On Translating Thai Artist Wisut Ponnimit from Japanese to English

By Matthew Chozick

Featured Art: Head of a Woman with Bent Head by André Derain

Tuk-tuks, manga as literature, onomatopoeia, Valentine’s Day

My wife and I climb with light luggage into the back of a three-wheeled Thai taxi, a tuk-tuk. As we drive off, city lights and a pink sunset blend marvelously together. Our tuk-tuk weaves through traffic as I see a gold adorned Buddhist pavilion, a Burmese-Mexican burrito restaurant, and then a Yamaha motorcycle dealership. It is, incidentally, from the land of Yamaha that we have just arrived by airplane.

Far away from our home in Tokyo, I’ll spend the week finishing an English translation for Wisut Ponnimit, Japan’s celebrated Thai author and illustrator. Wisut, who learned Japanese as an adult and now writes in the language, happens to be holding a joint art exhibition in Bangkok with Tokyo-based photographer Kotori Kawashima. Before attending the gallery show and conferencing with Wisut, there are a few difficulties to resolve with translating his manga book, Him Her That.

One difficulty with Him Her That is translating the concept of manga so that it’s compatible with American culture—and I mean culture here in the Pierre Bourdieu sense. While not every manga on the Japanese archipelago is seen as literary or highbrow, Wisut’s manga has enough cachet to have been put out from the prestigious publisher Shinchosha (to which Haruki Murakami has also sold the rights for many recent works). Moreover, Wisut has been invited to collaborate on projects with esteemed novelist Banana Yoshimoto as well as Japan’s highest regarded living poet Shuntaro Tanikawa. So, to help American readers understand Wisut’s cultural place within the foreign art form of Japanese manga, I decide to ask some of Wisut’s more famous fans for help. I hope that by adding context to Him Her That with brief essay translations from poet Tanikawa or novelist Yoshimoto, it’ll be easier for American readers to appreciate the vast universe of Japanese manga.

My wife and I check into our relatively spacious, non-Tokyo-sized hotel. We then enjoy a light, lemongrass-seasoned dinner across from a temple. A group of teenage monks in orange robes walk past. I’m reminded of a scene from Him Her That in which a young couple must rid themselves of all worldly possessions. The scene begins with the couple flying in a hot air balloon as it starts to sink, surrealistically, towards the mouth of a violently swirling waterfall. To survive, the couple must lighten their balloon by tossing over objects from an omoide no hako, a “box of memories.” Quite naturally, the couple quarrels about what memories should be thrown over into the waterfall and what should be saved.

Wisut adds tension to the sinking hot air balloon scene with sound effects written in the Japanese syllabary of katakana. Because Wisut’s sounds are transcribed in a phonetic alphabet used largely for mimetic language, it isn’t difficult for Japanese readers to imagine film-like audio effects jumping from the text. Problematically, we don’t have an equivalent sound delivery system in English. Perhaps for this reason, I find it challenging to translate the sound of the scene’s waterfall at different proximities. A Japanese waterfall at close range might hiss “zaba zaba!” whereas one from a bit more distance may grumble “zabaaaaaan.” Wisut also uses words that seem like sound effects to evoke phenomena that are not always audible. Because his Japanese readers are familiar with these devices, they can easily grasp synesthesia-like references to light glittering as if it had a sound (“kirakira”), the fluttering feeling of puppy love as if it sounded like a beating heart (“dokidoki”), or even silences that feel audible (“shiin”). Yet how do we convey these common Japanese effects, which linguists classify as psychomimes and phenomimes, in English?

I decide to translate the sounds of Him Her That into English onomatopoeia—such as “thump thump” for “dokidoki”—whenever possible and when not possible I’ll try putting the language in context or simulating the Japanese original effects. As such, I look forward to feedback from readers about my newly coined English onomatopoeia—for example, an English waterfall hissing “zabaa!”—and I hope the meanings will make sense with the help of their illustrations.

There is, however, a book section that I doubt will make sense. The section involves Japanese Valentine’s Day—a familiar yet unfamiliar holiday.

In Japan on February fourteenth it’s customary for females to give male acquaintances homemade chocolates. In return, men are expected to do nothing romantic on the holiday, absolutely nothing. However, exactly one month after Valentine’s Day has finished, on March fourteenth, men reciprocate with presents for their Valentine’s gift bestowers.

Wisut playfully examines this custom with a book section about a boy on Valentine’s Day who never received chocolates that were sent to him. Despite the best intentions of his beloved, a failed chocolate delivery throws the reciprocal cycle of holiday gift giving out of equilibrium.

While I’m very fond of Wisut’s Valentine’s Day story, I think it’d be impossible to translate without many, many footnotes. And, even with myriad footnotes I fear that Western readers would probably not share much of an emotional attachment to the character misfortunes. I therefore decide to omit this micronarrative to make space for content that might be easier to understand in the English-speaking world.

Fortunately, because Wisut already writes for readers in both Thailand and Japan, much of his material will, I believe, transcend other borders as well. And since I’m currently across borders in Thailand, I hope to complete Wisut’s English translation with enough time remaining to join my wife for another tuk-tuk ride or touring Buddhist pavilions or maybe even at the Burmese-Mexican burrito restaurant.


Matthew Chozick is a professor of Asian Studies and English at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. He has authored numerous academic and lay articles on the role of translation in Japanese literary and cultural history. Chozick has translated several books, most recently including 2019 Pulitzer Prize awardee Forrest Gander’s Eiko & Koma. Chozick also moonlights as a writer and personality on Japanese television, radio, and in film.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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