May 16, 2011

The Problem with Thai Dialogue in English

Lost in Translation Perhaps
I'm trying to write a variety of short stories about Thai characters being confronted with challenges and making poor decisions that have consequences on others. One of these stories I just submitted to New Asian Writing, and I hope it gets published. Many stories about Thailand come from the perspective of a foreigner, and I'm trying to find a different niche where readers learn more about things from a Thai eyes. Even though I'm a farang, I have the benefit of living in Thai neighborhood, having a Thai wife, and working at a Thai company, so I get to see a bit more than what you would on a 2-week vacation.  Although, I still have an awful lot to learn about this country.

For obvious reasons, I need to write in English, but I want to capture some of the subtleties of the language in the casual dialogue of my characters. This is a bear of a task, because literal translation would be completely unreadable in English. You also can't slip in Thai terms every other sentence, or people will think you are some kind of an asshole for making them flip to the glossary every 2 minutes (unless its Clockwork Orange, this is very annoying as a reader).  For example, a dialogue between two brothers asking if they were playing a game on the iPad might literally translate as follows:

"Older [informal Thai name], playing game on iPad, is it?"
"Playing. But finish more two minutes already, [informal particle indicating you are friends or family with the person]"

A conversation with your supervisor trying to get him  to look at paperwork might translate like this:

"Mr./Mrs. [formal Thai name], respectfully request approval on document financial, [formal particle used in polite speech]"
"[formal particle indicating acknowledgement]"

Since no one wants to read something spit out from Google Translate, it is necessary to take some poetic license. The Thai language has no plural, no tense, and pronouns are almost always dropped. But compared to English, there is much more complexity to dialogue based on the seniority of the person you are talking to.  If you are talking to a member of the Royal Family, it is a completely different language altogether.  So how the hell do you get this across in an English dialogue where the characters in Thai?

I'm reading Bangkok Noir right now, and the different authors do different things with the dialogue for Thai people. A few authors use English-language colloquialisms when Thai characters are talking, which I personally think makes the setting sound a bit off.  It's almost like they're not Thai. Perhaps it's best to set up a clear boundary between formal and informal English language, and then that will help convey the importance of social status on the structure of Thai language. I tried to do that in the story I just submitted, but I think I will need to improve on it. We'll see.

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