Let’s revitalize Isaan Lao literacy through translations

When I last met my 78-year-old grandmother, she saw a copy of Sang Sinchai [Sinxay] I had with me, picked it up, and started reading.

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This 1992 edition of Sinxay by Jinda Duangjai simply transliterated the ancient handwritten text into Thai script and left the epic verse as it originally was, without line breaks and without explanatory footnotes.

“How’s the book? Is it hard to read?” I asked.

“No, I understand it,” she said, shaking her head like it was the most basic of books. To me, it was anything but basic.

In my grandmother’s generation, Sinxay and Pha-Daeng Nang-Ai had the same status as Aesop’s Fables, the well-known collection of folktales in the West. Yet in my generation, Sinxay and Pha-Daeng Nang-Ai are seldom read or performed, let alone mentioned in schools.

The person who gave me this book, 38-year-old Kalasin-born writer Vitayakorn Sowat, had received it from a temple while he was a novice monk. He told me how his late mother would read any Thai book out loud—in her native Lao tones. Anything, even a Thai reading textbook, would turn into Lao at the moment of reading. That was how her generation read.

As much as Lao is spoken today in Thailand—both in and beyond the Northeast—when it comes to reading books, bilingualism has virtually disappeared. A manner of reading that fully incorporates one’s native Lao has been lost. In the early twentieth century, the Siamese court banned Isaan Lao books and writing script, and enforced compulsory monolingual Thai education. All Buddhist monasteries, which were formerly responsible for preserving literature and promoting literacy, were put under tight Central Thai control. This left a legacy of loss that all people in the Northeast have inherited.

For this reason, I admire Khon Kaen University’s College of Local Administration initiative, funded by the European Union, to revitalize Isaan culture. With more than 11 million active speakers, Isaan Lao is as major as Haitian Creole—now an officially recognized national language of Haiti, after a long time of detrimental French-only schooling. In the same spirit, the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalization Programme (ICMRP) reintroduced “Isan language” complete with its Tai Noi script into school curricula in four Khon Kaen municipalities, hoping not only to revive literacy in the vernacular but also to improve the learning quality of primary school children. The four-year long program officially only just concluded last month.

Whither ICMRP? In a political climate where Isaan farmers are praised as na rak (‘lovely’) by the Prime Minister for their lack of protest over low rubber prices, I have little hope that this kind of explicitly regionalist program could be approved and implemented by the Thai state. Coupled with the fact that contemporary writers from Northeastern Thailand mainly use Thai script to write, the fight for a triumphant return of Tai Noi is an uphill battle indeed.

Yet, this is not a cause for surrender.

Today, with the expansion of social media like Facebook and Social Cam among younger generations of Northeasterners across class and location, the uses of vernacular Lao are widespread, from voices on video channels to posts, captions, and comments. These everyday online interactions give rise to a written language for Isaan Lao.

A poster for a Sinxay Animation developed by Paradon Samapetch, an MA Fine Arts student at Khon Kaen University.

A poster for a Sinxay Animation developed by Paradon Samapetch, an MA Fine Arts student at Khon Kaen University.

Yes, it is recorded in Thai script with no standard for spelling, yet when read aloud the sound of it still manages to vary according to each reader’s dialect. For example, if I comment “บ่เป็นหยัง” (bo pen nyang, ‘it’s not a problem’) under a Facebook post, both a reader from Ubon Ratchathani and a reader from Loei will recognize my comment as Lao, yet would pronounce its tones differently than my “Sisaket Lao.”

Our bilingual generation has come to treasure pasaa Isaan as a heritage, and our multilingualism has given rise to many inside jokes and puns that are far removed from the stigma of ignorance typically attached to non-Thai-speaking nationals. References to this stigma are commonplace in old stories about Isaan people; in his 1969 story “Dark Glasses [แขมคำ],” modern Northeastern Thai literary pioneer Khamsing Srinawk wrote of a woman who mistook the compliment koet ma suay from Thai-speaking city men to mean “born in the late morning.” Her husband later called her “stupid” for not knowing that suay means “beautiful.”

