Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Somtow's Blog

Owing to the problems with maintaining too many websites, my blog is now located at my main website, somtow.com

There are two blogs — a regular one and a dream diary.  Both can be found there.


This site remains as an archive.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Important Announcement: New Home

I am consolidating all my online material at somtow.com.

Therefore this blog will now only remain online as an historical archive.

If you go to somtow.com, you will find two blogs, a regular blog and a dream blog, as well as access to everything else.

Please enjoy.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Trisdee's Subtitle Controversy

I feel impelled to comment on Trisdee na Patalung’s little subtitling fracas. This tempest in a teapot erupted this morning and is causing people all over the spectrum to make comments. I think the controversy itself is a silly one; but it illuminates a much bigger issue which I would like to address and that is the state of English language teaching and proficiency in Thailand.

History: Trisdee and his friend Tom emerged from a showing of The Martian, and were discussing how dreadful the Thai subtitles were. This discussion blew up into an internet flame war, because the translator of these subtitles turns out to have been one of the most highly respected subtitlers in the field, having done this kind of work for years and being responsible for the subtitles of many of the top Hollywood pictures shown in Thailand. Trisdee pointed out one or two egregious errors and this lady responded with an astonishing level of vehemence and self-righteousness, driving nail after nail into her own coffin and revealing over and over again the depth of her ignorance of the subtleties of the English language.

So let’s start with the basic problem: Thai subtitles, generally speaking, are abysmal. One sees elementary errors all the time. They have not improved in the many decades in which I’ve happened to watch movies in this country. The kind of errors Trisdee pointed out are commonplace.

This all goes back to the way that English is taught in Thailand, and the fact that almost all those in teaching positions are not really fluent, but can quickly rise to the level of being perceived as “experts.” Although almost everyone one runs into here has some knowledge of English, one almost never encounters a genuine command of the subtleties of idiom, let alone of nuance, implication, irony, or humor.

One of the few people I know who actually does know English in a truly native way is Trisdee. The reason that he is this way is that he grew up in my home, which is an English-speaking household. He has been exposed to colloquial English in many varieties both British and American, and has always taken the trouble to ask me to explain complexities, weird etymologies, and aspects of language not apparent on the surface. 

The examples Trisdee gave in his exegesis were all extremely obvious mistakes that any native speaker would immediately notice, yet this translator flew into an insecure rage at the notion that she might not actually be quite as knowledgable about colloquial contemporary English as she is perceived.

Even if every word in a film script were to be translated literally and correctly into Thai, the audience would miss more than half of the content of those words, because language is not a series of equivalences, but a living thing. But correct translation would be a really good start, and it’s not really happening. If, as she herself seems to maintain, this particular translator is one of the most highly-regarded in the field, one hesitates to think about what the worst examples of the genre might be.

This lady may think that because Trisdee doesn’t have a degree in English or whatever, that he is not qualified to critique her translation. But of course, his ability to make these sorts of comments is in itself prima facie evidence of his qualifications.
I, of course, do have a degree in English, and I’ve published almost sixty books in English and have received a great deal of critical praise for my use of English. But more apropos is the fact that two of my novels are cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Idiom as source texts for correct idiomatic usage and one of my books has been an A Level text in the past. Therefore, if I tell her that Trisdee’s criticisms of her incorrect translations are spot on, I really don’t think she can dismiss me in the same way.

For example, it was evident from her protestations about the word “booster” (“I’ll spell it any way I like”) that the problem is not how it is spelled in Thai but that she simply didn’t realize that it comes from the word “boost”, not the word “boots”. 

In every case, her overblown rantings seemed to be about “How dare you have the chutzpah to attack a great one such as myself” and never about, “That might have been a mistake, I’ll take another look.”

Thailand is entering a period in which the use of English is going to become a major passport to advancement on a social, cultural and business level. Thailand’s decades of insularity are ending very quickly. This means that there are going to be a lot of “Emperor has no clothes”-type revelations, and — given the near godlike status afforded to those believed to be experts — a lot of those “experts” are going to be shaken to the core, especially by young people like Trisdee who actually do know a thing or two.

