photo by Deun Chongmunkong
Prabda Yoon is considered by many as the voice of a new generation of Thais that grew up in a fast-urbanizing country. He is also widely seen as the writer who popularized postmodern narrative techniques and made them a mainstay in contemporary Thai literature (although he doesn’t much care for the label “postmodern”).
Prabda left Bangkok for school on the U.S. East Coast when he was fourteen and remained there for a bit over a decade. In 2002, at the age of twenty-nine, and only four years after his move back to Thailand, Prabda won the S.E.A. Write Award, Southeast Asia’s most watched literary prize, for his short-story collection, Kwam Na Ja Pen, which I am now translating under the title Pen in Parentheses for my M.A. thesis. Over his writing career of a decade and a half now, Prabda has proven himself a prolific author, with ten short story collections, four novels, two screenplays, and a slew of essay collections under his belt. Prabda is also a translator. He has translated, among others, The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange into Thai, and he is currently at work on Lolita. A graduate of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, he comes from an art background and remains a frequent designer of book covers.
During a recent stay in Bangkok, I sat down with Prabda and asked him first—given how little Thai writing has been read abroad—to give a quick 101 on contemporary Thai literature. We then moved on to discuss his writing and how it has evolved since the days of Kwam Na Ja Pen, his experience abroad and its role in shaping his work, and his translation philosophy.
The interview was conducted in English.
Mui Poopoksakul: What do you think are the major themes and concerns in and influences on contemporary Thai writing?
Prabda Yoon: Now is quite an interesting time. Things have changed quite drastically over the past ten years, since when I first started writing here. [Back then,] I think the themes, what people were writing about, were very varied. Also, I think a lot of people were more influenced by cinema, especially the independent films that were coming in from the States and Hong Kong. But now because of the many problems we’re having in Thailand, a lot of younger writers have become interested in reflecting these problems more and researching political history.
MP: History and the recording of it are becoming quite big motifs.
PY: Yes, but it’s not the same as the social realism that used to be popular here because in the ‘90s a lot of younger writers were kind of tired of that older tradition and they were seeking new things. But because of the political crisis, in a way, people are now forced to look back and to learn about ourselves more, but because of the reluctance to be the same as the older generation, I think we are now exploring politics in a different way, kind of using what is usually called postmodernism, using critical theory, things like that.
MP: So the narrative structure or technique is more experimental despite the fact that it’s exploring social themes again?
PY: Yes, I think people are not comfortable anymore to write in this straightforward, traditional way, especially the younger, more progressive writers. So it’s interesting—you have social commentary, and you also get a little bit of structural experiment. You have themes that are very, very Thai. I’m actually very interested to see what new writers will come up with. I think during this time and during the next few years, you’ll probably see some quite exciting work.
But I think a lot of the writers now are also influenced by other forms of art. I think [Thai film director] Apichatpong [Weerasethakul]’s films are probably a big influence, too. His films are basically very simple depictions of the Thai countryside. And because he’s been so successful with that, and because the way he does it somehow makes what before seemed old-fashioned now seem new, writers and artists are going back to that and they’re not afraid anymore to talk about Thainess, but not in the way that it used to be depicted, like the typical Thai themes like elephants. I don’t know if it’s going to be interesting for foreigners to read but for us I think it’s quite fresh.
MP: I feel like in your writing the images are more Bangkok-focused, whereas the old social-realism scenery is very countryside-based. Would you say that the fabric of the writing has moved more into the city?
PY: I think that’s accurate. Especially in the late ‘90s early 2000s, the focus was definitely city—Bangkok—even for writers who did not live in Bangkok. They wrote about people coming to Bangkok or the hardship of being in Bangkok instead of the hardship of being on a rice paddy. But a lot of that is still going on, too. For example, when I write—because I’m a city person and I live and work in Bangkok, it’s difficult for me to really know what life in the countryside is like. I don’t want to pretend to know, so in my own work it’s hard to escape the city and characters that interact with cities. I think it depends on the writer, but now I’m glad that a lot of writers who don’t live in Bangkok write about where they live, write about their roots. Isan (Northeastern Thai) writers now increasingly write using dialect, and also writers from the south are using their dialects. It’s quite an exciting time.
MP: Why do you think so little Thai literature has been translated and why are we so little read abroad?
PY: To be honest, in terms of country or society, I think we’re just not that interesting. Having lived abroad, I have an idea how foreigners look at other countries, how they look at Thailand. Thailand is a nice little place where you come and get delicious food and really cheap accommodations, and, for a lot of people, a lot of sex and drugs and great night life, so in terms of culture, in terms of art, there’s no real attraction in those areas. Even in cinema. Yes, Apichatpong’s films are very interesting; they’re very artistic. Still, there are no real issues that the world in general would pay attention to. We’re not Vietnam, where there was a lot of conflicts involving so many countries. No horrible huge genocide.