This generation’s spontaneous creation of a common written form for pasaa Isaan on the internet is, indifferent to the absence of an independent script and a standard orthography. Even Lao-speaking literary writers who celebrate their ethnicity still predominantly write in standard Thai, with occasional Isaan Lao sprinkled for “local color.”

So, moving forward, I propose an alternative strategy to ICMRP, a solution that bypasses the establishment of an independent, standardized orthography for Lao dialects on the Thai side of the Mekong River.

I propose that, firstly, Isaan literary classics be adapted into contemporary forms through accessible media for young generations to become familiar with on their own terms and time, outside of compulsory education. Secondly, I propose that the Isaan Lao language itself be revitalized by translations of world literature.

“Literature” today is included in the Thai language subject as evidence of national heritage. Primary and secondary school students encounter “literature” as an exercise in memorizing unfamiliar lexicon and learning what is the “correct” way to appreciate and interpret the nation’s canonical texts. Moments of pleasure and epiphany in reading are few and far between, contrary to how it should be.

Sinxay mural on the third floor of the 9-floor Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon in Khon Kaen City. This is mural number 109, well into the epic, which presents Sinxay and his half-brother Siho in the forest on a rescue mission.

Sinxay mural on the third floor of the 9-floor Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon in Khon Kaen City. This is mural number 109, well into the epic, which presents Sinxay and his half-brother Siho in the forest on a rescue mission.

The recreational potential of literature should inform our approach. Rather than focusing on schools as sites of education, let’s think about leisure activities. We can learn from my 10-year-old sister, who does not excel in school. She knows more Ramakian [Ramayana] characters and personalities than I do. In her free time, she likes to watch the well-done and fun Thai-language Ramayana animated series on YouTube. The series is funded by the food company Snack Jack—not the government.

Through more independent browsing, my sister has even become acquainted with an unconventional take on the epic, an anti-Rama rap song calling for oppressed ogres to defend their city Lanka from pillage. This song is created by independent artists Yaak Lab. If this is possible, why not a Lao-speaking animated Sinxay series crowdfunded by Isaan people?

Travel is also an opportunity for education. When my 10-year-old sister, my mother, and I travelled from our home in Sisaket to Khon Kaen City late last year, we visited Wat Pra That Nong Waeng and enjoyed trying to guess the meaning of each wordless khalam (cultural prohibition) mural, and then trying to piece together the story of Sinxay from all the paintings. While none of us were familiar with the plot, we walked all around the floor to trace the story, hooked on legendary creatures and Sinxay’s bow and conch. The experience made intra-Isaan tourism that much more educational.

Animated series, murals, and colorful editions of Sinxay are only one part of the strategy, the translation of the classical into the contemporary. The other, equally crucial, part—the translation of the foreign into the indigenous—starts with recognizing Isaan Lao to be a worthy vessel of world literature.

Standard Thai has, for long enough, been our vehicular language to connect with the world of letters. It is time that we Lao-speaking translators started seriously considering our indigenous vernacular as a target language for literary translation. How would Virgil’s fragile hero Aeneus fare in vernacular Lao alongside Sinxay? How would vernacular translations of the modern revival of Occitan literature from Southern France revitalize the imagination for a distinctly Northeastern Thai literature?

As the national center continues to neglect our literary heritage and our contemporary literary producers, it is time we bring the world of relevant literature directly into our regional language. This way, we will be able to summon Lao from Thai script—magically—like our grandparents’ generation. We do not need the Tai Noi script for that, or the government’s approval. We only need the work of imagination and the collective devotion to will it into being.

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Peera Songkünnatham

Peera Songkünnatham is a writer and translator based in Sisaket City, The Republic of Lao Lane Xang