Lost, even in translation
Despite the Hollywood A-list air and oomph he exudes, Jakrapob Penkair is no Bill Murray or Scarlett Johansson. His lamentation that all the intent and substance of his infamous speech were “lost in translation” may sound glamorous, but it is as hollow as the sense of emptiness that permeates the movie itself. No doubt, the movie is good, praiseworthy. But as a spin on this very controversial issue, it’s bad. As a defence, it’s extremely weak and vulnerable to backfire. Early this week, at a press conference that appeared almost like a red-carpet reception thanks to the packed room, intense attention, flashing lights and the feeling of high drama, embattled PM Office Minister Jakrapob claimed that all the problems he is facing because of that speech stem from an inaccurate translation. This is an arrogant assertion, to start with and to say the least. Minister Jakrapob cannot truly believe that all the reaction to his speech was only caused by people who don’t know English.
For those who have not had a chance to read the speech, the English-language transcript – plus three different versions of Thai translation – can be viewed on the government’s website. The three translations were done by, respectively, Pol Maj Wattanasak Mungkitkandi, the opposition Democrat party and PM’s Office Minister Jakrapob himself.
True, there are mistakes in one of the versions. There are variations in word choice here and there among all three. There is a phrase that the minister omitted from his translation altogether. I am not sure if he would describe his own translation as being “inaccurate and misleading” too, in this case.
True, the inconsistencies contribute to a difference in tone but not that much in the overall meaning. The minister was shifting the responsibility when he made the lost-in-translation argument instead of addressing the real issue.
His dramatic threat to sue the leader of the Democrat party for defamation is simply absurd. The words were his. The translation might not carry all the intricate nuances inherent in one or the other language, but the differences are arguably only in degree, not in substance. Style is an imprecise thing. It’s the content that matters. And how would he make a case that the content of a document vilifies him when he wrote it himself?
Instead of making the wayward “bad translation” argument and pointing the finger at other people, Mr Jakrapob could have tried to explain if he was anti-monarchy and intended to portray the institution in a slanderous manner in his speech in front of the foreign press corps. If not, as he indeed tries to reassure everyone, how and where was he misunderstood?
It could be that Mr Jakrapob’s only way out of this very sensitive situation would be to admit that he is guilty of being shallow and biased in his analysis. Of liking the media attention too much? Or of being a pawn that had grown so pompous it thought it could make its own smart move but ended up alone in distress?
Instead of defining what he meant when he used the term “patronage system” and what he thinks it constitutes, which would have made his intention clearer, Mr Jakrapob made things even murkier by becoming belligerent. Instead of explaining himself as honestly and sincerely as he could when he still had a chance, Mr Jakrapob wasted it by challenging Mr Abhisit to point out which part of the speech was a transgression to the King, and challenged the opposition leader to a debate.
True, he probably desperately needs someone by his side in this increasingly lonely fight, even if that someone would only be there to box with him. Again, that someone may help deflect the uncomfortable public glare and deadweight of pressure that have been singularly pressed on him. If someone actually accepts the challenge and gets up there to debate his speech, then the responsibility is automatically shared – it would not be his problem exclusively any more.
It’s a cunning move. Would it prove to also be a wise one? I do not think so. With the issue becoming more politicised than it already is, a lot more can be lost, and not just in translation.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.