Found in Translation – Why Legendary Muay Thai Fighters Are Poets
I’m pushing my hands into my gloves for morning padwork when I see a flurry of movement, almost like a shadow, out of the corner of my eye. I hear the sounds of alarm from various other people in the room before my eyes actually focus on the horrible scuttling of a rather large centipede, scurrying along the floor. These are wretched not-so-little insects and if they bite you it’s a world of pain, and if you’re allergic they can be fatal. I just don’t like how they move. It gives me the heebie-jeebies. Pi Nu grabs a Thai pad off of the rack, one that’s heavy and not often used, and begins attempting to smash the centipede with it. A large chunk of what I thought was the centipede’s head or maybe its tail end pops off after this first whack and it reverses direction to try to escape back under the benches. It wasn’t part of the centipede, but rather a huge cockroach that the centipede was carrying as his lunch – when he was whacked with the pad he abandoned the cause and took off. This only added to my disgust.
Finally, Pi Nu managed to stun the centipede for long enough to grab a can of pesticide and spray it to death. It was a sad moment, but I don’t want that thing running off into the dark corners of the gym where I don’t know where it is. They can (and do) tuck away into gloves as little hiding places and if you stick your hand in there you will be bitten. So this fiasco of an event to start off our morning is, of course, a point of conversation for the remainder of training. Pi Nu is telling me all kinds of stories of people being bitten by these things, hospital visits, severed limbs… horror. He says he’s not afraid of them but they’re “ugly.” He keeps using this word, in English, then offering the Thai word, which happens to also be the word for “to hate.” So, to hate something is for it to be ugly and vice versa. But he chooses another word as well, one I’ve never heard before. He keeps making this, “blech” kind of face and scrunching his nose up, totally in line with being disgusted by something but it’s much funnier an expression. Like, repulsion without the terror; more just grossed out, like by something slimy. He keeps saying kha yaeng (แขยง), which is the word I’ve never heard before, so he punches it up on his phone for a dictionary translation. We do this a lot in the mornings. Pi Nu walks over and turns his phone to face me, and I have to kind of angle my body so we’re shoulder-to-shoulder until I can peer over his forearm to see the result of his search. There’s only one translation option (very different from my dictionary, which offers way too many options for everything), “loathe.” It’s a great translation for what he’s trying to express. It captures the distaste and objection without the enthusiasm of outright revulsion or hatred.
Translation is hard. They way I met my husband involves the difficulty of translation. He had used a dictionary to translate a wonderful German poem by Hölderlin, but without any understanding of German (other than being proficient in Greek, which helped a bit in this case because Hölderlin was “thinking” in Greek, but writing German). I do speak German, so when I looked at Kevin’s version of the translation, which was admittedly experimental, I saw all kinds of “not quite right” selections for words, taken out of a dictionary without the context of the language as a whole. This is why you can’t get great translations out of a Google Translate or Bing automatic translator. Language isn’t like a conversion chart and English, in particular, has a lot of words. To the average speaker, you can get your point across without too much trouble. For example, there is a difference between the words to collect and to gather, but both look pretty much the same in action. You can use them pretty interchangeably, but there are subtle differences in connotation and meaning. It’s the same with Pi Nu using the word in Thai that means both “ugly” and “to hate,” but then deciding that this other word was more in line with the kind of moderately grossed-out feeling he had about squirmy bugs. It might be a subtle enough difference to let the nuances be lost in translation, but in the context of Pi Nu choosing this word over another word, that difference becomes important.
This is one of the huge tasks I have set for myself in training with legends. I work with these men and I record my interpretations as a voice over on the video. Sometimes I’m literally translating the words he’s saying to me, which is the easy bit, but largely I’m translating his corrections. I’m picking out the nuanced differences between what he’s doing and what I’m trying to do in following along. These differences can be tiny, like the difference between synonyms. But there are two words for a reason. They may be interchangeable, but they are not identical in meaning or connotation. A large part of my goal in recording sessions with these legends is not so much to try to learn their particular skill sets within the span of an hour. Pi Nu was teasing me one time, asking if I thought that anyone could become Saenchai in an hour. Of course not. The goal is to point the camera at these legendary men and let their style unfold, to capture their personas on record. You can talk forever about how cool Yodkhunpon is, how mellow and sweet but then how brutal he is when it’s time to slice someone open with an elbow. But even a poet would struggle to really express how he comes alive when starting up a playful spar. Dieselnoi does it, too. It’s all the energy of a real fight, all the spring-loaded power of a fighter trying to end you, but with the power taken down. A cat absolutely working to gut you with its teeth sunk in and those back legs kicking your entrails out, but without bringing out the claws. Because it’s just play.
This energy is what’s so difficult to translate. Oftentimes I’m re-watching a session and trying to pinpoint where the legend’s foot is versus where I keep landing mine, or how he turns his shoulder into an elbow and I’m leaving mine back. Those are easily correctable differences. But try to translate a pun from one language to another and suddenly it becomes quite difficult. Which of the meanings is the primary connotation and which one is the clever second meaning? Calling someone a “wolf” is a little complicated in English, powerful and charming but untrustworthy, the animal belongs to a loyal pack and yet the connotation is so often of deceit and independence – “lone wolf.” So, if you only look up the qualities of the animal in a literal sense, it doesn’t get your point across at all. When I’m watching these guys on my recordings, I’ll often just find myself gasping and at a loss for words to describe what they’re trying to instill at any moment. Because sometimes there isn’t a word for it, it’s an energy or a power. It’s that centimeter of space between “wow that was close,” and “holy shit, I would be out right now.” Sometimes the appropriate translations is actually just a gasp, a head shake and the exasperated, “fuuuck.” It’s what makes a good writer a great writer, these word choices when you can feel the choice of word. These legends are making choices with their bodies, with spacing, with phrasing of movement and energy. A lot of that is hard to put into words and I can only hope that all the wrong words I choose help to illustrate the movement itself, so you can see it, even if it’s hard to describe it. But in trying to put it to words, and in trying to bring those movements and energies into my own body, I find a great deal in that translation.
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