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The Interpreter’s Journal: Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter

The Interpreter’s Journal: Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter

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The Interpreter’s Journal: Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter

241 pagine
6 ore
May 21, 2011


Sometimes a brilliant lawyer just isn’t enough...

Benjawan reveals the story of her experience as a professional Thai and Lao interpreter, graphically showing how she works in legal settings including courtrooms and jails. She demystifies the conflicts that many Thai-Western couples face after moving to the US. Find out what happens when individuals who don t speak the language end up in criminal, civil and family courts. But this story is also a personal one, relating the author's journey from humble beginnings in rural Thailand to become a professional interpreter in the San Francisco Bay area.

Read Benjawan’s true life stories about...

* Her childhood growing up in Thailand

* How she acquired her language skills

* Her path to becoming an interpreter

* Why Thai women are interested in marrying Westerners

* Thai-Western relationships after couples move to the US

* Differences in culture, language, value and personality

* Story of the author's personal Thai-Western relationships

* Her life and work in the US

* Lao and Thai people in the US

* How interpreters work in legal settings

* Difficulties and challenges interpreters face

* Studying foreign languages

* And a lot more

This book is an entertaining and informative read for legal professionals, those who work with interpreters, expats living in Thailand and Laos or anybody who simply enjoys a good read.

May 21, 2011

Informazioni sull'autore

Benjawan Poomsan Becker was born in Bangkok and spent her childhood in Yasothon, a small province in Northeast Thailand. Her family is ethnic Laotian, so she grew up speaking both Thai and Lao. She recevied a B.A. in English with first class honor from Khon Kaen University, Thailand. While obtaining her M.A. in Japan, she gained extensive experience teaching Thai to foreigners at the Japan Thailand Trade Association and the Berlitz Language School. In the United States, she taught Thai language at Stanford University, at several Thai temples, and in private classes. She operated a successful Thai and Lao translation business and is a registered Thai and Lao court interpreter in the state of California. She now resides in Berkeley, California where she continues to write and publish the leading learning books on the Thai and Lao languages.

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The Interpreter’s Journal - Benjawan Poomsan Becker




Benjawan Poomsan Becker

Copyright 2011 by Benjawan Poomsan Becker

Smashwords Edition

All rights reserved

Printed Version Published by Paiboon Publishing

1442A Walnut Street PMB 256

Berkeley, California 94709 USA

Tel: 1-510-848-7086

Fax: 1-866-800-1840

Edited by Rich Baker

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reprinted or reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, by any means mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without prior permission in writing from the publisher.

This book is not a substitute for advice from a knowledgeable lawyer, doctor, financial adviser, or other trained professional. Paiboon Publishing and its author accept no responsibility for any loss, injury, dispute, or inconvenience caused by using this book.

Cover photograph: Douglas E. Morton / Asia Pacific Media Services



Why The Interpreter’s Journal?

From The Author

How It Started (P)

Family Life In Thailand (P)

Life In The Village (P)

Mom’s Place (P)

Two Influential Americans (P)

Khon Kaen Via Kobe (P)

Going To America (P)

Going To Court (I)

Thai & Lao Language Services (I)

Thai And Lao People In America (S)

Understanding Cultures (S)

Thai-Western Relationships (S)

My Own Intercultural Relationships (P)

Family Matters (I)

Criminal and Civil Cases (I)

Immigration Matters (I)

Other Assignments (I)

Mistakes And Misinterpretations (I)

Giving Back (P)

Trips To Thailand (S)

Studying Foreign Languages (S)

What Happened Next (P)


About Benjawan’s Published Works

Key to Chapter Content

P Personal – Benjawan’s personal story

I Interpreting – How interpreters work

S Social – Thai-Western relationship stories,

Thailand, Thai and Lao people, languages


I am grateful to many people who have helped make this book possible. I would like to thank my mother, who helped refresh my memories of childhood and told me stories of when I was young. Special thanks to old friends Mike the Peace Corps volunteer and Jody Tomeny, the AFS exchange student from Louisiana, who confirmed that what I’ve written was consistent with what they remembered while they were living in Yasothon, my hometown. Thanks to my fellow interpreters in the San Francisco Bay Area who gave me encouragement to write and complete this book. Thanks to Catherine Wentworth at for all her helpful suggestions and to Hugh Leong for his insights on changes in Thailand. And last but not least, a grateful thanks to Rich Baker, my editor, for his hard work in making my writing smooth and clear.

Why The Interpreter’s Journal?