MP: You lived in the U.S. for many years. How do you think that affects your writing, your language? How did you maintain your Thai? Do you think your Thai read foreign when you started and do you think it does now?
PY: I started writing when I was young, before I went to the States. I wrote a lot of stories from the time I was twelve or something, so when I came back and started writing again, it kind of came back naturally. But I did feel insecure in the beginning because I felt like my vocabulary was not as large as people who’ve lived here all their lives. I probably wrote like a little kid for a while. Then I started to read up and catch up with Thai culture. Now I feel more comfortable.
When I went to the States, during the first year or the first couple of years, I still read some Thai books, and I still listened to some Thai pop music, but then after that I just lost touch because studying took most of the time, so I was completely disconnected from Thai culture. And I didn’t use Thai seriously for a long, long time. I didn’t have Thai friends either, so I would only use Thai with my parents or for writing letters to my parents and friends. After maybe five or six years, the language started to seem foreign. Some words I forgot how to spell. In the beginning, it was a little bit funny coming back here because I would have to try to remember a lot of Thai words, how to spell, how to write.
But I think it was good for me while I was in the States to be that way. I became interested in English in a different way than the native speakers would see their language. Sometimes I would see English as a very visual language. Maybe it was premature, but I started to read experimental poetry. I was really attracted to E. E. Cummings’s poems. But for someone whose English was not that good yet, to be interested in experimental stuff was maybe not such a good start, but it did influence me. I became interested in a lot of the modernist writers. I think I’m still pretty much influenced by them. Americans and some Europeans like Beckett. When I was in the States, I remember liking Henry Miller a lot. And the ‘60s culture. Books that were sort of a bit rebellious and experimental, things like that.
MP: You became a big name around the turn of the millennium, when you first came back to Thailand. That’s how I discovered you myself. Basically, you were the talk of the town for some time, and there was a lot of discussion about how your writing was new and different. What do think made your writing different from what came before? Do you think that it was something from the foreignness of your language? A perspective that you brought back from the U.S.?
PY: I think what people meant when they said my work was new and different was the way that my stories seem to be about nothing in particular, or nothing happened. It was just a scene and no conclusion, no beginning. Personally, I don’t think it was new at all because I’d read that kind of thing a lot in the States by other writers, but I guess it was not something that the Thai public was used to, and also by someone young and kind of maybe strange-looking. A lot of factors together made that happen, but in terms of the work, I was a little embarrassed to be thought of as someone who wrote something fresh or new because I knew that it wasn’t. In terms of world literature, it wasn’t new at all. In a way, I was glad to introduce that kind of thing into Thai popular culture, and now it seems like that kind of story-writing is normal. You can write just a story. Characters don’t have to solve anything by the end. But for me that kind of thing grew out of my interest in philosophy, in Zen philosophy. In the beginning, I thought of writing short stories as writing Zen koans, things like that. That’s how I saw it myself.
Also, I think it was because I had no fear of being read. In the beginning, I thought I wanted to write because it was something I always wanted to do, and I had no idea what people were reading in Thailand. I had no idea what the readership of the magazines I wrote for was like, so I had no fear. I just wanted to write something that I thought was fun. There was a lot of criticism and a lot of people pointed out how I wrote some words wrong or my grammar was incorrect and things like that, and probably they were. I just didn’t care, and I think that was a good thing for me. Now when I write, I worry about how this sentence will seem or whether it’s wrong or right, but in those days, I just wanted to pour it out, to let what I wanted to say out and not worry.
MP: When I read your books, I feel like I really hear a lot of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism in your writing. In terms of literary theory, is that your background?
PY: My background is actually art. I went to art school. In those days—I don’t know if they still do it now—but in those days people in art school read a lot of critical theory—Roland Barthes, some Derrida—so literary theory was quite talked about in art school. I learned about all that stuff through art, and I think I was more interested in writing as an art form, so I tended to be attracted to authors who had some connection with art movements like Dadaism, experimental writers in France like Robbe-Grillet. But I didn’t study it. What I really studied was Modernism. I studied Joyce. So I think even now I’m more drawn to Modernism, and I don’t really believe that there is such a thing as postmodernism. I feel that postmodernism is pretty much skeptical Modernism or a residue of Modernism. There’s a term “Liquid Modernism.” That’s how I feel about postmodernism. I think it’s still under the same umbrella. To me Modernism is something more creative. The Modernists were the people who were maybe a tad over-optimistic but they did change a lot of stuff, and however misguided their ideologies may have been, I think it was exciting to see that sudden change from the old regimes to the new . . . I was excited about the experiments that a lot of modernist writers did, especially Joyce. Gertrude Stein, I really liked her for a while. I think I learned a lot more from those people.
