Imagined Communication

The seminal Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson is one of those works which joins up dots you had never before thought were even on the same page.  And hence the insights.  It appears on graduate reading lists for all manner of degrees.

But it is a dense text.  And should a successful product of the Thai education system, a student accepted for a graduate programme overseas, be asked to read it, the result is unlikely to be satisfactory.  Thai students don’t do dense texts.

Their schooling has given them eff all by way of general background knowledge, and the anti-intellectualism of Thai society in general will not have encouraged them to find out more on their own.

They have been trained to think in terms of one right answer for every question, so once you (think you) know X, the possibility that Y might also be true doesn’t cross your mind.  Acceptance of uncertainty, or the ability to entertain multiple conflicting interpretations pending further evidence, is to them just a form of ignorance.  If you know something, or even better, if says so in a book, then you can plough on in reckless certitude.

Let us take as example just one sentence from Imagined Communities to show what goes wrong:

Yet even in the age of Pope and Addison, Anne Stuart was still healing the sick by the laying on of royal hands, cures committed also by the Bourbons, Louis XV and XVI, in Enlightened France till the end of the ancien régime.

When a Thai student sees ‘Pope’, they think of that feller in Rome in the skirt.  That’s a Fact.  So we’re talking about religion.  So who is Addison?  Well, obviously some other high-up religious person that they’ve never heard of.  Quite naturally, since, apart from Christmas consumerism, knowledge of religions other than Buddhism is regarded among Thais as rather unpatriotic.

The exceptionally curious Thai student might instead Google ‘Addison’.  One did and came up with Addison’s Disease, the symptoms of which include abdominal pain, weakness, and weight loss.  And for the Thai student, add dizziness and mental confusion.

‘Anne Stuart’ is recognizable as a female name, like Martha Stewart (minor differences in spelling are beneath the radar of many Thai students), but not recognizably royal.  The idea of royals having second names has probably never occurred to many Thai students, whose experience with the Thai monarchy makes them assume that you could never ever refer to a royal without a ‘King’ or ‘Queen’ and a ‘His/Her Maj’.  No such honorific, no royal.

By the time we’re at ‘the laying on of royal hands’, the average Thai student is beginning to lose the plot.  Royals don’t go round fondling people, and in any case where in the text is this royal with the hands?

And so it goes.  Bourbons are biscuits; Enlightened (if you interpret the capital letter, as many Thais will, as showing that the word is Important) must be something to do with nirvana; and ancien régime is simply not fair because it’s not even English (but expected to be within the competence of average educated English reader who doesn’t speak French).

By my reckoning, a Thai student successful enough to get a first degree here and be accepted for a masters overseas will need 7 sessions on the internet to disentangle this sentence.  Say 15 minutes for the one sentence.  So a page an hour, if they’re lucky.  At 40 hours a week, it would take them almost 6 weeks to read this one book.

That’s not graduate school, that’s remedial reading.

But, say the better-informed of my readers, there’s a crib.  Among other things, Anderson was a Thai scholar and advised a committee of respected academics on a Thai translation of his book.

The problem sentence comes in a chapter that was translated by Dr Vira Somboon of Chulalongkorn University.  Let me give you a ‘back translation’ of his Thai version in English:

Yet even in the age of the great poet named Alexander Pope and Joseph Addison the newspaper editor, famous individuals of the new era, Queen Anne Stuart of England was still performing the tradition of healing the sick by using her hands to touch them, and this was the same method which the Bourbon dynasty with Their Majesties Louis XV and XVI also still used in France even in the age of the Enlightenment till the end of the monarchical system of government.

This makes the text infinitely more accessible to Thai students and obviously not just because it’s in their language.  But one hesitates to call it a translation.

43 words have now become 83.  Almost half the ‘translation’ is additional background information and explanation that Dr Vira, quite rightly I my humble opinion, judges to be necessary for the Thai-educated reader to make sense of the text.

One of the common criticisms of the early years of the Thai education system is that it contains too much ‘spoon-feeding’, turning everything into easily digested pabulum instead of encouraging students to learn intellectual chewing.

And even at the graduate level, it seems.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).