Translating Thai Honorifics
Thread poster: Daniel Loss

Daniel Loss
Thailand
Local time: 17:21
Thai to English
May 10

If you're translating a spoken text and the Thai speakers are using honorifics to encode a person's status or relationship (which is important in the Thai context) it seems that there are some issues to consider when translating to English. I've put a few examples below.

In the case of พ่อสมชาย or ลุงสมชาย (where he's not actually kin), to my ears "Uncle Somchai" sounds okay, but "Father Somchai" sounds like a priest.

Using Teacher Sombat for ครูสมบัติ at least isn't misleading, but maybe a little foreign sounding. I've seen this changed to Master Sombat or kept as Khruu Sombat, if they're a Muay Thai instructor, but that really only works because people in that world are more likely to understand the cultural context.

For status terms like แม่ชีศันสนีย I guess you could use "Mother Sansani" as long as it was clear she was a Nun, I think this sounds much better than "Nun Sansani" but what if people start referring to her as คุณแม่ศันสนีย (Ms. Mother Sansani?). If we write this out as Khun Mae Sansani, and the audience doesn't have the cultural context it may sound like "Khun Mae" is her name, or "Mae Chi" if we don't use "Nun".

There are lots of other cases (e.g. พี่, น้อง) where it feels like English lacks an appropriate way to briefly communicate this information.

I'd appreciate anybody's opinion on translating Thai honorifics.


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Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

Moderator of this forum
Always consider your target audience when translating May 10

This is not just a Thai language issue.

Avoid having too much source bias, avoid literal translations.

If it doesn't sound natural or correct in the target language, it might not be appropriate. We as the translator have to select the most appropriate terms that express the "essence" of the meaning and convey it in a way that the target audience can understand.

There is plenty of training information online or on ProZ.com about this matter.

Is your audience Thais reading an English translation? Is it foreigners with no understanding of Thai culture? You be the judge.


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Theresa Somsri  Identity Verified
Thailand
Local time: 17:21
Member (2016)
Thai to English
Skip unneeded honorifics, use only those we use in English May 11

If the honorifics aren't used in English, I'd suggest skipping them to avoid unnecessary confusion. For instance, skip พอ แม่ พี่ น้อง etc.

Example:
Coming from a multicultural/third culture background, I have never addressed my father as Father Brian nor my sister as Sister Ariya. While studying at an international school based in Thailand, when addressing older Thai students in English, we'd just call them by their names though using พี่ when speaking in Thai. It just doesn't make sense to use them in English.

As for ครู, while working at both a Thai university and an international academic institution, we'd just use Ms., Mrs., Mr. unless the individual was a Prof., Dr., etc.
Example:
"ครูแดนเนียลสอนวิชาภาษาอังกฤษ"
would be translated as
"Mr. Daniel teaches English."
However, your full name is more likely to be used if translating a formal document.

Some schools in native EN countries also use first names instead of surnames, so that shouldn't be confusing.

คุณ is a term showing respect, rather than an actual title. Anyone can be คุณ, so I would suggest skipping that completely.

I agree with Dylan about keeping the target audience in mind when translating and trying to avoid source bias. It's more important that the audience is able to understand the content/material than it is to repeatedly state someone's relationship or occupation. As always, context and audience should always be considered.


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Daniel Loss
Thailand
Local time: 17:21
Thai to English
TOPIC STARTER
Ms. Sansani May 11

I agree totally that the audience and their understanding should be the goal of the translator.

The spirit of my post was to point out that just completely leaving out the honorifics may in some cases actually impact an audience's understanding. If สมชาย esteems ศันสนีย, he may use an honorific, and maybe we don't want to leave that information out of a text or interpretation.

Theresa, for your example I'm guessing that you didn't use "Father Brian" because nobody else referred to him that way. Perhaps a specific example will better illustrate my worry.

Imagine you are going to introduce คุณแม่ชีศันสนีย, to English speakers who don't know anything about her.

(1) "Hello everyone, this is Nun Sansani."
(2) "Hello everyone, this is Mother Sansani."
(3) "Hello everyone, this is Mae Chi Sansani."
(4) "Hello everyone, this is Ms. Sansani."

#4 could be the most correct as far as English is concerned (Maybe #2? I'm thinking "Mother Teresa"), and I'd probably be fine with that, but would Sansani or those who respect her? And wouldn't the audience probably appreciate knowing a bit more. The only precedent for this situation I can think of is the Dali Lama, which is tackled through "the" or "his holiness".