MP: For me, I had read stuff that used the same techniques before, but your stories still felt fresh because it was in Thai, and your way of playing with Thai words really added another layer on top of the modern/postmodern narrative, or however you want to call it. The language does do something to it, even if there are elements that are familiar. What I really like about Kwam Na Ja Pen is, even though it was easy for me to read as a person who, for a long time, didn’t read a lot of Thai—I feel like your sentence structures are easier for me to punctuate in English in my head than those of other writers—at the same time you bring out something about the Thai language because you did use so much wordplay. Thai people repeat themselves a lot just for the sound—we juxtapose synonyms constantly just for the alliteration and the rhyme—and I feel like you played with that so much. In a way, your writing was more Thai than Thai, but yet not at all.
PY: Thai literature is hard to translate in that sense. Sometimes you just enjoy a writer’s style or his own way of writing that stuff, and there’s no meaning. [Sometimes] when you translate it into English, it’s just simple, one word, and it’s over. Foreigner readers can’t really get that sense of the original. It’s hard.
MP: I feel like the alliteration can be recreated sometimes, but rhyming is more of a problem because the Thai ear is far more used to it. Translating Thai, you face the problem of translating poetry. You can never do the right thing. Someone will always say you did the wrong the thing because you kept the sound or you kept it straight. It’s a real problem.
PY: There’s really a fine line between prose and poetry in Thai.
MP: Three things really stand out for me from the collection Kwam Na Ja Pen: circular structures, cryptic endings, and a ton of wordplay. Do you think that those things go hand in hand? Can you say more about them?
PY: I think I owe it pretty much to Joyce—in a kind of pop version of Joyce. I am drawn to the idea that stories don’t really end. I think it’s because when I start to write something, a story, I start from the point of view that I’m just describing a scene of a longer story that has a whole bunch of other things going on, but I’m just describing this small thing. That’s why all my stories or characters or scenes make allusions to many other things that probably readers don’t really know or understand, but the writer knows because they connect to other things in the bigger picture. And that’s what I like. That’s what I like in art. That’s what I like in other people’s writing. So I guess it comes directly from my interests, and I like—I mean, I don’t know how successful I am with it—but I like the idea of being able to hint, to give some hint that there is something bigger going on. When I’m able to do that, there’s a kind of satisfaction I feel after completing a story. I feel like I can somehow refer to things that are not there in the story but I hope readers feel that there’s something. But in terms of the wordplay, some of it is intentional; some of it is improvisational—it just happens when I’m writing. I can’t plan all of that ahead of time. Sometimes a name is just a name otherwise, but in that story somehow that name clicks and gives me an idea to play with it somehow, so I do it. I can’t know ahead of time.
MP: How do you think your writing has changed since Kwam Na Ja Pen, which was published in 2000?
PY: I think I’m less playful. I just want to tell stories now. I’m a little tired of my own wordplay. It’s a distraction sometimes, I realize now, because when I read other people’s writing with a lot of puns, I’m starting to get a little bit annoyed, so I understand how some people felt when they read my stories, so I’m less interested in that and more interested in the structure of the story, in painting a more detailed picture, and I guess I’m interested in bigger projects. Before, I was really enjoying writing more short stories, more scenes, and now I’m more interested in connecting those stories and making a bigger picture, so it takes more time but I enjoy taking the time now.
MP: I just read one of your newer collections, Dao Duek Dam Ban (Ancient Planet), which came out in 2011, and I sense a greater maturity, but it’s hard for me to put my finger on it. I feel like I still hear the same voice but it’s a little bit calmer.
PY: The problem is, it makes everything shorter. I used to play with one sentence over and over, and now I just write simple sentences.
MP: In your writing, you often express a viewpoint on the other. For example, the stories in your first collection, Mueng Mum Shak (Right-Angled City), take place in New York City, and most of the characters are non-Thai. Dao Duek Dam Ban also has a lot of characters that are full-on non-human or foreign. What was the impulse behind that?
PY: Those stories are maybe personal . . . because I’m like that. I’ve traveled to a lot of places and I tend to want to put myself out there. I’m always in some kind of scheme to get myself out of the place where I’m living. To me, that’s the excitement in terms of my personal life. That’s the adventure that I seek, so when I write I also try to include that, to put that excitement in the work and to explore foreignness or the question of the identity of being a stranger in a strange place. I think living in the States was like that for me, too. Even though I lived there for a long time, I never felt like I was part of it, and that was not bad for me. I think it was a good thing. I felt that being a stranger gave me a unique position where I could observe people, observe society without having to be part of it. Or I could choose to be part of it or not. And being in places where I didn’t understand the language, didn’t understand what people were talking about around me, is also usually an inspiration for me to make things or to write.
