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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 90-91

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I Hate the Word and the Letter [Ta]

Translation from Khmer to French by Christophe Macquet and from French to English by Daniela Hurezanu and Stephen Kessler

Translator's Note

Khun Srun continues to be one of the authors most widely read and appreciated by Cambodian students of literature. The following story is an example of his innovations with form and style. It plays upon the idea—as old as Plato and as current as the French Structuralists—that there is, or should be, a correspondence between a word and the thing it names; even phonemes and the graphic shapes of letters might be parsed to reveal secret meanings inherent in words. In the Khmer language, [ta]—along with the other consonants named in this story—may be words as well as letters; the graphic signs for each consonant in Khmer always contain an implied vowel, so a monosyllabic word can be written using a single letter. For example, is ta, is pho, is ko, and is ka.

The word [ta] means something like "to continue," and Khun Srun suggests that the shape of the letter mirrors this meaning by coiling back on itself. Similar in appearance, the letter [pho] is a complete homophone and partial homograph of the word phor, which means "to lie or deceive." The story's narrator asserts that their similarity in appearance indicates a connection in meaning. The letter [ko] is a complete homophone and homograph of the word ko, which means "mute." By indicting these common words and letters, the narrator criticizes a society that postpones, falsifies, and, ultimately, muzzles freedom. In contrast, the letter [ka] is graphically simple and therefore not implicated in the corrupt schemes of the others. Khun Srun asserts that the letter —the first of the Khmer language's thirty-three consonants and the first of its four velar occlusives—is virtuous and a model for a more admirable society.—C.M.

I like hearing radio shows broadcast live from Veal Men, the sacred plaza north of the palace. I like chapey concerts, Khmer operas, all these beautiful melodies and beautiful stories. But what I can't stand is hearing this statement: We are now ending our show. Catch us next [] on this day, at this hour...Sometimes the concerts were so beautiful, so melodic, so pleasing to the ear that I would begin to mumble in my corner, "What do I care about their nine-o'clock news? They could at least wait for the end of the show or make this dumb announcement beforehand."

Same thing with novels: the series that are continued [] in newspapers from one issue to the next get on my nerves. Same at the theater: I hate operas that go on [] night after night. [End Page 90]

By the same token, if I prevent my parents, my loved ones, my uncles, and my aunts from tearing each other to pieces in court over some inheritance of four, ten, or twenty square meters of land, it's not because I hate the words misappropriation or bribe or the expression "to lose one's shirt in a lawsuit." No. It's only because legal affairs drag on in endless cycles []: a single court costs you I don't know how many citations and successive [] hearings, and when you're done with one, another follows [].

Am I so different from everyone else? Whatever the problem, whether it concerns me or not, as soon as I hear the words We can't do it today, it's impossible, it's not the time yet, it's not done yet, wait a minute, hold on, come back at this hour, come back at that hour, wait till tomorrow, come back on this day, come back on that day, come back another time, and so on and so forth, my heart starts to race and my throat tightens. Sometimes I even suffer when a friend's business should, in my opinion, be resolved...


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