The Interpreter’s Journal is the first memoir by a professional interpreter, providing a revealing account of work carried out in legal settings including courtrooms and jails. The story is also a personal one, relating the author’s journey from humble beginnings in rural Thailand to become a professional interpreter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in Thailand, war in Iraq – all of these devastating events, and others, raise the need for interpreters. Immigrants to the United States, the FBI, Interpol, international aid workers, and travelers needing emergency surgery in Russia or Brazil – all require the services of a good interpreter.

Adoption agencies and parents wishing to adopt children from another country; architects and engineers involved in projects overseas; international banking and financial institutions; companies with foreign manufacturing plants or joint ventures with foreign partners; US military personnel serving abroad; travelers and long distance romantics – all may need the assistance of interpreters.

The responsibilities and importance of interpreters has increased so dramatically that they are now indispensable to many agencies and institutions such as law enforcement, judicial systems, social services, hospitals, and schools. Gone are the days when everyone around you spoke the same language.

Learn how interpreters work, the challenges they face and how to work with them by following the author’s very personal journey starting in the Land of Smiles. See how the influence of her family, Thai culture, Buddhism, meeting foreigners in Thailand, traveling abroad and living in the United States formed the catalyst for the author to master several languages, become a professional interpreter and write numerous books on learning the Thai and Lao languages.

This book is an entertaining and informative read for legal professionals, those who work with interpreters, expats living in Thailand and Laos or anybody who simply enjoys a good read.

Some people will be attracted to the personal experience of the author, the background information on Thailand and Thai and Lao people, while others will be drawn to the Thai-Western relationships descriptions. Still others will be engrossed by the author’s first hand accounts of working within the legal system in the United States and the practical and useful information she imparts.

The experiences of interpreters described in this book are applicable to any country where there are cultural or language differences and people need to make themselves understood.

From The Author

I have been interested in learning foreign languages since I was a teenager. I love words in all languages, and have written numerous books for English-speakers to learn the Thai and Lao languages. Besides being an author of language learning materials, I also work as a professional interpreter and translator. Many interesting incidents working in this field prompted me to write about my experiences.

One day while I was taking a walk in downtown San Francisco, I received an emergency call from an American friend who had recently married a Thai woman. They were in a local hospital with a doctor. His wife, who had just arrived in America, could not explain to the doctor what was wrong with her because she didn’t know the words that were crucial to describe her symptoms. She had bad pain in her stomach. My friend gave his cell phone to his wife so I could talk to her and then translate what she said to the doctor. Through her description with my translation, the doctor diagnosed a large cyst that had destroyed her ovarian tissue, making it necessary to remove the entire ovary.

A week later, I overheard a Thai and an American arguing about a business transaction. The Thai was angry because he thought that the American had said, You are dirty, when in fact the American had actually said, What you did was dirty.

There are 22 easy-to-read chapters in this book. Many can be read separately and out of order, depending on what you are interested in. However, it’s recommended that you read them in order, especially the first five or six chapters, to understand my background.

This book does not explain details of particular cases, or describe any cases that are pending. Some names and locations have been changed, and the content does not invade anyone’s privacy or violate any copyrighted materials. All names of individuals in this book have been changed to protect their identity and privacy, except those for which permission has been granted.

I hope you will find this book both entertaining and educational.


How It Started

You must be the girl that people told me about.

She was a beautiful young woman with black hair down to her waist. Her colorful sarong made her a striking sight in the plain surroundings of the restaurant.

I’m looking for someone to help me, she said. And they told me to come here.

She was in her early twenties, and since I was the younger one, I instinctively greeted her with a wai – hands pressed together, prayer-like – to show respect.

Her words carried a sense of need, and her eyes darted around to see if anyone was within earshot. I was told that you speak good English, she continued. And that you teach kids. I’ve got these letters from my German boyfriend. He’s been writing me in English. I kind of understand them, but I want you to translate them properly for me, and I want you to help me write him back in English.

Moments before, I’d been in the room above my mother’s simple restaurant in Yasothon, northeast Thailand, studying for my high-school exams, but unbeknown to me, this event would open a new world of opportunity. How could I have known – this small-town Thai girl of fifteen – that this day would be the beginning of my career as a professional interpreter, and that this chance meeting would, years later, lead me to the Federal and State courts of California?

I learned that her nickname was Oy, which means sugarcane, so I called her Pee Oy because she was older than me. In Thailand, where long first names and family names are the norm, almost everyone has a short nickname, often of only one syllable, and often with a colorful meaning. My formal name is Benjawan, meaning five colors, and my nickname is Ja-Ae, which means peek-a-boo – the same thing that people say to a baby to elicit a smile or a giggle. I was a rascal as a baby, so my parents decided that this name fit me perfectly. Thai society is highly stratified, and each person is regarded by his or her status, which is determined by factors like wealth, education, or family connections. The most obvious indicator is age; the older the person, the higher their status. The Thai word pee is used in front of a person’s name to politely address someone who is senior, to show that you respect that person like an older brother or sister. Oy, on the other hand, addressed me as Nong Ja-Ae, nong being the polite way to address a younger person.

