As Cloud Atlas the movie hits Thai cinemas, Cloud Atlas the book has been brought back under the spotlight. David Mitchell's 2004 novel is a virtuoso work of six loosely intertwining episodes, spanning from the 18th century Pacific voyages to the futuristic megalopolis of Neo-Seoul.
Tom Hanks and Halle Berry are among a large cast of actors in the film adaptation of the book.
Each episode, which forms a palimpsest as well as a parabolic arc of time and themes when put together, is written in different literary styles, with references to various writing genres and devices, and Mitchell wires up the English language to jolt our cerebral perception by inventing words and twisting existing ones to expand their connotations and implications (for instance, Neo-Seoul is meant to evoke "neo-soul", or new soul, while in one chapter, "sony" is a generic word used to refer to all electrical appliances).
In short, it's a hard book to translate, for the English language is integral to the creative process and thematic foundation. And yet Jutamas Anyan took up the challenge. Her Thai translation of Cloud Atlas came out in 2009 under the title Meka Sanjorn (literally, "travelling clouds"). This is Jutamas's first translation of fiction, though she has worked as a translator of academic books and short stories for many years. She tackled the task valiantly.
Cloud Atlas is a collection of plots and characters; the novel is practically made up of six novellas bound by the theme of humanity and how civilisations rise and fall through history. The stories _ diverse, engaging, ironic, soulful _ range from a lawyer on an odyssey in a tyrannical merchant ship, an English composer in a 1930s Belgian chateau, a 1970s-set thriller about a journalist uncovering an energy scandal, a contemporary comedic tale of a publisher in an old folk's home, a sci-fi adventure about a Korean female android, and a post-apocalyptic story involving tribal colonialism and the search for an habitable new world.
Plots are translatable, but style? And with the movie coming out, everyone is wondering what Mitchell's cryptic, sprawling book is really about. Here we might get some clues from Jutamas, who's plunged through it and emerged with a decoded text _ for the trans-cultural benefit of her Thai readers.
Have you seen the film?
No, I haven't. I've heard about how the film uses the same actors to play different roles from different episodes of the book, and I find that strange. Each episode in the book only has a thin connection to the others, and the connection isn't obvious. It's like how clouds shift shape [from one part of the story to another].
It's a difficult book to translate. What was the most challenging aspect of going into this job?
I had to read the mind of the writer. Each part of the book refers to different literary styles and periods. I had to guess what David Mitchell was trying to do and follow him along. The first part [The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing] is like a Herman Melville classic, while the Korean part [An Orison Of Sonmi~451] uses a lot of made-up words and reminds me a lot of Anthony Burgess.
The episode Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery was probably the easiest; it uses the style of pulp fiction, mass-market books, while Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is written like an ancient story told around a bonfire, rough and raw. It was another tough part, because it was written in a kind of stripped-down language spoken when civilisation had just begun again.
What's your favourite episode?
The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish [in which a literary agent is lured into an old people's home]. It's full of British humour and it cleverly satirises the British literary scene. It also refers to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which I like.
How did you deal with slang and Mitchell's invented words?
I kept it straight, though I changed some slang to fit the Thai context. In An Orison Of Sonmi~451 [set in the future and with plenty of made-up words] I had a long discussion with the editor. In the original, Mitchell alters the spelling of several words _ say, words beginning with 'e" are spelled with just 'x', like 'xultation'. At first I wanted to transfer that idea to the Thai text by changing the spelling of words to make them seem less familiar but still understandable. It would've looked like the spelling used by teenagers today. But in the end, it involved a lot of work and cross-checking, and we decided not to do it.
In English, the first person pronoun is 'I'. In Thai, you have to use many words for the first-person narrator.
I judged the choice for 'I' from the tone of each episode and from the relationship between the speaker and the reader. In The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing, which takes place in the 18th century, I use 'kha', which sounds old-fashioned. In Letters From Zedelghem [featuring an English composer in Belgium narrating his life through letters to his friend], I use 'rao', because the speaker is talking to someone he's close to.
Is it a good or a bad thing that the
Thai language has many words for the first-person pronoun?
Choosing the right first-person word was the hardest bit! It can spoil the story because it shows how the speaker regards him/herself in relation to the other. In another example, in English, 'brother' doesn't tell us if the person is younger or older, but in Thai we have specific words for each distinction. So I have to guess it from the story.
Did you communicate with Mitchell?
No. We only contacted his agent.
To those who read the book and now those who see the film, the question is, what is Cloud Atlas really about?
[I've heard that] the film interprets the book through the idea of reincarnation. I don't quite buy that, and yet many different things can be read into the book. To me, it's about how we're a just small atom in the vast universe and how everything that happens affects us. The book shows us that in every age, human beings take advantage of one another. Sometimes we're the victims, sometimes we're the perpetrators. The question is how we can go through the ruination more or less caused by us.
About the author
- Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor