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.

September 16, 2009

A new life for the FSI Thai language course

Catherine over at Women Learning Thai has written a post about the FSI Thai Wiki Project, a collaborative project that we helped start, with the goal of digitizing the entire U.S. Foreign Service Institute's Thai language course, and adding Thai script in the process. The original course uses only romanized Thai, something we think needs fixing.

We're working on this via wiki, which means that we want and need your help. If you'd like to help type out some of the Thai, proofread some of the English, or format some wiki pages, then please send me an email at rdockum [at] gmail [dot] com.

The two-volume FSI course has a lot of excellent material. Drawing heavily from Richard B. Noss' (also excellent) 1964 Thai Reference Grammar, it remains very useful nearly half a century later. Sure, parts of the FSI course are outdated, but as I've written before, you can't beat the price. Courtesy of the American taxpayer, you get a 40-lesson course complete with accompanying audio for each lesson, and an audio introduction to Thai phonology. (Get them in PDF and MP3 format here.)

Please see Catherine's post for more information, or the Google Group that I started for this (and future) collaborative Thai language projects.