Politics of Translation

I am fascinated with language. Well, this is mainly what I do for a living. What else would you expect a university lecturer in an arts faculty to do? Teaching philosophy has a lot to do with language. J. L. Austin has a book on “How to Do Things with Words,” and teachers of philosophy, literature and history basically have close to nothing to do except manipulating words around.

The recent controversy in Thailand surrounding Jakkrapob Penkhae, the Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, when he gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and said something about the desirable, in his view, form of government for Thailand is a case in point. It sparked an uproar, and those of you who are following the events in Thai politics perhaps know about this already.

My point is that Jakkrapob’s speech has become a political issue, but for that to work in this country, the speech, which was given in English, has to be translated into Thai. Now the interesting situation is that there are now several versions of the translations of the same text which are not entirely compatible with one another. Jakkrapob’s own translation has been accused of omitting some key texts which would be damaging to him, and the version prepared by the opposition Democrat Party has also been accused by the other side of not being a fair one. 

So somebody proposed that the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University do the translation themselves. Being regarded as the most trusted authority in linguistic matters, the professors of Chulalongkorn will be asked to decide on the issue. Well, this happens to be the place where I go to work teaching philosophy. I believe I won’t be asked to do the translation myself, as I am not teaching translation or anything. But this is a good point for a reflection.

As those who have even a slight acquaintance with translation know, translating a text from one language to another is an imprecise science at best. Unless you are translating a mathematical statement, you are likely to have to face decisions on word choices and other things which translators have to face everyday. Even translating mathematical texts sometimes requires making such decisions too. And when the translation of Jakkrapob’s speech is such a highly charged political issue, what could happen is that the faculty at the Faculty of Arts, well, my beloved colleagues, will have to bear political brunt. If their translation goes well with one camp, they will be reviled by the other. And if they tweak the translation they will have to suffer loss of credibility and this will harm the reputation of the university. They need to find the most accurate translation. But exactly what is the most accurate translation?

So they are in an unenviable situation. I only wish them all the best. I think what will happen is that when one camp finds an expert to translate the text, the other will find their own expert to translate the text to their own liking. All will be done within the limit of the allowable and interpretable range of meanings of the text. 

Some people would like to resolve political issues through technical means like finding experts to translate the text, but that would not be forthcoming. This is a typical attitude of many in the Thai bureaucracy and other circles. They trust the expert in all areas. But then political issues cannot be resolved through technical means. They have to be resolved politically. It is one thing whether Jakkrapob’s text violates Thai law or not. For that the judge will ask for an accurate translation from expert witness (and both sides can well produce their own expert witnesses). But this has become a political issue and the way to resolve that won’t come from the easy way of asking for expert opinions. Well, translation can be part of politics too, as are many other areas.


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