Dylan J Hartmann was runner-up in the BKKLIT Translation Prize 2018 (Fiction) for his translation of ‘The Man with His Back to the Tsunami’ by Jirapatt Angsumalee – which you can read here or on issuu here. We caught up with Dylan recently by email and he opened up about why he became a translator, his motivations, and his thoughts on the importance of translation.
BKKLIT Could you briefly tell us where you come from and why you started to translate Thai literature?
DH Thank you for this opportunity! I am an Australian Thai to English translator, who grew up in Chiang Mai. I’ve been professionally translating since graduating with a BA in Thai Language and Culture in 2011 but had never dared to translate literature until now. In August, as part of professional development for my NAATI translator re-certification, I attended a Translating and Interpreting Forum at the University of Queensland where I heard a talk by an award-winning American Japanese to English literary translator, Professor Jeffrey Angles. Somehow, while listening to him talk, I felt an existential crisis brewing and thought to myself, ‘if all my work is anonymous, what is the point?’ I then reached out to TIAT, introducing myself and sharing a short background about myself and my desire to break into the literature field. This is where I found out about BKKLIT and where everything started!
BKKLIT What work of Thai literature would you love to see translated, and why?
DH I would love to see works translated about the current political turmoil shaping modern-day Thailand. The international audience sees events manifesting in Thailand through the scripted and censored lens of the media. Thailand has much more to offer than the propaganda of military dictatorships, postcard tourist destinations, or smiles. This is where we as translators can play a crucial role in shaping the perception of Thailand to those abroad.
BKKLIT Why did you choose to translate ‘The Man With His Back to the Tsunami’?
DH When international audiences hear about Thai natural disasters and catastrophes, it’s given as a sound bite that fits snugly between the latest local dramas and the weather on the nightly news. They see a dramatised collection of video snippets with the presenter, having flown in from afar, standing somewhere that shows a horrific background that can heighten the tension of their 30 second broadcast. In his collection of short stories, Shell, Jirapatt Angsumalee gives personal accounts of the grief suffered by those who lost loved ones and were gravely affected by the natural disaster.
This story gave me a chance to act as ambassador for those whose voices would be overlooked by the 24-hour news cycle. This story began with a shot that many will remember being replayed over and over again on the news: a solitary man standing on the beach with his back towards the oncoming tsunami. He was calm, at peace, showing no fear of his forthcoming demise. While this clip captivated many overseas who would be sitting comfortably in their own homes, thinking to themselves ‘why didn’t he run’, the same clip was used by the author to show how grief formed a kind of paralysis in the families of victims. Their losses had been realised but the pain that followed and heartache that lasted couldn’t be overcome. The mother in his story had yet to fully recover, even though almost a year had passed. She treasured what memories she had left of her lost son and struggled with moving on. The 2004 tsunami caused long-lasting, enduring hardships and pain to the families of over 200,000 dead or missing people in Southeast Asia that an international audience might not have had the chance to realise, after seeing that 30-second news clip.
BKKLIT What are the challenges faced by translators of Thai literature?
DH I think the biggest challenge is to maintain a sense of “Thai-ness” in the writing without being overly biased to the source-text and writing it in a way that is attractive to an international audience.
BKKLIT What do you plan to translate next?
DH I’m working non-stop on translations but the literary work has only just begun. Most of my work consists of translating clinical trial ethics committee letters for the big pharmaceutical companies and I average around 80,000 words a month. By branching out, I’ve been able to re-discover a passion and challenge in my work. Since entering my translation into the BKKLIT Translation Prize, I have now worked directly with an award-winning Thai author who has lined me up to translate his upcoming novel.
This shows that we mustn’t become complacent in our comfort zones as translators. While I had some experience working with fiction for fashion and beach-style magazines, I’d never before dared venture toward the sacred and revered sanctity as is literature translations! I look forward to what the future holds!