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: has a clickable form for reservations.  Otherwise, write to, or come to the door.