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Lost in translation – or deliberately hidden?

We all have a favourite mistranslation.  Personally, I have always cherished ‘poitrine de culottes’ as an endearingly ingenuous rendition in French of ‘chest of drawers’.

But mistranslations can have more serious consequences.

In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then President of Iran, said that Israel ‘must be wiped off the map’.  Cue a chorus of condemnation from all corners. 

But he didn’t in fact say that.  Beyond chanting ‘Death to America’, his English is virtually non-existent.  He said something in Farsi and the translation of what he said has been chewed over so long that by 2012, even the Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy admitted that the translation was misleadingly incendiary. 

More considered translations have been ‘must vanish from the pages of time’ and ‘must be eliminated from the stage of history’.  Which isn’t exactly a friendly greeting but nor does it portend an imminent armed attack. 

But ‘wiped off the map’ took on a life of its own and is still repeated today and not just by the reflexive reactionaries on Fox News.  The phrase, in English, has reportedly appeared in posters around Iran, including outside the Revolutionary Guard HQ.

So in the spirit of truth, accuracy and getting up people’s noses by rubbishing things they wish were true, let us turn our attention to the text that was published on the evening of 8 February and immediately I am hamstrung about what to call it. 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak starts his apologia in the Bangkok Post by calling it a ‘press release’, and progresses through ‘palace announcement’ to ‘royal command’, all the while criticizing international media platforms for describing it as a ‘condemnation’, ‘denunciation’ and ‘rebuke’.

These silly farangs, thinking they can understand the release/announcement/command’s ‘nuance, subtlety and balance’.  It is, says Acharn Thitinan, more of a ‘reprimand’ or ‘reproach’. 

This is the classic Thai elite strategy of claiming that outsiders cannot understand things Thai by making Thai things completely incomprehensible. 

Collins dictionary defines ‘reprimand’ (which Acharn Thitinan says is correct) as ‘rebuke’ (which he says is not).  Merriam-Webster defines ‘reproach’ as, yes, you guessed it, ‘rebuke’.  It also lists among the synonyms for ‘denunciation’ both ‘reprimand’ and ‘reproach’.

If you have more time than me, you can cruise more dictionaries and come to the conclusion that Acharn Thitinan is splitting a hair that does not exist, just so he can indulge in some farang-bashing. 

But to the text itself.  I will leave Acharn Thitinan floundering in semantic delusion and turn to the ‘Unofficial Translation’ on the official webpage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  (No, I don’t understand that either, but then I’m just an ignorant farang.).  They call it an ‘announcement’, by the way, so where does Acharn Thitinan get off calling it a ‘command’?

And first off, the text has an archaic flavour with humdingers like ‘Such action must be deemed transgression and most inappropriate’.  Where did the MinFAff translators learn their job?  The Jane Austen School of Translation?

But there are 2 points (at least) where the ‘unofficial translation’ strays into ‘wiped off the map’ territory and perverts the meaning of the Thai original.  And this is important.  Why?  Because of -y, that’s why.

Let me explain. The Thai text has ‘บทบัญญัติของรัฐธรรมนูญทุกฉบับรวมทั้งฉบับปัจจุบัน มีหมวดว่าด้วยพระมหากษัตริย์เป็นการเฉพาะ’  The MinFAff turns this into ‘every single Thai constitution, including the Constitution currently in force, always contains a distinct, separate Section on the Monarchy’.

No they don’t. 

‘พระมหากษัตริย์’ does not mean ‘Monarchy’.  It means ‘Monarch’ or ‘King’.  Now there is to my knowledge no official Thai-to-English dictionary but none of the unofficial ones that I’ve have checked give ‘Monarchy’ for ‘พระมหากษัตริย์’.

But there are official translations of constitutions.  As the Ministry says, they all have a section on ‘พระมหากษัตริย์’ and they all translate it as ‘The King’.

So any provision in these sections of current or past constitutions apply to one person and one person only.  They do not apply to princesses, officially retired or otherwise, and any attempt to do so (Constitutional Court please note) would be, well, er, unconstitutional. 

Misleading translation No. 2. 

‘พระราชินี พระรัชทายาท และพระบรมราชวงศ์ทุกพระองค์ จึงอยู่ในหลักการเกี่ยวกับการดำรงอยู่เหนือการเมืองและความเป็นกลางทางการเมืองของพระมหากษัตริย์ด้วย’ is rendered as ‘the Queen, the heir to the throne, every said member of the Royal Family would come within the application of the same rule requiring the Monarch to be above politics and to be politically neutral.’  (There’s clearly an ‘and’ missing but I am beyond such picayune quibbles.)

Hence for Ubolratana to join a political party is clearly a violation of the ‘rule’.  But the Thai word is ‘หลักการ’.  Now I can’t find a Thai-to-English dictionary that translates this as ‘rule’.  They are all in agreement in translating it as ‘principle’. 

And of course ‘หลักการ’ occurs frequently in the texts of constitutions where it is regularly and officially translated as ‘principle’, and not as ‘rule’ (and ironically very often in the expression ‘principles of the democratic regime of government with the King as the Head of the State’ for which we have been waiting for so, so long).

I think we can all agree that the MinFAff translators are pushing it here.  But pushing it in which direction?  On the continuum of what you should be doing, a ‘rule’ has more force behind it than a ‘principle; and is half way to being a ‘law’. 

And a law is what the courts are desperately looking for to justify whatever verdict they come up with in the case against Thai Raksa Chart. 

Because if they can’t find a law, then they cannot find a crime, because ‘Nullum crimen sine lege’, a fundamental principle of jurisprudence that is normally translated as ‘no crime without a law’ (though how MinFAff would translate I dare not guess).

And go on, I have a final quibble.  Not with the translation but with the text.  It ends with ‘ประกาศ ณ วันที่ 8 กุมภาพันธ์ พุทธศักราช 2562 เป็นปีที่ 4 ในรัชกาลปัจจุบัน’ which the Ministry for once translates correctly as ‘Given on the Eighth day of February B.E. 2562 in the fourth year of the present reign.’

Fourth year?  HM King Bhumibol passed away on 13 October 2016.  You do the math.

It works if you take calendar year 2016 as constituting the first year (of 2 and a half months), 2017 as the 2nd year, and so on.  But what a funny way of counting, eh? (says this ignorant farang).


About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).