coffee and later lunch. When my number is called and I sit down in front of a familiar face, I apologise right away for being one day late and blame it on being detained by Immigration. As I launch into an explanation of what has happened, she tells me to save my breath and talk to her boss instead, as there are two things, she claims, that need clearance: she has noticed that my address has changed (I tell her it’s the same house, the Bangkok administration guys have changed the address three times in the past ten years or so – well then, next year bring a certificate of change of address from your local BMA office – yes, ma’am) and my employer hasn’t filled in and signed the Form of Employment. What now?

Her boss certainly remembers me. I do not know her name, but she is by far the most understanding of them all and has been consistently so with me for years now. She listens briefly to what I have to say, me apologetic for knowing I should have come earlier but simply couldn’t, caught as I was in the nets of the pernickety immigration police. She asks me whether being a consultant to the ministry is my only job and I’ve really resigned from Thai Day Dot Com, with a sigh says ‘You seem to be in trouble often’ and with a blue pen clears my problematic file of black spots and sends me forking out the 3 100 baht annual fees.

On the way back home, totally knackered, I decide to go and check my blood pressure at Siriraj. It’s an alarming 181/82 on arrival and 161/74 forty minutes later. The doctor tells me to take double the usual dose of medicine. Yes, I know, in two weeks’ time I’ll be sixty-eight…

On Thai visa extension and other forms of torture – 1

In English on 01/06/2013 at 12:44 pm

Yes, my visa and labour permit have been extended for another year – one day past the deadline. And it was no walk in the park. This is how it went.

Thu 23: I pick up the Ministry of Culture’s jotmai rap-rong (certificate) stating that I’m employed by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), which is the main document I need to present for extension of visa and labour permit before both expire on May 30.

Fri 24: I discover in the morning at Siriraj hospital that yes, I can see my usual doctor, but no, I can’t have a doctor’s certificate for the Ministry of Labour because today is a Buddhist holiday. Come back on Monday.

Mon 27: early rise (i.e. not much sleep). At Siriraj before 8am. I queue up to get my personal file, go to the fourth floor, where the action is, register, go up and down floors for: 1) a blood test for syphilis only; 2) an x-ray of the lungs. By 9am, this is done. Results, I’m told, at 11am. Or later. The middle-aged male doctor who is going to certify that I’m sane and not socially repellent takes my pulse and prods me with a stethoscope. When I come out of Siriraj with the bleeding bai rap-rong phaet, it’s a quarter to twelve.

Tue 28: very early rise (i.e. not much sleep). Taxi over the 39km separating my house and Government Centre, where Immigration is these days. This takes one hour and twenty minutes. Sometime after 9am, I’m number 36 queuing up at N1 counter (diplomats and state employees). One hour later, I’m told the ministry’s certificate is inadequate: it gives no indication of duration of employment. ‘Go back to the ministry and have this added to the letter.’ So back to the ministry. The problem is simple: last year, the same certificate mentioned the then-coming fiscal year; this time, as the fiscal year ends on Sept 30, the young man preparing the letter for me kindly thought that if that FY was mentioned, I might only be granted four months… The problem is simple, but the solution is problematic: whatever the wording, the certificate needs to be signed again by none other than the director general of the ministry, and this TAKES TIME. Will two days be enough? The agreement with the staff at OCAC is for me to wait at home to be told that the certificate is ready. If no word tomorrow (Wed 29), then I’ll go to the ministry first thing in the morning on the last day and wait there until the certificate comes through. For some reason, this piece of paper is not signed by the readily available head of OCAC, as it was last year, but by the director general of the ministry himself…

Wed 29: I spend a nerve-racking day alternating translation of a short story about a chest of drawers and reading of French crime novels on the iPad. When in late afternoon I call OCAC, I learn they’ve all gone to a cultural function. The phone number I’m given for the young man processing the certificate doesn’t work; I leave a message to my usual contact at OCAC for her or the young man to ring me back. You guessed it: no call back.

Thu 30: asleep at 1am. Wake up at 4am. Get up at 5am. At the ministry at 8am. The personnel dribble in at leisure in the next hour. 9am: the young man says he has just gone by the DG’s office and impressed them on the need to deliver that certificate this morning. I sit unobtrusively in an inner corridor. I’m brought a glass of water, then a cup of coffee. Sometime after 10:30am, the word is the director general wants to see me. We have a pleasant chat while he signs the damn pieces of paper, which still need to be registered. I get them at 10:40am. Taxi to Immigration. A miracle takes place: the traffic is light; the 35.5km are covered in only 50mn! At 11:30am, I’m number 117 at the N1 section. I learn that after 12am, no applications are accepted. Between 12am and 1pm, the place is vacated. Before that, I’ve had some Thai food downstairs; I while away the time reading Jadet Kamjorndet’s latest novel, Prathet Mue Song (Second-hand country), which I found in the mail yesterday along with three volumes of poetry sent by good old Siriworn Kaewkan – the SEA Write must be on poetry this year, then. I’m still worried about making it on time to the Labour Ministry, but heck, the visa is what matters most. It gets close to 2pm when my number is called. And when things go wrong again.

