Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lost in translation : Marcel Barang in perspective


Lost in translation : Marcel Barang in perspective


When a score of international specialists on Thai Studies convenes on the theme of ''Transnationalisation and Thai Society'' at Thammasat University from today till Friday, they will be able to spot a seasoned farang man among the audience. Aside from a strong interest in refining his knowledge of Thai language, culture and society so as to outdo himself in his long love affair with Thai literature, he might try to sell you some Thai novels and short stories which he has translated into English and French. The man is none other than Marcel Barang, a 62-year-old French-born polyglot who has been based in Bangkok for nearly 30 years, is married to a Thai wife and has a daughter who is currently attending Chulalongkorn University.

Fond of referring to himself as a ''wordsmith'' or, at other times, a ''literary crazy farang,'' Mr Barang likes to talk about his three incarnations _ as a teacher of French, English and fine arts, a journalist specialising in Southeast Asia, and a translator of Thai literature into English and French. Of these roles, he is evidently most at ease with being a translator, a self-appointed task which he claims to have been ''cut out'' to do.

In the last 15 years, Mr Barang has translated countless Thai novels and short stories into English and French. Select literary works by both classic and modern writers as varied as Arkartdamkeung Rapheephat and Dorkmai Sot to Arunwadee Arunmart, Saneh Sangsuk, Siriworn Kaewkwan, Kanokphong Songsomphan, Seksan Prasertkul and Prachakhom Lunachai, have all been translated by him, totalling about 30 book-length manuscripts, either in English or French, or both.

Among these authors, Mr Barang has spent a lot of his energy translating most of the works of Saneh Sangkuk, Chart Korpjitti and Wimon Sainimnuan. Although his mastery of English and Thai languages is apparent, Mr Barang usually works with select Thai and English editors to make sure that his translations do not compromise the authenticity of the original, a sign of his devotion to the perfection of his craft.

Unfortunately, only a part of this translated body of literature has been published and distributed in the French and English speaking worlds. Many of the already translated manuscripts have been waiting for the right publishers to pick them up for publication and distribution. Meanwhile, most of his works are available at for free reading.

Although it is not easy to assess the size and quality of his audience abroad, a novel such as Venin (Venom/Asorraphit) by Saneh Sangsuk did very well in the French market. Moreover, it was translated into six other European languages, and total sales were approximately 40,000 copies.

As for the Thai market, it is even more difficult to come up with an objective evaluation. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Mr Barang is a truly well-known and respected figure in the world of Thai literature. He was the only foreigner honoured last April by the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Thailand as a ''Distinguished Senior Translator''.

When he gave an interview to a Thai website last year, almost 20,000 clicks were recorded. This kind of track record is definitely better than any single author could claim in a semi-literate society such as Thailand.

Although a central figure in Thai literature, Mr Barang's efforts in translation have never had a smooth ride in terms of finance. Much of his work has been supported by Sondhi Limthongkul, the controversial media tycoon. After the bubble burst in 1997, Mr Barang had to find an alternative source of financial support. He didn't know where to turn, so he wrote a letter to His Majesty the King telling him of his professional skills, financial troubles and visa problems. Although His Majesty may not have read the said letter, his then secretary, M L Birabongse Kasemsri, came to the rescue by having him appointed an editorial adviser to the National Identity Bureau in the Prime Minister's Office. His visa was extended in no time.

With the termination of that assignment, Mr Barang had no choice but to learn to live by creating his own assignments, including translating literary works for friends for symbolic fees.

Four years ago, he was hired again by his friend Mr Sondhi, on Thai Day Dot Com's payroll. Last March, a new Immigration regulation stated that foreign employees of a company losing money would see their visas extended only once. Thai Day Dot Com happens to be in the red: Marcel Barang is threatened with expulsion next March. As we say in Thai, talok tae mai sanuk (funny, but not fun).

Unlike most scholars scheduled to present their research at the Thai Studies conference who are largely supported by a university or other similar frameworks, Mr Barang's line of work does not seem to fit in such long-term endeavours. In fact, it is arguable that translating Thai novels and short stories qualifies as a kind of ''basic research,'' to use academic jargon, which is considered indispensable in advancing any field of research. Potentially, if the scholars on Thai Studies have access to more Thai literature, their research on Thailand can be much richer. As a product of the cultural and social history of a nation, novels and short stories are among the primary sources for understanding the society that breeds them.

Although Mr Barang might succeed in selling some of his books at the Thai Studies conference at Thammasat University, that will not solve any of his pressing problems. Eventually, he is in desperate need of an appropriate employer who can support his visa extension in his chosen line of work.

Given his unique contribution to Thai literature, it is rather sad that he should be forced to be in such an awkward position. In many civilized societies, the likes of Mr Barang qualify as valuable cultural assets, and are often granted honorary citizenship as a matter of course. In this context, given his solo contributions in his chosen field for decades, Mr Barang is a kind of self-appointed ambassador of Thai literature abroad.

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