Mui Poopoksakul introduced herself to me a couple of years ago. Back then she had just decided to leave her job at an affluent law firm in New York to embark on the risky path of a career in literary translation. Given that the circle of writers, critics and translators in Thailand is extremely small, ambitious writers usually end up with their works being read by fellow writers. A literary book grosses only a thousand copies per edition and the thought of how much writers, publishers or translators get paid is enough to make your stomach churn.
Nevertheless, Mui was determined to introduce Thai authors to an international audience and so far she has translated a number of modern Thai short stories by Prabda Yoon and Duanwad Pimwana. In 2017, a collection of her translations of Yoon’s short stories was published under the title The Sad Part Was, which went on to be shortlisted for the inaugural TA First Translation prize. It was the first Thai literary book to be published by a UK publisher (Tilted Axis). Before that, nearly all Thai literature in translation was published by local publishers and gained little circulation abroad. The book was edited by Deborah Smith who translated the MAN Booker International Prize-award-winning The Vegetarian authored by the South Korean renowned novelist Han Kang.
My interest in this book stems not only from knowing the translator personally, but also from a curiosity in the style and tone of the English Mui uses in her translation. It is always difficult to adopt the right style when you translate from Thai, mostly due to its incessant use of doublets, strings of lexical pronouns and the subtle tones created by various ending particles that do not exist in English. When translating Thai novels into English, many translators render their works in such a scrupulously literal manner that an international audience would find it hard to read. At the other extreme, English native speakers such as Susan F. Kepnor tend to take greater liberties, changing the original Thai text to make it readable yet losing many subtle meanings in the process. Mui’s translation, meanwhile, proves to be markedly different, striking a healthy balance between readability and correspondence.
I have never been a fan of Prabda Yoon. In fact, I found his deadpan humour a little too awkward, his symbolism too obvious. Yet I do admire his observant eyes and his audacity to challenge the frontier of modern Thai literature. Here, Yoon’s take on Bangkok’s modern ennui resonates better in Mui’s English translation. She gives his prose a more defined edge, and makes it uncannily, uncompromisingly lucid — a tone that Thai translators are generally reluctant to strive towards for fear of being unfaithful to the original. If you are in the mood for a taste of modern Thai literature, this translation of Prabda Yoon’s short stories is definitely a good start.
Another book I’m reading currently is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (1999). Within translation studies, we regularly cite her seminal text ‘The Politics of Translation’ in which she theorizes translation as an intimate yet subversive act of reading that allows the imposition of feminist solidarity on languages. Spivak’s signature concept of cultural subalternity is prevalent in the field of postcolonial translation as it advocates the fight for translators’ visibility. However, her concepts of ‘foreclosure’ and ‘native informant,’ which reflect her strong deconstructive approach to postcolonial representation, have not yet made their way to translation studies. In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Spivak argues that several ‘grand’ European masterpieces in philosophy, literature and history rely on the foreclosure of the third world other, called the ‘native informant,’ to ensure the stable formation of European cultural narratives. Unlike the subaltern who cannot represent herself, the native informant disappears before reaching the symbolic order (Spivak borrows psychoanalytical terms from Jacques Lacan) and is therefore never signified or represented. A deconstructive reading would allow a route into identifying the necessary disappearance of the third-world other, by analyzing the traces left by the play (jeu) of signs. I am interested in applying this notion of foreclosure to translation, especially in the sense that translation, while accepted as a way to bring forth meaning originated in the foreign, can be seen as a defense mechanism that prevents the foreign from arriving at the surface of the language of translation. In my current project, which is due to appear before too long, I've been applying this concept of foreclosure to selected cases of literary translation in nineteenth-century Siam.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Yoon, Prabda. 2017. The Sad Part Was. Mui Poopoksakul (trans). Croydon: Tilted Axis.
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In our 'What are you reading?' series we're asking leading translation scholars to share what they're currently reading, whether for business or pleasure.