The Translation Subroutine

August 2, 2013 – Day 002

Before moving to Peru, I had an advantage because I knew a smattering of Spanish. This basic understanding of the Spanish language allowed me to understand street signs, give basic greetings and farewells to people I met on the street, ask where the bathroom was, and inquire as to where the avocados could be located.

All was not sunshine and mermaids with my grasp of Spanish. I wrote earlier about what I called my translation engine. In that post, I described how my brain worked as I had a conversation with someone. I would hear the sentence in Spanish and then a small program would execute in my mind (please excuse the software metaphor…I used to be employed in the world of information technology and those metaphors are what I am used to) as the foreign words would be translated into English…a langauge I do understand. Slipping my gears in reverse, I could convey my English thoughts into Spanish words.

In a subsequent rambling, I used the phrase “wheels within wheels” to describe the mental gymnastics I had to undergo when I heard Portuguese spoken or saw it written.

Here in Thailand, I have now had to create a third layer – or subroutine – on how to understand the Thai language. My first roadblock with Thai is the alphabet…and if the basic letters of a language tie you in knots, then you know you are destined for headaches. The Thai alphabet (so sayeth Wikipedia) has 44 consonants and fifteen vowel symbols that can be combined to create 28 vowel forms. To me, the letters of the Thai alphabet look to my Western eyes to be squiggles (and yes, I am sure those here in Thailand would say the same of our Roman alphabetic characters). Below is but one example of the Thai script…

Read from left to right

Read from left to right

At the moment, and I highly doubt this will change, I have no hope of reading Thai. However, with some assistance, I hope I will be able to speak it. At the moment, I can say two words in Thai – “hello” and “thank you”. It has taken me over a week to (somewhat) master even those two words.

This is what “hello” looks like…สวัสดี

I have a English-Thai phrasebook that says that pronunciation of this word is “sa-wut dee”, with an accent over the “u”. Since the Thai script means nothing to me, the first routine of my inner translation program is to constantly repeat the “sa-wut dee” until it makes sense to me. Because the sound of “sa-wut dee” has no connection to “hello” for me, I have had to make one up. Crude (or silly) as it sounds, I have created a mental image in my head to help me remember that “sa-wut dee” means “hello”.

The first two syllables, “sa-wut”, remind me of the first two syallables of the word “swami”, so I imagine a swami hat, like the type that Carnac the Magnificent used to wear. Then, because the last syllable is a “dee”, like the letter “D”, I imagine the fourth letter of the Roman alphabet wearing a swami hat. Crude, but effective.

SIDE NOTE: My favorite Carnac prediction is “Ba Ba Boom”. Carnac opens the envelope and reads, “What is the sound of an exploding sheep?”

All that is just the half of Thai because this language has what are called “polite particles”. Depending on one’s gender, a person says “hello” by saying, “sa-wut dee krab” (for men) and “sa-wut dee ka” (for women). This has led a neighbor to inform me that they remember how to say “hello” by thinking of a sweaty crab.

To a script I can’t understand to grammar rules I can only fathom to letters with pronunciations I have never heard, I will need a serious upgrade to my translation software if I am to thrive in the Land of Smiles.

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One thought on “The Translation Subroutine

  1. Pingback: The Lay of the (Thai)Land | 963 Thai Days

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