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Thursday, February 24, 2011

The History of Translation and its Trends in Thailand

the following write up on 'The History of Translation and its Trends in Thailand' is by Panom Kaewphadee

Translation can be traced back in terms of its origin to the time when the western powers spread their dominations around the world, and even earlier than that. Translation was a means to dominate and to learn about other cultures. Thailand, a country which supposedly has not been colonized, has its long history of translation from dealings with the western countries as well as its eastern neighbors. The need for translation in Thai history then arose with a necessity of communication with missionaries and representatives from many countries who either wanted to impose on the common people and the governing heads their influences or to do trades. The early forms of translation were mainly official documents to the royal governments or the kings themselves.
According to Ramayana: An Instrument of Historical Contact and Cultural Transmission between India and Asia (Desai, 1970), traces of Ramayana story were found as early as fourteenth century. These traces were mainly in the forms of temple architecture. It then implies that the Ramayana stories were translated to Thai earlier than fourteenth century and spread among the local population by means of oral traditions. The two epics from India; the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, are very important sources from which came Thai dance and art forms. It also means that the translations of religious texts like the Tripitakas from Pali into Thai were accomplished much earlier than that.
By the time of King Rama I’s reign, literatures from neighboring countries like China and Laos had already been well-known in Thailand, though they were mainly in oral forms. King Rama I ordered many well-known Chinese texts to be translated into Thai, chief among these texts was Sam Kok or Three Kingdoms. In the case of literature from Laos, many folktales were being circulated orally among the people of the northeastern highlands. It was not really translation which took place then. This is interesting in terms of language medium. Laos is the language spoken by the people who lived on the other side of the Mekong River which was also clearly understood by the people who populated the Thailand-side of the river. The literature from Laos which largely comprised Ramayana stories were blended in with the Thai Ramayana tradition, and became the most prominent topics of entertainment for the people.
In the reign of King Rama IV, there were already many foreigners in the royal court. These foreigners were in positions of power. They had influenced the king in terms of his innovative thinking. The king had sent many of his sons to be educated in England. One of these princes would later come to be known as King Rama V the Great who arranged his grand tour to European countries, and who brought an end to the slave systems. From then on, it was a tradition for the royal members to be sent to study in England or the US.
The reign of King Rama VI, the son of King Rama V, was called the Golden Age of Thai literature because it was blessed with the King’s talents and his interests in literature. The King himself had translated many texts ranging from Indian literature to English literature. We also see an emergence of novel as a genre in Thai literature with the first complete translation of Vandetta by Marie Corelli. King Rama VI also wrote many books dealing with Ramayana stories.
When we come to the reign of King Rama IX, or King Bhumibol, a large amount of Japanese literature has been translated into Thai, especially the unique Japanese genre called manga. These manga have been translated into Thai which has proved popular among the general population. What needs to be noted is the fact that only a few numbers of literary Japanese texts have been translated in Thai. The manga is much more popular. The most important of Japanese writers who has been translated is Haruki Murakami.
Apart from English, Chinese, and Japanese texts, we also see an emergence of texts dealing with philosophy being translated into Thai from the European languages like French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish. A few examples of these texts are Cervantes’ Don Quixote from the Spanish, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose from the Italian and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. These texts are mostly directly translated from their original languages with an exception for War and Peace which has been translated from an English translation.
With the trend of Korean romance becoming prominent among Thai youngsters, we find new translators emerging in a large number. These new faces in a field of translation target the young Thais. The translational products of these translators are often met with skeptical scornful comments from critics of the literary circle. The critics’ argument is that the translated texts produced by the young translators from Korean romance lack language efficiency and often appeal only to the young, mainly college and school girls. These texts lose their original meanings and flavors in the process of translations.
In a recently held seminar on translation and interpretation in Bangkok, a group of famous and well known writers and interpreters, along with experts in the field of translations, compares the positions of writers and translators in the literary and academic circles. Texts produced by writers and those which have been translated are held in the same position. One of the translators in the said seminar pointed out that writers are those who chronicle events in the society, translators, on the other hands, are those who ‘transmit’ messages from one culture to another. Thus translation is an important practice which requires the practitioners to be efficient in many aspects. A translator needs to have a thorough knowledge of the source language and also that of the target language. A translator needs to have flexibility while he is in the process of translation.
In comparison to literary texts scientific texts are rarely translated into Thai. For example, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species has not been translated into Thai at all. On the other hand, works of Charles Darwin and Shakespeare have been found to be translated into Thai since the reign of King Rama VI. The king himself had rendered the play The Merchant of Venice of Shakespeare into Thai verses. Scientific texts are translated and used in academic syllabuses but otherwise it is rarely done. The scientific texts that get translated are those which have attracted the general readers, and those which do not deal with too difficult topics. The obstacles of translating scientific texts stem from the unique jargons used in those texts. It is often observed that jargons get translated and sometimes they are left as they are in the languages they were first written.
Throughout the history of translation in Thailand, there is a few works translated into other languages. A novel by the so-called Queen of Thai fictions Dhamayantri, Koo Kam was translated into English as Sunset at Chaophraya and also into Japanese. An award-winning The Happiness of Kati has been translated into English, Japanese and French. Another example is a political novel by the former Prime Minister of Thailand Krukrit Pramoj, Four Reigns. The novel has been both translated into English in unabridged and abridged versions in which parts of the story are cut. This leads to a trend that only the popular and award-winning books get translated, and the translation is done by native English speakers or, in some cases, with the help of the authors.
In conclusion, the trends of translation in Thailand lie heavily on domesticating the translated texts. The critics and translators in general agree that a translated text should be made to contain elements of the culture and language into which it is being translated, and at the same time retain its values and contents. The Thai critics and translators emphasize on the beautification of language. The language used should read smoothly and not to have a sense of foreign language in it that it is rendered unintelligible.
In recent years, many of the Thai fictions have had the opportunity of being translated into English or one or two of the far-eastern languages. It is hoped that in future the Thai literature would take its place in world literatures through means of translations.


Desai, Santosh N. “Ramayana: An Instrument of Historical Contact and Cultural Transmission between India and Asia.” The Journal of Asian Studies 30.1 (1970): 5-20. Web. 6 February 2011.
Jantasoka, Ponchai. “The Confession of Niida, in the world of Literature.” Life Style: Read & Write (2010) Bangkok Business. Web. 7 February 2011.
Panyapayatjati, Chatchawan. “Translated Works and Works of Fiction.” ArtGazinesArticles (2010). Web. 7 February 2011.

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