MP: In your translation, you’re going in the reverse direction from what I’m doing. You’re going from English to Thai. What do you think are the major linguistic issues that are hard to deal with?
PY: It’s similar. The cultural difference, the subtle, hidden meaning in the expressions of the language. For example, translating Salinger into Thai, you’re not going to get Salinger really. It’s very specific. His language even in English is very specific. It’s ‘50s American language with all the ‘50s slang. Even in English now, it’s a bit dated. So you’re not going to get that in Thai in translation, so I just try to be very basic about translating certain slang or making it Thai, making it contemporary Thai. For example, for “phony,” I use “fake” (the English word transliterated into Thai), which Thai people say now. But when I was growing up there was no “fake” in the Thai language. People didn’t use it, so, I don’t know, maybe in twenty years from now, the translation I did will seem strange. Now translating Nabokov is even harder. This guy was really a master. He was such a smart person that everything he wrote was about something else. You have to have the same knowledge as him to fully understand, and that’s not going to get translated in Thai . . . I wish that people would be able to read both, that they would go and read the English version as well.
MP: I wonder about your philosophy of translation: true to the letter or to the spirit?
PY: My priority is to get my readers to understand the text more than to stay as close as possible to the original. Sometimes if you stay so close, it’s really hard to understand. If you don’t twist a little or use the local cultural references or preferences a little bit, then it’s too dry. I believe more in trying to understand the context and the feeling and the atmosphere of the original, and then translating that into something similar—you’re not going to get exact—something similar in another culture and making it not painful to read . . . But some people pride themselves in being able to translate exactly every word in the right order of the original, but I don’t think that works.
MP: Especially Thai and English, because structurally they are so different.
PY: I care more about readers being able to understand the text.
MP: In translation theory, there’s a lot of talk about the hegemony of the West, the dominance of Western cultures over other cultures. For example, when we talk in Thai now we throw in a lot of English words, whereas if you were talking to an American or translating from Thai, you wouldn’t randomly throw in Thai words because people would never know what they mean. As a translator, how much do you feel like it’s your role to be a gatekeeper of the Thai language? Are you really aware of when you use English words, like maybe you shouldn’t import more, or do you not really care about that?
PY: I’m not worried about that. Thai is from other languages, too. You can go way back, and what’s original is really hard to say, so I’m not worried about that. I’m with the current way that the language is used. I care about communicating with the people that I’m translating for, which is contemporary people living in contemporary Thai society, so if they use, for example, the word “fake” that I was talking about, if people use that now widely, then I’m going to use it because they’re going to understand what I’m talking about. I don’t see any particular reason to come up with a very, very Thai word for “fake” and having to maybe go back many centuries to find that word.
MP: So as a translator, you care more about the individual work than making a grander political statement about colonialism?
PY: I only care about the work. If you do [the latter], it seems to me that you have a different agenda than to translate good work. Translating Anthony Burgess is different from translating Salinger, is different from translating Lolita, for example. When translating A Clockwork Orange, I just want to be able to present the novel to the Thai audience or readers as—not accurately—but as close as possible to the feeling that you would get from reading the English version. I don’t have any other agenda.
MP: What’s your day-to-day like as a writer here? Do you ever exchange drafts with other writers? Do you hang out and exchange thoughts with them, or is it a more solitary scene over here?
PY: It’s pretty solitary but some people do meet up a lot and exchange drafts. When I first started writing here, I knew almost no one in terms of the writing community, so I didn’t communicate with fellow writers, but I wrote a lot. In the beginning I had a lot of columns in newspapers and magazines. In the first few years I started to write, my day-to-day was just writing, but now it’s more other things. Because I have a publishing house, I have to look after that. I have a bookshop. It’s more management now. Now I also translate. Now I’m spending a lot of time translating Lolita . . . I know some writers who exchange drafts, and I think that’s a really good idea. I wish I could do that, but I don’t know. Maybe I have trust issues. I don’t trust myself.
Prabda Yoon is the author of multiple collections of short fiction, novels, and screenplays, and has translated The Catcher in the Rye and A Clockwork Orange into Thai. His Kwam Na Ja Pen (Pen in Parentheses) won the S.E.A. Write Award in 2002. He owns a bookstore called Bookmoby and runs the Bangkok Creative Writing Workshop. Mui Poopoksakul is a lawyer-turned-translator living in Cologne, Germany. She is currently completing an M.A. in cultural translation at the American University of Paris. Her translation of “Kwam Na Ja Pen” (“Pen in Parentheses”), the title story of Prabda Yoon’s S.E.A. Write Award-winning collection, appeared in Asymptote.
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