Here’s an early Christmas present for you all—our Q&A with Noh Anothai, who won this year’s BKKLIT Translation Prize for his translation of Chiranan Pitpreecha’s ‘Firefly’, which is one of the best translations of Thai poetry we’ve ever come across. In this fascinating Q&A Noh gives an insight into his motivations as a translator, his reasons for choosing to translate ‘Firefly’, and the difficulty of translating Thai poetry. If you haven’t already read ‘Firefly’ please do—you won’t regret it. It’s still up on issuu here and on our website here.
BKKLIT Could you briefly tell us where you come from and why you started to translate Thai literature?
NA I was born in Bangkok, but moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was four. I often have to remind people that—it wasn’t until college that I even visited Thailand with any regularity.
I always had a nascent interest in moving between languages, but it didn’t really crystallize until the summer before tenth grade, when I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey. I fell in love with his language, which the introduction that came with my edition made me appreciate even more: it compared Fitzgerald’s version both to the original Greek as well as to several other renderings. It became a pastime for me to get several translations of a single text—the Inferno, say, or the Metamorphoses—and read them together, looking at how different translators treated the same passage.
When I wanted to do the same with works of Thai literature, I found I couldn’t—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 (still are). When I finally managed to read some of them, I was usually disappointed—as far as poetry was concerned, few translations read well in English; the worst were hardly intelligible (I’m thinking of some attempts to translate khlong poems). So, I decided to start translating myself.
BKKLIT What work of Thai literature would you love to see translated, and why?
NA I think more of the SEAWrite winners—from all of the participating countries—should be translated, and not necessarily even into English. As far as I know, there is no concerted programming to translate, say, the winner from Vietnam so that he or she can be read by audiences in Kampuchea, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. Therefore, the prize does little to foster genuine, transnational cultural exchange through literature within the region, much less on a global stage.
BKKLIT Why did you choose to translate ‘Firefly’?
NA I discovered Chiranan Pitpreecha’s poetry after reading an essay by scholar Chusak Phattarakulwanit on one of her most famous poems, “20 Years of ‘The Audacity of Flowers.’” (Since I don’t work and was not educated in Thailand, I’m always late to the game.) I was fascinated by Pitpreecha’s story—as one of the leading student activists of her day, whose convictions drove her to the jungle and back. I was also surprised to learn that her collection, The Leaf That Went Missing, broke records for poetry sales in the country. I thought the collection would have great appeal internationally and spent a winter translating several selections from it—“Firefly” included.
BKKLIT What are the challenges faced by translators of Thai literature?
NA Beyond linguistic challenges, there is the lack of institutional and communal support—there aren’t a lot of Thai literature departments abroad. So, internationally, it can be difficult to find readers knowledgeable in Thai, and in Thailand, readers who can assess a translation as an English-language work can be equally rare. It can also be hard finding out who’s working on what. That’s why I’m glad a journal like The Bangkok Literary Review exists now.
BKKLIT What do you plan to translate next?
NA Currently I’ve been translating poems from Saksiri Meesomsueb’s That Hand Is White and essays from Pibulsak Lakonpol’s From the Bank of Brokenhearted River. I’d like to return to the classics—the Nirat London has long been on my mind—but, conversely, also delve more deeply into contemporary poetry and fiction. With a language so underrepresented in translation, there are lots of opportunities, and I’m always looking for new projects. I’m open to recommendations!