Woeful Transliteration #3

24 August 2014, TV = 843.8 hours

clinic sign in silom area, bangkok

Not what you might be thinking….

I see a lot of this in Bangkok — it’s all over the place.

In particular, it seems like every other beauty/cosmetics/dermatology/plastic surgery clinic has พร1 in its name. Also, a lot of Thai names include พร in them. I’ve heard the word used as a salutation by Buddhist monks to lay people — the only occasions I can recall actually hearing it.

This particular transliteration, which is very common, is unfortunate not only because of the association it sparks for English speakers, but also because there’s a better transliteration — again assuming you’re aiming at an English speaking audience.2

Look at the word ละคร. I write about it often on this blog, transliterating it as “lakorn” because that’s what everybody else does. But to me, the second syllable of ละคร actually sounds a lot more like the first syllable of English “awning” than it does like the word “corn”.

So I think “lakawn” would be a better transliteration, as it gets closer to the actual Thai sound than does “lakorn”. But convention and usage win out: everybody else uses “lakorn”, so I do to.

Anyway, in my opinion พร would be better transliterated as “pawn” than “porn” — closer to the actual sound, and you’d avoid all the baggage that “porn” brings with it.

Though maybe that would leave some people confused over the peculiar nature of Thai pawnshops.

* * *


1. If you’re not used to Thai writing and the variety of fonts, you may be wondering why you can’t find พร in the sign pictured; it’s actually the first two blue letters in the Thai text at the top, looking like WS. There’s a certain type of Thai font that’s not only adopted the streamlined look of the Western Roman alphabet, but has also reshaped a few characters so they actually kind of look like Western letters. In this case ร has transmogrified into something looking more like the letter S. I had some observations on Thai fonts in Buses, Trains, Signs and Reading.

2. And why should the Thais be so concerned with the reactions of English speakers? People come to Thailand from all over the world speaking all different types of languages, but even if we only consider those languages that use the Roman alphabet for writing, why should the sensibilities of English speakers take priority? And if every single “English language blooper” transliteration were systematically expunged, what should then be done about transliterations that form howlers for speakers of other languages.*

Well, maybe English-speaking sensibilities shouldn’t be prized. It’s kind of academic, because I doubt anything’s going to change anyway. (And wouldn’t it actually be a loss not to have the likes of Ms. Puke, Ms. Poo, and the ubiquitous “Porn Clinics”?) In any event, I’m definitely not issuing any kind of manifesto here for the reformation of transliteration in Thailand.

But do consider that, so far as I know, English is the only Western (and maybe the only foreign?) language that’s taught to all Thai schoolchildren. It’s also pretty much the de facto lingua franca for Thais dealing with Westerners — if you look white/European, they’ll assume that you speak English. I’m petty sure that far more Thais can use English than can use any other Western language. I don’t know about other Asians like the Chinese or Japanese, but if you’re Western/European and come to Thailand, unless you’ve got a tour guide or translator to mediate for you, you’ll need to speak at least some English to get by — unless you want to wing it with crosstalk-style non-verbal communication….

I guess my point is that it seems like the expectation has already been set that non-Thai communication be in English (at least for Westerners — again, I’m curious how this works out for, say,  people from other parts of Asia); so maybe it’s not unreasonable to look at Thai transliterations from an anglo standpoint?

*Something I can only speculate about since Thai’s my only foreign language (I think my French has gotten a little too rusty to count). If you’ve noticed Thai transliterations that sound…well, funny in another language, leave a comment — I’d love to hear about it! Or, let’s open things up a bit: I’d be interested in examples of transliteration misfires no matter what the languages involved — so if you’ve got the goods,  please feel free to share!

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