The Language Barrier: The march of time by Christopher G. Moore

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The obstacle often hidden when you read a book set in another country and culture is the native language used in that place. It is not an insignificant issue. Marina Gorbis recently questioned the ability of English translations to convey the cultural freight of the original Russian, observing:

“One of the best things about speaking Russian (possibly the only thing), is that it gives you an ability to access Russian literature in the original. Over the years I’ve tried many different translations of Russian writers and was disappointed every time. Nothing compares to the original. Maybe it is impossible to do justice to these texts because many Russian words are so deeply rooted in a uniquely Russian context and life circumstances.”

A similar position can be set forth for the Thai language. The bulk of my fiction has been set in Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. As a non-native speaker, the daily work of researching a book set in Thailand presents a constant challenge. As the author, I am in the position of translating a Thai’s vision of reality into English. This often requires close observation about matters that most of take for granted.

For example, take the concept of “time.” Einstein introduced the notion of that time is relative. We understand, however, this is a specialized, scientific concept that has little to do with day-to-day life. And unless we are writing science fiction, most of us would have a reasonably close understanding of what time means, how it passes, and how we separate the past, present and future.

In the Thai language, there are some time-challenging concepts that often frustrate the outsider. Three illustrations from Thai indicate the trajectory of expectation when something is “about to” happen or “almost” ready or someone is “about to” arrive as a built-in vagueness. The phrase “kamlang ja” which precedes a verb for example, kamlang ja pai (about to leave), kamlang ja thueng (about to arrive), kamlang ja set (about to finish) is wonderfully flexible and open ended. It avoids any specific or pinpoint time as to when someone will actually show up for an appointment, finish a task or make up their minds. The hands of the clock and calendar are not nearly as precise as Thais think about time passage. When you are expecting a guest for dinner and he or she phones to say they are running late, they will likely say they are “kamlang ja thueng. ” That can translate into a few minutes to a couple of hours.

The second phrase muea kon is talking about something that happened in the past. It might be a personal event like riding a water buffalo through rice fields as a kid or it might refer to an 18th century battle with the Burmese. It could be a couple of years or many centuries all bundled into the same phrase. When you hear a Thai talk about muea kon, as a Westerner, who is time measurement precise, it will take some practice to listen to the context of what is being said and then to draw from that background whether the speaker is talking about the last Ice Age or a motorcycle accident a couple of years ago.

Time is also influenced by Buddhist’s concepts connected with karma. Chat gorn or last life has accumulated enough merit to enter this existence and explains the status and prospects of each individual. Though in a far more materialistic world, only those who have experienced a string of bad luck would think about some sin from a prior life as the reason for getting caught with the hand in the cookie jar and carted off to prison. Chat nee is the present life where wrong and good actions and thoughts accumulate on opposite sides of the cosmic accounting book. As a practical matter we are all in the “kamlang ja” stage of dying and waiting for rebirth in chat naa or next life. Unless for the rare person who achieves enlightenment and breaks the cycle of rebirth.

A reality check when reading fiction set in another culture is to ask whether the author has an understanding of how the people educated in that culture view time. Or has the author simply imposed his or her cultural time baggage on that culture. Every novel moves its characters through time. The best novels, though, take the reader into the character’s way of calculating time as that has a consequence in his social network and sets up the expectation of when something will take place. To do that, the author has to understand how characters in the culture look at clocks and calendars. Einstein’s theory of relativity is alive and well inside the literary world where narratives take place in exotic places.
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