Translating Four-Century-Old Thai Treasure to English a Labor of Love for Couple
“The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen,” a Thai literary classic, can now be read in English thanks to the endeavors of a British-Thai husband and wife team who spent seven years researching and translating the epic.
“Khun Chang Khun Phaen” is one of Thailand’s most popular folk tales, a love triangle that ends tragically, possibly based on a true story that took place some time around 1600 AD, during the Ayutthaya period.
The epic developed in the oral tradition, and was recited to audiences for centuries before it was first compiled and published in Thai in 1872.
A version republished by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab in 1917 has served as the standard Thai text since.
Written in verse, the classic runs for 75 chapters and is more than 1,000 pages long. “It’s not like any Western piece of literature, written by one person at a precise time; it grew,” said Chris Baker, a British writer and historian who translated the book into English with his wife, Pasuk Phongpaichit, an academic.
The couple have co-authored several other books on Thailand, including “A History of Thailand,” “Thaksin — The Business of Politics in Thailand,” “Thailand’s Boom and Bust” and “Thailand’s Crisis.”
The couple’s latest tome may appear to be a departure from their hard-hitting social-political works, but it too carries a message.
“The tale is about social justice, especially for women,” Pasuk said. Due to the length and complexity of “Khun Chang Khun Phaen,” the translation took Baker and Pasuk seven years to complete before it was launched this month, published by Silkworm Books.
Given the popularity of the story, which is still required reading for students at Thai schools and has spawned a plethora of songs, proverbs and several film adaptations, it is remarkable that it has not been translated into English before.
“We are not very good with translations,” acknowledged Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known Thai historian, writer and social critic. “ ‘Khun Chang Khun Phaen’ is written in verse, which is much more difficult to translate than prose. We have to admire this couple.”
Baker and Pasuk rendered their translation of the epic verse into prose. The love triangle plot tells of Khun Chang, the chubby son of a rich man, who vies with Khun Phaen, a handsome warrior of lowly status, for the love of Khun Wanthong, a beautiful maiden whose failure to decide between the two leads to her demise.
“If you’ve seen the film ‘Moulin Rouge,’ then you know the plot,” Baker said. There are a few differences. Instead of dying from consumption, the heroine of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is executed by order of the king.
In a Solomon-like scene, at the end of the first half of the epic, King Phanwasa orders Wanthong to chose between her lovers. When she dithers, the king lets loose a royal tirade at the poor woman.
“You‘re baser than base, the dregs of the city, lustful, insatiable, oily-eyed. Anything new, you’ll take. Hundreds or thousands, you’d not be satisfied.”
Wanthong is executed for her infidelity. “We think [the tale] became so popular because it has two classic themes,” Baker said.
“The first is obviously about the position of women in a society so much dominated by men, but the other theme, less appreciated, is one of the little man going up against wealth and power.”
“Khun Chang Khun Phaen” is also a treasure trove of linguistic and cultural trivia on Thailand, which Baker and Pasuk elaborate on with extensive footnotes.
This makes the English translation an even lengthier read, but an educational one.
While the main storyline ends at chapter 36 with the death of Wanthong, the epic goes on for another 39 chapters of sequels, most of which take place in a royal setting rather than the more rustic, bawdy and violent scenes of the first 36 chapters.
“ ‘Khun Chang Khun Phaen’ was the ‘Star Wars’ of its day, so popular that people wanted to keep the franchise going so they created sequels and sequels,” Baker said.
Most readers will probably find the first 36 chapters a sufficient sample of the tale. Several writers have attempted to translate the opus before but failed to deliver.
Baker has his own theory why. “Because it‘s so damn long,” he joked.