Not as I remember it

At several events for launching our translation, we did a 25-minute reading of a famous part of the tale—Khun Phaen’s abduction of Wanthong from Khun Chang’s house. In the questions session after one event, a Thai in the audience commented, “It didn’t sound like how I remember that part of KCKP.”

Of course that’s partly because the translation simply cannot convey the sound and feeling of some outstanding and famous poetry in this passage. But I think there’s something else going on too.

The passage we read follows two young people (16 to 18 years old) negotiating the great crisis of their lives. They love each other desperately. Due to fate, trickery, and their own failings, they have rowed and split up. He has decided to come back for her. But on meeting, they fall into a row of bitter recriminations with all their sexual jealousies and personal insecurities right out in the open. In frustration, he threatens her with violence. She caves in but it still wracked by uncertainty. Embarrassed by his own violent threatening, he confesses his love for her but gets no reaction because things have gone too far. He tries teasing to ease the tension but he is too clumsy and it backfires into more mutual recrimination. Only after they leave the house, flee the city, and cross a river do they start to put a barrier between them and their past. Frolicking in a stream revives their intimacy. Lovemaking confirms it. Then, like a true man, he falls asleep. Surrounded by the forest night, she reflects fearfully on what the future holds and how the past brought her to this point—“Oh the misfortune of being born a woman.”

It’s a wonderful passage, both dramatic and disarmingly human. Our reading of the passage was probably an enormous surprise to the questioner and to other Thais present. What they know of this scene is the lament Wanthong delivers to her flowering plants as Khun Phaen takes her away from the house. The Thai wording of this inner soliloquy is beautiful. It’s probably one of the most famous snatches of Thai poetry—as familiar as “To be or not to be” for an English-speaker. Most kids learn it at school. Exhibition performances often feature this passage. Naowarat Pongphaibun, the virtual poet laureate, read it on the launch program for a new national TV channel a couple of years ago.

But most Thai probably do not know (or have forgotten) that this lovely inner soliloquy is part of a long and complex scene full of sexual jealousy, personal insecurity, and immanent violence. In our reading we were not adding anything that is not there in the original text. We were telling the story. But many Thai listeners may only remember the famous bits of poetry, because that is what they were taught at school, what they have heard on TV, what has been recited at stagey events.

I think this is part of a larger, long-run trend in the consumption of KCKP. Initially, the tale became famous because of the story—because the (probably true) tale of a young woman’s tragedy was absolutely fascinating. Performers adopted the tale and made it longer and longer in response to popular demand—for more story.

But since the nineteenth century there has been a shift of emphasis—away from the content of the story and towards the sound of the words—from narrative to narration. Recitation became more and more stylized, highlighting the sound not the content. Music was added to the performance, and gradually came to dominate over the words. Prince Damrong confessed that his editing and publication “has the aim of preserving poetic works that are good examples of Thai language, rather than trying to preserve the story of Khun Chang Khun Phaen.”  The consumption of KCKP at school and on TV today is the culmination of this trend.

Today KCKP is mostly famous for the proverbs, song lyrics, and poetic extracts (like Wanthong’s lament to her flowers) which have been extracted from the text not because of the plotting, dialog, characterization, and other elements of the storytelling that originally made the work so popular but because they are simply beautiful in their own right.

But a translation shifts the emphasis back onto the story—if only because it cannot replicate the quality of the poetry.

In her article on our launch in the Bangkok Post, Vasana Chinvarakorn started  with a detailed account of our reading of the abduction scene—rather than with the book or the Thai original. I suspect that she, just like the questioner at the start of this post, was wrestling with her own reaction to hearing and seeing KCKP in unfamiliar light

The curator of an exhibition on KCKP planned for later this year wants to title it “(Re-)Reading Khun Chang Khun Phaen.” She came up with the title after seeing an early draft of our book. At first I did not get it, and argued that our translation gives non-Thai readers a chance to read it for the first time, not a repeat. Now I understand. Our translation may prompt a (select) Thai audience to read the story again.

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