Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Under the Bathrobe of Gandalf

Problem: I live in Thailand. I need to learn Thai. Yet I am too shy to talk Thai on the fly.

Proposed Solution: Read a Thai translation of a book I’ve already read. This has worked for me in the past, during such successful projects as “Read Heart of Darkness in German” and “Read somewhat less than half of Foucault’s Pendulum in Italian before giving up.”

New Problem: After some research which consists of walking into the bookstore and judging books entirely by their covers, I conclude that when Thais turn to fiction they apparently prefer to read nothing but Harry Potter, cheesy romance novels with amorous Conté-crayoned Hindu gods on the cover, some strange comic book series about a boy with a watermelon for a head, which might or might not be Japanese, and, for some reason, the Wizard of Oz books. I can’t find any familiar, easy books to start with. Except a few neglected shrinkwrapped Tolkien bricks on the top shelf.

Insane but Somehow Perfect Solution: Buy Tolkien’s The Return of the King in Thai and attempt to read it.

I’m pretty excited about this grand project. The book has a really cool green cover, with some pretty badass Thai fonts. The Thai version of the series title is, oddly, the same as the English one; it actually says, more or less, LORD AAF DAA RINGS in Thai letters. You’d think they could have come up with their own version, but whatever.

The book also came with a removable map. Thai pretty much looks like some kind of mutant Elvish already, so seeing Tolkien’s map actually in Thai letters (again, in an extra cool font with extra curlicues) is more or less mind-blowing. Those big letters say GONDOR. This map is quite possibly the coolest thing I’ve seen in my entire life.

Let the great experiment begin! I just spent about an hour translating the first sentence. Thai has no freaking spaces between words, and the vowel notations are a bit obscure to me at this point, so to my untrained eye, after figuring out what I thought the letters were in English, the first sentence in the book looked like this:


Not very promising. But wait! PPPN? KNDLF? I know those rascals! Things snowballed from there, if snowball is the right verb to describe an hour of agonizing dictionary research. Soon I had produced the following translation:

“Pippin watch pass through out come from under dressing gown of Gandalf.”

Not exactly a masterpiece of lucid prose, right? I must have screwed up somewhere, right? Nope! It’s pretty much on target. The English version is:

“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf's cloak.”

I was close! Apparently, I can translate Tolkien from Thai. One sentence down, many, many thousand to go. Huzzah!

And by the way I just found out it’s Rosh Hashanah this evening, so to my triumphant huzzah may I add Shanah Tovah! I’ve got a good feeling about the year 5768.


Intrepidflame said...

Great post! I can't believe you are doing this, I am curious where this goes. Check out a book called The Know-It-All by A.J Jacobs. Do the Google I think you will dig i!

albtraum said...

Hey thanks! I think I'd heard of that book, but I've never seen it in a store. I should get it. From the Amazon description:

"As his wife shunned him and cocktail party guests edged away..."

Hm... that sounds oddly familiar.