Language: Thai

In Conversation: Mui Poopoksakul

Thailand has become politically divided...so 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.

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Announcing our September Book Club Selection: Moving Parts by Prabda Yoon

Is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?

Moving Parts, our September Asymptote Book Club selection, is the second book-length English translation of Prabda Yoon’s work, but perhaps the first book (in any genre) ever to culminate in what our reviewer describes as one of life’s “most seductive question[s]: is it a sadder thing to throw oneself unnoticed from the top of a building or to live out one’s days without a functioning butt plug?”

In addition to translating A Clockwork Orange and Lolita into Thai, Prabda Yoon has, according to Words Without Borders, “popularized postmodern narrative techniques in contemporary Thai literature.”  Bringing Prabda Yoon’s work into English (together with Tilted Axis), Mui Poopoksakul demonstrates a “facility for translating puns” and delivers one of this year’s must-read short story collections. We’re excited to be sharing it with our subscribers in the USA, Canada, and the UK.

If you’d like to receive next month’s Asymptote Book Club pick, all the necessary information is available on our official Book Club page. Current subscribers can join the discussion on Moving Parts, and each of our nine previous titles, through our facebook group.

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Spring 2016: Going Places

You [write] to orchestrate what it is about the world that hurts you.

92,400 words—if an Asymptote issue could be held in your hands, it would be a book with 92,400 words and 368 pages (based on the typical range of 250-300 words a page). And it would be a free book, since, to catalyze the transmission of world literature, we don’t charge for access and hope it always remains that way. That’s 92,400 words that have to be solicited, considered, selected, edited, uploaded, formatted to both our house style and the satisfaction of contributors, and then fact-checked and proofread by four to six pairs of eyes. Out of the 44 articles that these 92,400 words constitute, eight might require extensive footwork for rights, ten commissioned from scratch, and as many as 18 illustrated by a guest artist. Then newly appointed chief executive assistant Theophilus Kwek obtains this figure of 92,400 (for the English text alone) “by copying the entire [Winter 2016] issue into a word document, and rounding off to the nearest 100 for footnotes [he] may have missed.” The occasion for this? We have been invited to submit an application to a grant administered by Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC), and one of the requested data is wordcount. How this comes about after five years of no official contact between Asymptote and NAC goes like this: In February 2016, back in Singapore to visit with family over Chinese New Year, I send out a batch of solicitations. One is addressed to Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who played a major role in facilitating the June 2018 Kim-Trump summit, the costs of which (twelve million USD) the Singaporean government willingly absorbed. On 14 February, 2016, I receive a call at 8 a.m. by someone from Balakrishnan’s office encouraging me to take up the matter with NAC instead. I mutter something about NAC being unsupportive, and put the phone down quite quickly. The next day, someone more senior—an actual spokesperson from the Ministry—calls. Charmed by her diplomacy, I agree to “allow [myself] to be approached.” On February 16, an email entitled “funding for Asymptote,” pops up in my inbox. Negotiation takes a protracted seven months, during the course of which my case is rotated between four different officers, and in the process of which hopes are raised only to be dashed—with even the acting director of NAC’s literary arts sector development admitting to me that they had changed their mind (i.e., that it is not a matter of one officer’s stance being discontinuous with another). The long and short of it is that funding is allotted to Singaporean writers and translators of Singaporean work only; support for literary editors only extends as far as sponsoring workshops or mentorships. This was NAC’s policy in 2011 (and one I was well aware of); if it hadn’t changed, why make contact? She sends me off with a one-time grant to the tune of 8,800 USD, tied to publication of Singaporean content on Asymptote platforms in the fourth quarter of 2016. In April, at the invitation of AmazonCrossing and with partial support from the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK, I speak at a London Book Fair panel on “Discovering Stories from Asia, Africa, and Turkey”; despite the geographical reach of the subject matter, I am the only person of color represented on the panel. Unlike, say, an all-male panel, this goes unremarked, underscoring a troubling diversity problem in publishing that I’ve tried to counter with my own magazine by appointing section editors from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Here to introduce the Spring 2016 edition—that I launched from the couch of my college friend Vanessa’s apartment in Brixton, London—is Visual editor Eva Heisler:

Revisiting the Spring 2016 issue, I am struck by how far-ranging and innovative the work is—and how moving. Through the inspired efforts of Asymptote’s translators, I am transported across cultures and geopolitical contexts as I gain access to poems, stories, drama, creative nonfiction, and criticism originally written in Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Filipino, Nahuatl, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, and Thai, to name just a few of the languages represented in this issue.

