Academic journal article MELUS

Translations and Transformations: Thai Texts for Children in the USA

Academic journal article MELUS

Translations and Transformations: Thai Texts for Children in the USA

Article excerpt

Very few Thai-language works have been published in the US. While English-language works by Thai American authors are limited to cookbooks of Thai cuisine and the occasional book on Thai kick-boxing, Thai-language works are limited for the most part to newspapers (for example, the Los Angeles-based Saereechai and Madhichon), magazines (including Siam Media and Inter Thai), and newsletters produced by religious or social organizations (including Wat Thai in Los Angeles). A few texts on Buddhism include Pra Prayudh Payutto's Buddhadhamma: Natural Laws and Values for Life by G.A. Olson and published by the State University of New York as part of its series in Buddhist Studies, and A. Sujata's Beginning to See.

Yet very few Thai books have been published in the US because of the technological difficulties presented by a non-Roman alphabet and by the limitations of a small, widely-dispersed immigrant group. Adapted in the late thirteenth century from a Khmer script derived from the Indian Devanagari script, Thai uses an alphabet of 44 consonants, 32 vowels, four tone marks, and various other symbols for punctuation and numbers. Even with widespread personal computing technology, Thai remains a difficult script to render, and software packages designed for the Thai language, although produced in the United States, are typically available only in Thailand. Indeed, software packages alone are insufficient without a Thai-character keyboard.

The technological obstacles to printing Thai, however, do not provide a sufficient explanation for the small number of Thai-language works produced in the US. Ideographic languages such as Chinese, for example, are potentially more difficult to produce than a phonetic language such as Thai, and Chinese-language texts were produced in the United States as early as the 1870s. An obvious explanation for the relative abundance of Chinese-language texts as compared to Thai-language texts is the smaller number of Thai-speakers in the United States. The 1990 census counted about 90,000 Thai immigrants in the US, 1.3% of the Asian American population, or .05% of the total population. In contrast, the 1990 census found 1.6 million Chinese-speaking immigrants, almost twenty times larger than the Thai group. Spanish-speaking immigrants comprise an even greater portion of the US population at 11.1%, or 29.7 million people (1990 Census, US Census Bureau). German Americans represented a similarly large immigrant group, with over five million German Americans in the US in 1914. Moreover, Thai immigrants are not concentrated in one central geographic location, but are spread throughout the US. The Thai-American population is also very small compared to the population of Thailand, estimated at 53 million.

Although books such as Loy Kratong (1981) and I am a Thai (1983) that describe different Thai cultural traditions are published in Thailand, they are written to be easily accessible to both Thai-and American-born children. Works of American origin, like A Guide to Learning the Thai Language (1988), (1) tend to focus more on language instruction but also include cultural elements. Yet regardless of their Asian or American origins, Thai children's texts offer evidence for an alternative theory explaining the small size of the body of Thai American literature. What becomes apparent in these texts is an ambivalent relationship to language, one in which language can and does exist independently of social identity or culture. Unlike early German American works, which insisted upon a learning of the German language, and unlike Spanish-language works, which explicitly state their goals of teaching Spanish, Thai-language works lack a clear conviction that teaching Thai is essential to maintaining a Thai identity.

Instead, Thai-language children's literature exhibits a strikingly unusual resignation to the difficulties of teaching Thai, and also a tacit understanding that teaching the Thai language is subordinate to a larger goal of preserving Thai culture. …

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