“My body is not easy,” a young Cambodian woman writes on her Facebook’s “Update Status.”
While a Khmer speaker would understand her literal translation of “kyoum min srol kloun” to mean “I don’t feel well,” an English speaker would scratch his head and wonder, “is she off her rocker?” Translating that literally, in Khmer, and it sounds just as strange. That’s the thing: literal interpretations of expressions do not translate from one language to another, and some expressions often have nothing to do with their literal meaning. It should be obvious, but not all people possess this common sense.
Case in point, a Cambodian man sitting in a delivery waiting room tells an English-speaking person that his wife is “crossing the river,” “chlong tonle.” Without any river or boat around, can the English-speaking person surmise that the Cambodian man’s wife is giving birth?
Similarly, a nurse interprets to her Khmer elderly patient that she has “kanlat” in her stomach. The patient freaks out as she cannot imagine how a cockroach has crawled and lived inside her. She feels mortified at the thought of it laying its eggs and hatching inside her. A bug, a virus or a germ can be easily translated into Khmer as “me rok.”
One would expect Ms. Mu Sochua—“Cambodia’s Democratic Warrior”—to have the gift of the gab, and understand a simple Khmer phrase. Unfortunately, she interprets “cheung klang” to mean “strong legs.” As Dustin Roasa of the New Republic asserts, it is a “colloquialism for a prostitute.” Sure, when translated literally, “strong legs” conjures up an image of a naked Samantha Jones, a character from the show Sex and the City, wrapping her legs around one of her many lovers. But in Khmer, “cheung klang” does not mean strong legs. Instead, “cheung klang” is an informal way of saying someone is brave, well known, or famously or infamously known for something.
Cambodians are not the only ones who are guilty of failing to recognize the nuances and historical backgrounds of epithets, expressions, and idioms. Some English-speaking researchers, writers and journalists are careless, too. It is quite possible they rely heavily or wholeheartedly on their interpreters.
In “Cambodia’s Curse,” author Joel Brinkley paints a dark, sinister, and pessimistic picture of Cambodia, its people, and its government. Put simply, he tells his readers to not give a flying monkey about Cambodia. Not only does the book contain biased and cynical views; it also contains incorrect translations as well. One of those translation mistakes includes the following jab at the Cambodian government:
The only other interaction families had with the government came when an official showed up to collect “taxes”—10 percent of each harvest. It’s no wonder that the Khmer verb to govern literally means “to eat the kingdom.”
In no way does the Khmer word for “to govern” mean “to eat the kingdom.” Mr. Brinkley most likely confuses the actual Khmer word for “to govern,” i.e., “krorng reach,” “kroup-krorng” or “doeuk-nuom,” with the word “soy-reach,” which is “to receive the reign.” Soy is “to receive.” It depends on the noun it is associated with: i.e., to receive the crown, to receive the title, to receive wealth, to receive food, etc. For sure, “soy-reach” does not mean “to eat the kingdom” and obviously, it is used in reference to monarchy.
Not to be outdone, a “Science Desk Intern” at NPR, Maanvi Singh, theorizes that “Cambodians Never Get ‘Depressed,’” because they have no word to describe “depressed.” She considers “thelea tdeuk cheut” and “khyal attacks” as alternatives and provides that “thelea teurk chett” means “the water in my heart has fallen” and that “khyal chab” means “wind attacks.” However, the former actually means disappointment and the latter means dizziness. The Khmer equivalent to the English words depressed or depression is “thukh kruam krea knong chett” or “chambaeng chett.”
Finally, as reported in the Phnom Penh Post in an article by Louisa Wright, entitled, “Finding the right words to translate trauma,” a new project to create an English-Khmer psychosocial dictionary is in the works. Hurray! But, then this sentence appears in her article: “Sometimes when Cambodians are unable to express themselves, they might say they are dam-douem-kor (planting a kapok tree).” Again, this is not how the phrase is used. If her samples throughout the piece are any indication, the dictionary project does not sound promising.
Obviously, expressions and words often cannot be translated literally to another language; therefore, Khmer speakers should be careful and English writers should hire interpreters who have strong grasps on both Khmer and English languages.