A Western woman recently asked me which books she should read in order to understand Thailand. The reading list is not hard to suggest. The problem is that many works on Thailand, by my definition, have not been translated.
So I suggested existing translations such as White Shadow by Saneh Sangsuk; my favourite Phan Ma Ba _ or Mad Dogs & Co by Chat Kobjitti (I wonder what kind of Thailand I am introducing to my friend). Then I moved to the standard must-read Letter From Thailand by Botun and the conservative preppy Si Phandin or Four Reigns, a historical epic by former prime minister MR Kukrit Pramoj.
This reading list reminds me of an interview several years ago with Binla Sangalakiri, a SEA Write laureate. Instead of serious book talk, Binla lamented about the lack of translation of Thai books into foreign language.
He revealed to me he had been overwhelmed attending a writers' seminar in South Korea where the organisers showed him a state-sponsored project for the translation of Korean books into foreign languages. With that support, Korean writers know their stories will transcend the language barrier and be read worldwide.
The issue of book translation grabbed my attention again amid the recent boom in the translation of Chinese books into foreign languages. During the last few decades, a number of Chinese books have been translated by foreigners _ from classic works like Sun Tzu's The Art Of War or Dream Of The Red Chamber to modern literature. Despite that, the number of translated books are relatively tiny compared to the size of literary work in China. According to the statistics from the Chinese Writers' Association quoted by the China Daily newspaper on Jan 31, only 1.6% of Chinese books have been translated into other languages.
The book translation movement in China is interesting. There are collectives of translators _ mostly foreigners with perfect command of Mandarin language and unbound love for local literature. There are literary magazines such as Pathlight for Chinese literature translated into English, and newsletters and blogs of collective translators and publishers such as Paper Republic. Since 2006, the Chinese government has given support to enable the translation of Chinese books for a worldwide audience. For example, a project called China Classic International gave US$9.6 million (285 million baht) to speed up translation of contemporary literature and academic books.
Momentum has shifted to Chinese literature. The London Book Fare last year invited 21 Chinese writers.
The labour of translation paid off spectacularly last year when Chinese writer Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for literature.
Since 1980s, his books have been translated by notaries such as Howard Goldblatt, a US professor who has spent decades translating books without expecting financial reward or recognition. At the award presentation in Stockholm, Mo invited these translators to share the honour. What about the situation in Thailand? There are plenty of English best-seller books being translated into Thai. At the same time, more Thais are reading original English books.
But how many Thai books are being translated into foreign languages? Is there any support system on the part of the state to make sure writers will be read in other cultures, other languages. With translation, books will transcend boundaries, and that also means a better career for writers. In Thailand, there aren't many who can translate Thai books into other languages. These include Chancham Bunnag who translated Si Phan Din, scholars Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit who co-translated Khun Chang Khun Phaen, translator and SEA Write laureate Ngarmpun Vejjajiva and some foreigners who helped introduce Thai literature to Western readers such as Susan Fulop Kepner and Marcel Barang. My apologies if I missed any names. After Bangkok was named Unesco World Book Capital 2013, more libraries, book donations, book fairs and debate on our reading culture should be encouraged. Should we expand our work, such as supporting writers, translators and small publishers?
For Thailand, its Ministry of Culture or even private entities can do more than just donating books. Big corporates such as Bangkok Bank have sponsored major literary awards _ the SEA Write is one _ and we see companies promoting books and reading.
But I feel the translation of Thai literature has been off the radar and hardly gets attention from the state and private sponsors.
So, many good books have missed the chance to find more readers because of the lack of translation. It does not have to be that way.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for Life, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter