Try It Yourself: Thai Poems of Transformation

This essay was adapted from a presentation given at the 4th Annual Midyear Conference for Fulbright Students and Scholars in Southeast Asia; March 2012 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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I want to introduce a type of poem from Thailand’s classical theater, give an example of one in translation, and then encourage the other writers and poets here to see what they can do with it.

First of all, Thai classical theater is, like ballet, a dance-drama; for the most part, performers do not speak (in some forms of such theater, most are even masked), but rather enact myths and courtly romances through an intricate language of mime and gesture. The chui chai or transformation song is a set piece in these dramas, a demanding solo performance in which the actor portrays a character who has just changed his or her physical appearance, either cosmetically—into a superlative form of him or herself—or magically, into another figure altogether. The piece comes in two movements, first slow and then fast, and the accompanying lyrics, sung by a chorus offstage, describe the successful metamorphosis. 

My favorite chui chai comes from the Ramakien, the Thai adaptation of the Ramayana, that 2,500-year old bull elephant of South and Southeast Asian literature. In one of the Ramakien‘s most popular episodes,  the young Benyakai—her name suggests “of five forms”—is ordered by her uncle, the ten-headed ogre king, to assume the form of Sita, the most beautiful woman in the world. The uncle has abducted Sita from her rightful husband, the hero Rama, who is even then preparing an army to win her return. Benyakai, in the form of Sita, is to be found floating on the river that waters Rama’s camp, apparently dead, and thus fool Rama into quitting the siege.

The translator of a chui chai must solve several problems, not least of all how to start. Each transformation song begins with the words “chui chai,” which mean nothing on their own but serve only to announce that a chui chai is about to take place. Benyakai’s chui chai then goes on to make a declarative statement: “To go into audience with the King, you krid krai” (krid means “to cut” and refers to a graceful movement of the arm in which the hand is flat, fingers bent towards the wrist, and thus seems to “cut” the air. ) I was stumped how to render this until I decided to turn “Chui chai!” into a vocative—Oh, you who have transformed yourself—and the next line into a question. This was not a terrible stretch of my source material, for one of the most interesting features of the chui chai is that it allows the chorus, who otherwise have no part in the action of the drama, to directly address the character onstage, like a Greek chorus.  In this way, transformation songs are very conscious of their own artificiality; a performer has assumed a persona that is assuming a third persona, and everyone is in on the illusion.

From there, after allowing myself the use of rhyme and meter to suggest a songlike quality (even though I knew I was transforming a text meant to be performed into one that would be primarily read) and a touch of archaic language to lend the right mood to the piece, the chui chai of Benyakai almost translated itself:

Thus transfigured, where are you going?
To seek the king.—Your each movement flowing,
you have so disguised your body
that you’ve become, for all the world,
like Lady Sita, the great beauty.
If Prince Rama sees you, this form taking,
you will wring his heart into breaking.

Such loveliness is yours, such grace,
whoever sees the beauty of your face
will dream it sleeping, and desire awake
to glimpse it again (his longing to slake!):
keen as an arrowhead against the skin
that grazes without, then pierces within
to make the whole chest ache.

Splendid lady, born of royalty:
how you have transformed your body
into the splendid Lady Sita!
If you the ten-faced king espies
a frenzy in his heart will rise
until he pining for you lies,
oh, splendid lady.

 

[This and the following stanza are set to a melody called “splendid lady,” and the lyrics thus address her as such or a variation thereof. This is true in all chui chai where the transforming character is female; when the character is male, he is inevitably on his way to court a splendid lady. Notice, too, that the two latter stanzas are shorter-lined than the first; this is also a feature of the Thai.]

 

Maiden, oh maiden tender,
your waist, your legs, your arms as slender
as an angel’s in their grace.
So lithe of limb within
a figure not your own
to the jeweled palace you pace
and your uncle’s throne.

 

Unfortunately, this and other chui chai must be accompanied with rather copious contextual notes when introduced to an audience unfamiliar with the characters and stories they originate from. I don’t suppose I’ll ever publish the “Chui Chai of Benyakai” in any medium on its own; it will have to be contained in an essay of some sort.

However, transformation is part and parcel of fabulous tales from around the world; Thailand by no means has monopoly over them. Can you imagine the chui chai of Snow White’s stepmother into an old hag peddling apples? Or of Cinderella as she leaves her sooty fireplace for the ball? (This fairy tale, I’m glad to report, has been adapted into a bawdy, all-male dance-drama by some students at Thailand’s College of Dramatic Arts—complete with glass slippers.) Or of the little mermaid into a human girl who, we recall, not only has her tongue cut out, but feels as if each step she takes is on a knifesblade? Thai chui chai are almost one-dimensional in their praise of beautiful transformations, but there is no reason that an adapted chui chai cannot be dark, even subversive. And how about the chui chai of Daphne into a laurel tree? Transformations into inanimate objects have never before been treated in Thai theater. Or Rosalind into Ganymede? Hera, when she borrows Aphrodite’s girdle to seduce Zeus? Jekyll into Hyde? Frankenstein’s monster out of miscellaneous body parts?

And there is no reason that, taken out of the Thai language, an English chui chai has to follow Thai metrical conventions, since it won’t be set to music anyway (or will it?). How about a chui chai in free verse? As a sonnet? A villanelle? The possibilities are endless.

For me, the chui chai of Benyakai will remain a favorite, mostly because in her story I find a most compelling metaphor for the act of poetic translation. Benyakai is tasked with turning herself into the mirror image of Sita, whose beauty, like Helen’s, ignited a war. How does one body, one text, rise to reflect the proportions, the contours, and the nuances, of another? How does it stretch, compress, contort itself into another living body? Chui chai! The translator of poetry deserves a transformation song, too.

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Noh's Pic

Noh Anothai was a researcher with the Thailand-United States Education Foundation from 2011-12, during which he hosted cultural events for Thailand’s Ministry of Culture and College of Dramatic Arts. The winner of Lunch Ticket’s inaugural Gabo Prize for Translation and Multilingual Texts in 2014, Noh has work published or forthcoming in Structo, Pilgrimage, RHINO, Unsplendid, and others. He’d love to see your chui chai poems at akaewkaen@gmail.com.

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