By Andrew Biggs
I once had a student who was preparing for a trip to Australia.
He was a 30-year-old engineer from Chiang Mai who’d won a three-month scholarship to Melbourne. His English wasn’t great but he was a fast learner and diligent. Anyway, it wasn’t his English that bothered me.
It was the way he spelt his name: Turdsack.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t immediately jump up and slap my knee and look to the heavens as I guffaw over a name worthy of an Asian bus conductor out of a Carry On movie.
Actually I am perfectly at home with a name like Turdsack; the last syllable rhymes with “truck” anyway, and both syllables are stand-alone Thai words with magnificent, almost elegant meanings.
The problem was he was on his way to Australia.
As a native of that country it was my civic duty to inform him such a spelling of his elegant name might render otherwise civil Australians speechless or, at worst, stifling giggles at his first Melbourne function.
“Do you, er, have any other names you go by?” I asked bespectacled Khun Turdsack as he sat opposite.
(This is not such a ridiculous question in this country. My artist is known as Banjerd to his family, Vichien to his work colleages, and Black Ant to his mates. I suspect his plethora of names has more to do with dodging loan sharks than auspicious sounding names, however.)
He didn’t. His name was Turdsack and his nickname was Sack. Neither was going to bode well in Melbourne.
“Look, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to be frank with you,” I said. “You have to change the spelling of your name.”
“Why, Ajarn Andrew?” young Turdsack enquired, leaning forward, and I told him in no uncertain terms.
At first he tried to remain calm but soon his eyes widened. “A sack is a big bag?” he asked. “And a turd is …?”
“Yes,” I said, adding that colloquially it also meant a nasty person.
I blame Thai linguists, who have decided that a transliterated “a” sounds like the “u” in “truck”, hardly a common way to pronounce it in English.
That aside, the trouble is that Turdsack sounds really nice in Thai. “Turd”, for example, means respect for somebody, while “sack” is power or ability.
One of the joys of learning a language thoroughly is that after a while you begin to hear the nuances; the beauty of words as they tumble out of your mouth.
No better example of this is “Porn”, the popular woman’s name.
There is a richness, a beauty about this word in Thai, and so it should since the word itself means “blessing” or “benediction.”
Tragically we in the West associate those four letters with something on the other side of the linguistic playing field far detached from richness and beauty (unless you find Hustler Magazine a blessing … tell me you don’t).
Every night the sounds of thundering male laughter echo across Patpong as foreign guys learn their new friend’s name is “Porn” or some derivative such as “Porntip” or “Somporn.” Hilarious.
It’s a travesty, I know, that one of the Thai language’s most beautiful words ends up trashy in English.
In my first month in Thailand I stayed for a few nights at “Porn House” in Chiang Rai. Much to my surprise there were no neon flashing lights, windowless walls or Gideon Bibles as you find in more seedy establishments.
It was guest house run by a friendly 30-something teacher named Porn.
On the second day I was there I made a really stupid comment, as Miss Porn was making me a cup of coffee and Vegemite on toast.
“Do you know what your name means in English?” I asked.
The change in Porn’s face was clear. From a sunny morning disposition she juxtaposed into dull resignation, albeit quickly, until she forced herself back into sunny disposition. The only thing missing was her rolling her eyes.
“It means something bad,” she muttered. “Would you like one toast or two?”
At the time I thought she’d been offended by my mentioning a rude word in English, but no, of course not. What really happened was a brief disclosure of her tedium at hearing Farang #5,987 enquiring about her name, and all the titillation that accompanied the enquiry. I wasn’t any different from the rest of them after all, she was no doubt thinking.
Once again the official linguists are at fault.
More than a hundred years ago they decided that a “P” sound in Thai should be rendered as “PH”. We have Russian tourists right now referring to Phuket as “Fooket”, or the already-unpronounceable Ko Phang-ngan as “Ko Fang-nygngygngan”. At least that’s how it sounds to me.
And yet … the one Thai transliteration that SHOULD be spelt with the silly PH rule ends up as Porn. Why isn’t it Phorn, or, even more distantly, Phon? We in the know could still pronounce it correctly, but at least it would wipe the smile off the drunken faces of Nana Plaza sex tourists.
More than a few Thai women bearing this name have sent me emails about this as they travel overseas. Should we write it a different way?
I am torn between two camps. Why attempt to alter something that is so majestic in its mother language?
At the same time, Thai women already undergo brutal treatment at the hands of foreign customs officers, not to mention the pervading overseas reputation of Bangkok as a sex capital. Isn’t having a name like Porn just going to exacerbate things?
I wish the Porn question was more cut and dried, such as my friend Go who spelt his last name in English as Cun-ta-vichai. The two hyphens I put in myself. He dispensed with them, and the result was more than I could remain silent on.
“But it’s spelt like that on my passport!” he protested.
“Change your passport,” I said.
Such are the landmines embedded in our travel across languages, and by the way it is a two-way street. Simple English words we use on an hourly bases (here, he, yet) have vulgar meanings in Thai if spoken with the right — or wrong — intonation.
If your name is John, it means “poor” in Thai. Bob is a scary Thai ghost with a pinprick for a mouth. Tom is a lesbian. Tim means “thrust” or “poke,” while Mark is betelnut.
My own name sounds a little like the Thai word for “cute”, which is all well and good and breaks the ice at parties. But if you switch the syllables around, as Thais like to do for fun, it means: “Show us your … private parts.” Of all the nerve! I’m changing my name to Turdsack!
Speaking of my bespectacled student, the story has a great ending.
Young Turdsack returned for his next English lesson having done all his homework. At the end of his lesson he said to me:
“I took your advice.” About what? Nobody ever takes my advice!
“My name. I changed the way I spell it,” he said.
And he brought out his notebook. On the cover he’d crossed out “Turdsack”.
In its place?