I think that no matter how old or experienced you think you are, it’s never too late to go back to school. I have learned a lot from all of my students, and others my age should do the same.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On Brundibar

Why Opera Siam is producing “Brundibar”

A few years ago, I casually mentioned the Second World War to one of my young students and I suddenly realized that he didn’t know anything about it.  He didn’t know that Thailand entered the war on the side of the Axis and certainly didn’t know of the brilliant subterfuge by which this country avoided being severely penalized at the end of the war.  He didn’t really know who Hitler was, and he had certainly never heard of the Holocaust.

From that time on, I had occasion to ask more than a couple of dozen young people what they knew about WWII, and discovered that my experience was not an aberration.  

Recently, the use of Hitler as a comedy icon by Thai students has stirred much anger in the international community, but that anger has mostly elicited bewilderment in the offenders.  They simply really don’t know about it.

This is why I realized we must produce this opera, Brundibar, composed for children by a brilliant Czech composer who was imprisoned in the Terezin “ghetto” — and performed over fifty times by the children of that camp.  An opera that was filmed by the Nazis and shown in the propaganda film The Führer grants the Jews a City, to give the world the impression that millions of Jews were not being put to death in the most monstrous machinery of genocide ever conceived.  An opera from which, after its usefulness to the Nazis had been served, the entire cast, crew, orchestra, and the composer and the director were subsequently shipped off to be gassed in Auschwitz.  

Brundibar  is a fairy tale about two children who need milk to save their sick mother.  They try to raise money by singing in the village, but their music is drowned out by the monotonous and hypnotic drone of an organ grinder, a mustachioed villain named Brundibar.

With the help of the animals and children in the village, Pepicek and Anninka manage to break the organ grinder’s spell, and their beautiful song moves the villagers who finally chip in to help their mother.

It’s a feel-good story about good and evil, but it is much more than that.  When you read the script, it is perfectly obvious that Brundibar is Hitler.  When the whole village sings in triumph about defeating the dictator and overcoming his venality, and about how love of family and country trump tyranny, we have to realize they were defying the Nazis right in front of their very noses, using the only weapons they had: words and music.

One survivor said in an interview, “We didn’t know whether it was because the Nazis couldn’t understand Czech, or whether it was simply that they knew they were going to kill us anyway, and didn’t care.”

In Munich last year, Trisdee and I met Greta Klingsberg, an 85-year-old woman who had played Anninka in Terezin, been subsequently sent to Auschwitz and managed to survive until liberation.  I asked her whether she had any message for the children in Thailand who are about to play Brundibar, and she said, “Enjoy the music!  And enjoy what you are doing.”  And later she said as well, “It is so important that Hans Krása’s music should live on.”

And this music is sheer genius: quickly reorchestrated for the available resources in a concentration camp that happened to contain some of the best musicians in the region, it is a score dripping with sweetness and irony, its melodies inspired by Czech folk music with a generous helping of Yiddishkeit.

In this production of Brundibar, I wanted to clearly show the irony that this work, so full of beauty and innocence, was being performed in the Terezin camp by those who, in the eyes of their captors, were already dead.  

This is why I’ve anchored the fable of picturesque villages and talking animals within a reality that the children who first performed this opera were about to experience.  I’ve set an iconic concentration camp gateway right in the faces of the audience, in order to set up a zone of discomfort so we are forced to think about the work in its historical context.  I’ve created a subdued, grey world in which splashes of color - like the yellow stars or Brundibar’s bright red barrel organ - are jarring and disorienting.
We are also prefacing the opera with a mini-concert of music and poetry - all composed and performed originally at the Terezin camp.  It includes poems written by the children which are almost unbearable in their intensity.  

Yesterday at one of the rehearsals I walked into the costume room where they were sewing yellow stars onto the costumes.  At that moment, though I know that theatre is “make-believe”, the past became so real that I began weeping uncontrollably.  
As long as we think that the past is something that was done by others to others, we will never really understand the present.  The past is a mirror into which we dare not look, yet only by looking can we see who we really are.