As editor of Asymptote’s visual section, I am interested in featuring artists who explore issues of text, narrative, linguistic identity, translation, or voice. One work that explores language as shifty, always on the move, is Bad Language, a collaboration between translator Laura Marris and video artist Matt Kenyon. The video, which documents Marris’s process of translating a poem by Paol Keineg, presents the poem as a moving entity animated by possibilities, the page rippling with adjustments and substitutions. This “moving translation” is particularly suited to Keineg’s French since the writer, who was raised in Brittany, often integrates Breton vocabulary. As Marris explains, “I wanted to translate in a way that could accommodate shifting linguistic loyalties, rather than delivering one authoritative version.” READ MORE…

Summer 2014: The Tip of a Vast Iceberg

The best writing does not mirror something we already know but rather offers a new view.

Is world literature racist? (By ‘world literature,’ I refer specifically, of course, to agents in the world literature industry, say, programmers of literary festivals or those who disburse funds.) An unhappy episode looms in my recollection of Asymptote-related work leading up to the Summer 2014 issue. I have only ever brought it up once, and briefly, two years ago, in a blog post about editing a literary journal as a person of color. With Asians in America reclaiming their visibility recently, it may not such be a bad idea to ride the wave. So here is the story: Five years into helming a magazine as its only full-time team member, I came to know about an invitation sent to a part-time team member. This invitation, issued by a White person, to represent Asymptote at an international conference with an offer to be flown in from anywhere, was sent directly to the White female Assistant Managing Editor who’d been with Asymptote for less than seven months, and who actually lived farther away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. Appalled by the blatant racism, I told her that I would not authorize her appearance on behalf of Asymptote—if I couldn’t defend myself against the racist, at least I wouldn’t be complicit in his invisibilization. What surprised me was how incomprehensible this decision was to another White senior team member, who took it upon himself to sway my mind. Forced as a person of color to “accept offense and facilitate its reconciliation,” I chose to shut down the conversation instead, as Maya Binyam would have recommended. Since then, I’ve observed an interesting pattern: people will often rush to the aid of one marginalized group without realizing how it occurs at the expense of other marginalized groups—groups that don’t even have anyone else flying a flag for them, be it Asians or editors (more on this later). Here to introduce the Summer 2014 issue is Senior Editor Sam Carter.

This issue graced the Asymptote homepage when I was applying to join the journal back in August of 2014. As I put the finishing touches on a cover letter—and as I later drafted my responses to a series of follow-up questions—I came back to the contents of this edition again and again to explain why I wanted to contribute to such an impressively expansive, incredibly inclusive, and somehow still remarkably cohesive literary project. Greeting me each time was Robert Zhao Renhui’s stunning cover featuring a man leaping from an iceberg juxtaposed with a polar bear swimming in presumably icy waters. Amid a stillness that nevertheless captures a sense of imminent movement, both remain cool and collected despite the unknown that lies ahead. I soon followed suit, plunging into a new position that, as often happens with sudden immersion, proved instantly invigorating.

If you’re looking for an ice-breaker—or a place of your own to dive into the issue—you probably couldn’t do better than the excerpts from Raúl Zurita’s The Country of Ice, translated by Daniel Borzutzky. Yet unlike the cover photographs, ice here freezes time, recording the past rather than providing any sort of springboard into the future: “You then look at the giant wall of ice and you feel you were once there, perhaps hundreds, thousands of years ago, and you curl up in a ball as if wanting to save yourself from that memory.” The five prose poems have a decidedly chilling effect, one that the poet has been exploring his entire career. READ MORE…

Trishanku―Language as Purgatory

“My adulthood is covered with the bubble-wrap of English.”

So here’s a story―Trishanku was a mythological king, the ancestor of the Hindu god Ram. When Trishanku grew old, the gods invited his soul to heaven, but he wanted to rise to paradise in his earthly body. “Impossible,” the gods shuddered. Trishanku went to the sage Vishwamitra for help. Vishwamitra conducted a great yagya for Trishanku, and with the power of his ritual, started levitating Trishanku―body and all―towards heaven. But when the gods barred the gates, Vishwamitra built an entirely new universe between heaven and earth where Trishanku dangles, upside down, for eternity.

