Elephants in the room: the uses and meanings of English in Thai political discourse (Part 2)

[This is the second of a three part article. Part 1 is available here. Part 3 will be posted next week.]

Lost in translation

The importance of politically strategic translation as a weapon in promoting the good coup was evident very shortly after the 2006 Coup took place. Initially, the name promulgated was The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) (or in Thai р╕Др╕Ур╕░р╕Ыр╕Пр╕┤р╕гр╕╣р╕Ыр╕Бр╕▓р╕гр╕Ыр╕Бр╕Др╕гр╕нр╕З р╣Гр╕Щр╕гр╕░р╕Ър╕нр╕Ър╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕Кр╕▓р╕Шр╕┤р╕Ыр╣Др╕Хр╕в р╕нр╕▒р╕Щр╕бр╕╡р╕Юр╕гр╕░р╕бр╕лр╕▓р╕Бр╕йр╕▒р╕Хр╕гр╕┤р╕вр╣Мр╕Чр╕гр╕Зр╣Ар╕Ыр╣Зр╕Щр╕Ыр╕гр╕░р╕бр╕╕р╕В). The Nation reported on October 8, 2006 that the junta had called on the local press to report this name in full in the Thai language as to do otherwise would, according to a junta spokesman, send the wrong message: “The name is important in relaying a right message and its shortened version might be misleading.” Nevertheless, for English speaking and international audiences the name had to be different. A week earlier on September 28, the Nation reported that the name to be used for overseas consumption was “the Council for Democratic Reform” as the full name that was for use in Thailand only “had led to misunderstanding and false interpretation in some countries and for some foreign media on the role of the monarchy”. One junta, but two names for two different audiences. Two different codes.

Vastly different contests over translation emerged in the lèse majesté cases against Jakropob Penkair, the BBC’s Jonathan Head, and later the entire board of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Jakropob made a speech in English at club in August 2006 shortly before the coup which later became the basis for lèse majesté charges. The speech on Thailand’s patronage system was translated and interpreted by the Democratic Party as having a “dangerous attitude” to the constitutional monarchy. The Bangkok Post then reported that Jakrapobh had accused Abhisit and the Democrats of ‘‘mistranslating’’ the speech. As blogger Bangkok Pundit recounts, several conflicting translations into Thai were made of this speech and accusations of distortion of the original flew around. One translation was made by the person who laid the original charges, Pol Maj Wattanasak Mungkitkandi of Bang Mod police station, who was apparently acting on his own initiative as a private citizen. There was also the Democratic Party translation. In reply, Jakropob offered his own translation to correct what he perceived as distortions.

The situation becomes even curiouser because the original complainant, Pol Maj Wattanasak speaks little English so presumably it is not the original that offended him but rather the translation which he himself solicited. His translation was constructed by an odd character called Mr Akbar Khan, an English journalist who appears to have held a long term grudge against the FCCT. This one speech began to grow into a Tower of Babel. The Bangkok Post reported that

a team of police investigators from the Crime Suppression Division went to the FCCT on Ploenchit road to gather evidence and question staff and people who were present during the speech by Mr Jakrapob. The investigators also asked language experts at Chulalongkorn University’s faculty of arts to translate the speech into Thai. [I believe that the experts, probably quite sensibly, declined the request.]

A police source said police wanted to get hold of three Thai translations of the speech _ the one made by Mr Jakrapob, one from the Royal Thai Police Office’s foreign affairs division, and the one from the language experts.

For the version to be prepared by the language experts, political science scholars will also be asked to give advice on the political meanings of the language used in the speech, the source said.

Police will consider whether to take legal action against Mr Jakrapob based on evidence including the three Thai translations, said the source.

The complaint also dragged in BBC correspondent Jonathan Head, the journalist who introduced Jakropob’s speech at the meeting.

The matter was later complicated by the filing of lèse majesté complaints on 30 June 2009 against the entire FCCT board by one “Laksana Kornsilpa, 57, a translator and a critic of ousted and convicted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra”. Laksana made further charges that the FCCT was guilty of lèse majesté for translating “into English the statements made by two leaders of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD), Veera Musikapong and Nattawuth Saigua. ” Their statements, Laksana alleged, are defamatory to the royal family. She alleged that the FCCT board “may be acting in an organised fashion and the goal may be to undermine the credibility of the high institution of Thailand.”

