Noh Anothai’s career began with the discovery of a lack: a Thailand-shaped hole in the English- reading literary world. It all started in his summer before tenth grade, a period when his unusual interest in “moving between languages” evolved into comparing the original Greek of Homer’s Odyssey with its countless translations.
Soon he was repeating this pastime with Dante’s Inferno and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. And then, in the years that followed, he moved on to the texts you might reasonably expect a bookish young Thai boy growing up in Chicago, thousands of miles from his homeland, to gravitate towards: Thai literature. However, it proved a largely fruitless search. “There was often not a single translation of an individual work, much less several, and the ones that did exist were difficult to get a hold of,” he recalls. “And when I finally managed to read some of them, I was usually disappointed.”
Today, however, that disappointment is vanishing, one new book or journal release at a time. And Noh, who still lives in Chicago, is himself partly to thank for this. His expanding list of Thai-to-English translation credits includes the works of Sunthorn Phu, Thailand’s best-known poet, as well as essays by contemporary authors such as Pibulsak Lakonpol.
And then there’s Firefly, a soaring, note-perfect translation of a lyrical poem by Chirarnan Pitpreecha for which he recently won the first BKKLIT Translation prize. Launched by the publishers of a new biannual English-language journal showcasing “the most talented writers and artists working in Thailand today”, this award – and the lovingly- produced publication driving it – marks a rare moment of public vindication for Noh. “Up to this point, I’ve worked almost entirely in isolation,” he says. “Living in the US, I’ve never really been part of the right networks. That’s one reason why The Bangkok Literary Review is so exciting: they’ve created not only a directory, but a community of people who share the same interests and commitments.”
A 166-page compendium of Thai-authored prose and poetry – including Firefly – The Bangkok Literary Review is also the result of a glaring deficiency. “I’ve lived in Thailand for five years now,” says British editor James Hatton, “and after digging around and finding there is not much in the way of contemporary Thai literature in translation, I thought it would be nice to do a magazine where we collect translations together that people are working on and try and create a buzz about it.” Similarly, co-founder Pariyapa Amon-Wanitsan has long felt that the Thai sections at the country’s bookstores are unrepresentative of what’s really out there. “I find it a bit sad,” she says. “It’s all in the same direction: Thailand’s a dangerous place. Somewhere exotic. For fun, parties. It’s shallow and I don’t want Thailand to be projected as somewhere shallow. I want people to delve deep into what Thailand really is. That’s why we started it.”
Shapeshifting birds. Absent mothers and fathers. Dark family secrets and doomed love affairs. Printed in an elegant serif font on quality matte paper, the 15 short stories and poems in the first issue span many of the postmodern themes and narrative techniques that pulse through the veins of contemporary Thai literature. Merging magical realism with a peculiarly Thai sexual angst and often shocking surrealism are short stories by a bevy of former S.E.A. Write Award winners, including Jidanun Lueangpiansamut, Jadej Kamjorndej and Zakariya Amataya. Inventive structures, social commentaries, kooky characters and discombobulating twists abound.
Accompanying these writings are lavish reproductions of works by five Thai artists, from Bussaraporn Thongchai’s fey black-and-white drawings of elongated humans to Yuree Kensaku’s candy-coloured Pop murals. “Pairing them up together was quite tough, as I didn’t want to suggest that the art says the same thing as the literature does,” explains James, himself a writer whose own short stories have appeared in literary journals and been shortlisted for awards. “I just wanted there to be some kind of frisson between the two.” Somewhat fittingly, a dark tale, Evil Tongue, by arguably the most influential Thai writer of our times, Prabda Yoon, opens proceedings. Fittingly, because James’ initiation in contemporary Thai literature only really began when he read two of Prabda’s short story collections, both painstakingly deciphered into English by Thai translator of the moment, Mui Poopoksakul. “Mui’s translations of Prabda were the first time I read a translation and thought, ‘This is great. Thai literature really does exist…and it is good.’”
Issue two is already in the pipeline. Assuming the financial support comes through (the inaugural awards and issue were funded through private donations), they plan to delve deeper, beginning with long-form essays. What do they hope to achieve in the long term? An officer at the Ministry of Culture by day, Pariyapa confesses to having a secret agenda. For a long time she has felt that the literature she so passionately loves has been neglected both by the arbiters of Thai culture and its creators – and that this needs to change. “Even though I work at the ministry, literature is sometimes overlooked,” she says. “They tend to promote things that make quick cash, like movies or fashion.” Similarly, many local film and TV people ignore good literature’s potential as a source of inspiration and ideas. Deep in the fiber of her being, she hopes that promoting it will awaken them, and so prevent the scourge of trite or superficial stories and scripts. “I want to see more collaborations between writers and artists and other fields of art.”
If this is the somewhat starry-eyed goal of The Bangkok Literary Review, the most urgent one is nurturing new translators. “I can count the number of good ones on my hands,” she says. “That’s a real problem.” James invokes the S.E.A. Write Awards – the region’s foremost literary awards – to illustrate the point. “The weird thing about the S.E.A. Write Awards is that there’s no scheme to actually translate any of the winners,” he says. “Normally the Thai winners will only be read in Thai and not in any other language at all. So hopefully in the long term, by making Thai literature a bit sexier, and by bringing it together with contemporary art, it’ll make people more interested in doing those longer translations.” To achieve this goal, a translations-only editorial policy is in place, for now at least. “My reasoning for that is that there are other places to publish writings in English, but not many journals that publish translations.”
For time immemorial, translation has been a shadowy profession known intimately only by a dedicated few, and it looks set to remain that way. That said, The Bangkok Literary Review can already be credited with helping to demystify it. Reading the interviews up on its website, for example, it becomes clear that while a few hardy people, such as Mui and Noh, are full-time literature translators, most only do it part-time, or as hobbyists. “For most of us, translation is a labour of love, and the rewards transcend dollar amounts,” Noh reveals.
Insights into the technical nuts and bolts of translation are also offered. These give the sense that translation is far from a mechanical process – a creative discipline comparable in many ways to writing. “In reality,” Noh explains, “true equivalents are rare, and more often than not you’re shuttling among several possible options. Even if you know exactly what a line means, you can struggle endlessly about how it should sound, particularly with poetry. And that’s just the mechanics.”
Juggling busy day jobs with their bold foray into independent publishing, neither James nor Pariyapa works at the perilous coal face of translation – but both know a good one when they read one, something they have done a lot of in recent months. “There are sometimes secret messages between lines, codes,” she says. “Good translators have this special talent: they can decode them.” Thai language is singularly playful, they both believe, and the best navigate and channel that playfulness to the benefit of both author and reader.
“In English there is wordplay, too, but in the Thai language the grammar and the spelling allow us to be very experimental,” Pariyapa adds. “And I believe the Thai language has colours. Colours and lights. The translators we admire are the ones who can capture all those colours and lights and pin them on the page.”
To find out more, visit bkklit.com.