Performances of BRUNDIBAR are free to the public.  They are taking place  Jan 22, 23, and 24 at 8 pm, and Jan 24 at 4 pm at the Small Hall of the Thailand Cultural Center.  As the theatre only holds 220 seats, advance pre-registration is recommended: http://allevents.in/bangkok/brundibar/ has a clickable form for reservations.  Otherwise, write to tickets@bangkokopera.com, or come to the door.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Somtow conducts Mahlers THE SONG OF THE EARTH

Somtow conducts Mahlers THE SONG OF THE EARTH: In Loving Memory of HRH Princess Galyani VadhanaDepartment of Cultural Promotion and Opera Siam presentThailand Cultural CenterWednesday September 10at 8 pmFor tickets see belowSomtow once promised HR

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How to Bring Thaksin Home (and why he should return)

As I'm not a politician, my thought processes are not that subtle.  I'd like to propose a very simple solution to the huge dilemma that Thailand is in right now.   A lot of very complex solutions are being considered right now, most of which involve moving millions of people around a congested city, impeaching half the government, or shooting people.  But there are much easier ways to handle our problems.

The first problem which seems to afflict about half the country is, "How can we bring Thaksin home?"

Well, duh, he buys a plane ticket.  Huh?  I thought he was banned from the country.  No, he is not not "in exile" as the foreign press is so fond of saying, excising the word "self-imposed" in the interests of dumbing itself down for the sound-bite-conditioned audience.

You see, some key words are also missing from the question posed above.  They are the words "without going to jail."

Is jail so terrible?  Would Thaksin really spend more than a token amount of time in prison before receiving some kind of pardon?

The point is that being willing to spend even one day in jail would go a long way toward rehabilitating this man's claim to "statesmanship."

I can hear him grinding his teeth right now.  "Why should I spend a day in jail for being caught with my hand in the cookie jar?  Look at all the hands that are still reaching into that jar."

There are two answers to that.  First, just because everyone else is doing it doesn't make it right.  And second, you shouldn't have tried to take all the cookies.

Spending even a token amount of time in jail would convince many people that your party was serious about fighting corruption.  When P.M. Yingluck stated the other day that this was a primary goal of her party, it was widely seen as a joke.  Your willingness to go to jail would be an amazingly statesmanlike gesture.  It would be as if someone had opened up the dusty cave of political corruption and finally let in the first rays of sunlight.

Thaksin coming home and taking his lumps would remove all sorts of obstacles in Thailand's journey towards a better democracy.  His party would no longer need to gyrate, manipulate and deceive with bogus amnesty laws, and we can get on to real amnesty.

Real amnesty will only occur after real transparency.  Which means that there needs to be an honest, public display of mea culpa from everyone who has betrayed the trust of the Thai people for the last several years.

Which means people would have to realize that it is okay to lose face.  Indeed, if you lose a little face now, you can gain a lot more later.

It means that the people who seized the airport have to come clean and admit that they crossed the line from acceptable dissidence to hooliganism.

It means that those who shouted slogans about burning down the city will have to admit that they, too, crossed the line of civilized, democratic discourse.

It means that the military will have to admit that, well-intentioned though their takeover might have been, they completely blew the aftermath, and made things worse.

It means that those who hold a majority in parliament must admit that there are constitutional limits to their power and that a system of checks and balance is supposed to be in place.

Amnesty is forgiveness.  You can't be forgiven if you don't admit you've done anything wrong ... or worse, if you don't even think you've done anything wrong because you think that your rights are more important than everyone else's rights.

So that is my solution.  As I don't have the subtle mind of a politician, I know it won't work, but I propose it nonetheless:

Mr. Thaksin, buy a plane ticket, come back to this country from which you were never exiled, and accept the rule of law.

Once people see that even you are able to do this, things will start to fall into place.  I believe that others, too, from both sides of the divide, will start to put their country ahead of their own interests.  You won't smell like a rose right away, you understand.  I mean, there's the little matter of the extrajudicial killing of a few thousand alleged drug lords, the inhumane treatment of the Muslim community, the manipulation of legal loopholes in order to terrorize our once-free press, and what else?  Oh yeah, corruption.  But you would be surprised at how much people are willing to forgive, if you only show a little shred of remorse.

Even though I'm not getting a million bucks a month for this advice, unlike a certain PR firm in the U.S., I believe it is the best advice you will ever receive.

If you try this advice and it happens to work, of course, I'd be glad to accept the fees you're paying the other guy.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

STATUS UPDATE - Somtow Reissues


Dear friends:

It has been my plan to make sure that all 59 of the books I have written so far can easily be obtained by anyone who wants to read them.

