April 20, 2007

Review: ความสุขของกะทิ (Part 1)

Title: ความสุขของกะทิ (The Happiness of Kati)
Author: งามพรรณ เวชชาชีวะ (Ngamphan Wetchachiwa)
First published: 2003

ความสุขของกะทิ is a slim little book that won the 2006 SEAWrite Award for best novel. It relates the experiences of Kati, a young girl dealing with the illness and death of her mother. I enjoyed the portrayal of family relationships in this book. The protagonist is a nine year old, but she's written with a mix of curiosity and natural wisdom. She is the lens through which each member of the family is portrayed, as they deal with their grief and loss. The maturity of her attitudes and insights make Kati feel more of a Platonic ideal than a believable character, but I don't think that undermines the intention of the story. For me, it was a book about dealing with mortality and grief. I can relate to the underlying
emotions, and I can't help but think that the author was moved to write this book by the death of someone close to her.

I didn't read this with the plan to review it, so I don't have any great analysis to give of it. That's not really my style anyway. But I enjoyed the emotional journey, and lately I've been wanting to practice my hand at translation, so I'll jump right in. My style is to translate fairly closely, so I haven't done much to vary the style and word choice here. The book is 27 very short chapters, and below is my translation of the first.

Part 1: The House on the Canal

Chapter 1. Wok and spatula

"Mom never promised she would come back."

The sound of the metal spatula in the wok awakened Kati, as it had done on previous days. Actually, the pleasant fragrance of cooked rice had something to do with it, too, along with the smell of smoke from the stove and the scent of fried eggs. But it was the sound of the spatula knocking against the wok that pulled Kati free from her slumbering visions and into the new day.

Kati never took much time to bathe and dress. Grandpa often teased her, "Finished running past the water already, are you?" Grandma turned to look as Kati came into the kitchen. She never smiled or uttered a greeting. Grandpa said that Grandma's smiles are so rare, they should be packaged and exported for sale in other countries.

Kati dished rice into a bowl. The beautiful white color of the rice went well with fresh morning air like this. Steam from the rice in her arms floated up around her chest and heart, which kept time as Kati raced out to the pier. Grandpa sat reading the newspaper, waiting with a tray of food as usual. Before long, the sound of oars on water could be heard as the front of a boat appeared around the bend. The saffron robes of Luang Lung added an extra measure of freshness to the atmosphere. Pi Tong, Luang Lung's pupil, flashed his white teeth from afar. Grandpa said that Pi Tong should join a comedy troupe--his smile was like a contagious disease. It sprang from his cheerful heart, proceeded directly to his mouth and eyes, and radiated in ripples around him--like throwing a stone into water--until everyone around felt it.

Grandpa poured the ceremonial water beneath the bo tree. Kati made merit with her grandfather, and recited a prayer in her mind.

Their breakfast awaited them. A large meal like this one every morning. Grandpa stuck to boiled vegetables and chili paste, leaving the stir fry and fried fish nearly all for Kati. Grandpa avoided every kind of fried food. He complained behind Grandma's back that it was like her food had been shellacked--some day he would take her wok and spatula and donate them to the army to smelt into a cannon for protecting the nation. If Grandma heard, she would have a fit. On that day, the sound of Grandma banging the spatula against the wok would be deafening and incessant, so much that it would be surprising if the wok survived to do its duty another day.


  1. Rikker, I followed the blog trail from Ben’s blog. I am learning a lot from your comments there and enjoyed reading everything you have written on your blog. I do not speak Thai; I cried my way through my two years of Japanese and never did get the hang of it. I now have a different interest and motive for learning languages. My daughter married a man from Vietnam and I have three wonderful grandchildren. They are a marvelous addition to my family and I have a profound love and respect for Thi’s parents. One day, my little Anna was making unintelligible sounds while talking on the phone. I ask her what she was doing and she said that she was talking “beet nees” to her gwamma. I scolded my son-in-law and told him that he needed to teach his children how to talk to their grandma because it broke my heart to understand how she must have felt at that moment.

    My questions for you: If Vietnamese is not spoken in the home when the children are young, will they be able to pick up the different sounds required to be fluent?

    Would speaking two languages in the home (father – Vietnamese and mother – English) confuse the children and make them less articulate and less fluent in English? That is Thi’s objection to my proposal to do so.

    If the children are not taught Vietnamese while they are young, but they have heard their father’s family speak it, will that be of any value if they try to learn it later on?

    Is it common for people in Southeast Asia to be multi-lingual? I was at a dinner with Thi’s family once and the old men were reciting poetry. They spoke an ancient dialect or form of Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, and French. (And a little English poorly)

    Before the French invaded Vietnam, what symbols for writing? Was the language the same after the French came and only the alphabet changed?

    Please forgive me if this is like asking someone who speaks Spanish about English. I know that the US and Mexico are close; is it like that or more like Colorado is to Utah?