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…

C’est la faute à Voekler (2)

In French, Reading matters on 21/07/2012 at 5:26 pm

Une cure sans sinécure, disais-je : c’est que les étapes ici se terminent vers les 22-23 heures. Le reste du temps, il faut lire et traduire.

Lire : pour ses quarante ans, la société des écrivains de Thaïlande a publié une anthologie de quarante nouvelles et quarante poèmes. Les poèmes attendront. Des nouvelles – une par auteur – j’en avais déjà lues une dizaine et déjà traduites cinq. J’ai trouvé le temps d’en lire vingt autres, dont cinq me paraissent valoir d’être traduites. En reste dix – les plus, euh, les plus longues.

En même temps, j’ai entamé la lecture d’un des finalistes assurés du SEA Write Award : Lak Alai (La nature des regrets, peut-être ?) d’Uthit Hemamoon, qui avait raflé le prix il y a trois ans avec Laplae Kaengkhoi.

[Mais j’entends dire que, bis repetita, le dernier roman de Saneh Sangsuk (Sous un ciel dément, dont la traduction vers l’anglais est pour l’instant en suspens vu que je ne peux pas tout faire en même temps) ne figurerait pas dans la sélection finale, comme ce fut le cas pour L’Ombre blanche en 1994 et pour les mêmes raisons d’hyper moralisme en haut lieu. Patience : la liste des finalistes doit être rendue publique presently.]

Traduire : pour une anthologie trilingue d’OCAC, la section d’art contemporain du ministère de la Culture, j’ai transmué deux nouvelles : « The three-eyed boy who happened to fall down to Earth » de Mahannop Chomchalao (dont j’ai acheté, sinon encore lu, le roman) et « The bridge » de Wat Yuangkaeo.

Pour mon blog thaï-anglais, j’ai fini de formater un classique « écologique », « I am a tree » de Maitree Limpichart, qui sortira le 27 du mois, et « I wish I were a skunk instead of you lot » de Natakarn Limsathaporn, petit précis de viol en famille, à paraître le 10 août. Traduites ou en cours de traduction, deux autres nouvelles de Win Lyovarin, une autre de Wutisant Chantwiboon (« Love game in four acts »), l’abominable « The wish-granting shop » de Sorajak et « The dog mess village » de Saengsattha na Plaifa…

C’est qu’il faut que je prenne de l’avance si je veux passer tranquille trois semaines de vacances en France en septembre. À croire que cette cure de petite reine en version anglaise qui prend fin demain n’aura pas suffi. Mais d’ici là beaucoup de mots auront coulé sous les ponts.

The coming literary crop

In Uncategorized on 02/07/2012 at 9:04 pm

It’s this time of year again: the long list of the SEA Write Award 2012 is out. Fifteen novels are in competition out of what? perhaps a hundred, mostly published in the last few months, although the prize is supposed to bless a novel published as far back as three years ago.

And lo and behold, the eternal second of the prize – poet, short story writer, novelist, philosopher, publisher, Asia-trotter, womaniser, bon-vivant and father of one Siriworn Kaewkan – has the distinction of being the only one with two books in this pre-selection. So he’ll lose the prize twice this year.

I may or may not have read his other one about a doll mender using acacia, but his Strange world in the history of sadness isn’t going to make the grade. Having previously translated his first two novels, I read the first version as soon as it was out and thought it was too dull a mess excusable only by the vagaries of his vagabond life. When he told me over a memorable southern fare dinner that he was intent on rewriting it I begged him to desist and start on a new project. Of course he persisted and a couple of months ago sent me the new version. I flipped through it, couldn’t see much change to it and concluded the cover was its best feature.

On the other hand, there are some well-known contenders in that list: a recent SEA Write winner, Uthis Hemamool, Panu Trivej (pronounced ‘trai.weit’) and the once black sheep of the Thai literary family, Daen-aran Saengthong better known abroad under his real name, Saneh Sangsuk. As recorded here, I was so taken by his Diaodai Tai Fa Khlang (Lonely under a demented sky) that I offered a synopsis to Le Seuil, who replied they’d like to see the complete English version, so I dutifully started on that in my spare time.

