The Joys and Dangers of Translating Asian Dictionaries: Part I.

"Do the Siamese differ from us just on the level of their names for concepts, or is their very conception of the world different?"

A few weeks ago, I sat down to write up a few thoughts I had been having regarding a twelfth century South Indian encyclopedia called the Mānasollāsa.  I’ve been reading from this encyclopedia with much guidance from Dr. M.A. Jayashree, who is currently leading up a massive translation and critical edition project. The encyclopedia itself is massive: much of its scholarship gives up halfway, and the translation project still has a long, long way to go.

Somewhere in the translation process, I picked up the rhythms and cadences of king Someśvara III. What was initially supposed to be a short blog post morphed into a bizarre trip down many (partially fictitious) orientalist caverns, eventually reemerging somewhere in what is now known as Karnataka. The editors at Asymptote followed me down the rabbit hole, offering guidance along the way, and together we decided to split up the piece into a series of more digestible fragments. Hang in there! I hope you all stick along for the ride.

Part I: Counting Daughters and Seasons in Siam

Because she is mute, nature mourns. Yet the inversion of this proposition leads even further into the essence of nature; the sadness of nature makes her mute. In all mourning there is the deepest inclination to speechlessness, which is infinitely more than the inability or disinclination to communicate. That which mourns feels itself thoroughly known by the unknowable. To be named—even when the namer is godlike and blissful-perhaps always remains an intimation of mourning. But how much more melancholy it is to be named not from the one blessed paradisiacal language of names, but from the hundred languages of man, in which name has already withered, yet which, according to God’s pronouncement, have knowledge of things.

—   Walter Benjamin, “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man”

Hidden within the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) ninth and tenth Standard curriculum is a wonderful, and more than slightly orientalist, short story by W. Somerset Maugham entitled “Princess September.” The story opens with a tale of the king of Siam trying to order and organize his children. The passage, unrealistic as it is, is worth quoting at length:

First the King of Siam had two daughters and he called them Night and Day. Then he had two more, so he changed the names of the first ones and called the four of them after the seasons, Spring and Autumn, Winter and Summer. But in course of time he had three others and he changed their names again and called all seven by the days of the week. But when his eighth daughter was born he did not know what to do till he suddenly thought of the months of the year. The Queen said there were only twelve and it confused her to have to remember so many new names, but the King had a methodical mind and when he made it up he never could change it if he tried. He changed the names of all his daughters and called them January, February, March (though of course in Siamese) till he came to the youngest, who was called August, and the next one was called September.
‘That only leaves October, November, and December,’ said the Queen, ‘and after that we shall have to begin all over again.’

‘No, we shan’t,’ said the King, ‘because I think twelve daughters are enough for any man and after the birth of dear little December I shall be reluctantly compelled to cut off your head.’

He cried bitterly when he said this, for he was extremely fond of the Queen. Of course it made the Queen very uneasy because she knew that it would distress the King very much if he had to cut off her head. And it would not be very nice for her. But it so happened that there was no need for either of them to worry because September was the last daughter they ever had. The Queen only had sons after that and they were called by the letters of the alphabet, so there was no cause for anxiety for a long time, since she had only reached the letter J.

Now the King of Siam’s daughters had had their characters permanently embittered by having to change their names in this way, and the older ones, whose names of course had been changed oftener than the others, had their characters more permanently embittered. But September, who had never known what it was to be called anything but September (except of course by her sisters, who because their characters were embittered called her all sorts of names), had a very sweet and charming nature.

It’s easy to see the problems in the fictional Asian king’s methods of organizing his daughters—the attempt to attach his progeny first with the seemingly natural (night/day, the seasons) and then, with the social (days of the week, months of the year, letters of the alphabet) realms fails. He leaves no room for expansion or shifting realities. At the end of the story, his daughters are embittered (and aren’t even a complete set). Their year ends in our September. Taking a step back, however, we can use Maugham’s problematic representations of people from Siam to question cultural translation itself.

Ordering the world according to months of the year seems natural to us: this system just makes sense. It contains the proper balance of meaning and arbitrariness to capture the world as it is (or as it appears). But when we compare similar systems across space and time, we can see how these apparently commonsensical relations break down. This is signaled by our unease upon reading Maugham’s sentence, “He changed the names of all his daughters and called them January, February, March (though of course in Siamese).” Do the Siamese really have names for January, February or March? If they do, do they use the Julian or Gregorian calendar? Did they have the same problem with December not being the tenth month, as its name derived from Latin would suggest? One need not be a specialist on Thailand to ask these questions. Fundamentally they boil down to a question of signification. Do the Siamese differ from us just on the level of their names for concepts, or is their very conception of the world different?

In this specific case, both answers are correct. Depending on the era in which this fictional Siamese king was living, it is very likely that he lived in a world with six seasons in a year, seven days in a week, twelve months in a year, and many more than twenty-six letters in the alphabet.


Eric M. Gurevitch is a New York Jew currently residing in Mysore, where he teaches English at a Catholic school and studies Sanskrit texts on Hindu kingship and grammar. One day he hopes to be less confused. He often tweets at @EMGurevitch and occasionally blogs at