August 16, 2008

Translator's Corner: Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues

Much like 8-bit Nintendo and My Pet Monster, Encyclopedia Brown is indelibly etched into whatever section of my gray matter stores disproportionately nostalgic childhood memories.

Everyone read Encyclopedia Brown as kids, didn't they? Or was I part of yet another "special" subset of American childrendom, like town spelling bee champs and kids whose mom gave them terrible haircuts? Did I just answer my own question?

Well, anyway, I ate those books up. That and the Great Brain series. I can still picture in my mind which shelf they were located on at the public library I frequented in those heady years before the double-digits of age.

I'm surprised there haven't been any big screen adaptations of Encyclopedia Brown. Turns out in 1989 there was a ten-episode TV run on HBO, of all networks. I was even more surprised to find out that that Donald J. Sobol is still writing the series, 45 years after the first book was published. Bugs Meany is probably a repeat felon doing hard time by now.

And how exactly does that work nowadays? Is Encyclopedia forever stuck in the 60s, or is he a teenager in modern times?--"I used Google Earth and a GPS device to locate your missing keys, Mr. Johnson. Case closed. That'll be three grand. Daddy needs a new MacBook Air." (Hey, if Nancy Drew can make it to the big screen in the 21st Century, I say so can Encyclopedia Brown.)

What was I talking about again? See what I mean about disproportionately nostalgic?

The point of this post is Thai translation. Somewhere I picked up a ratty copy of Encyclopedia Brown Finds the Clues in Thai. The English was originally published in 1966, the third book in the series. The Thai translation, titled เอนไซโคลพีเดีย บราวน์ หนูน้อยยอดนักสืบ ตอนหยดสีปริศนา was published in 1994, translated by ชูศักดิ์ วิจักขณา.

A bad photograph of the cover that I bogarted 
from (but which book?)

I'm a little disappointed at the quality of the editing, especially from ดอกหญ้า Dokya, who are typically very good. Three places in the frontmatter--two false titles pages and the title page--give the incorrect English title, Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man, which is actually the next book in the series.

Comparing the table of contents with the English version on Amazon reveals that the book's cover is correct, and it is in fact book #3. But then, to make matters even more confusing, there are advertisements in the back for other books in the series. There's a blurb in the back for several installments of the series, including one with the same Thai title as this one, listed as coming soon. Also, typos like ต่อป instead of ต่อไป, that sort of thing.

On to the meat. Here is a chunk from the first section of the first story in this volume:
The Case of the Mysterious Tramp

His head bent low over the handlebars of his bike, Encyclopedia Brown rounded the corner of Maple Avenue like high-speed sandpaper.
เอนไซโลพีเดียก้มศีรษะลงเหนือแฮนด์รถจักรยาน เขานำรถจักรยานแล่นฉิวเลี้ยวตรงมุมถนนเมเปิล

It was three minutes before six o'clock of a summer evening.
ขณะนั้นเหลืออีก 3 นาทีจะถึงเวลา 6 โมงเย็นของวันหนึ่งในฤดูร้อน

With a bit of luck and a following wind, Encyclopedia hoped to make it home on time for dinner.
อาศัยโชคนิดหน่อยและกระแสลมที่พัดไล่หลัง เอนไซโลพีเดียหวังว่าจะไปถึงบ้านทันเวลาทานอาหารค่ำ

Suddenly someone called his name.
ทันใดนั้น ก็มีใครบางคนเรียกชื่อเขา

"Leroy! Leroy Brown!"
"เลอรอย! เลอรอย บราวน์"

Right off he knew it had to be his teacher calling.

Only teachers and his mother and father called him Leroy.
เพราะคนที่จะเรียกว่าเลอรอยนั้น จะมีก็เพียงพ่อกับแม่และครูที่โรงเรียนเท่านั้น

Everyone else in the town of Idaville called him Encyclopedia.
ส่วนคนอื่น ๆ  ในเมืองไอดาวิลล์ เรียกเขาว่า เอนไซโลพีเดีย

He didn't look much like an encyclopedia, which is a set of books filled with all kinds of facts. Or even like one book.
เอนไซโลพีเดีย คือหนังสือสารานุกรมที่รวบรวมความรู้หลากหลายไว้ด้วยกัน อาจจะรวมเป็นชุดหลายเล่ม หรือเล่มเดียว

