CLASSICAL Thai literature can vie with the best literature in any language as a product of genius. However, the task of making it available to the world is beset with problems and difficulties. First of all, the Thai language, even though fully developed and capable of transmitting a great variety of human experiences, is understood only by a limited number of people. Besides, classical Thai literature might strike the uninitiated reader as fantastic, far removed from real life, showing a world in which supernatural power, magic, and lofty passions predominate. But indeed these strange things are necessary elements of the world of classics - a world built entirely by its own rules and finished by its own laws. At this world's core, however, the reader finds the condition of universality. Once arrived there, the reader may look back to the strange, winding path he has travelled with much satisfaction and understanding. S.T. Coleridge has similarly described the function of art as going either from the strange to the familiar or from the familiar to the strange. If classical Thai literature seems to begin with the strange, the fully absorbed reader will always find in it things with which he has already and always known.
A belief in the relevance of classical Thai literature alone would not be enough. There is a great need to translate that literature into other languages which are more widely used. In this programme, H.H. the late Prince Prem Pu-rachatra who wrote under the pseudonym of Prem Chaya has been the anchor man. Not only was his whole life de-voted to the task of translating Thai classics into English, but he also encouraged other people to do so and published their translations of Thai literature in his Standard Magazine. Towards the end of his life, he organized the Thai Literature Salon as a meeting place of writers and translators to carry out this very purpose.
A brief mention may be made of Prince Prem Purachatra's career as translator. His first translation was done when he was only 19 and still a student at Oxford. This was an adaptation, into an English play, of the fifteenth century Thai romance entitled Phra Law, retitled Magic Lotus. Immediate success of the play both in England and at home spurred him on to take up two great works of the Rattanakosin period for translation, namely, Phra Abhai Mani and Khun Chang and Khun Phan. The method used to translate these two works was the story retold, after Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. In retelling these classics, Prince Prem Purachatra retained the original quality of keeping the reader spellbound. At times, the translator became so engaged with certain details or scenes that he gave us as beautif and exact prose renderings. This may be called the first period of Prince Prem Purachatra's translation.
Afterward, he became convinced that he had to translate Thai poetry into English verse. Then came a period of nearly twenty years in which he ceaselessly experimented with English verse forms such as end-rhyme, blank verse, free verse, etc. His forte was, however, rhyming metrical verse. At first, he tried his hands at translating excerpts from some great authors, particularly Sri Praj and Sunthorn Phu. Some of these translations were highly polished. He usually incorporated them into his lectures and articles. Among the best known is the following quatrain from Sri Praj:
Let not thy arrow-eyes my fate foretell,
Cornering thy prey like a hunter fell.
If thou must shoot, then shoot right in my heart!
'Twould be more cruel to threaten, then depart.
But Prince Prem Purachatra was determined to translate Thai Classics in full, not merely excerpts. In the last ten years of his life, this project materialised, partly because he was honorary visiting professor at the University of Copenhagen where he initiated a programme of Thai studies. Under those circumstances, he produced a number of translations as well as made plans to do many more. Among the completed works were Sunthorn Phu's travel poem entitled Nirat Muang Klaeng, King Rama II's dance-drama entitled Kraitong, King Vajiravudh's play in verse and poem entitled Pra Ruang and Dharmaar-Dharma Songkram, respectively. These translations are nearly perfect. Some of them have borne out meanings hitherto unnoticed by Thai scholars and readers.
Prince Prem Purachatra is truly a pioneer in the field of Thai literary translation. Such a work, he once said, is a labour of love.
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