Center for Writers and Translators

Writers and Translators Panel Welcomes Thai Author Prabda Yoon

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On January 31, 2019, the Center for Writers & Translators organized an event that saw Thai author Prabda Yoon in conversation with AUP alumna and English translator of his work Mui Poopoksakul G ’15. The panel also included Malaysian novelist Tash Aw, who has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, and was chaired by Amanda Dennis, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at AUP. They addressed an audience of AUP students and members of the public.

Setting the tone in true AUP style, the evening began with a multilingual reading of Yoon’s 2002 short story collection Moving Parts. Centering on the concept of body parts – both real and imagined – the stories consist of intimate portraits of urban life, presenting modern Bangkok through the physical interactions of its inhabitants. Following Yoon’s reading of the original Thai, Poopoksakul read from her English translation – published in September 2018 by Tilted Axis Press. The passage explored disability and body image through fantastical means: in a Bangkok where human tails are commonplace, the teenage protagonist grapples with her need for a prosthetic.

The portrayal of the city was a major draw of Yoon’s work for Poopoksakul, who moved to the US from Thailand as a teenager. She explained that his image of Bangkok resonated with her childhood memories. Aw then touched upon Yoon’s first short story collection The Sad Part Was, also translated by Poopoksakul. He noted that traditional Thai narratives often presented rural-to-urban migration as an unhappy experience: “I really saw a new voice in writing for the first time, creating these portraits of city life when the focus has been on the provinces.”

Only around 5% of all US literature is in translation... and that includes all European languages which are likely to be thematically closer to the US.

Tash Aw

The work created a phenomenal buzz when it was first released in Thailand in 2000 – culminating in Yoon winning an S.E.A. Write award in 2002. He explained that Thai youth culture was at the time heavily influenced by Western indie music and cinema, which was inspiring a growing domestic indie scene. “My work was put into the same category,” he said. “That had a lot to do with the popularity at the time.”

Yoon’s work extends beyond his literary output. “I see myself as more of an artist that an author,” he said when reflecting on a career that covers graphic design, painting and filmmaking. He cited abstract art, modern poetry and experimental cinema among his influences, although he is also known for translating contemporary classics into Thai, including Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye. “I think I’m more pop though,” he remarked, content to learn from the masters without trying to imitate them. “I’m satisfied with something quick and easier.”

Translating from Thai brings its own unique challenges. Thai literary tradition uses repetition and rhyme to achieve humor, and keeping such poetic balance in English can be tricky. “There’s a rhythm to the original,” Poopoksakul explained; she is careful that this doesn’t become too singsong in translation. When it comes to cultural context, however, she lets the writing speak for itself. “I try to put in as little extra as possible.”

Aw agreed that this is a difficult balance to achieve, “As translators we don’t just translate a text, we translate a social and historical context.” His novels are principally set in Malaysia, and though he writes in English there is still work to be done translating custom or practice for anglophone audiences. But he doesn’t think it matters if not everything is understood. “Half the cultural references in US texts I don’t understand. I mean baseball? Who knows! Reading requires making cultural leaps.”

English-language publishers are traditionally resistant to translated fiction. “Only around 5% of all US literature is in translation,” Aw noted, “and that includes all European languages which are likely to be thematically closer to the US.” It often takes one passionate individual to start things snowballing. Enter Poopoksakul, who started translating The Sad Part Was as her thesis during an MA in Cultural Translation at AUP. How did she first reach out to Yoon? By leaving him a personalized essay at his Bangkok bookshop. One positive response later and the translation became official.

“I’m forever grateful for Mui’s work,” said Yoon. Thai literature has been historically underrepresented in Western markets. Not only have her English translations opened up whole new audiences, but eager publishers in other languages have reached out since their release. Poopoksakul is now working on translating two books by magical realist Duanwad Pimwana, furthering her commitment to sharing Thai cultural output across borders. How wonderfully AUP.