The Cambodia Daily , Friday, January 13, 2006


Translating a Novel, Minister Turns a New Page

Friday, Jan 13, 2006   By Ethan Plaut
The Cambodia Daily    

James Clavell's novel "Shogun" is essentially a story of adaptation, which is also a recurring theme in the life of its unlikely translator: Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith.

A rough-hewn ship's captain trained in Western warfare crashes into Japan's shores and learns the way of the sword, becoming a samurai and embracing both the delicate exoticism and uncompromising, rigid formality he finds across the vast cultural divide.

And a man trained as a diplomat decides to go into journalism after the fall of the Khmer Rouge to bring truth to his people, falls from grace as a suspected dissident, then returns to the fold as the spokesman for a government criticized for alleged attacks on freedom of expression.

Laboring nights and weekends for more than a decade in between answering the daily deluge of reporters' questions, Khieu Kanharith has translated the epic work-which is historical fiction set in Japan-into Khmer for reasons both personal and political.

"Shogun," which was first published in 1975, partly focuses on a Westerner marooned in feudal Japan in the 17th century. But it is the converse relationship in the book, of Japanese factions choosing to eschew or embrace Western ways-particularly of warfare-that caught Khieu Kanharith's attention.

  "When you have a clash between civilizations, the one politician, analyst or leader who can combine the clash will survive," he said. "The tragedy of Cambodia is to put too much pride on the past, and that's why I say the Khmer hate the Thai and hate the Vietnamese: Because the Khmer consider that these two people destroyed the Khmer empire."

"But the Khmer never ask why," he added. "I say that this is the tragedy of Cambodia, that we never ask why."

His preface to the translation similarly laments Cambodians' long stare backward in time to Angkorian glory, which blinds them to their own nation's weaknesses and to other nations' strengths.

"The abilities to convert conflict into a driving force in accordance with the world's trends while keeping each nation's origins as priorities are important qualifications for national leaders, philosophers and intellectuals," Khieu Kanharith wrote.

But his attachment to the book is also deeply personal, from a time when he was a journalist and suspected dissident.

"I was trained as a diplomat in the same class as [Deputy Prime Minister] Sok An, but when they asked me in 1979...I had to choose between foreign affairs and the press," he said.

He chose the latter and became chief editor of Kampuchea newspaper "because during the Khmer Rouge it opened my eyes, you know, because the ignorance, the people were kept in the dark," he said. "If I wrote one article, 10 people support my article, they go convince another 20, I can contribute something."

A decade later in 1990, he lost his position and was taken in for questioning because of his friendship with Ung Phan-a political chameleon who stirred dissension in the Funcinpec party in 1997 before retiring to Svay Rieng province. A close ally of Hun Sen for much of the 1970s and 1980s, Ung Phan went to prison in 1990 along with six associates for allegedly attempting to start the Liberal Socialist Democratic Party.

"Some of my friends planned to have a political party," Khieu Kanharith said. "At that time...some people were arrested, and that's why, you know, you don't know when it will be your turn."     His turn did come and, unsure of how long he might be detained, he carried a copy of "Shogun" with him to read.

He was released after questioning, but the experience-and "Shogun"-marked Khieu Kanharith deeply, and he began translating the book that year.

"At the end of 1991, Hun Sen asked me to be his adviser," Khieu Kanharith said. "In 1992, he asked me to be spokesman."

In his position as spokesman, Khieu Kanharith often was so busy that he would go a week or more without returning to his translation. Still, by 2000 he had completed enough to publish some brief excerpts in Rasmei Kampuchea newspaper.

The full, 2,000-page version-of which he has so far only printed the first of three volumes-is essentially complete.

He spent a few thousand dollars of his own money to print 2,000 copies and plans to distribute them free to libraries and schools once all three volumes are printed, hopefully before Khmer New Year in April.

Because the publication is a not-for-profit venture, Khieu Kanharith said he was not terribly worried about receiving copyright permission to translate the work from English into Khmer.     James Clavell died in 1994. Khieu Kanharith said he would have asked permission when he began the project in 1990 if circumstances had been different.

"To be polite, you must ask [the author] or something. But as I told you, in 1990 it would have been very difficult to make contact with him," Khieu Kanharith said. "At that time maybe they [would have] accused me of dissidence."