August 6, 2007

On Vonnegut, bookstores, and translating titles

Today I made what I consider a good find. I enjoy collecting Thai translations of English-language literature, and I stumbled across a book of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut at the bookstore. I'm past my book-buying budget for the foreseeable future, but I bought it anyway. Hi ho.*

Thai bookstores are hit and miss. For one thing, Thai bookstores suffer from disorganization resulting from poor classification. For another, most bookstores are too small, and poorly stocked. But these are manifestations of the larger symptom that the reading culture in Thailand is anemic. Supply to match the demand. From what I've seen, it seems books here are rarely printed in runs of more than a few thousand, though some well-known award winners are printed dozens of times over the years. That still only begins to add up to the first run of a new book by a major publisher in the States, where 50,000 is a cautious number.
The psychological upside for booklovers is that this gives book shopping in Thailand a treasure hunt feel. I enjoy browsing (and buying) literature the most, both translated and native, so whenever I pass a bookstore I haven't been to before, I try to stop in at least briefly. You never know what rarity you'll find, since there's no set of "classic literature" that every Thai bookstore is guaranteed to have. Having any classic literature is rare enough as it is. But if you let me loose at, say, the Chula Book Centre, I've been known to spend several hours there at a stretch, usually the lone foreigner in a sea of Thai bookworms, albeit a bit too big to comfortably browse amongst the store's narrow aisles. You'll most likely find me hovering there around the Thai language section, the dictionary section, the Western-literature-in-translation or the award-winning-Thai-literature section.

As an example of the "treasure hunt" style of bookshopping, over the past few months I've been purchasing books in the Lemony Snicket series in Thai, since I fully plan to see that my kid(s) to read for leisure (my wife is pregnant with our first child, as it happens), and I want to have a good library. I now have books 1-7 (of 13), and I purchased those at 5 different stores. I haven't picked up the rest because I have to budget my bookbuying, so I haven't picked up the rest of the set yet, but I have yet to find any store that has all 13 in stock (although the B2S at Central Lad Phrao came close).

Back to Vonnegut. The stories are all from the 1968 collection Welcome to the Monkey House. It's only nine of the twenty-five stories from that book, but nine is better than none. It's always interesting to look at how titles are rendered in a foreign language. Rarely are they translated literally. Here are the titles, their translations, and the literal English meaning of the Thai, from a few of the Vonnegut short stories:
  • Harrison Bergeron (แอกแห่งความเสมอภาค = The yoke of equality)
  • Adam (กำเนิดอดัม = Birth of Adam)
  • The Manned Missiles (มนุษย์อวกาศ = Outer space humans)
  • Next Door (เพื่อนบ้านเรือนข้าง = Next-door neighbor)
And here are the Thai titles of a few English books:
  • The Old Man and the Sea (เฒ่าผจญทะเล = The old man braves the sea)
  • Charlotte's Web (แมงมุมเพื่อนรัก = Spider, beloved friend)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (โรงงานชอกโกแล็ต = Chocolate factory)
  • Forrest Gump (โลกใบใหม่ของฟอร์เร้สท์กั๊มป์ = Forrest Gump's new world)
  • Black Coffee (ฆาตกรไม่กลับใจ = The impenitent killer)
Translations of movie titles (in both directions) are also intriguing. But that's a post for another day.

Hi ho.

*This book was published in October 2006, so it wasn't meant to coincide with Vonnegut's death this past April. I just didn't find it until now, since the publisher, นาคร, is pretty small. It's not the first time Vonnegut has been translated into Thai, though the only previous instance I can find mention of is the story Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow in the 1981 sci-fi short story collection ห้องอนาคต. S.E.A.Write Awardee Prabda Yoon (ปราบดา หยุ่น) is also translating Vonnegut's last book, A Man Without a Country, under the title ชายผู้ไร้ประเทศ on his blog--see, so far, chapters 1 2 3 4 5 and 6. Good for him. [Update: Chapters 7 and 8 are now up.]

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