I went as far as the first twenty pages but Immigration and Labour Department connived to cut short my effort, only to be seconded a week or two later by the Ministry of Culture: just as I was recovering from heavy doses of bureaucratise, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture asked me to translate three short stories.

Once I am through with those, I’ll go back to that tumultuous affair of demented motherly love as only the author of Venom can pen.

As it turns out, one of the three short stories is ‘The three-eyed boy who happened to fall down to Earth’ by Mahannop Chomchalao, which I am now translating with great pleasure: there is much finesse in his quietly ironic writing. Since his Nai Om Kort Ka-lee (In Kali’s embrace) is one of the fifteen books selected I’ll make sure I get a copy.

For the rest, I’ll wait until the short list later this month, lah, and meanwhile watch le Tour de France – it’s that time of the year too.

A literary milestone

In English, Reading matters on 26/01/2012 at 8:34 pm

So, it’s finally come through the post after a long wait: วรรณมาลัย (Wannamarlai), an anthology of outstanding Thai short stories written between 1932 and 2010, officially published last September by the Ministry of Culture’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. Apparently the ministry’s website is still suffering from the Great Flood, as it has yet to announce the birth – and there’s no picture of the flowery cover to be culled anywhere on the net.

Of course, even more eagerly awaited is the second tome: the same stories translated into English, to be published … later this year, budget willing.

Also in the OCAC pipeline: English translations of three novels: ฝั่งแสงจันทร์ (Fang Saengjan – The moonlit shore) by Prachakom Lunachai, ปลายนาฟ้าเขียว (Plai Na Fa Khiao – literally Green sky at the end of the rice field) by Wat Wanlayangkoon and ชะบน (Chabon) by Thirayut Daojanthuek. The latter almost made it into my list of ‘the 20 best Thai novels’ some two decades ago, along with Nippan’s Pheesuea Lae Dorkmai (Butterflies and flowers): I found it a bit too narrow in scope and at times long-winded, even though it’s written beautifully.

Forget the cheap paper and the cramming of its 560 pages with print too small for tired eyes: this is a treasure trove of some of the best short fiction ever published in Thailand in the eyes of a dozen Thai literary luminaries. Besides, it’s free.
Get yourself a copy while stocks last, through

This ‘literary garland’, as the title translates, lines up 41 stories by 41 writers, only six of them female. Many of the names are well known and feature in all anthologies, but here with an alternative story. For instance, Dorkmai Sot has a one-page story rather than her regular ‘Phonlamueang Dee’ (The good citizen, which I featured some time ago in my bilingual blog). I’ve just read that page and am left perplexed: was that her next best effort?
Others are less known but will welcome the exposure (and incite jealousy). A few I’ve heard of but have yet to read, and who is Nat Sartsongwit? No matter how I spell the name in English, Google won’t tell me. I’ll read his story next.
There are some surprising absences – major writers of the past such as Yacob, Malai Choophinit and Humorist, all, I’m told, dismissed under the far-fetched claim that they borrowed most of their plots from western stories (what is Kukrit Pramoj doing here then?); and top contemporary short-story writers as well, none of whom more laughably dismissed than Chart Korbjitti as allegedly having penned no outstanding story!
Ditto for Wimon Sainimnuan or Thatsanawadee, among others.
The lengthy, informative introduction protects the selection committee from controversy over absent worthy writers by claiming problems with copyrights. Yeah, right, I sympathise: Bunluea is another noticeable absentee.

To the future volume of English translations I’m to contribute four stories, translated at various times in the past fifteen years: Seni Saowapong’s ‘The lone sunflower’ (available on my bilingual blog); Sila Komchai’s ‘Blood buds’ (published in Caravan in 1994); Phaithoon Thanya’s ‘A death in the month of October’; and Chatcharin Chaiwat’s ‘Boy’s reporter’ (at OCAC’s request) – the latter two featured in 11 Thai short stories – 2011 now available at
I was surprised by the listing in the anthology of a fifth story, ‘The wish’ by Prachakom Lunachai, a rather corny short story I translated some time ago for the Bangkok Post. Obviously, it’ll be translated by someone else, and it’ll be interesting to compare the two versions.

The downside of this volume for me is that, promising as it may be in its scope, variety and literary quality, I may not translate those stories I find most interesting, unless the translations to be published are dismal. I reckon we’ll have to wait and see.

Translation blues

In English, Reading matters on 05/06/2011 at 10:56 pm

There are so many ways to butcher a text in translation.
Let’s take two antinomic examples: one oversimplifies; the other explains too much.
This afternoon, I gave myself time to compare the first few pages of two novels in English with their original Thai texts.
Of the two, the ‘simplified’ one (Nippan’s Butterfly and Flowers) is the worst, as it also suffers from poor editing. Here is its first paragraph, as translated by Sripen Srestasathiern:
“Huyan” lived with his father, a brother and sister in a tiny house built on the monastery’s land. His brother was 12 years old, his sister was 10.