People called him Encyclopedia because he read more books than a bathtub full of professors.
การที่ทุกคนให้สมญานามว่า เอนไซโลพีเดียนั้น ก็เพราะว่าเขาอ่านหนังสือมากมาย

And he never forgot anything he read.
Vocabulary. As a book aimed at young readers, there's not a ton of interesting vocabulary to point out, but here are a few:
  • แฮนด์ /hɛɛn/ = 'handlebars', presumably taken from the first syllable of that word.
  • แล่นฉิว /lɛ̂n chǐw/ - แล่น is a verb used with vehicles to indicate continual motion. Boats แล่น on the river, cars แล่น down the road. When you're stopping and starting, you're not แล่น-ing. ฉิว indicates high speed.
  • สมญานาม /sàmáyaanaam/ = This is just a fancy word for 'nickname' in this context. We might reverse-translate it as 'appellation'.
  • การที่ /kaan thîi/ = These are words everyone's familiar with, but การที่ is a compound used meaning "The fact that..." or just "That..." as in, "That everyone thinks you have bad B.O. is your own fault" (now we're moving from childhood to my early teenage years).
Transcription. I think it's odd to transcribe Leroy as เลอรอย. That sorta fits if you emphasize the last syllable, like "Luh-ROY". But the more common pronunciation in my experience is LEE-roy, which would probably be written ลีีรอย. (Not to mention that you've got the connection with that Jim Croce song "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" reinforcing the pronunciation LEE-roy.)

Liberties with the text. The thing that strikes me the most about this excerpt is how bland the Thai is in comparison to the English. Every time the author has attempted wordplay or cleverness, the translator has scrubbed it with linguistic Scotch-Brite, so as to leave it devoid of anything remarkable or, dare I say, entertaining.

If we translate back into English, you can see how dull the Thai is:
"Encyclopedia Brown rounded the corner of Maple Avenue like high-speed sandpaper." 
"Encyclopeda sped around the corner of Maple Avenue."
The sandpaper imagery is the author trying to be original, and not resort to boring cliche. แล่นฉิว is pretty vanilla by comparison, and kind of a copout.
"People called him Encyclopedia because he read more books than a bathtub full of professors."
"People called him Encyclopedia because he read lots of books."
Did the translator take this as an affront to professors? Given that high respect is paid to teachers as a matter of mandatory ritual, this seems like a real possibility. And that's just silly. This is fiction. Not only is the flavor of the language lost, but the translator has completely downgraded Encyclopedia's genius. He's no longer a prodigy sleuth with madd reading skillz, he's now a kid who reads lots of books. Ouch.
"He didn't look much like an encyclopedia, which is a set of books filled with all kinds of facts. Or even like one book."
"An encyclopedia is a book that compiles all kinds of knowledge. They come in sets of many volumes, or in one volume."
As I addressed last time, sometimes it's hard to know what is a mistranslation and what isn't. The author is trying to be funny, and the translator has either completely missed the joke or else he's intentionally trying to suck all of the life out of this book. It's a joke, get it? He doesn't look like a set of books. He doesn't even look like one book. Because he's a human! It may be a bad joke, but so it goes. Too bad the humor nazi had to come and turn it into a lesson on the various sizes of encyclopedias.

And this is all on page one. Which, granted, is a very small sample. Maybe he was just warming up. Maybe it gets better as it goes along.

This guy translated a number of books in the series--at least four. You can find them on the cheap through the help of Google and the ragtag gang of small online Thai used book sites like Su Used Book, Sangbua, and many others. (Because I'm a compulsive book buyer, Googling the name ชูศักดิ์ วิจักขณา last night led me to purchase another couple of books he translated. I must be a glutton for punishment. Oh wait, no, I'm just compulsive.)

Would I still recommend Encyclopedia Brown in Thai? Sure. But only to someone who couldn't read the original English. Or to someone who believes wordplay and humor to be sinful indulgences. Based on this sample, this book reads like a saltine cracker.

1 comment:

  1. there is a lot to be said for community translations, especially in areas where companies do not deem it necessary to localize for other markets (such as fansubs of Japanese anime etc.) or there simply isn't a company behind a product (open source software anyone?). But if you are running a business and trying to make the most out of the opportunities presnted by globalization, using professional translation services is the only way to go.