As a bilingual writer, I often feel like Trishanku. Having grown up in a postcolonial country with the shadow of a foreign language colouring every aspect of my existence, a duplicity cleaves my life. I inhabit two languages―English and Hindi―but I’m never fully comfortable in either. It’s telling perhaps that Trishanku is also the name of a constellation that in English is known as Crux. This confusion of languages I reside in, this no woman’s land of living between tongues defines me.

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Section Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2017

Insights from the experts on the Spring 2017 Issue of Asymptote

Looking for new entry points into the latest issue of the journal? The section editors of this behemoth cash of international literature, out just last week, are here to guide you!  

In this spring issue, the drama section features two complementary pieces—one from Catalonia and the other from Poland. Both portray hellish, nightmarish worlds in a distinct, unique theatrical manner. Grzegorz Wroblewski’s The New Colony in translation by Agnieska Pokojska depicts a claustrophobic asylum where patients/citizens live out their days in a state of restless, mocking unease. Wroblewski’s text is typical of what has been deemed “post-dramatic” theatre (in Hans Lehmann’s terms). It is an open text which offers its audience an intentionally disorientating roadmap to a contemporary world that is fractured and broken, where individuals seek wholeness despite all signs that such a search is hopeless.

Written as a proto-feminist cabaret, Beth Escudé i Gallès’s Diabolic Cabaret in translation by Phyllis Zatlin, looks at an elemental Eve, channeling visions of historical female icons throughout history. Is guilt a woman? To whom will society place its blame in times of war? Helen of Troy? Other alluring, bewitching sirens up to no good? Escudé i Gallès teases and cajoles her audience in a piece that through anarchic humor questions the roles we all play to claim concepts of territory, identity, and ownership. Both Wroblewski and Escudé I Gallès are from the same generation, even though they represent different cultures and sensibilities as dramatists. It’s fascinating to see two skilled and provocative playwrights, in fine translations, address states of fear and anxiety all too prevalent in the modern world.

—Drama Editor Caridad Svich

Among three exceptional essays—including one that introduces readers to the brilliant but tortured Swiss writer, Hermann Burger, and another that briefly loiters at the fork in Iran’s contemporary literary scene—I found myself particularly drawn to Noh Anothai‘s generous and intimate reflections on a world turned akimbo, seen through the eyes of Thai poet, Saksiri Meesomsueb. As we follow Anothai through the pages of Meesomsueb’s award-winning collection, That Hand is White, and from north Bangkok to Chicago and back, I’m reminded once more of literature’s gift in transgressing borders, its necessary lucidity, kindness, and prescience; and consequently, its call for response. Only with clean hands can we clean the world, Meesomsueb tells us. Dear Reader, what will you do next?

—Writers on Writers Editor Ah-reum Han

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Translation Tuesday: “The Awaiter” by Duanwad Pimwana

We coexisted in close proximity on this planet. Even so, we led a solitary existence... What right did a person have to demand something of others?

I never had any luck, perhaps because I never thought of it, and it probably didn’t think of me. Yet something now lay at my feet. That it had to show up there was no mere contingency. I could have easily stepped over it or veered to the side. Somebody whisking about in the vicinity would have picked it up; he probably would have grinned and chalked it up to his lucky day. But I hadn’t moved aside, and as long as I stood in place and glanced calmly at it down by my feet, others could only steal a wistful glimpse. Some might have regretted walking a tad too fast; if they had been slower, they could have become its possessor. Some might have reasoned, siding with themselves, that they spotted it even before I did, but they were a step too slow. Regardless, I picked up the money, without concluding as of yet whether it was my luck or not.

That evening at the tail end of the monsoon season, I happened to walk by a crowded bus stop even though it was not on my way home and I had no purpose for taking that route. The money lay fallen behind a bus. When I bent down to pick it up, the hot air from the exhaust pipe spurted onto my face as I unfurled myself back to standing. A pair of eyes darted at me. Its owner walked toward me with a face painted with an uncertain smile. I knew his intentions immediately. While I myself was unsure of my status in relation to the money at that instant, one thing of which I was absolutely certain was: the man approaching was not the owner of the money—but he wanted to be.

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Asymptote Spring 2014 Issue – Out Now!

…and it's packed with the most exciting new literary translations, critical pieces, and more from around the world.

What are you waiting for? Highlights from Asymptote’s Spring 2014 issue include new work by Nobel laureate Herta MüllerDavid Bellos (author of “Is that a Fish in Your Ear?”), and Prix Goncourt-winner Jonathan Littell. Plus, our annual English-language fiction feature spotlights Diasporic literature from Bosnia, China, India, Japan, and Singapore.

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