In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history.

September’s Asymptote Book Club selection, Moving Parts, is a dazzlingly original collection of short stories by Prabda Yoon, “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”

Translating from Thai to English can be daunting, to the extent that it sometimes feels as though “you can never do the right thing.” Continuing our monthly series of Book Club interviews, Mui Poopoksakul tells Lindsay Semel about the challenges of translating a language with “a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced,” as well as an affinity for elaborate rhyme and alliteration.

Lindsay Semel (LS): I was immediately struck by the aurality of Moving Parts. It’s full of rhyming prose and onomatopoeia. When you interviewed Prabda Yoon for The Quarterly Conversation, you said, “I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.” His answer didn’t offer much of a solution. Can you talk about some of the more challenging or intriguing examples in Moving Parts of translating what in English might be considered poetic language in prose?  

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): In Thai, people like to say two or three or four synonyms in a row if they rhyme or if they’re alliterative. The sound play isn’t intended to create extra meaning. The Thai ear is used to that sing-song quality, so it doesn’t feel like someone is suddenly breaking into a nursery rhyme. Rhyme was more of an issue in this collection, whereas in The Sad Part Was, the first Prabda Yoon collection I translated, alliteration was more present. In Moving Parts, there were a couple of big moments where Prabda really played up the rhyming—in “Evil Tongue” and in “Eye Spy”—I think as a nod to that element of the Thai language, so I felt that I needed to carry those mini poems over to represent the sound. So there are sentences in those stories where every clause rhymes. With him, these moments aren’t always intended to be particularly lyrical—some are just playful. “Eye Spy” includes a rhyme about theater seats. There are also smaller instances of rhyming: in “Mock Tail,” for example, there’s “flip or slip.” I try to pepper them in, but I also have to watch out that there is not too much of a sing-song quality in the translation.

LS: In the same interview, Yoon suggests that contemporary Thai literature is heavily influenced by Western cinema and critical theory along with social realism. While of course literary traditions never exist in a vacuum, can you speak about the elements of Thai literature that have evolved as a continuous local tradition?

MP: I think of Thai social realism, what’s locally called “literature for life,” as being Thai by now, even though Marxism is not Thai by birth. In Thai social realism, the key dichotomy is urban versus rural, representing socioeconomic disparities as well as differences in ideals. Because historically there was a stark difference between the lifestyle in Bangkok and the lifestyle in the rest of the country, the dichotomy has been a powerful one, and one that has been hard to shake. Thai also has its own forms of poetry. Thai fixed-form poetry combines internal and end rhymes. Compared to the Elizabethan sonnet, for example, you don’t have to wait so many breaths until you get to the next rhyme. We also have a modern form of free verse called simply “three-line poems.” These have been dubbed the Thai haiku, and, other than the line count, they have no formal requirements—perhaps as a reaction to the strict formal requirements of traditional poetry.

LS: The characters in Moving Parts come from all over Bangkok’s society. In the English translation they use language very differently, and they play with the symbols that make up their worlds. Can you talk about what in the original Thai acts as an identity marker or an indicator of a character’s place in society? How did you find analogies in English?

MP: The Thai language is absolutely immediate in its indication of the speaker and addressee’s places in the society and their relationship to each other. Thai has honorifics as well as what I like to call ‘dishonorifics’: it has a multitude of pronouns that are extremely nuanced—for example, there are so many ways to say “I,” and most of them already indicate the speaker’s gender and often their age and societal standing relative to the person they are speaking to.  On top of all that, Thai also has particles you tag on to the end of sentences to inject a level of politeness, playfulness, rudeness, intimacy. Of course I didn’t have these to work with in English, but you can still make the tone come through in other ways, for example, by controlling the register of the words and phrases you use, adding swear words (in jest among friends or otherwise), referring to someone as “sir” or “ma’am”, or adding Mr./Ms./Mrs. to characters’ names.

I can give you a couple of examples. In the story “Destiny’s a Dick,” when Meuy is leaving the bar where she works, a fellow prostitute calls out to her, using a ‘dishonorific’ before her name, and I have the character say, “It was fucking fierce, Meuy.” In the story “Belly Up,” the narrator uses the particle “ja,” which shows a certain flair in her style of speaking, and so I have her say “darling” here and there.

LS: Prabda Yoon has translated English classics like LolitaCatcher in the Rye, and A Clockwork Orange into Thai. Did his translation experience affect the way you two communicated during the process? How do your translation theories align or diverge?

MP: To be honest, not at all. Our communication during my translation process was very much translator to author, rather than translator to translator. I would ask him questions when I didn’t understand something in the text, or wanted to clarify or check something with him. Prabda is otherwise pretty hands off. I think every author-translator pair finds their own style of collaboration. As far as comparing our translation philosophies, I don’t think our positions are neatly comparable because he works from English into Thai, whereas I work in the opposite direction. For me, this is an important distinction because English is a hegemonic language and Thai is not, in the grand scheme of the world. Not that I think our translation styles diverge massively, but for me, the direction of translation affects some of the choices that I make, my attempts to “foreignize” to some extent, for example, by translating idioms literally when what the idiom connotes is obvious in English. And not to be overlooked is the fact that I translate from my mother tongue, and I’m protective of it, even as I’m concerned about producing a text that reads well in English.

LS: Prabda Yoon’s body of work spans many literary genres and artistic media. In what ways do you see the breadth of his art informing his writing? How would you situate Prabda Yoon amongst his Thai contemporaries?

MP: Yes, Prabda is a writer, filmmaker, and graphic artist. But he has often said that he sees his writing and filmmaking as separate artistic practices, so I don’t want to over-speculate on this point. That said, as a reader, I do see a pictorial and cinematic quality to his some of his writing. Sometimes scenes or descriptions feel like there’s a camera panning in and out.

I have frequently described Prabda as “the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature,” and I really do believe that that will be his legacy in Thai literary history. He came onto the scene in the late 1990s. In Thailand in the 80s and 90s, politics had taken a backseat, relatively speaking, so there was more freedom to experiment formally because writers didn’t have to be as concerned about putting an ideological message at the foreground. That period in Thai history was Prabda’s perfect stage because people were ready for a new narrative style, something different from the realism that had come before him. That, coupled with the kinds of stories he told, made him an icon of the period. He was quickly regarded as the voice of a new, urban generation. The country was urbanizing very fast, and a lot of the literature that came before him valorized and idealized country life, and here came a writer who explored city life without passing obvious judgment on it, so his stories spoke to a group that had grown in number over time. But Thailand has become politically divided in the past twelve or so years, so many young Thai writers are now turning back toward the themes of politics and history—Prabda likewise—but they are taking up those issues with new narrative techniques, thanks in no small part to Prabda.

Mui Poopoksakul is the translator of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was and Moving Parts, both from Tilted Axis Press. Her translations of Duanwad Pimwana’s Arid Dreams (Feminist Press) and Bright (Two Lines Press) are forthcoming in April 2019. A native of Bangkok, she now lives in Berlin.

Lindsay Semel is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Portugal. She holds a BA in Comparative Literature and works as a freelance editor from her home on a farm in Northern Portugal.


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