If I were to edit that paragraph with no knowledge of the Thai original text, it’d read like this:
Huyan lived with his father and his brother and sister in a tiny house built on monastery land. His brother was twelve years old, his sister ten.

It isn’t the fashion in English to put character names between quotation marks.
Which monastery? We haven’t been told yet, so it must be generic.
Unlike dates, temperature, precise amounts of money and the like, age numbers are spelt out in a novel (the ‘10 and over’ rule is best left to the press).
Two ‘was’ in one sentence is one too many.

Actually, the text, translated pretty much word for word, says this:
Hooyan lived with his father in a small house built on monastery land, along with his two younger siblings, brother Dunya who was twelve [years old] and sister Akhreya, aged ten.

That first paragraph is made of one single sentence, not two.
Why did Ms Sripen suppress the siblings’ names when obviously the author wants them there?
Why disregard the fact that brother and sister are younger siblings, implying that Hooyan is older?

This is innocuous compared to what happens in part of a dialogue three pages later. In it, Punja (Hooyan’s father) complains about the changing times. Here is Ms Sripen’s version:
“Things are getting worse. The fish mongers no longer transport their goods by train because now there are trucks. Transporting fish in trucks is cheaper and trucks can go right to the market. Who the hell makes these trucks?” Punja swore. But realizing swearing was not right, he hurriedly said…

On the face of it, this reads well and is fine. But the text says something like this:

‘Everything is bad these days. Fishmongers no longer send their fish by train but by lorry. Lorries are cheaper. Rubber traders also use lorries. They go right to the customer. What devil has made things turn out like this?’ Punja swore, but when he thought this wasn’t right, he hastened to add…
Never mind ‘lorries’ versus ‘trucks’ – preferring Yankee speak to British mother tongue is no sin. What’s a sin, and a deadly one, is to have missed out on ‘rubber traders’: what the author is adroitly telling the reader in those few spoken lines is that fish and rubber are the primary commodities of the area.

The Fang of the Fire Tiger by Mala Khamchan (pronounced kham.jan) is a much better translation – despite a few oddities here and there (‘to cure a leg’; ‘the wind let out a pleasant breeze’) or mistranslations (‘decapitate’ for thalok nang hua, which means ‘skin off the head’ or ‘disfigure’) here and there –, served by fine editing by Peter Hall – who surely had no access to the Preface signed by ‘Prisna Pongtadsirikul | Director – General [sic] | Office of Contemporary Art and Culture | Ministry of Culture’, or to the ‘Notes from the Translators’ by Patsita Charoenrakhiran and Pattiya Jimreivat which readers could well have done without).

I must however say that the first few lines start rather dully: the language of the translators here doesn’t match the author’s, mainly because of that stumbling block, the necessary use in Thai of the word siang, meaning ‘sound’ or ‘noise’, which is better rendered in English with active verbs, if at all.
siang puen lueanlan pluk moo barn hai tuen tae kai yang mai khan | siang takoan woakweik wa suea khao barn suea khao barn… dang sapson ma tae thai moo barn |kroh rua thee | siang tee peep | siang dek daeng…

Here is what we read:
A piercing sound of gunfire woke the villagers from their sleep before daybreak. There was a sound of people shouting, “A tiger’s broken into a house! A tiger’s broken into a house!” The commotion was heard from the fringe of the village, accompanied by the signaling sounds of bamboo tapping and bucket rolling, baby’s crying…

How about:
Gunfire burst out, waking up the village before cockcrow. There were boisterous shouts of ‘A tiger’s broken into a house! A tiger’s broken into a house!’ coming out confusedly from the far end of the village. Bamboo sticks clapped the alarm. Cans were kicked. Infants wailed…

For all that, the translators show that pedagogical tendency to explain to clueless foreigners what it is that they are reading of the complexities of Thai life, often in a mystifying way. For instance:
Kaewhueang got up from her bed, using what little space was available in the communal bedroom, and made her way down the ladder to the backyard alone.
‘Using what little space was available in the communal bedroom’ is not in the text (kaeohueang luk jark thee norn trong thoang barn ma khon diao sao rao kradai lang long pai larn barn) nor does it make any sense in the context.

This being said, both novels as translations are infinitely superior to those anthologies of Malaysian and Cambodian writings from the same OCAC outfit I wrote about in previous posts (see ‘One out of ten’, 27.12.2010; and ‘Truth Globalize (sic)’, 4.11.2010).