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IN CONVERSATION with Mason Barlow

Mason Barlow’s translation of ‘Step Slowly’ by the poet Chanchai Yongratikun (Creamstone) was the runner-up in the poetry category of the BKKLIT Translation Prize 2018 and appears in the first issue of The Bangkok Literary Review.

As well as being a talented translator, Mason is the author of the poetic travel journal At a Gulp. Read on to find out how he ended up translating ‘Step Slowly’, who his inspirations are, and what he thinks about Thai literature. His answers are candid, refreshing, and uniquely his own.

BKKLIT   Could you briefly tells us where you come from and why you started to translate Thai literature?

MB   I was raised in the Western United States, drifting along the perfect asphalt of suburbia until that day in the college library that I inhaled in its entirety Mastuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which catapulted my sorry carcass across the Pacific Ocean as an aspiring poet. 

Another day, another library, I found myself soul-searching my way through the stacks at CMU and discovered a book called Facets of Thai Poetry: Collection of Kloangs

There, Sunthorn Phu did it, converting me in one line, the sacred-hot searing line that makes poetry holy as religion, the line that can define a lifetime, be a way of life, create another world or universe, the Great Line that defines great poetry.

Naturally, this newfound belief sent me searching for more Thai poetry in translation. Alas, the gross, gross dearth of this precious commodity still mires me in regular despair. More needs to be done, and done better, so despite being an almost total neophyte, I am trying.  

BKKLIT   What work of Thai literature would you love to see translated, and why?

MB   An Anthology of Thai Poetry: Classic to Contemporary.  An anthology like this could provide an approachable way to spur further interest and subsequent work in spreading out the literacy wealth of a long-neglected goldmine. It would also be pure, a pure pleasure to read.

BKKLIT   Why did you choose to translate ’Step Slowly’?

MB   Random. 

The book I found in the bargain bin at writer Prayoon Hongsathon’s solid bookshop in Chiang Mai. He said it was written in soul, bound in guts, so I bought it. 

As for the poem, the title struck me; first, as I have lost several friendships due to walking supposedly too slowly; second, as antidote to the pratfalls of the hurly burly 24-hour rush hour world of screens, newsfeeds, advertising and information overload; third, I read it, and reread it, and there it was, the Great Line, so I passed over more well-known works and went for it. 

Unknown poet translating unknown poet, it rings. Perhaps the very type of randomness poetry thrives on. 

BKKLIT   What are some of the challenges faced by translators of Thai literature?

MB   The music. 

Even the most cursory study of Thai languages should astound anybody with half an ear. Our man-in-the-soi has a treasure trove of logos loaded up in his skull: rhythms and repetitions riddle even run-of-the-mill writing, assonances and alliterations abound resoundingly in everyday jargon, synonyms like sand . . .

How can such richness, as poorly parodied above, come off as anything but saccharine?

Barring an improbable coup of poetic taste by Algernon Swinburne and G.M. Hopkins, it’s going to be hard to make the music of Thai poetry sing its old soulful ballad in its own style.  

Also, in poetry, the intricate form. The rhymes alone, but what to do with the tone music that inevitably soars beyond the range of my flabby, foreign ears!

BKKLIT   What do you plan to translate next?

MB   I’ve been wrangling with the aesthetic splendors of Prince Thammathibet, but Prince Prawn’s prowess has bested me, for now. I would like to put together a collection of the short stories and writings of Rong Wongsawan, which could also be beyond me. An advertising jingle then?

‘When I’m Back’ by Wanit Charungkitanan

We’re delighted to be sharing Peeriya Pongsarigun and John Viano’s translation of Wanit Charungkitanan’s poem ‘When I’m Back’, which came third place in the BKKLIT Translation Prize 2018.

Wanit Charungkitanan was a Thai poet, novelist, and short story writer whose works have been made into films. His short story collection Soi Diaw Kan won the SEA Write Award award in 1984.

Peeriya Pongsarigun and John Viano have been translating children’s books from Thai to English since 2012. Peeriya teaches English at Chulalongkorn University. John first came to Thailand to serve as a United States Peace Corps volunteer, and is now a researcher in the Faculty of Economics at Chulalongkorn University.

Read on our website or on issuu.

‘A Wound of Its Kind’ by Seksan Prasertkul

While we’re busy applying the finishing touches to the first issue of The Bangkok Literary Review, BKKLIT 01, we thought we’d take the opportunity to share with you Narin Onginsea’s translation of the short story ‘A Wound of Its Kind’ by Seksan Prasertkul, the Thai original of which was first published in Kor Kon magazine in 2009. Seksan Prasertkul, born in 1949, was a student leader during the protests of the early 1970s, and was made a National Artist of Thailand in 2009. Narin’s translation was awarded third place in the BKKLIT Translation Prize for Fiction 2018.

