Peeriya Pongsarigun and John Viano on translating King Rama II

Peeriya Pongsarigun and John Viano

on translating King Rama II

We chose The Story of Khun Chang Khun Phaen because it tells the story of commoners in the epic poem style, which was traditionally reserved only for Kings or the Buddha, despite being written by the King himself. Other works written in the same period only portray the life of the elite classes and royalty, real or imagined. However, this work tells the story of commoners in the small province of Suphanburi and references the religions, culture, and beliefs of the non-elite there. Despite being mostly about “normal people,” the popularity of The Story of Khun Chang Khun Phaen has endured, having been retold in movie and TV formats.

The excerpt opens with Khun Phaen, a novice monk, sneaking into Nang Phim’s room to make love to her. This is quite striking because it contravenes Buddhist monks’ vow of celibacy. The explicit language used to describe the scene is shocking because it runs counter to Thai cultural norms. This act is also a breach of public trust because Khun Phaen is a monk, representing both religion and the King, as the monarchy is the patron of Thai Buddhism; and so, lays bare the unspeakable aspects of Thai society. Those same taboos are relevant today, as people are obligated to be silent (or silenced) about issues like prostitution, despite being common practice.

We endeavored to preserve the symbolism of the traditional literary Thai idioms for sex, i.e. thunderstorms, heavy rain, or wild rivers. Further, the status of Khun Paen as a novice monk might be a metaphor for his love for Nang Phim since he is risking everything for her. Another view might be that Nang Phim’s acceptance of Khun Phaen shows a greater love for him, as she likely has far more to lose should they be discovered. Given the status gap between the pair, the question of their comparative agency adds a compelling intellectual twist to the tale.

We also preserved as many cultural references as possible — the “sacred grain” being an important example of such. The “sacred grain” is rice that has been blessed (or hexed) by monks or other important religious figures. Sacred rice is believed to bring good luck, chase away ghosts, or make people lose consciousness — the implication being that the servants in the house would be lulled into a slumber, unaware of Khun Phaen’s entry into Nang Phim’s room — protecting both their reputations in the process.

about the author

King Phra Buddha Leotla Naphalai, or King Rama II, was the second king of the Chakri Dynasty. During his reign (1809–1824) Thailand was at peace with its neighboring countries; therefore, King Rama II could promote Thai culture and arts including poetry, wood carving, sculptures, and music. King Rama II was best known for his artistic talent, and his reign was Thailand’s cultural renaissance. He loved poetry so much that he employed poets to work in the royal palace; those poets were called “royal poets.” The most famous one was Sunthon Phu, Thailand’s Shakespeare, who was honored by UNESCO as a world poet. The Story of Khun Chang Khun Phaen in this episode was written by King Rama II and a team of royal poets.

about the translator

Peeriya and John are award-winning authors and translators who excel in creating English language rhyme schemes which echo that of their sources, while accurately communicating the author’s message.

In 2019, their passion for literature and language led to cofounding InterThaiMedia LLC to create media that brings people together across languages and cultures. InterThaiMedia’s first project was a picture-book called Can You Carry Me?, a Thai-English children’s book that is sold all over Thailand. Can You Carry Me? is slated to be published in English, Spanish, and dual-language formats. We seek to publish children’s books which address difficult issues like racism, adoption, loss, among others.

In all, Peeriya and John have translated more than 140 children’s books, song lyrics, and poetry. They last published with DoubleSpeak in Spring 2020.