Trisdee's Subtitling Controversy

Trisdee na Patalung

Trisdee na Patalung

I feel impelled to comment on Trisdee na Patalung’s little subtitling fracas. This tempest in a teapot erupted this morning and is causing people all over the spectrum to make comments. I think the controversy itself is a silly one; but it illuminates a much bigger issue which I would like to address and that is the state of English language teaching and proficiency in Thailand.

History: Trisdee and his friend Tom emerged from a showing of The Martian, and were discussing how dreadful the Thai subtitles were. This discussion blew up into an internet flame war, because the translator of these subtitles turns out to have been one of the most highly respected subtitlers in the field, having done this kind of work for years and being responsible for the subtitles of many of the top Hollywood pictures shown in Thailand. Trisdee pointed out one or two egregious errors and this lady responded with an astonishing level of vehemence and self-righteousness, driving nail after nail into her own coffin and revealing over and over again the depth of her ignorance of the subtleties of the English language.

So let’s start with the basic problem: Thai subtitles, generally speaking, are abysmal. One sees elementary errors all the time. They have not improved in the many decades in which I’ve happened to watch movies in this country. The kind of errors Trisdee pointed out are commonplace.

This all goes back to the way that English is taught in Thailand, and the fact that almost all those in teaching positions are not really fluent, but can quickly rise to the level of being perceived as “experts.” Although almost everyone one runs into here has some knowledge of English, one almost never encounters a genuine command of the subtleties of idiom, let alone of nuance, implication, irony, or humor.

One of the few people I know who actually does know English in a truly native way is Trisdee. The reason that he is this way is that he grew up in my home, which is an English-speaking household. He has been exposed to colloquial English in many varieties both British and American, and has always taken the trouble to ask me to explain complexities, weird etymologies, and aspects of language not apparent on the surface.

The examples Trisdee gave in his exegesis were all extremely obvious mistakes that any native speaker would immediately notice, yet this translator flew into an insecure rage at the notion that she might not actually be quite as knowledgable about colloquial contemporary English as she is perceived.

Even if every word in a film script were to be translated literally and correctly into Thai, the audience would miss more than half of the content of those words, because language is not a series of equivalences, but a living thing. But correct translation would be a really good start, and it’s not really happening. If, as she herself seems to maintain, this particular translator is one of the most highly-regarded in the field, one hesitates to think about what the worst examples of the genre might be.

This lady may think that because Trisdee doesn’t have a degree in English or whatever, that he is not qualified to critique her translation. But of course, his ability to make these sorts of comments is in itself prima facie evidence of his qualifications.

I, of course, do have a degree in English, and I’ve published almost sixty books in English and have received a great deal of critical praise for my use of English. But more apropos is the fact that two of my novels are cited in the Oxford Dictionary of Idiom as source texts for correct idiomatic usage and one of my books has been an A Level text in the past. Therefore, if I tell her that Trisdee’s criticisms of her incorrect translations are spot on, I really don’t think she can dismiss me in the same way.

For example, it was evident from her protestations about the word “booster” (“I’ll spell it any way I like”) that the problem is not how it is spelled in Thai but that she simply didn’t realize that it comes from the word “boost”, not the word “boots”.

In every case, her overblown rantings seemed to be about “How dare you have the chutzpah to attack a great one such as myself” and never about, “That might have been a mistake, I’ll take another look.”

Thailand is entering a period in which the use of English is going to become a major passport to advancement on a social, cultural and business level. Thailand’s decades of insularity are ending very quickly. This means that there are going to be a lot of “Emperor has no clothes”-type revelations, and — given the near godlike status afforded to those believed to be experts — a lot of those “experts” are going to be shaken to the core, especially by young people like Trisdee who actually do know a thing or two.

I think that no matter how old or experienced you think you are, it’s never too late to go back to school. I have learned a lot from all of my students, and others my age should do the same.



It’s been called the most influential work in the history of music. I would like to give you some of the reasons. The Siam Sinfonietta, our youth orchestra, is opening its Sixth Season with this symphony. I hope everyone who reads this will come. It’s a free concert, so you have nothing to lose.

There are many bigger works than the Eroica. Beethoven himself also wrote the monumental Ninth, and if you’re talking monumental there’s always Mahler 8. In an earlier era, the Bach B minor mass is iconic, too. But the Eroica draws a line in the sand not just for music, but for all western art.

Before the Eroica Symphony, artists were servants whose worked served to glorify a patron. It could be a King, a rich banker like the Medici family, or even God himself, but the point is that what artists did was attached to something, was an adjunct, a decoration. The Eroica Symphony does not revolve around its patron — or even around Napoleon, who originally inspired it. It is the first music to be an end in itself, the first work of art to herald a new kind of hierarchy in which the artist, not the lord of the manor, is at the center of the universe.

The first performance of the Eroica was in a nobleman’s house. Its audience was baffled and bewildered. Some said that a piece this long, this difficult, and this complicated couldn’t possibly really be music. The first movement alone was as long as many symphonies of its time, and it is relentless, battering the senses with wave upon wave of vehement passion. The second movement is a gutwrenching funeral march in which you can hear the germ of every funeral march in every Mahler symphony … and of Siegfried’s funeral march … and of every funeral march that had not yet been composed in 1804. The word scherzo means a joke, but the third movement isn’t that funny — it’s a careening roller coaster ride interrupted by a hunting scene. And the Finale — in those days a Finale was supposed to bring a symphony to a close with something light and frothy, but instead we have a huge set of variations that runs an entire gamut of emotion.

Teaching the Eroica Symphony to a bunch of 12-24 year olds has been a rollercoaster as well, especially here in Thailand where the stylistic techniques of the classical period are not often taught. We are getting there — this is the first concert of the season with many new faces in the orchestra, some of whom probably didn’t quite know what they were getting into when they signed up for this very intense ensemble. I hope you will hear a Beethoven you don’t hear too often in this country. We will see — there is still some rehearsal time left.

I’d like to close by pointing out the special relevance of this work to this exact and place. You see, culturally, we are at a similar point to where Beethoven stood in Europe in 1804. The arts in Thailand are emerging from a perception that they are decorative, that they exist to enhance the barami of a patron, that art is something that flows downward from a court or a cultural ministry — to a whole new way of looking at art — to the idea that art is supposed to say important things, to teach us who we are. In a sense, we are looking for our own Eroica Symphony, for a work that will definitively revolutionize our perception of what art is.

And so we come to the figure of Napoleon, who plays such an important role in this work. It is said that Beethoven was inspired by Napoleon, the heroic liberator, to compose this work, and that when he learned that Napoleon had crowned himself emperor, he tore up the dedication page, shouting “So he too is mortal after all.”

Haven’t many of us in Thailand recently had a similar experience? No, I am not really saying that Thaksin is Napoleon. Just pointing out that we’ve all felt what Beethoven felt, with one idolized person or another — someone we thought might save the universe turning out to be “mortal after all.”

It may just be that the Eroica Symphony is a more accurate mirror of our world here than of twenty-first century Europe.