    I hope that you continue to translate the book. I think that the young girl may be more on target than one would think for that age with that experience. I had a friend that adopted a Turkish girl who had the unfortunate experience at age 7, of attending her mother until she died and then dressing the body and burying her mother. At age 10 she was old and somber for her years.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me visit. If you don’t want this comment on your blog, and you have answers, would you please email the answers to me at janetwalgren@gmail.com if you wouldn’t mind?


  2. Janet, thanks for reading! Ben has been encouraging me to start a blog for a while now. I'm already good at posting overly long comments on his, so we'll see how well I keep this up on my own. :)

    I would like to continue translating the book, but I have to worry about violating copyright. Fair use protects educational purposes, and I think a chapter or two serves as education on Thai culture and literature, so I may post another chapter, but I don't think I'll post much more than that. Keep an eye out for other translations, though. I just finished a book of short stories, so I may post a translation with my upcoming review.

    Your questions are good ones, and while I don't know the answers to all of them, I'll tell you what I know. (But keep in mind that Vietnamese and Thai aren't from the same language "family," though they do have some features in common.)

    (Note: I'm not a "real" linguist yet, having only a bachelor's degree, but I play one on TV. :P)

    In the situation you've described, the fears that they'll be "less fluent" in English are unfounded, so long as they are living in the U.S. (or another predominantly English-speaking country). With sufficient exposure to two languages, the children can be effortlessly fluent in both.

    But keep in mind that gaining fluency is not the same as socialization/acculturation. If you talk like a sailor, you're fluent in English, but you may not be suited for an audience with the queen. Parents don't really teach their children to talk, they more teach their children what is appropriate to say in what situation, as part of the larger process of teaching them how to act in society.

    So your son-in-law's only worry should be that the children might not learn fully learn Vietnamese (depends on exposure), but I don't really see how it can have any negative effect on their English, especially since their mother is an American. I'm all for multilingualism. I think learning about other languages and cultures can open up our minds in ways that have to be experienced to understand. There's a Thai idiom--a person who is "a frog in a coconut shell" (กบในกะลาครอบ) is someone who is "inside a bubble," as we might say. The world is much larger than a coconut shell. :)

    Which brings me to my next answer: according to the Critical Period Hypothesis, there is an age past which language can be acquired with native ability. The validity of this theory and the debate about the exact age continues to this day, but Steven Pinker (a well-known linguist) has written "acquisition of a normal language is guaranteed for children up to the age of six, is steadily compromised from then until shortly after puberty, and is rare thereafter." In other words, it only gets harder with age--and it requires formal learning, as opposed to natural acquisition. (Also note that reading/writing are different beasts entirely--they must be taught, whereas spoken language will be acquired simply through exposure.)

    So, while certainly not impossible to learn after childhood, if your daughter and son-in-law want the kids to ever speak Vietnamese fluently, they need to start exposing the kids to it as soon as possible. Otherwise they may have a foreign accent no matter how long they learn later on in life.

    In Southeast Asia in general, it is common for children to be bilingual, but at least in Thailand, English is rarely one of those languages. More common is the local dialect (or dialects) and then the standard language. I know people who were raised in Northeastern Thailand near the Cambodian border. Their "mother tongue" spoken at home is a dialect of Cambodian, but they also speak the local dialect of Northeastern Thai (which is similar to Lao), as well as the "standard Thai" as taught in the schools and used everywhere in the media.

    English is widely taught here, but the pronunciation is atrocious, since the teachers have rarely properly learned to speak, so it's the blind leading the blind. In teaching English classes on my mission, I ran into lots of comically basic errors, like extrapolating the pronunciation of "few" onto "sew", so it's pronounced like "syoo". But more detrimental is the fact that they are trying to speak English within the phonological framework of Thai, which is just impossible. A sentence like, "My friend is named Josh" would come out "My fen it name Jot." Instruction may very well be much better in other countries, I can't really say.

    As for the Vietnamese writing system, I know that prior to the current system (Latin alphabet plus diacritics), Vietnamese used two Chinese scripts--a more "pure" version used for literary writing, and a modified script for vernacular writing that was better suited to writing Vietnamese than the more formal script. Vietnamese and Chinese aren't historically related, but the Chinese dominated the region for a thousand years, so much of modern Vietnamese vocabulary is from Chinese (particularly the learned vocabulary--similar to words of Latin and Greek origin in English).

    As for the validity of asking someone like me these questions, well, it's probably like asking a Ute speaker about the Algonquin language. But then, I get Thais asking me questions about French every now and then (which I know nearly nothing about), so you're not alone. :P

  3. Rikker, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions and thanks for posting the link. I am able to do searches on Google and Wikipedia, but I don't have a clue what to enter in the search box for so many of my questions. I really am very appreciative of your response.

    I will continue to check out your site from time to time and I very much enjoy your "overly long comments on Ben's blog."