On translation from Thai | 8.06.05

Stamp: Centenary of Modern Thai Writers

“Centenary of Modern Thai Writers”; Thailand; 2005; 4.8cm × 3.0cm

Having translated several Thai texts for this blog and planning to do many more in the future, I would like to make a clarification once and for all regarding my methodology and philosophy. In one sentence, the English translation should read like the Thai original.

That isn’t as trivial as it sounds. For one thing, with the two versions reading alike, they will almost certainly feel different to their respective readers. Typically, the English speaker will think, rightly, that the Thai prose contains at once a good deal of rambles and truncations. There is no punctuation to mark the end of a sentence, which is infinitely extensible thanks to relative pronouns that relate to nothing and prepositions that is preposed before anything and everything. At the same time, Thai is an extremely pro-drop language, commonly omitting personal and possessive pronouns, sometimes even when they’re not obviously inferable (it doesn’t help that there is no article or verb inflection to provide clues).

Making a Thai translation read (somewhat) smoothly in English, therefore, usually involves heavy editing. A prime example of this is the daily translation of a Thai-language editorial in the Bangkok Post’s “Dateline Bangkok” column. Less obvious but much more pervasive is the libertine treatment of “quotes” by the Bangkok Post and The Nation. Even with the best original intention (which isn’t always the case), this power to present paraphrases as quotes is easily abused. And boy, is it ever.

My approach is the opposite. Besides adding articles and punctuations to make it English, and bracketed pronouns, conjunctions, and transitions to make it hang at all together, I translate a passage as is, with run-on sentences and all. To me, the way a message is delivered is part of the message itself. A Thai speech should read or sound the way it does, not the way an English speaker would deliver it. After all, when the author is thinking clearly, linguistic and stylistic differences shouldn’t prove too much of a barrier to comprehension.

Often, however, the author is not thinking clearly, and his speech appears inarticulate, incoherent, or downright inane. That is in fact even more reason for me to leave it be. (And frankly, that’s sometimes the main reason I bother to translate them in the first place.) Thirayuth Boonmi’s and Peerayot Rahimmula’s quotes are cases in point. I made extra effort to be faithful right down to their poor word choices, hence Thirayuth’s “everything has a value” even though I know he meant “price”, and Peerayot’s “since the two years of violence” even though “during” would’ve been more sensible. While the reader of the Thai original would likely not notice, much less denounce, such errors, this points only to their rampancy, not their acceptability.

So when you encounter something bizarre in my translation — and you will more often than not — please remember that it’s likely not due to incompetence on my part. On the contrary, anything too polished should raise alarms, as much has probably been lost and gained in the “translation”. Take a look again at the postage stamp above. Thai literary prose, as we Thais now know it, has been around for a mere hundred years. Thai journalism, such as it is, started only several decades earlier. Do Thai speeches and writings reflect mainly this relative greenness, or perhaps something else? I can’t really say, but at least here at Sarasonteh you can be sure that you’re reading a very close copy of the real thing, not a new and improved rendition.

And with that, get ready for some eye-opening stuff in the coming days that you won’t find anywhere else.

23:03 ▪ language, announcement

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Post staffer 31.08.05

From Tom: To me, the way a message is delivered is part of the message itself. A Thai speech should read or sound the way it does, not the way an English speaker would deliver it.

Thai has its own way of expressing ideas, wich is part of the beauty of the language. To strip all that away in the interests of clarity is a shame, but sometimes it must be done. The approach you take will depend on the demands of your medium. A blog, I think, is an ideal place to remain as faithful as one can to the language as was spoken or written originally.

Some of the quotes which appear in the Bangkok Post, for example, go through many hands before they appear in the newspaper. If everyone tinkers, then the integrity of the original can get lost.

Our main objective is clarity and brevity, not providing word-for-word translations of what people say. In that case, of course, we should not use quote marks as liberally as we do, a point Tom makes elsewhere himself.

Kuan 16.07.06

Please translate this message into English. (ช่วยบอกหั้ยชัดๅ ว่าเธอรักฉันดังเดิม)