This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
Presenting… Chris Baker…
Disclaimer: I don’t advise anyone to replicate this method.
I’ve never had a single Thai lesson. By the time I started to learn Thai, I was already 30. I was conscious of having been trained by the British schooling system to learn languages (French, German, Russian) which I could never really use. I had learnt Tamil with a teacher in south India for my doctoral work, and read it quite well but spoke it badly. I moved to Thailand in 1979-80, already married to Pasuk, and in flight from Margaret Thatcher, and thus unlikely to return. I decided to approach learning Thai without teachers, a bit like learning as a child. This was partly laziness, and partly a conscious desire to escape my earlier experience with language learning.
In 1979, I walked into AUA (then virtually the only institutionalized Thai teaching center), and persuaded them to let me photocopy their introductory learning materials, and copy several tapes. I donated these to the Cambridge University Language Lab, their first Thai course, and used them for about six months to learn the sounds. I bought Campbell, Fundamentals of the Thai Language, and used that to learn the script (helped by knowing Tamil which has a similar alphabetic structure). I also looked around for a translated novel, and found only Botan’s Letters From Thailand. I’d read a page in English, and then the same page in Thai. This did not work so well because Susan Kepner’s translation is very loose, but I got used to reading.
I came to Thailand in 1980 and worked in a company with two Farang and about thirty Thai. I later moved to a company with 300 Thai where for most of the time I was the only Farang. So I learned to understand Thai by just listening to what was going on around me all day. I also watched a lot of Thai television, and even resisted getting English-language cable when it came available. At some point I stopped translating what I was hearing and began listening in Thai. I can’t remember when that was but it took a long time. More slowly, I got confident about speaking. I was fine at everyday conversation and business uses. I’m still not much good at formal presentation. The first time I gave an academic presentation off the cuff, someone came up afterwards and asked Pasuk why I had to speak like a peasant. I was just using everyday language, without the gear-shift needed for a formal presentation.
At that time I read enough for business uses, and a bit of newspapers, but I did not practice properly, and my reading speed remained very low. I had no need to write in Thai, so I lost that completely, but I can use a keyboard, hunt-and-peck style.
In 1997, I stopped working in business. By this time, there were lots of things that I wanted to read in Thai. I decided to work at improving my reading by spending several hours a day on reading Nidhi, Chatthip, Chai-Anan, Kachon, Sombat, etc, etc. After a couple of months, my speed had improved a lot, but I twigged that I was cheating: if a word was familiar I would pretend to myself I understood it. To enforce some discipline, I decided to translate formally. I chose Chatthip’s Thai Village Economy in the Past because I’d read it and knew it was easy, and because it’s a book many foreigners had commented about without actually knowing what it said. Also, Chatthip is a friend. I discovered I enjoyed doing translation so I also did bits by Nidhi, King Rama V, the Communist Party of Thailand, Pridi, etc, etc. I can now read quite quickly. Only recently I’ve acquired the important ability to scan a text without having to read every word.
The fascination with Khun chang khun phaen goes back some time. When we were writing Thailand: Economy and Politics in the early 1990s, I had just read E.P. Thompson’s Customs in Common and I wanted to use some literary sources. I found out about KCKP, and we used it in a small way in the prologue. Some time around then I read William Gedney’s enthusiastic comments on the poem. Then I decided to translate Nidhi’s Pen and Sail, which uses KCKP a lot. We tried to get literature specialists, both Thai and Farang, to help translate the literary extracts in Pen and Sail, but nobody would cooperate. Eventually, Pasuk and I did them ourselves. As a result, I got more interested in KCKP, and also realized that I could probably handle old poetic Thai with a bit of effort.
Why translate KCKP? There’s not one major piece of old Thai literature in translation. Much of the canon is adapted from elsewhere (from Java, India, China), but KCKP is a local original. Lots of old Thai works consists of fantastic tales about gods and kings, while the core of KCKP is a wrenching tragedy probably based on a true story. It’s also a wonderful social panorama. Gedney wrote, with a bit of exaggeration, ‘If all other information on traditional Thai culture were to be lost, the whole complex could be reconstructed from this marvelous text.’ Most of all, it’s just a great story, and deserves a wider hearing.
It’s also fascinating on gender grounds. It has been lambasted by feminists. One of our good friends wrote Thailand’s first feminist tract 35 years ago as a blast against KCKP. Some friends are seriously perplexed why we should want to translate it. But you can also read the text as a serious and sympathetic study of women in a male-oriented society. The female lead, Wanthong, is by far the most complex character and has all the best lines.
When we started, I could not read it at all. Pasuk translated word for word; I transcribed; and then I reconstructed as English prose. But by a third of the way through, I could do it solo—with a lot of bloopers. I’ve since been back and read the whole original at least twice.
At the beginning, there were many things we could not understand—words whose meaning has been lost, concepts and metaphors that belong to a culture now in the past. Astrology, supernaturalism, food, dress, weaponry, architecture, etc. We have had to consult lots of people and lots of book. In rendering to English, the main difficulties have been over curses and endearments. เนื้อเย็น works wonderfully in Thai as a compliment to an intimate partner, but how do you capture both the idea and the gentle sound in English? Also, the original poem is in a wonderful, headlong meter which is impossible to replicate. We are rendering it into prose, but we are conscious that it began in oral tradition and we are trying to make it read aloud well. The sea at Hua Hin has heard a lot of it.
We plan to publish it late next year (2010). I’m not sure there’s another old literary work I’m interested in translating but I’m open to suggestion. Lilit phra lo is wonderful, but Robert Bickner’s translation is rumored to appear real soon now. What else? I’d like to do some more work on the old KCKP manuscripts. I’m thinking of translating some late Ayutthaya historical documents. I also have a draft of a book on Ayutthaya written almost a decade ago which I really should finish.
The Series: Interviewing Successful Thai Language Learners…
If you would like to share how you successfully attained the ability to communicate in Thai, please contact me to make it so.