In order to be a good language teacher, I figure you must also know something of what it’s like to be a language learner. I’ve always enjoyed learning about different languages, and I like to think I’m pretty good in German, French and Italian. But Thai will be a challenge.
Since I get embarrassed speaking nonsense to strangers, I like to try to learn language by reading. In the past, I’ve begun German studies by slogging through Grimm’s fairy tales, and learned rudimentary Spanish by proofreading translated 401(k) brochures at work. In order to help me learn Thai, I looked around for a book that I knew well enough already so that I wouldn’t be confused by the plot. I found The Return of the King by Tolkien, an ideal choice in terms of my familiarity with the material, but probably about a thousand pages too long for my purposes. Undeterred, I bought it and started right in. Let the grand project begin!
The Thai version of the series title is, oddly, the same as the English one; it actually says, more or less, LORD AAF DAA RINGS in Thai letters. You’d think they could have come up with their own version.
I just spent about an hour translating the first sentence. Thai has no spaces between words, and the vowel notations are a bit obscure to me at this point, so to my untrained eye, after figuring out what I thought the letters were in English, the first sentence in the book looked like this:
Not very promising. But wait! PPPN? KNDLF? I know those rascals! Things snowballed from there, if snowball is the right verb to describe an hour of agonizing dictionary research. Soon I had produced the following translation:
“Pippin watch pass through out come from under dressing gown of Gandalf.”
Not exactly a masterpiece of lucid prose, right? I must have gone wrong somewhere, right? Nope! It’s pretty much on target. The English version is:
“Pippin looked out from the shelter of Gandalf’s cloak.”
I was close! Apparently, I can translate Tolkien from Thai. One sentence down, many, many thousand to go.