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Issue 17 – Spring/Summer 2017

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Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint: A Conversation with Noh Anothai

We have published translations from Noh Anothai twice now: first in Issue 13, and then again in Issue 17. Both were translations of the renowned Thai poet Sunthorn Phu. With the release of Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint—one of only two full-length translations of Phu’s work in 30 years—we thought it was time to catch up.

How did you first come across the writing of Sunthorn Phu?

Every culture has a writer whose influence is so pervasive that you know who he or she is (or is supposed to be) long before you actually read him or her in an institutionalized setting. In the US and UK, that writer is probably Shakespeare—long before your first English literature class, you hear him quoted, often irreverently, and see his most famous characters represented or parodied in all sorts of popular culture: Hamlet holding his skull aloft, Romeo and Juliet on the balcony.

It’s the same for Sunthorn Phu in a Thai context, where he is just as familiar. Even though I was never educated in Thailand (I grew up and went to school in the US), when I first developed an interest in my native literature in high school, Phu’s name was always coming up in Internet searches for Thai poetry or the “Arts and Culture” chapters of books about Thailand. I knew he was Thailand’s national poet, with his own holiday, June 26th; that he was the “foremost poet of the early Bangkok period”; that he wrote the epic-length Phra Aphaimanee; that he supposedly loved to drink.

I never seriously read his work, however, until I was already in college. There are two reasons for this. The first is practical, a matter of availability for a teenager in the American Midwest. No libraries I knew had copies of the Thai texts, and translations of Phu were (and still are) few and far between, as well as not very good. (My book is the first full-length translation of this particular text into English.) The second is a confession: from what little I did manage to find, I was not incredibly interested in Phu. The Thai poetry anthologies tended to quote his most edifying passages, like the famous one that cautions against placing your faith in other people (“even the creepers that wind around trees are less crooked than men’s hearts”), or about the values of thrift and education.

What was your connection to this particular book?

Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint is a translation of Phu’s second major work, the Nirat Phra Baht, which records a pilgrimage he participated in when he was a servant in a royal household. It was among the first of Phu’s works that I sat down to read as an adult and helped change my perspective on him.

At the time, I had recently graduated from college and was in Thailand as a junior researcher with the Fulbright program translating selections of Thai epic. My introduction to the very idea of translation as an artform was through Robert Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, which I carried with me to Bangkok like a charm, so I was intent on translating analogous tales of gods and heroes. However, I was so wet around the ears as a writer/translator that progress was slow and agonizing; I started reading anything else just to get away from the task at hand.

By chance I found an anthology of Phu’s major works at a bookstore and began reading it perfunctorily, thinking—oh, someday, when this is all over, I’m going to be a translator of Thai literature and will have to know about this guy. Little did I know I would enjoy it so much. My concentration as an undergraduate in Creative Writing had been in nonfiction and I was particularly drawn to travel writing. Phu helped develop and establish the conventions of the Thai nirat genre—which records journeys—and when I read his, I realized they were a type of sophisticated verse travel memoir.

Because I had been taught to approach such texts from a writer’s perspective (as opposed to as historical documents, which seems the more common approach), I began to appreciate the artistry that went into them. Phu, for instance, has an excellent sense of comedic timing and a self-deprecating sense of humour; a fair amount of hijinx goes on in his nirat that those early Bowdlerized anthologies never included. He often juxtaposes quieter scenes with livelier passages and is able to build up and sustain a narrative one decision at a time. There was a critical, creative mind behind these texts, I realized, one that was actively sorting through material and deciding what to arrange and how to arrange it to achieve the strongest affect.

The Nirat Phra Baht sold me on two different points. The first is a scene that took me completely by surprise the first time I read it—when Phu’s friends play a prank on him, spooking the elephant he rides upon and sending it crashing into the woods. There is a certain amount of decorum to Thai classics, and since no one is more “classic” than Phu, I had expected the same. Yet, here was something so oddly relatable, so warm and intimate and unexpectedly fun [You can read this scene in Asymptote here].

