Last in translation

Last in translation

Everywhere we go, the sound of the global South Korean hit Gangnam Style seems to creepily follow us.

I always tell my friends to look at this song like durian: people either love it or hate. There is no in between. While I feel blissful every time I taste the king of fruit, I feel the opposite about Gangnam Style and I think I can understand why many people run away the minute they smell durian.

No offence, Psy. To me, your song is rather annoying.

But Psy doesn't need to care what I think about his song. He has made history in South Korean showbiz, having broken into the US market, held the No.2 spot on the US Billboard Chart and has garnered more than 700 millions views on YouTube _ and counting.

The only thing I have appreciated about the Gangnam Style phenomenon was when I read the news that the 34-year-old rapper Psy, or Park Jae-sang, was named the recipient of the Okgwan Order of Cultural Merit, awarded for outstanding meritorious services to the arts by the South Korean Culture Ministry. This is, without a doubt, why the South Korean wave is now hitting every shore on Earth: it has very strong support from its own government.

This news came to my mind again after I came home from attending the SEA Write Award 2012 gala dinner at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. This award, to Southeast Asia, is equivalent to the coveted Booker or Pulitzer prizes.

The event has been co-hosted by the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok since 1979, and the luxury hotel has housed writers in residence for a long time. With special support from private organisations and literary clubs, Bangkok plays host every year to the SEA Write Award ceremony to celebrate the region's talented writers.

When I was a nerdy teenager my friends and I would get so excited during the SEA Write season. As a writer, it was fascinating to attend the grand event and share a table with a previous winner and other professional writers.

The most memorable moments were listening to the speeches of this year's winners, who hail from eight of the Asean countries. Duangxay Luangphasy, the winner from Laos, told a story from his winning book, The Same Blood Origin, about the 30-year struggle for national liberation, independence and peace. Author Oka Rusmini from Indonesia spoke of her novel Tempurung, which portrays women living in absurd marriages, while Thai winner Vipas Srithong decided to read his short story Distance, describing his ideology as a writer, instead of giving a formal speech. Each of the eight had a fascinating story to tell.

In a mind-blowing moment during those inspirational speeches, a question ran into my head: their stories sound amazing, but how come I have never read any works by writers from our neighbouring countries?

Prior to the gala dinner, I got a chance to have an exclusive chat with the keynote speaker, US-based British author Simon Winchester. One of my questions was how familiar he was with literature from this part of the world.

I could tell he was a bit uncomfortable when he said he had never seen much work from this part of the world translated. Then I realised that I, too, even as a Southeast Asian dweller, know so little about literature in this region.

In leading bookstores, we can find English versions of selected SEA Write Award winning books by Thai authors. After researching, I found only some of the winning works from Laos translated into Thai.

I believe uniting under the Asean roof is not only good for the sake of the economy, but we must embrace the diverse cultures among our neighbouring countries.

And literature is one of the mediums that will allow our people to listen to the voices of our friends.

Now, hear me out. This might be a good opportunity for the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education or any other organisation that can fund the translation of SEA Write Award winning works into Thai. I guarantee that whoever initiates this project first will get great feedback from the nation, and even the region.

The good news is that this idea is free of charge, and I am not expecting any credit. But, please make it happen.


Yanapon Musiket writes about art and entertainment for Life and has a monthly column, Queer Eye, dedicated to gay rights and gender diversity.

Yanapon Musiket

Life Writer

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