September 19, 2009

Marcel Barang: new blog, new translations

If you are interested in Thai literature, especially translations of it, then it's a necessity to know the name of Marcel Barang. He is the world's foremost translator of Thai fiction into English and French. Not only is he prolific, but so few do what he does, making his work all the more valuable.

Today I was delighted to learn that he now keeps a blog, alternately writing in French and English, called the written wor(l)d en deux langues. It's managed to escape my attention since he began it in July, but I'm glad it didn't take me until next year to find it.

What is Marcel blogging about?

Most notably, he's completed working on a new English translation of สี่แผ่นดิน (See Phaendin) by คึกฤทธิ์ ปราโมช (Kukrit Pramoj), a former Prime Minister of Thailand. It was translated previously in 1981 under the title Four Reigns by "Tulachandra", the pen name of จันทร์แจ่ม บุนนาค (Janjaem Bunnag), who passed away in 2007, better known for her translations of Western literature into Thai.

In his must-read anthology "The Twenty Best Novels of Thailand" (1994), Marcel wrote somewhat critically of that translation:
[Tulachandra] did a creditable job of condensing the masterpiece, but spoiled it by taking upon herself the role of cultural tour guide, pepper­ing her text with mentions such as “At that time, we Thais thought that...” that are not in the original and leaving behind more than one hundred Thai words and phrases for foreign readers to memorize, I presume – from countless repetitions of the basic mai pen rai (‘never mind’) and sanuk (‘funny’) to convoluted formulas in court language.
At Marcel's primary website,, you can read a lengthy excerpt from See Phaendin that he did for the same anthology, as well as many other of his translated books and stories in their entirety.

Marcel also notes in the anthology that he submitted this excerpt to Kukrit Pramoj (who passed away in 1995), but received the following reply from Kukrit's personal secretary [English translation by Marcel]:
"Judging from the sample you sent us, we think your translation is much inferior to the standard of the novel, which will destroy the quality of language and depth of Thai culture of a time when the diversity of Western cultures was not as numerous as it is today. Therefore, MR Kukrit Pramoj, the author, does not allow you to translate and publish See Phaendin."
This time around, let's hope he has the family on his side.

There are many other posts not to be missed on Marcel's blog:

"Lost in translation" -- in which Marcel reveals that his translation of Chart Korbjitti's หมาเน่าลอยน้ำ will soon be published, and that he has also translated a compilation of Chart's best short stories.

Or "The novel that doesn't exist", recounting the accidental rediscovery of a novel that neither Google nor the National Library could find.

A four part series "On literary translation from the Thai" (one, two, three, four).

And last but not least, we can expect a new-and-improved version of within the month.


  1. Excellent find Rikker. I know of Marcel's, but his blog is a new one to me.

  2. I really hope we will have the chance to read this new translation of Phaendin. Getting fiction published is never easy, as I well now, but this should be well ahead of the field.

    How apposite that barang means foreigner in Khmen. He has done Thai literature proud.

    Andrew Hicks

  3. Gee, what a nice write-up! Thanks, Thai 101. I was wondering what brought so much traffic to my blog all of a sudden. ;-)

    A small correction: I'm just starting on the third of the four volumes of See Phaendin. The first two are being checked against the Thai, line by line.
    When the first is ready (corrected and proof-read), I'll approach Kukrit's daughter again for permission to publish.

  4. Thanks for the correction, Marcel. I mistook the reference to two volumes for the usual division into two physical books. Good luck with finishing the translation and getting permission.

  5. I just finished reading 'Four Reigns'. And since Marcel is keeping closer to the original, I'm looking forward to reading it again.

    Now if I could just get him to agree to an interview... :-)

  6. Good post, very interesting