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Experience Thailand: The Art of Omission

28th October 2013

In this blog, Cutter Streeby discusses his translation of 'Lese Majesty: In the Back Room'. You can read the final version as well as the gloss together on our Translate! page. We encourage you to submit your own translation.

Zakariya 'Che' Amataya is famous in Thailand for having been the first poet to win South East Asia's Write Award (2010) writing in free verse.  Asked about his style recently, he said, 'The older generation used to say, ‘Oh who cares, his style doesn’t matter. Nobody will listen to him.’ After I won the award people accepted free verse. Now the older generation sees me as a threat.' 

While trying to capture Che’s style is a feat by itself, what makes this poem particularly challenging is the social context in Thailand. Because of the persecution of those artists/activists perceived to have violated lese-majesty, Che writes in a way that offers protection from any accusations. (for recent articles on lese-majesty please see The Guardian: Sondhi Yellow Shirt Royal Pardon (October 10, 2013); The Asian Correspondent: Red Shirt Sentenced (January 2013); Brother-to-brother lèse-majesté (September 2013). 


From left to right: graffiti artist Cecê Nobre, Thai poet
Che Amataya and translator Cutter Streeby. To see a
documentary on Cece and Che please visit VerseJunkies.

His audience is well aware of this art of omission; in Thailand, what isn’t written is as important as what appears on the page. Discussing this aspect of his writing Che says, 'When [the audience] reads my poem, they know what I am talking about… I feel like I should talk for these people because there are things they want to say but cannot, or are afraid to [say]… but I can write around it without getting [put] in jail.' 

What Che writes, and what the audience understands are two separate things. As a translator, how do I negotiate this fact while still offering a representative version of his poetry? I elected to offer two English versions in order to allow the audience to understand Che’s poem. I have included a gloss so my English reader can understand what the Thai audience read and compare it to my poeticized version, what they understood. 

Instead of simply placing the original language text on the facing page as a type of visual artifact, I include with the original a literal version and also a glossed version here - this is so I can demonstrate an English verbal equivalent for the original poem. The reader now acts as interpreter, as translator between the two English variants. They can search through, find the overlap, find the deviation between these two.

In my translation, 'Lese-majesty: In the Back Room' you will have noticed my final version is longer than the original. It is clear that Che’s piece utilizes a descending stanza structure (two 3-line stanzas, two 2-line stanzas, one 1-line stanza) which provides the final line with an effective visual close, accentuating the poem’s indictment of ‘silence.’ This silence is especially devastating in a poetic canon that does not normally incorporate this type of ‘experimental’ form. In trying to recreate this silence for a Western audience, I adapt the structure and make it more visually prominent (5-4-3-2-1). This offers a more effective structural correlation for an audience conditioned to free-verse. 

The Thai language is alliterative. Sometimes Che will stack 3 or 4 words (usually adjectives) in a row in order to increase the alliterative value. [See this documentary to hear Che read 'With Only My Hands'.] So I looked for musical equivalents in my English translation. 

In this new formula, the ‘true’ translation exists between the finalized versions. The act of translation rests with the reader’s personal experience of the poem.

In this new formula, the ‘true’ translation exists between the finalized versions. The act of translation rests with the reader’s personal experience of the poem. This format opens up a more individuated and multifaceted interpretation of the source piece. The experience of reading translation moves from questions of the translator’s veracity - we no longer ask, 'Is this what it really said, or is this a ‘version’?' as every act of translation is always already a ‘version’. By revealing my choices, the reader becomes the translator. Interpretation is the magic in the synapse, the negative space between English variants is where the source piece exists. This negative space is dynamic. 

With these tools, the reader should feel confident in attempting their own translation of Che’s piece. There is a place for this in the Translate! section. I encourage everyone to try it- each new translation can only add an additional layer of meaning. 

I had so much help in bringing these new poems into English. For this particular piece, I had a person make a literal copy; I had discussions about Che’s style and syntax with many professors who study Thai literature; I consulted with Che for hours. However, do to the political nature of this piece, everyone involved asked to have their names redacted from the final publication.

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