Some Challenges of Translation
Over the past two semesters I have been working on translating a book of Thai short stories by Wyn Liew-warin called Life in a Day. Translation comes prepared with inherent choices and difficulties and the process of translating Life in a Day has brought its own unique issues to the table.
When embarking on the road of translation, one must first decide on a strategy. A balance must be struck between literal translation of words and the complete rephrasing of ideas. Literal translation preserves the spirit of the original but generally results in an awkward end product. Rephrasing ideas produces a smoother read but can become detached and lose the original spirit and feel intended by the author. For my translation of Wyn’s book, I am employing a mixture of the two extremes wherein sentences are rephrased to sound proper in English while specific words and phrases are chosen to preserve the feel of the original.
One of the stories that has posed the most problems to date is entitled “songs of life.” The entire two page story is masterfully crafted using only Thai song titles. As such, the story is told in short phrases as opposed to full sentences and is choppy yet makes sense when read in the original Thai. The translation of this story has proved challenging on several levels. First, song titles are short so their translations must also be short. Problems arise when one attempts to translate certain Thai words that come loaded with connotations into a single English word or phrase while capturing the same connotations, feel, and mood, as in the example below.
Original Thai: ล้างบาง โหดร้าย
Direct Translation: to wash cruel, atrocious
Options: village cleansing, political cleansing, purging, purging dissidents, purging political opponents, ethnic cleansing
Final Version: Political Purge. Atrocious.
This problem is further intensified by the referential nature of song titles, which at times use only one or two words to refer to a complex yet culturally salient topic that does not hold the same saliency among English speakers. Well known song titles also carry the full meaning of the song, as most people who hear the title remember the song and can automatically associate deeper meaning to the initial two or three words. This story has definitely posed the challenge of creating a translation true to the original yet also of a similar length. Invariably, special meanings associated with certain songs are lost in the translation.
Some of the stories make use of Thai idioms and phrases, which almost always become problematic in translation. One can translate the phrase directly, but direct translations generally lose the meaning of the idiom. One can translate the meaning of the phrase, but then one often loses the style and stylistic meaning of the original. The ideal compromise is of course to translate the original idiom by representing it with another, similar idiom in the language of translation. I have attempted to realize this compromise in my translations. The following is an example of this dilemma found in the story Fat Pig and Dad.
Original Thai: อด เปรี้ยว กิน หวาน
Direct Translation: to go without sour eat sweet
Meaning: Forgo something you want now in order to get what you really want later.
Final Version: Save today to spend tomorrow.
The brevity of some of Wyn’s stories also provides a challenge. In translating, and basic writing for that matter, one’s natural urge is to make one’s writing flow smoothly with no awkward sentences. The choppy nature of some of Wyn’s stories requires a choppy translation. Wyn makes frequent use of short, concise sentences and the necessary short, concise translations sometimes go against a natural tendency to combine and expand short sentences into longer sentences. In order to preserve the feel of the original, I need to resist the temptation to combine short sentences and simply leave them short.
One final challenge I have encountered in the process of translating Life in a Day is the translation of so called technical words. Several of Wyn’s stories include specific terms associated with local herbs and official office department names. In these instances, the challenge becomes hunting down the proper English equivalent. This of course is just one of the many instances that my Thai co-translator is invaluable.
One unique strategy I have employed in the course of translation centers around a specific story that includes several movie quotes. The quotes are from Hollywood movies and are translated into Thai. Instead of translating the quotes back into English, as this would result in incorrect quotes making the movies less recognizable, I have instead traced the movies quoted and am lifting the quotes directly from the movies themselves.
Looking forward to stories in the book that I have yet to begin translating, I am certain that I will continue to encounter both general challenges of translation coupled with issues particular to individual stories. Surmounting these challenges and finding the right words to bridge all the gaps, like solving a puzzle, is simply part of the joys of translation.