Mui Poopoksakul is the celebrated translator of Duanwad Pimwana’s novel Bright (Two Lines Press, 2019), which was recently excerpted on this blog. She has also translated Pimwana’s story collection Arid Dreams, from Tilted Axis Press (2019) and Feminist Press (2020), and two collections by Prabda Yoon. A native of Bangkok who spent two decades in the U.S., she now lives in Berlin, Germany. In this interview, she shares reflections on her work, creative process, and recommends new literature by Thai women authors.
You worked as an attorney in New York City before switching careers to become a literary translator. What were your goals for your translation work when you first started translating, and how have those goals changed or grown, now that you have translated four book-length publications?
When I started translating, I thought it would already be a coup to get one book published, given that not a lot of Thai literature has been published in English. Four titles in, I’m still going at it book by book. I know this might sound a bit counterintuitive, but if anything, I view my task more modestly these days than I did before. Now that I’ve worked with different authors and read more and more in Thai, I’m humbled by the individuality of the voices and the specificity of the works, so I’m less inclined to think of each project as part of a larger scheme of mine and prefer to focus on the text at hand.
In addition to her collection Arid Dreams, you have also translated Duanwad Pimwana’s novel Bright, which was published by Two Lines Press in 2019. What is an aspect of Pimwana’s prosaic style or voice that you particularly enjoyed translating, or that drew you to her collection in the first place?
To me, Bright and Arid Dreams (excepting the story “The Way of the Moon”) are quite different books; they’re almost like two Duanwads—Arid Dreams shows a much darker side of her, and Bright is, well, brighter (though it’s still about an abandoned child after all). It’s partly the emotional range that drew me to her. Though the two books share a certain directness which I really like, it’s used to completely different effects. In Bright, it comes out as innocence that ends up being revealing, while in Arid Dreams, it comes out as unsettling bluntness.
Some of the stories in Arid Dreams have a wry sense of humor to them. I’m thinking, for example, of “The Final Secret of Inmate Black Tiger”, as the narrator writes to a friend asking for an unexpected favor. Can you talk about how you approach translating humorous moments like these? How do you ensure that these moments land for readers of the translation?
In “Inmate Black Tiger” and a number of other stories in the collection, there’s this dated machismo that borders on, or even crosses over into, the ridiculous. It was largely about coming up with a reading, then letting those characters humiliate themselves the way Duanwad does in the Thai, and trusting that readers will get it. For example, in “Inmate Black Tiger,” I tried to maintain the way that the narrator attempts to write a formal letter about his last wish by borrowing equivalent conventions of formality and letter writing, but then set them off against more colloquial language at times because there are moments where he fails at the formality.
Since you specialize in translating contemporary Thai literature, do you usually work with the authors during the translation process? If so, what is that process like?
Yes, I do. In terms of the translation itself, I like to wait until after I’ve finished the second draft to discuss my questions with the author, just because I find that I usually end up being able to answer about a third of my initial questions on my own. With Prabda Yoon, I email my questions to him because he has excellent English. With Duanwad, she lets me bother her on the phone because when we started working together, I didn’t type Thai that well. I’m better at it now, but the phone habit might have stuck between the two of us. At the moment, I’m just starting to work with an author who, for logistical reasons, is largely not accessible, so it’s going to be a new experience for me. I can’t say that I’m not worried, because in the past I’ve always kept in pretty close touch with my authors, even if it’s just to share the excitement of a review.
…it heartens me to know that the more translations are a part of the reading landscape (and I’m not just talking about literature), the more readers accept the idea of reading a mediated text.
How do you choose the texts and authors who you translate?
The book that became The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon (Tilted Axis Press, 2017) —my first book-length translation—came to me before translation came to me, if you will. I’d read it not long after it came out, which was almost twenty years ago, and it had always stayed with me as a book that speaks my Bangkok. Plus I’m a fan of Prabda’s humor and quirky inventiveness. From there on, I just kept reading him. With Duanwad, I’d heard about her from other authors, and once I started reading her, I just got really excited about her work, first about Bright, because it was the first thing of hers that I read. I love the balance between levity and melancholy in the book, and the unusual, episodic structure works so well for the story. Then I read her short stories and realized even more, because they’re so different from the novel, that this was a writer of real depth that I wanted to work with.
In an interview with the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, you explained that there are a variety of factors accounting for the limited number of Thai authors whose works are translated into English, including the demand from English-language publishers and the limited number of grants available to support translators working from Thai. Can you tell us about how literary translations are received or perceived in the Thai publishing industry?
In Thailand people read works in translation, in all kinds of different genres, a lot more than people in Anglophone countries do. From what I hear, literary translators of other languages into Thai are highly respected and some are literary stars in their own right, so literary translation seems to be accepted as an art in its own right, and a necessary art.
And how do these perceptions affect your own translation work, especially from a publishing standpoint, if at all?
I haven’t worked in the Thai market, but it heartens me to know that the more translations are a part of the reading landscape (and I’m not just talking about literature), the more readers accept the idea of reading a mediated text.
Now that your translations of Duanwad Pimwana’s novel and short story collection have been published in English to wide acclaim, have you noticed any increase in the demand for Thai literature in translation?
Not to be evasive but I think this one is hard for me to gauge objectively. Since I started translating, I’ve had more and more people ask me about Thai books and Thai authors, which is a good sign, but it could be that the curiosity was always there.
Pimwana’s works are among the very first by a contemporary female Thai author, who writes in Thai, to be published in English internationally. Who are other female Thai authors who you hope to see translated into English, or whose work you hope to translate in the future?
There’s a prison memoir by Prontip Mankhong called All They Could Do to Us (มันทำร้ายเราได้แค่นี้แหละ), and it’s a fantastic read. Happily, a translation is in the works, by Tyrell Haberkorn (an excerpt is available here). When you hear that the author was imprisoned for lèse majesté, you wouldn’t expect such a wickedly funny book.
What books have you enjoyed reading recently that you can recommend to our readers?
Because of what I’m working on right now, I’ve largely been reading in Thai lately, but I did just read A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning and found it really engrossing. It’s a historical novel set in Thailand in the seventies, and the issues are quite relevant to what’s going on in the country now.
Interview by Cassandra Bertolini