Lost in Transliteration

Never mind the p's and q's, why is it so difficult to represent Thai words using the English alphabet?

As regular readers of this column are aware, I have a stately home in the outlying province of Samut Prakan. I tell you this not to brag; rather, if you ask me which street I'm on, I have to reply: ''Do you want it verbally or in writing?''

I do hope it's verbally because that's easy. ''See-nukkarin Road'' with a rising tone on the ''See''. You are apt to understand immediately and even repeat it perfectly.

The problem starts if you have to write it down.

You see, there's a sign at the end of my soi which says ''Srinakharin''. Another one near the Bang Na-Trat Highway has an arrow to the left with ''Srinakharinda''. A map of outer Bangkok writes it as ''Srinakharintr''.

And God help you if you're coming from the Ring Road _ there's an off ramp at ''Srinagarindara'' and if you're looking for anything remotely ''See-nukkarin''-ish then you've passed it and you're already on your way to Hua Hin.

Sigh. I sometimes wish I were lazing on a beach at Hua Hin when I'm forced to read transliterations of Thai place names. I don't pretend it gets me hopping mad; more sullen introversion over why an otherwise simple Thai name has to be strangled then force-fed through a wringer before it can be rendered in English _ and that doesn't include the extra syllable or two grafted onto the end as if it's the victim of some mad doctor from a 1950's B-grade horror movie.

Why is my street rendered in four different ways within a one kilometre radius? Well, it's a long story, and not one with a happy ending.

A long time ago it became clear there needed to be guidelines for changing Thai words into English. I don't mean translating ``soonukk'' into ``dog''.  I mean transliterating สุนัข into ``soonukk''. I hope that's not too confusing for a Sunday morning; you should understand if you (a) reread the sentence and (b) have already drunk that Bloody Mary to offset last night's over-indulgences.

At that time the palace issued a set of guidelines for transliteration which I'm sure was relevant and suitable for the times. These were ``guidelines'' but since they came from the palace they were understandably revered and followed to the letter.

More than 100 years have rolled by, and we have moved ahead in so many ways _ though not in the field of transliteration. The quagmire of transliterations that attacks the unsuspecting expat and tourist here is not a deliberate attempt by the Thai civil service to drive you crazy (that's the job of the Soi Nana bargirls). Rather, it's a mix of two things _ a desire to conform to a long-standing set of guidelines which may not stand up to these modern times, as well as the fact there are no hard and fast rules about transliteration.

Take my street name. In Thai it's ศรีนครินทร์. The first syllable is pronounced ``See'' but written as ``Sree''. The ``r'' is silent _ yes, yes, academics, I know it's not an ``r'' but a Thai consonant which, when written, is considered the same sound as ``r'' in English, but hey, let's not get too pedantic on a Sunday morning.

The rest of the word is pronounced ``nuck-karinn'' but wait! When you write it, you have to add an extra ``t'' and ``r'' at  the end. No need to get on your high horse and demand to know why _ after all, why do we have so many extraneous letters in English words like ``aisle'' or ``bought''?

To sum up: My street name is pronounced ``See-Nuck-Arinn'' but is actually written in Thai something like ``Srinakharintr'', like on the map I just told you about. But try pronouncing that _ it's a little like being expected to know how to pronounce ``Suvarnabhumi'' with a straight face the first time you read it. The word in fact does not rhyme with ``gloomy'', though you certainly feel that way during the long wait for your luggage.

If you go back and look at my street name in Thai you'll notice there's a funny squiggle on top of the last letter. That's called a gar-runn, and it makes the consonant under it silent. If only they came in portable versions; how I'd love to use a gar-runn on some pesky taxi drivers I've had of late.

But the gar-runn does explain all those quaint little ``extras'' you get at the end of transliterated Thai words. This is why our former PM writes his surname as ``Shinawatra'' rather than ``Shinawat'', and our current foreign minister calls himself ``Kasit Piromya'' _ his last name is actually a mere ``Pirom''.

The official reason for including these silent consonants and vowels is ``to preserve the purity of the Thai language'', but I find that a little hard to believe. Surely adding the ``a'' to these silent consonants (not found in the original Thai spelling) makes it an Anglicised bastardisation of the original, like adding carrots to somtam because Americans like carrots better than papayas.

Other decisions are equally curious. Thais long ago decided a hard ``p'' sound in Thai should be written as ``ph'' in English. We native English speakers immediately assume a written ``ph'' is an ``f'' sound _ so how are we supposed to know it's a ``p''  sound in this part of the world? Telepathy?

This is why we have blissfully-unaware foreign tourists announcing they are off to ``foo-kett'', or worse, pronouncing the first syllable in a way that rhymes with ``tuck''. Such enunciation messes led to a famous newspaper headline from the UK when Sarah Ferguson fled to Thailand when she was breaking up with Prince Andrew. The headline: ``Where the Phuket is Fergie?''

It's not just Phuket, or Poo-get as it is pronounced (but thankfully not written in tourist brochures _ yuck). Are all those Russian criminals in the east aware they are working out of a town called ``Putt-ta-yar'', not ``Patt-ta-ya''? Do backpackers know the ``Koh'' in ``Koh Samui'' is an attempt to transliterate เกาะ  which, as far as I can see, simply can't be written in English? It certainly doesn't sound the same as Sebastian Coe's last name.

I live near the district of ``Praves'' as it is written on signs _ doesn't that sound like a 19th century English butler to you? Actually it's pronounced ``Bra-wet'' with that first ``b'' being a cross between a ``b'' and a ``p''. In a similar way there's an insurance company here that calls itself ``Deves'' _ another English butler if ever I heard one. I'd have to be on mild-altering drugs to read that as it's intended _ ``Tair-wet''. And would the person who decided ``Chatuchak'' should be written with two ``ch'''s please leave the room _ it's a J sound for Chrissake!

There I go getting worked up again. I guess that's because what's good for the goose should be good for the gander. If Thais are so intent on preserving their language when it is written in English, surely the same should be for the other way around? Alas, no. When an English word is written in Thai, they whip out that gar-runn and place it on top of the letter that isn't pronounced so that it works in Thai. (My name has a gar-runn over the final ``w'' which, technically, isn't pronounced.) I don't think that's fair; why should Thais know which letters to pronounce and not pronounce while I have to stagger, blindfolded, through a word like Suvarnabhumi?

The truth is, English and Thai are as incompatible as a British postman marrying that Soi Nana bargirl. There is no common ground despite well-intentioned attempts _ four attempts, altogether, in the case of my street name.

If Thais really wanted tourists to enjoy their stay here they should be handing out brochures at Suvarnabhum ... i ... saying: ``Welcome to Thailand. While you are here, please be informed that PH is a P, TH is a T and kindly ignore any last syllable we tack onto our place names and surnames to make them look important. Sawas-dee!''

Of course I take umbrage with that ``sawas-dee''. That final ``s'' is really a ``d'', but we won't go into that for fear of being labelled pedantic. I only pray that Thais make changes to their system quicker than you can say Jack Robinsontrmi.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Andrew Biggs
Position: Writer