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One Alumna’s Mission to Bring Thai Authors to an English Audience

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At an international institution like The American University of Paris, translation is a daily activity. Our student body is made up of 108 nationalities, meaning cultural exchange is built into AUP life. Mui Poopoksakul G’15 has continued to embrace this philosophy since graduating from the University, through her work as an English translator of contemporary Thai literature.

“It all really started here,” Mui explains, back on AUP campus for the first time since her graduation ceremony. She has been invited back by the Center for Writers & Translators to speak at a discussion panel along with Thai author Prabda Yoon, whose work she translates. A fine example of a global explorer, Mui spent her childhood in Bangkok, moved to the US as a 12-year-old and now lives in Germany after studying in Paris. “I guess my life is sort of global!” she admits.

Mui arrived at AUP with a career change in mind. She had studied comparative literature at Harvard before getting a law degree at Columbia and spending five years as a lawyer in New York City. “I slowly realized it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” Her lightbulb moment came when she saw how little Thai literature had been translated into English. With this in mind, AUP’s former MA in Cultural Translation caught her eye. “It made a lot of sense from a personal standpoint. Paris is an inspiring place in terms of literature. I thought, why not go for it and at least put one book out!”

Even before she arrived, she knew which author she intended to translate. Published in 2000, Yoon’s short story collection Kwam Na Ja Pen reignited her interest in Thai literature as an adult. “It really drew me in,” she explains. “He uses fun wordplay, and the image of Bangkok resonates with me from when I was a child.” Following advice from her advisor – Professor Daniel Medin – she started working on the translation as her graduate thesis. After reaching out to Yoon, her final draft would become the 2017 short story collection The Sad Part Was.

I’m looking forward to writers having a bit of time to digest this political moment.

Mui Poopoksakul G’15

Since then the two have collaborated on a second collection – Moving Parts – released in September 2018. Both books were published by Tilted Axis Press. “This collection is different than the first one in that it is thematically cohesive,” she explains. Each story focuses on a body part with a magical or fantastical element: a sentient finger declares its disgust at unpredictable intervals; a young girl in a world in which humans have tails struggles with her need for a prosthetic.

Yoon’s work caused a stir in Thailand when originally released. The stories depict minute details of Bangkok life with an urban focus that was rare at the turn of the millennium. “After almost 20 years, it’s still contemporary,” Mui notes – though certain aspects of life in the city do require further explanation for Western audiences. She keeps certain Thai words in her translations to single out significant concepts, and notes the importance of trusting the reader to gather a general meaning from the surrounding context. “There’s something translators do called ‘glossing,’ where you sort of sneak in an explanation as though it were in the original,” she says – though she is careful not to explain Thai culture in a way that feels anthropological.

Does she have an example? “There’s this Thai ghost called Mae Nak who came up in two of the four books I translated,” Mui laughs. The legend goes that after Mae Nak dies in childbirth, her husband returns from war to find her alive and well at home. One day when cooking she drops a lemon off her porch to the ground below, betraying her incorporeal form when she stretches her ghost’s arm down to retrieve it. “I glossed around it a bit, and even considered a footnote at one point. But in the end, we decided people could always Google if they wanted to know more.”

Anglophone publishers have been notoriously resistant to translated fiction; according to a study by Nielsen Book, sales constituted around 5% of the UK market in 2015. When it comes to Thai literature, Mui had to pitch her own projects in order to get picked up. Part of the problem comes from working in a language that prevents publishers from engaging with the original text. “It’s quite a leap of faith to take on a book based on a sample and a synopsis.” Mui’s works are among the only Thai-to-English contemporary translations, though she argues that one author or book shouldn’t be asked to stand for a whole country. “When people ask how I feel about representing Thai literature, that’s a lot of pressure. I try not to think about it too much.”

Mui’s upcoming projects include two translations of the social realist author Duanwad Pimwana: the short story collection Arid Dreams (Feminist Press, 2019) and the novel Bright (Two Lines Press, 2019). They have both just been included in the New York Times list of international fiction to look out for this year. She’s glad that her two authors present a diverse picture of Thai literature. Yoon is from Bangkok, while Pimwana is from a smaller town in the east of the country where her novel is also set. “I didn’t live that life firsthand,” says Mui, “but her stories really remind me of my Dad’s childhood.”

Recently, contemporary trends in Thai literature have increasingly focused on the recasting of history and the ways in which information is passed down. “I’m looking forward to writers having a bit of time to digest this political moment,” she explains. Whatever projects the future holds for Mui, she has already fulfilled the model image of an AUP graduate: engaged, curious and eager to share culture across borders. We can’t wait to see what she does next.