Anyways, I appreciate both the opportunity to think this through out loud and your advice or suggestions.


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Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

Moderator of this forum
If roles or positions need to be stated May 11

If roles or positions are needing to be stated, then state them. Just because they are in the form of an honorific in Thai doesn’t mean they have to be replicated as an honorific in English (eg. literally).

พ่อสมชัย - my father, Somchai
พี่จอย - Joy, my elder (friend, sibling etc)
ครูแดน - Dan was the teacher of our class

There are a multitude of ways to introduce someone’s role or position. Avoiding the honorific doesn’t mean skipping out this vital information completely. For your example of a nun, say she is a nun and refer to her respectfully by name (I don’t think Ms would be appropriate here).

Hope this clarifies my point above.


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Patrick Fitzsimons  Identity Verified
United States
Member (2015)
Thai to English
Challenging... May 11

This is a massive challenge for a translator, and I don't think there is a perfect solution: as you say, too much information is contained in honorifics to leave them out without sacrificing real meaning (relationships between characters, tone, etc.); English translations occasionally seem satisfying (I quite like your "Mother" there) but mostly don't, and often introduce a very different, often old-fashioned tone; and transliterations will potentially confuse some of your audience. Although there are certainly cases where English honorifics may be preferable as the most straightforward option, I'm most interested in how this question is handled in translations where conveying as much of the meaning of the source as possible is the priority, such as literature or subtitles in movies.

This is obviously an issue for other languages (and I think a much bigger one in some, like Japanese?), and there's interesting things online you can read about how it's handled in different contexts. This academic article looks interesting but I can't access it: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0907676X.1993.9961201) And here's a reddit discussion on translating honorifics in Japanese anime: https://www.reddit.com/r/anime/comments/340aqz/discussion_honorifics_or_no_whywhy_not/ In this case, most of these fans seem to conclude that the only way to retain the important meaning of the honorific is to transliterate them and learn what each one means. Context is obviously problematic: in a TV show or movie there's not really a place where you can define terms for a viewer, but a novel could begin with a page explaining the transliterations, for example.

In these contexts, though not necessarily yours, I would personally tend towards transliterations ("Mae Chi Sansani"), even without definitions: the reader can simply register the honorific as part of the name, and over time they would notice a pattern with common ones. Importantly (to me), whether or not the reader gets the meaning, it is there.

I'd be interested if people have examples of how this issue is handled in Thai translations or movies they like. I'll post more if I come across some good examples.


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Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

Moderator of this forum
Adherence to source vs poor style for target language May 14

Theresa Somsri wrote:

As for ครู, while working at both a Thai university and an international academic institution, we'd just use Ms., Mrs., Mr. unless the individual was a Prof., Dr., etc.
Example:
"ครูแดนเนียลสอนวิชาภาษาอังกฤษ"
would be translated as
"Mr. Daniel teaches English."


Please be reminded that adding an honorific to someone's name implies formal-style writing and in the English-speaking world, when an honorific is used, we only ever use their full name or surname. It'd be poor style to refer to anyone as Mr Mrs Dr [first name].

Using Daniel's name as an example, it'd be Mr Loss, Mr Daniel Loss and never Mr Daniel.

This is the same with lecturers. If you are to refer to their academic rank Prof Dr etc., you would use their surname. Otherwise just call them by their first name.

There are some allowances given for informal spoken or colloquial use but here we're referring to written text, so should use proper style.

Patrick Fitzsimons wrote:
This is a massive challenge for a translator


I really don't think it is. Accuracy does not mean adherence to the source's grammatical structure and inclusion of things like honorifics that create a poorly written (or foreign-sounding) target text.

As I mentioned, there are ways of introducing the information held within honorifics without having to say 'Father Somchai' or introduce 'Mae Chi', which has no meaning to a non-Thai speaker. Giving Anime examples for this fails to take in one important difference: anime has corresponding animated images that would help the 'viewer' (vs reader) understand the implied meaning of the text. Movie subtitles have the same form of assistance from the pictures on the screen.

A prime example of 'assumed accuracy leading to poor style' are the all-too-common paragraph-length sentences written in Thai. Those who maintain the need to literally stick to source, which might've been stuck together with three or four 'โดย's', will translate it into a poorly stuck together 250 word sentence that is a total mess and fails any readability test. It might 'accurately' reflect the source but in this example, it would be most appropriate to reword your translation and make three or four sentences that accurately convey the source's meaning and give the target readers the information required in a natural-sounding style and format.