This raises a tantalizing legal possibility. If Khun Laksana is correct in her belief that the translation of lèse majesté statements from English into Thai is itself an instance of lèse majesté, then the dominoes would have to begin to fall were Jakropob or the DAAD leaders ever convicted. First to go would be Pol Maj Wantanasak and his comrade in arms, Akbar Khan, then the Democrats for their translation, then the police would have to charge themselves for commissioning a translation as well as charging any collaborators among the language experts at Chulalongkorn who assisted them. Jakropob could be charged on two counts: his Englishspeech and the Thai translation. The supreme irony would be that Khun Laksana would have to be indicted for her translation efforts.

To date, as far as I am aware, none of the charges have been dismissed but nor have they proceeded to legal action. I presume they have been lost in translation or are being kept to keep up the intimidation.

But the story about translation does not end here. A new vehicle, the Computer Crimes Act (2007), was on hand to suppress unwanted translation and to charge the translators. On October 14 2009, a story by Richard Frost appeared on the Bloomberg website reporting that the Thai stock market had fallen amidst rumours that the king’s health had been deteriorating. On November 1 Teeranun Vipuchan and Katha Prajaripyon were arrested and charged under Article 14 of the Computer Crimes Act 2007 for endangering national security by disseminating false rumours about the king’s health through the translation of a Bloomberg article. Teeranun had translated the Prachatai article and posted it on www. prachatai.com, a website that has already had problems with the lèse majesté laws. Others were charged later with similar offences related to the translation.

What is most curious about this episode is that the original Bloomberg article and those associated with it were not indicted. Maybe, English is indeed a freer space. In fact, it appears that Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanji has completely exonerated Bloomberg saying, “what the foreign news agency did was just to report on the rumour, just like what was reported by Thai media that affected the stock market. However, I have not seen the post and don’t know if there was any content added later to the original translation, as [the post] has been removed, but police have it all.”

Teeranun has defended herself on the grounds that she only made a translation and that this translation could not have caused the stock market to fall because it was posted after the stock market had fallen. As many have pointed out, the nature of the charges calls into question the accusers’ knowledge of the basic laws of time, physics and causality. Korn refers to the possibility of other information having been added to the original article but supplies no evidence for this.

Reporters without Borders said of the cases that, “It seems that the translation of the Bloomberg dispatch is the only piece of hard evidence in the prosecution case file. The investigators have not mentioned the original article and have referred only to the translation, which reinforces the impression that the three defendants are being used as scapegoats for the fall in stocks.”

But as Bangkok Pundit points out, the section of the Computer Crimes Act refers to “false” or “forged” data so presumably the translation police may have to be called in to check whether the translation was sufficiently accurate. Also as Bangkok Pundit points out, as the case went on, the reporting in the Thai mainstream press moved away from mentioning rumours about the king’s health to “ inauspicious news” and “inauspicious rumours” and “ill-intentioned rumours”.

There is an interesting elision of both thought and language taking place here. Auspices are signs that something will be successful. Therefore inauspicious news is news that indicates something bad or unlucky might be about to happen. The literal factuality of both the Bloomberg article and Teeranun’s translation seem not to have come under attack. There was a stock market fall and there were rumours about the King’s health. However, the section of the Computer Crimes Act under which the defendants were charged requires not only that the information be damaging to national security but that it also be false. What we are seeing for translations from English to Thai then is that “bad” news is necessarily “false”. Such news might be distressing. Only good news can be true.

Luckily, the Thai authorities are onto this. A Reuters report states:

Since 2007, Thai authorities have blocked almost 20,000 Web pages deemed insulting to the monarch, said Aree Jiworarak, head of Thailand’s information technology supervision office.

His “war room,” staffed around the clock by a team of bilingual civil servants and young professionals, tackles “systematic attempts” to undermine the throne, Aree said.

Court approval is needed to shut most websites. But for those offensive to the monarchy, his office approaches Internet Service Providers to block access before getting an official court order.

About 100 such pages are found a day, he said.

“It is not just about national security. It’s about the hurt feelings among Thai people. Service providers cooperate because they love the country, too,” Aree said.

Thailand’s many university students majoring in English should not fear a lack of job opportunities after graduation.

[Part 1 is here. Part 3 to come. Thomas Hoy teaches in the Department of English at Thammasat University.]