You can read ‘A Wound of Its Kind’ on issuu here.


Here’s an early Christmas present for you all—our Q&A with Noh Anothai, who won this year’s BKKLIT Translation Prize

Photo by P. Ogunniran 1

Here’s an early Christmas present for you all—our Q&A with Noh Anothai, who won this year’s BKKLIT Translation Prize for his translation of Chiranan Pitpreecha’s ‘Firefly’, which is one of the best translations of Thai poetry we’ve ever come across. In this fascinating Q&A Noh gives an insight into his motivations as a translator, his reasons for choosing to translate ‘Firefly’, and the difficulty of translating Thai poetry. If you haven’t already read ‘Firefly’ please do—you won’t regret it. It’s still up on issuu here and on our website here.

BKKLIT   Could you briefly tell us where you come from and why you started to translate Thai literature?

NA   I was born in Bangkok, but moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was four. I often have to remind people that—it wasn’t until college that I even visited Thailand with any regularity.

I always had a nascent interest in moving between languages, but it didn’t really crystallize until the summer before tenth grade, when I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey. I fell in love with his language, which the introduction that came with my edition made me appreciate even more: it compared Fitzgerald’s version both to the original Greek as well as to several other renderings. It became a pastime for me to get several translations of a single text—the Inferno, say, or the Metamorphoses—and read them together, looking at how different translators treated the same passage.

When I wanted to do the same with works of Thai literature, I found I couldn’t—there was often not a single translation of an individual work, much less several, and the ones that did exist were difficult to get a hold of (still are). When I finally managed to read some of them, I was usually disappointed—as far as poetry was concerned, few translations read well in English; the worst were hardly intelligible (I’m thinking of some attempts to translate khlong poems). So, I decided to start translating myself.

BKKLIT   What work of Thai literature would you love to see translated, and why?

NA   I think more of the SEAWrite winners—from all of the participating countries—should be translated, and not necessarily even into English. As far as I know, there is no concerted programming to translate, say, the winner from Vietnam so that he or she can be read by audiences in Kampuchea, Malaysia, Thailand, etc. Therefore, the prize does little to foster genuine, transnational cultural exchange through literature within the region, much less on a global stage.

BKKLIT   Why did you choose to translate ‘Firefly’?

NA   I discovered Chiranan Pitpreecha’s poetry after reading an essay by scholar Chusak Phattarakulwanit on one of her most famous poems, “20 Years of ‘The Audacity of Flowers.’” (Since I don’t work and was not educated in Thailand, I’m always late to the game.) I was fascinated by Pitpreecha’s story—as one of the leading student activists of her day, whose convictions drove her to the jungle and back. I was also surprised to learn that her collection, The Leaf That Went Missing, broke records for poetry sales in the country. I thought the collection would have great appeal internationally and spent a winter translating several selections from it—“Firefly” included.

BKKLIT   What are the challenges faced by translators of Thai literature?

NA   Beyond linguistic challenges, there is the lack of institutional and communal support—there aren’t a lot of Thai literature departments abroad. So, internationally, it can be difficult to find readers knowledgeable in Thai, and in Thailand, readers who can assess a translation as an English-language work can be equally rare. It can also be hard finding out who’s working on what. That’s why I’m glad a journal like The Bangkok Literary Review exists now.

BKKLIT   What do you plan to translate next?

NA   Currently I’ve been translating poems from Saksiri Meesomsueb’s That Hand Is White and essays from Pibulsak Lakonpol’s From the Bank of Brokenhearted River. I’d like to return to the classics—the Nirat London has long been on my mind—but, conversely, also delve more deeply into contemporary poetry and fiction. With a language so underrepresented in translation, there are lots of opportunities, and I’m always looking for new projects. I’m open to recommendations!

2018 BKKLIT Translation Prize for Poetry Winner

We’re delighted to be publishing Noh Anothai’s translation of Chiranan Pitpreecha’s poem ‘Firefly’, which won the 2018 BKKLIT Translation Prize for Poetry. Chiranan Pitpreecha was one of the most prominent student activists of the October 14th era and her experiences are documented in her 1989 SEA Write Award-winning collection The Leaf That Went Missing, which ‘Firefly’ is taken from. You can read ‘Firefly’ on issuu or on our website here.