The reason that native target-language translators are typically preferred is because they can easily tell what sounds right and wrong in the target. As Daniel said when he started this thread, they don't sound quite right in English. It's our job to make them sound right, not leave the reader with questions.


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Daniel Loss
Thailand
Local time: 17:21
Thai to English
TOPIC STARTER
Culture, Grammar, Discourse May 15

I think that the /r/anime discussion was interesting, and definitely covers some ground pertinent to Thai translators. The use of honorifics isn't just limited to formal situations (though a formal situation is likely be overrun with them). From A Dictionary of Lingusitics and Phonetics,

honorific (adj./n.) A term used in the grammatical analysis of some languages (e.g. Japanese) to refer to syntactic or morphological distinctions used to express levels of politeness or respect, especially in relation to the compared social status of the participants. The notion should not be identified with formality: honorific forms may also appear in non-formal contexts. Some use is also made of the term with reference to functions other than the expression of respect, such as courtesy, politeness, etc." (Crystal, 2008 p. 222)

I think there's some precedent in more literary genres of using a transliteration or non-native sounding translation, like an English writer using Señorita, Monsieur or Sensei to give the flavor of a particular cultural setting.

Despite this, honorifics do carry substantial grammatical weight in everyday Thai discourse which a translator could consider if she was providing subtitles for people talking in a non-formal situation.

If a full noun phrase (คุณแม่่ชีศันสนีย) is later reduced in subsequent references (คุณแม่่), using Mother Sansani as a translation would allow for Mother (a nice intimate English noun) to later act as a pronoun in later parts of the dialogue. There could be other options here but these matters obviously start to be choices of aesthetics and taste but are worth considering nonetheless.

I'd also be interested in examples. Hopefully we can catch some in the wild.

[Edited at 2018-05-15 15:03 GMT]


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Dylan Jan Hartmann  Identity Verified
Australia
Member (2014)
Thai to English
+ ...

Moderator of this forum
Remember your target audience May 15

Daniel Loss wrote:

using Mother Sansani as a translation would allow for Mother (a nice intimate English noun) to later act as a pronoun in later parts of the dialogue. There could be other options here but these matters obviously start to be choices of aesthetics and taste but are worth considering nonetheless.



Good one! The target audience would now think that Sansai is a nun (like Mother Theresa).

With your examples above (which lacked any from Thailand), I'd like to remind you that translators are not "culture creators" such as writers, film makers, anime directors, all of whom have a certain artistic creative licence. Someone writing a book or directing a film may choose to describe certain things by borrowing the source term. If this is done by enough creators over time, the term becomes well known in English, such as Señorita, Monsieur or Sensei. But why don't you ask a Spanish, French or Japanese translator here if they would leave these as is or translate into English? In a translation, I don't think any of these terms would be suitable.

I think this discussion might be much better focused on honorifics like ไอ or อี, ท่าน etc. that are "used to express levels of politeness or respect" rather than the position or rank of the participant.

No, it wouldn't be appropriate to take a shortcut and transliterate these. What we are required to do here is to adjust our writing tone and style to match the implied tone around that person's level of respect. This is where things might get interesting!


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Patrick Fitzsimons  Identity Verified
United States
Member (2015)
Thai to English
Literary translation May 16

My framing above was focussed on artistic or literary translations, where more than communication of one aspect of the source is the focus: it is the goal of such translations to also render the subtleties of tone, style, etc., of the source as best as possible, and many different options are available to the translator, each with their pros and cons. I don't believe use of transliterations represents a slavish adherence to the source, but rather one of many options a translator can use to best represent it.

Dylan, your point about communicating the meaning of a honorific in other ways in a text is well taken, and certainly a viable option that many choose. If the translation was very short, say, and involved only a few honorifics, which could be included easily in a description, I might agree with you that this would work best. Problems arise when it becomes too intrusive and cumbersome to do this in the text, forcing the translator to sacrifice other priorities. In the Thai context, where these honorifics can be so widespread in dialogue, this point would be reached very quickly for me. Other options are to take them out completely, and sacrifice levels of meaning—also common in translations of Japanese literature.

