letters thailand

Not many Thai novels are available for us to read in English. One such is the popular LETTERS FROM THAILAND by Botan, the pseudonym of Supa Sirisingh. It was translated by Susan Fulop Morell (later Kepner), and published in Bangkok in 1977.

LETTERS FROM THAILAND is the story of a young man, Tang Suang U, who leaves China to make his fortune in Thailand shortly after World War II. He settles in Bangkok’s Chinatown where he becomes a successful businessman, marries and raises a family. His letters home to his mother are vivid descriptions of life in the new country, including problems of cultural adaptation, clashes with his children – who grow up at home in the new culture – and loss of identity.

The book won the SEATO literary prize in 1969 and was very popular in Thailand. It also sparked controversy: some readers took issue with what they perceived as negative depictions of both ethnic Chinese and ethnic Thais. Botan herself is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant; the character of Tang Suang U is based on a composite of her father and uncle.

The translator, Susan Fulop Kepner, was criticised at the time for taking liberties with the Thai original. In a fascinating essay [read it here] she defends her ‘admittedly flawed’ translation, which was her first piece of full-length fiction, though she subsequently taught Thai language and literature at UC Berkeley and became a renowned specialist in the field. In the essay Fulop Kepner describes her process, explains some of her more radical choices, and makes clear that the author was keen to revise the book. Thai novels are generally serialised in magazines or newspapers; publication in book form gave Botan the opportunity to make improvements in collaboration with her translator.

Those interested in delving deeper into Thai literature may want to take a look at THE LIONESS IN BLOOM: MODERN THAI FICTION ABOUT WOMEN, an anthology of short stories and extracts selected, edited and translated by Fulop Kepner as part of the Voices from Asia series from University of California Press.

Here are a couple of interesting thoughts about translation and fidelity, taken from Fulop Kepner’s essay, which also references the famous ‘On Trying to Translate Japanese’ by last week’s #TA60 translator, Edward Seidensticker.

First, Fulop Kepner:

‘Arguments for the value and importance of ‘close’ literary translation always come down to the issue of degree. From a literary standpoint, an absolutely “literal” translation of any work of fiction would amount to gibberish. No one champions an approach this slavish. It is in the middle ground that the battles rage.’

Finally, this gem from John Dryden’s 1685 ‘Preface to Sylvae’:

‘…[A] Translator is to make his Author appear as charming as possibly he can, provided he maintains his Character, and makes him not unlike himself. Translation is a kind of Drawing after the Life, where every one will acknowledge there is a double sort of likeness, a good one and a bad. ’Tis one thing to draw the Out-lines true, the Features like, the Proportions exact, the Colouring it self perhaps tolerable, and another thing to make all these graceful, by the posture, the shadowings, and chiefly by the Spirit which animates the whole.’