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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?

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