One issue is consistency throughout a translation. If แม่ชี is translated as Mother once, should the translator translate all honorifics directly into English? If it is translated obliquely once, should transliterations always be avoided, even when the use of a honorific is essential to the drama of a scene? For example, here's a case I found in a discussion of Japanese translation online: (http://www.worldliteratureforum.com/forum/showthread.php/42033-Japanese-Honorifics)

"For example, a guy and a girl are traveling along with each other and their two friends, one of whom also has a crush on the girl. The girl always refers to the guy by the 'sama' honorific, which indicates high honor and respect, and also possibly great fondness. Then one night they are forced to share a room, and the next morning she refers to him by just his name. The friend who has a crush bemoans, "No...he made his move and they're even more close now." The other friend wryly says, "Sounds to me like he got knocked down a few scales. He must have really messed up."

It would certainly be challenging to translate this dynamic fluently into English. Dylan, do you think in this case you could "adjust your writing tone and style to match the implied tone around that person's level of respect" to communicate the meaning? I suspect that in a longer work certain cases would make the translator want to use one approach, and other cases another. Keeping the overall translation somewhat consistent would therefore be a challenge.

I haven't come across Thai-specific examples yet, but here is another brief thread about the various reasons literary translators might choose to retain the source language in their translation, with honorifics being only one reason of many: https://literature.stackexchange.com/questions/40/translation-why-are-parts-of-the-original-language-kept (An expansion of the topic, but I'm interested by the mention of proverbs here, considering the richness of Thai proverbs—who would feel comfortable transliterating them?)

Finally, the "target audience" is interesting when it comes to literary translation. Yes, they may not know anything about the foreign context, but that doesn't mean they are not interested in learning anything about it—in fact you could say that reading the book at all demonstrates such an interest. Literary translations commonly contain plenty of explanatory notes for the interested reader. An example from Pevear & Volokhonsky's Dead Souls: “Barin, may I have leave to go and work for myself, in order that I may earn my obrok*?” *An annual tax upon peasants, payment of which secured to the payer the right of removal. Another example is transliteration of kinds of food ("We partake of simple fare, according to Russian custom—we confine ourselves to shtchi*, but we
do so with a single heart." *Cabbage soup), which is also very relevant to the Thai context.


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Patrick Fitzsimons  Identity Verified
United States
Member (2015)
Thai to English
สีแผ่นดิน May 19

Here’s a Thai example from the novel สี่แผ่นดิน, which is packed full of honorifics and seems good for discussion. The young protagonist Phloi is just starting to learn about her place in a family where her mother was a เมียน้อย.

The original: วันหนึ่ง พลอยถามแม่ถึงเรื่องพี่น้องเหล่านี้ว่า ทําไมคนจึงเรียกลูกเจ้าคุณพ่อว่า คุณอุ่น คุณชิต คุณเชย แล้วทําไมจึง เรียกลูกอื่นว่า พ่อเพิ่ม แม่พลอย แม่หวาน แม่มองหน้าพลอยครู่หนึ่ง แล้วหัวเราะตอบว่า
"เพราะพวกเอ็งมันลูกเมียน้อย นั่นท่านลูกคุณหญิง ก็ต้องเป็นคุณไปหมด เขาไม่เรียกว่า อีพลอย ก็ดีถมไปแล้ว”

The ‘official’ translation: Phloi once asked her mother why these three had ”Khun” in front of their names, why they were not addressed “Mae” this and “Pho” that—“Mae” for girls and “Pho” for boys—like the other children including herself and her elder brother Phoem. Mother had replied with a laugh, “Because they are Khunying’s children and the rest of you have lesser wives for mothers, that’s why. Be thankful they call you Mae Phloi and Pho Phoem, and not the lowly Ee Phloi and Ai Phoem!”

Another translation by Marcel Barang: One day, Phloi asked Mother about her siblings: how was it that people called Honoured Father’s children Khun Un, Khun Chit and Khun Cheui but called the other children Phor Pherm, Mae Phloi and Mae Wahn. Mother glanced at Phloi and then laughed. She answered, ‘Because you’re children of minor wives. They are the children of a khunying, so they have to be “Khun”. Just be thankful they’re not calling you “Ee” Phloi as they would servants!’”

Do you guys think that a non-transliteration option would be an option here?

To take an example, I’m interested that in the final line both translators have opted for transliteration plus explanations: “calling you “Ee” Phloi as they would servants” / “the lowly Ee Phloi”. In my opinion "Just be thankful they’re not calling you “Ee” Phloi” would communicate the same meaning with more subtlety, and the explanation isn’t necessary.

Another point of interest is the different handling of เจ้าคุณพ่อ: Chao Khun Father in the official translation (initially “Phloi’s father, His Excellency the Chao Khun), Honoured Father in Barang’s.

Thoughts? Suggested better translations?


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Translating Thai Honorifics

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