A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
‘You speak what?’ is the reaction I normally get when I tell people my day job.
‘Thai’, I explain nonchalantly.
‘But what? How? Why?’
As if I had just announced that I can speak Martian. Sometimes they stare at me, and I can see the little cogs whirring in their brains: but you don’t look particularly Thai.
Probably because I am not.
‘But isn’t it really difficult?’ they say.
And then I explain that actually the Thai alphabet, while not completely phonetic, makes a lot more sense than the English one, and that once you’ve learnt the basic letters and spelling rules it’s much easier than English.
And then when I see them start to relax I say ‘But there are 44 consonants and a loads of vowels, except the vowels can be written above, below, before, after or around the consonant depending on which vowel it is, and there are five different tones, and which tone a word is depends on the consonant used. Oh, and there are no spaces between words, so you just have to know where one word ends and the next begins’.
Just to freak them out.
‘But how did you learn it?’ they then ask.
So I explain that I studied Burmese language as a minor subject as part of my social anthropology MA, and that no, Burmese and Thai are not alike (and that in any case I’ve forgotten nearly all my Burmese), but that I went out to Thailand and lived there for six years after I graduated.
And it really all started with the fact that I love literature.
When I started living in Thailand, I was based in Nonthaburi, a province just outside Bangkok. Think of it as the Croydon of Bangkok. It’s about as lovely as Croydon, if you imagine Croydon with the occasional Thai temple thrown in. Had I lived in central Bangkok, I might have been able to pick up a few English-language books. But out in Nonthaburi, there was nothing. True, I could pick up copies of the English-language Bangkok Post, but newspapers and novels just aren’t the same.
And how could I possibly live without novels?
So I taught myself Thai, very determinedly and very painstakingly. I’d taught myself the alphabet and some of the basic rules before I went out to Thailand, but now I taught myself whole words – picking up copies of Thai newspapers, listening to Thai radio, and making sure I learned at least ten new words each day.
When I’d been in Thailand for around ten months, I bought my first Thai novel. It had just won the S.E.A. Write Award (the SE Asian equivalent of, say, the Man Booker) and was called Democracy on Parallel Paths. A bit of light reading then…
Of course I needed the dictionary sometimes as I read it. But the beautiful thing about reading novels (and this applies as much to one’s own language as a foreign one) is that often you don’t need to know absolutely every single word in order to be able to follow the story.
And so I bought more and more Thai novels. At this time I was working in the offices of an English-language newspaper, and worked closely with the Thai translators who translated the news from Thai into English. After a while, I began to think ‘I can do that’. So I did, starting off with translating the occasional photo caption, and then going on to translate whole articles.
At first I made some terrible mistakes; I’ve still not forgotten the time I saw the words ‘sea sand’ in Thai, and assumed, not unreasonably, that it was talking about a beach. But the Thai phrase in fact means ‘sea of sand’ – a desert, in other words. Oops!
Soon though I became more adept, and while I don’t pretend to be fluent, translation has become my regular job.
As an author, I find translation an invaluable skill. I work freelance, and sometimes I curse the times when I’ve just been given a large translation project when I’d far rather be writing stories about dragons and giants. And the translation projects I do are, for the most part, boring. Birth certificates. Marriage certificates. Divorce certificates. Death certificates. Company reports. Legal and business documents. Documents on court cases involving Britons who’ve gone out to Thailand and become involved in the drugs and prostitution trades.
But the wonderful thing about translation is that it forces you to think about words. What does this word mean? Is it necessary? Is it a direct equivalent of this word in Thai? Is there a direct equivalent of this word in Thai? Could a different word be used that would make the translation better?
It forces you to think about readers. Would a person reading this document translated into English get the same sense of it as a person reading the same document in Thai? Are our world-views shaped by the particular language we use? If translations are windows into other worlds, are these windows always going to be occluded, and equally, when we write a book, to what extent to we have to be aware that each reader is going to bring their own experience to it, which can alter the meaning we intended?
It forces you to think about ideas. Do ideas, concepts, translate from one country to another? If my picture book were to be read by children in or from another country, would they get it?
I would love to be in a situation where I’m earning enough from my writing to be able to pick and choose my translation projects. At the moment I slot in translation work where I can, and fit the writing around it. But I don’t think I will ever give up the translation completely, as ultimately I feel it makes me a writer.
Khop khun mak mak na kha, phuean Allsorts*
*(Thank you very much, my Allsorts friends)
At the age of four Elli wrote her first picture book, involving her best friend, a tricycle accident, blood everywhere, and the author emerging as the hero. Several years later she completed an MA in social anthropology, moved out to Thailand, taught herself the language, and has since worked variously as a Thai to English translator, a copywriter for a domestic appliance insurance firm (about as interesting as it sounds) and an assistant editor in academic publishing. She now lives in London where she combines writing with freelance translation work, looking after her four children, butchering nice music on the piano and being dictated to by her deranged cat.