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Running From the Singapore Turkey

Running From the Singapore Turkey

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"Running from the Singapore Turkey," my article about translation of Thai literature into English. (Examples from Botan, Kampoon Boontawee, Naowarat Pongpaiboon and Ankhan Kalyanapongse.)
"Running from the Singapore Turkey," my article about translation of Thai literature into English. (Examples from Botan, Kampoon Boontawee, Naowarat Pongpaiboon and Ankhan Kalyanapongse.)

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Published by: Chiranuch Premchaiporn on Dec 08, 2008
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Running from the Singapore Turkey:Reflections on the Process of Literary Translation
Susan Fulop Kepner (1997, revised 2006)
When I first began to think about writing an essay on the process of literarytranslation, I found myself jotting down the titles of a few recent, interestingtranslations by other people. Although my first draft of the essay was perfectlyleaden with good intentions, I realized upon reading it over that its chief failing,aside from pedantry, was cowardice.
It is a far more appealing task to write about the work of other translators(especially dead translators, who do not write letters to oneself or to editors, muchless have access to e-mail) than about one's own process. And yet, what another translator does with a text is as unknowable, finally, as someone else's romance.What does the translator do all day, in that room of his or her own, aware of theauthor's spirit hovering nearby, and even more painfully aware of the Shade of theGrand Critic, that colleague or stranger who eventually will read, and review, one'swork? Authors are generally insecure; why should translators (who are forced to be authors, after all) be any different?I decided, after all, to share some unsparing reflections on my own good, bad,and dubious experiences with the translation of modern Thai literature:specifically, two novels, Letters from Thailand (jot-maay jaak muang thaay), byBotan (the pen name of Supa Luesiri Sirising);
and A Child of the Northeast (luuk ?iisaan) by Kampoon Boontawee;
and two poems, "A Forest Leaf" (bay may paa), by Naowarat Pongpaiboon, and a fragment of a lengthy poem by AnkhanKalyanapong (bangkok kaew kam-suan), to which I have given the title"Bangkok: A Lament."
Fiction: The World of the Tale
The first task of the literary translator is to read the text; it is also the second, atleast the third, and probably the fourth task.
I read and re-read a work of fictionthat I plan to translate until I feel that I have begun to enter the world of the tale:its time and place, its look and sounds, and smells, its feel. I go to work on the firstdraft only when I begin to hear the characters, and see the places in which they livethe tale. Of course, much of what I imagine will not have been spelled out in thewriting. Like all other readers of fiction, translators naturally create and dress
scenes and characters as they read. Even the best film adaptation of a novel --"The English Patient" is an excellent example -- requires a "dismantling," and asubsequent "translation" from one medium into another.Another way to think of "the tale" is to imagine it as a shower of shooting starswhich we dutifully assemble, in our own brain, into a galaxy that makes sense tous. Of course, in the case of a story we are incapable of inventing a "galaxy" thatcould have been imagined by the author. Nevertheless it is, for the reader, a galaxyinto which the world of this tale, written by this author, "fits."For a reader who also intends to translate the tale from its original language(usually) into another language, the process of assembling the galaxy entailscountless decisions about narrative, characterization, dialogue, and other numerouscomponents of the work that he or she intends to render effectively, and alsofaithfully. (Has anyone ever set out to produce an ineffective, faithlesstranslation?)
The more competent and gifted the author, the more compelling and believableis the world of the tale in its original language. After all, it is the ability of a writer to provide a "consciousness altering" experience that seduces us, and keeps uscoming back. We re-read Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, fully cognizant of thekind of experience we are after. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that he returned toAnthony Trollope's novels because "[They] precisely suit my taste, -- solid andsubstantial, written on the strength of beef and through the inspiration of ale, and just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and notsuspecting that they were being made a show of."
It was a dependable pleasure totip the glass ever so slightly, to catch a heady whiff of that beef and ale, and to casta glance at characters such as the wonderfully awful Mrs. Proudie, the Bishop'swife whom "the archdeacon had called...a she-Beelzebub; but that was a simpleebullition of mortal hatred. He believed her to be simply a vulgar, interfering, brazen-faced virago."
A dozen elements in this excerpt alone convey the look,sound, and feel of the world of Trollope's tale -- and suggest, as well, the scope of a would-be translator's task. "A simple ebullition of mortal hatred..." "She-Beelzebub..." "Virago..." What will be the fate of these, during their passage intoHungarian, Japanese, or Thai? Not to mention the demands suggested by thefastidiously constructed narrator's voice; or the innumerable choices our hypothetical Hungarian, Japanese or Thai translator will have to make, in order toconvey the time and place of Victorian England, the levels of character anddialogue, and the consistent tone of Trollope's fiction.
Establishment of the world of the tale, and concerns with time, place, dialogue,and tone, were among my chief concerns when, in 1971, I began my first lengthytranslation project.
Letters from Thailand: Botan
When Botan was a graduate student at Chulalongkorn University during the1960s, she ran out of money and had to leave the treasured privacy of her apartment to move back home with her parents. She had already written and published one novel, which was more or less a romance. Now, she needed to writeanother book in order to re-establish her independence. Lying on her bed oneevening trying to map out the new novel, she tried to ignore the noise of her  parents' argument in the adjoining room. Finally, in exasperation she took a fresh piece of paper, and began jotting down the argument. That was the beginning of 
 Letters from Thailand 
, a largely but by no means entirely autobiographical novel.The protagonist, Tan Suang U, is a composite of Botan's father and uncle, whoemigrated from southern China shortly after World War II. Tan Suang U'syoungest daughter, Meng Ju, is more or less modelled upon herself.In 1969, Botan won the annual SEATO literary prize for this immensely popular and controversial novel.
Many Chinese Thais complained that it presented themas greedy, predatory, and unwilling to be fully assimilated, much less to take anactive part in the process. On the other hand, not a few Thai people claimed thatThais had been depicted as shallow, vain, and hypocritical. But, love it or hate it, itseemed that everyone in Bangkok had read it.The world of Botan's tale was entirely limited to Bangkok, to the city of Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from Bangkok, and to one brief, disastroustrip to the seaside town of Hua Hin. Benedict Anderson has described
 Letters fromThailand 
as "claustrophobically preoccupied with the small world of Bangkok's'Chinatown...'"
Although in a sense Anderson is correct, in fact "claustrophic preoccupation" is not a fault of this novel, but its very heart. I felt that it wasmandatory that the English translation carry the reader into the narrow, teemingworld of Sampaeng Lane, with its rows of shops down and living quarters above;and into the cramped home where Tan Suang U, his wife, and their disappointingchildren eat, bicker, grieve, and carry on the dialogue through which Botan presents the world in which she grew up -- a world in which no one, however successful, ever thinks of moving away to more spacious or gracioussurroundings.The life of the individual, in this world, is defined first by responsibility to one'sfamily, including, of course, one's ancestors; second, by one's gender; and third, byone's occupation. Among the adult characters in the novel, at least sixteen of everytwenty-four hours appear to be devoted to work. The children study to their capacity; or, in the case of Tan Suang U's only son, somewhere beyond it. Thefather is consumed by the desire to build the family fortune, but lacks any clear idea as to what "success" would ultimately mean. He also is consumed by thedetermination that his family remain Chinese, and although he knows what he

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