So, I have been returning all my out of print books to print via DIPLODOCUS PRESS, the publishing company I created eight years ago.

As of November 23, today, here is the progress report:

The Inquestor Tetralogy -
all four books now in print

The Riverrun Trilogy
all three books now in print, the third volume available as an independent book for the first time

The Timmy Valentine Series
All three Vampire Junction Books back in print

Jasmine Nights
Opus 50
Dragon's Fin Soup - all back in print
The Stone Buddha's Tears (English language version by Post Books available only in Thailand) - in print in hard and soft
The Other City of Angels, back in print

Coming Soon
The Shattered Horse, should be in print within a few days
Mallworld, waiting for scanning

New Books
Bible Stories for Secular Humanists
available in both hard and soft
Sonnets about Serial Killers
available in both hard and soft
Caravaggio Times Two

and yes, here is a link....

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How Not To Run An Airline (Part Two)

It's been a few months since the last blog.  Indeed, I am not blogging very much these days.  For the last eighteen months, my entire life has been in an emotional limbo.  At some point, since these pages often have a confessional tone, I may reveal why, but I don't think I'm quite ready yet.

However, I think a report on the resolution of the Air Asia incident might prove entertaining....

You see, a week or so after the incident written about below, I received a response from the owner of Air Asia.  He apologized for the incident and said it seemed to be about the intransigence of a single employee, not Air Asia policy.  All this is true.  I wondered whether they would give me any free flights, or at the very least pay some compensation, since I had paid the premium fee in order to be able to get off the plane quickly, and Ms. Salaya had caused the entire off-loading of the passengers to be delayed by forty minutes with her eccentric accusations.

It chanced, however, that yesterday I came to fly Air Asia again, and again I was travelling with my nephew Top.  We were in Chiengmai airport and the line onto the plane wasn't moving.

"Maybe Salaya's on this flight, kicking up some other fuss," I joked.

"Ha, ha," Top said, "Let's fly the Hong Kong leg again sometime, just to visit our old friend."

And so, laughing and joking as we waiting an inordinately long time in a queue that seemed to last forever, we eventually came face to face with Ms. Salaya.  She had changed her hairstyle, and at first I didn't realize it was her ... I had to double-check with Top, who actually had to look at my blog to see if her photograph matched.  It did.

Salaya never looked at us, never made any kind of eye contact so I couldn't very well initiate a conversation.

When we sat down, Top said, "I forgot to tell you; the owner's daughter told me that Salaya was suspended for five days as a result of 'The Incident'."

I thought this was eminently fair: she should be taught a lesson, rather than actually being kicked out.  I never wanted to be responsible for the destruction of her entire career as a flight attendant.  It did occur to me that this domestic run was probably less prestigious than Hong Kong, so perhaps she had also been reassigned to a slightly less glamorous route.

In any case the staff were exceptionally polite at all times.  Except Salaya that is; she avoided any possibility of contact whatsoever, and hid in the back whenever there was a reason for the flight attendants to go up and down the aisle.

Now Top, you must understand, is not un-mischievous.  He said, "I'll find a way to talk to her, whether she wants to or not."  So shortly before landing, he went to the lavatory, which had been locked for descent, and told her he really had to go, so she had to unlock it.  When he exited, he said to her, "Why don't you check the lavatory out?  Maybe someone has activated a life vest."

"Kha, kha, kha," said Ms Salaya.  As Top returned to his seat, she then spent the next few minutes with a colleague, turning the lavatory inside out.

It was a little cruel of Top, but she did subject us to a ridiculous police investigation and hold up an entire flight on the ground....

But here's the delicious part.  Top and I were sitting somewhere in the 8th row of the plane.  After it landed, on the way out, I decided, on a whim, to look under the seats in Row 1, the row we had been sitting in when the fateful incident in Hong Kong occurred.

On that occasion, Top was in 1F, the window seat on the starboard side.  I made a joke to Top as we walked passed that row of seats on our way out.

"I bet the life jacket's missing again," I said.

We both looked over to Seat 1F.

I glanced under the seat.

Guess what?

The life jacket was missing.