The second was a practical consideration. Unlike Phu’s other nirat, which concern more personal journeys, Nirat Phra Baht has a strong public dimension to it: it’s a firsthand account of a pilgrimage undertaken by the Siamese royal court in the early nineteenth century. In this way, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a mysterious world (which turns out to be more relatable than we’d imagined) and has a sweep and range that goes beyond merely Phu’s own affairs. A reader without much knowledge of Phu’s life (which is just about anyone outside of Thailand) can read Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint without much preface. (Though I should point out that my translation comes with explanatory notes after each poem and a complete guide to reading in the back.)

How much translation had you done before Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint? It seems like quite the undertaking.

Poems was actually my first sustained, mentored translation project. I actually completed it for my Master’s thesis in Creative Writing, and I don’t think it would have been finished otherwise. I had always dabbled in translation as an intermittent, solitary affair (which is why my Fulbright project got on so slowly) before this, picking up and dropping projects as something perked my interest or became too frustrating, respectively. When I did finish anything, it was usually a short, independent passage [like this one published in Unsplendid], but nothing of any special length.

My advisor, Dr. Michael Castro (past poet laureate of St. Louis), had had previous experience co-translating Hungarian poets and a certain affinity to certain Eastern spiritual traditions. So, even though he spoke no Thai, he was crucial in giving feedback on how the translation was emerging in English. We would meet once every week or second week to go over my drafts, him asking for revisions or suggesting where a useful note would belong. In all, the translation took about two years.

How have your feelings about Phu’s work changed over those two years?

I think Phu started seeming less like a legend, like some mythic figure, or even a tutelary god of sorts, and more and more like a peer and even a contemporary. Working through his narrative line by line, I got to appreciate the decisions he made, all those decisions every writer has to consider about establishing character and setting, arranging material, beginning and concluding, employing useful silences… I started feeling like what Phu was doing in his own time and his own way wasn’t altogether different from what I did during the MFA, or what I discuss with my own students now that I teach writing, and of course when I write myself. He just did it really well.

It’s not an altogether fanciful notion to think of Phu as another “working writer.” I’m not incredibly familiar with the scholarship, but I have read that Phu’s career coincided with the emergence of a middle class in Siam (old Thailand), making his poems on the lives of ordinary people relevant, as well as creating the market and means for them to be bought and sold. Now over two centuries later, I’m still trying to sell his work–so maybe I should think of myself as in charge of his marketing and distribution. A much more mundane relationship!

A lot of this work took place in the context of your education, and now you are about to start a PhD. What’s the topic?

I just started at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The degree is in Comparative Literature, but in a special track for International Writers. The idea is that writers–artists–and not only academics can benefit as much from exposure to literary theory and scholarship, and learning and collaborating with their counterparts from around the world. This is presenting a lot of new opportunities for me. For instance, although I do a lot of translating, I’ve never actually taken any coursework on, say, translation theory, and I hope I can become a sharper translator, with more sophisticated ways of looking at a text, through such scholarship.

As I said before, there’s really not a lot of precedent for the literary translation of Thai. I’d like to use my time in the Ph.D. making more works of Thai literature available in English translation so that they can enter the global discourse (as well as be enjoyed!). One long-term project I’m envisioning is anthology of Phu’s nirat poems in translation, annotated, since I’ve already finished one of them. I’ve also imagined writing a biography of sorts, but told through a series of essays about him. (There was also a travel memoir I wanted to write following his travels around Thailand–that never got off the ground.) Ultimately, my biggest dream is to see Phu appear in the Penguin Classics series and take his place among the authors there!

Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint is available in paperback and as a Kindle edition through Amazon.com.

Noh Anothai was a researcher with the Thailand-United States Education Foundation (Fulbright Thailand) from 2012-13, when he first began translating Thai literature. Recently, his translation of Thai national poet Sunthorn Phu, Poems from the Buddha’s Footprint (Singing Bone Press, 2016), became the first complete full-length translation of Phu’s work in almost thirty years. He also headlined Asymptote’s Spring 2017 issue ‘People from the In-Between’ with his work on contemporary Thai poet Saksiri Meesomsueb. Find him on Facebook here.

Author photo by Christopher Fleck.

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