Oy handed me three envelopes, each addressed in precise handwriting, and I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful foreign stamps. I opened each letter and read a paragraph at a time, then translated the meaning into Thai.

The letters were filled with sweet words and promises to take care of Oy. I was lucky because they were quite simple, so I didn’t have any problems with the words. But they seemed the most romantic words I’d ever read, and I must have blushed a bit. I explained softly so that nobody could overhear her story and start gossiping. But after the final letter, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and blurted out, Sounds like you’ll be going to Germany soon.

Oy looked around to see if anyone had heard. Yes, he wants me to go to live there. I think he wants to marry me. Can you help me write back? Okay?

I didn’t need to think for a second. Sure, I can do that.

As the delicious aromas of Thai cooking filled the air, she revealed to me her hopes, her joys, and her love for her German boyfriend. I took notes, then excused myself and scurried upstairs to find the special writing paper I’d been given as a New Year present. Only the best paper would do for this letter. Back downstairs, Oy sat in amazement as I composed her reply in English, then rewrote it in my finest penmanship.

After the letter was finished, Oy and I talked for a long time as customers came in, ate their meals, left and were replaced by others. She told me that she had met her boyfriend when she left her village to go to work in the beach resort of Pattaya. I’d heard about girls from the area going to Pattaya and getting jobs. Many of them sent money back to their parents, and it seemed like a good and honorable thing to do. I was still quite innocent at this age. I had no idea what kind of work Oy was doing in Pattaya, but I was sure that she had been lucky to meet and fall in love with such a nice man.

Her boyfriend eventually had to return to Germany, and had been sending her money so she could stay in her village and not have to work far from her home and family. I believed that he must be a wonderful person to send money and take care of Oy and her family – the kind of thing that earns much respect in Thailand.

Nobody understood English in Oy’s village. That’s why she had to ask around for someone who could help her. And this was the first time I realized that I could make merit – do a good deed and accumulate good karma – by helping someone through my language ability.

It also impressed me when Oy handed me 200 baht for the work. With the baht then at eighteen to the US dollar, my first translation job had earned me eleven dollars. It had only taken two hours, and at fifteen years old I had never earned so much money. Wow. A lot of people around there would have to work for days to earn that much. I started to get the idea that this might be a good career to pursue.

I used my newfound wealth to buy audiotapes and English-language books from ads in the English-language Student Weekly. I was inspired, and I set about my English studies more intensely.

Oy came back to see me one more time, about six weeks later, for another translation. It was during Songkran, in April – the traditional New Year water festival – and the hottest time of the year. I came home soaking wet from the water festivities in town, and saw her at one of the tables near the back of the restaurant. She was happy to see me, greeting me with a big smile, animated as she waved a new letter in the air. I ran upstairs and quickly changed into dry clothes. My mom had brought Oy some noodle soup, but she stopped eating as soon as I was ready for her. Yes, she had received a marriage proposal, and wanted to write back with her answer – an emphatic yes. She also wanted to make a note of her dowry requirements.

I never did see Oy again. I assumed she’d worked out all the details and was happily in the arms of her German husband. Not only did Oy provide me with my first translation assignment, she also gave me my first glimpse of a Thai-Western relationship. Before this, I’d never dreamed that a Thai girl could marry a Western man and live in another country.


Family Life In Thailand

Years had passed since I’d earned my first money by translating Oy’s love letters – by now I was a court interpreter in the US – and I was visiting Mom in Yasothon. I recalled that she had stored my old diaries for me. I’d written dutifully in my journal every day for three years straight as a teenager. This would be a nice trip down memory lane.

It was early May, and although it was still only mid-morning, the sun was beating down and the heat was stifling. Mom was in the kitchen cleaning vegetables when I hurried in and almost fell on the newly washed tile flooring.

Mom, where are those old books and photo albums I left with you when I went off to school?

She had to think for a while, then said, Oh, all that stuff’s in the storage shed out back. I haven’t looked in there for years. I don’t even remember what’s in there.

I dashed for the back door as Mom shouted, Watch out for snakes!

The commotion and the screen door banging shut caused Brownie, Mom’s chocolate-colored dog, to leap alongside me, yelping and barking, as I went towards the dilapidated wooden shed. The weeds were almost waist high and I was glad to let Brownie lead the way, figuring that any snakes would see him coming first. The shed was leaning to one side, and it was a struggle to open the door. The weeds made it difficult to pry the door wide, so Brownie and I slipped through the narrow crack I was able to get open. Excitement turned to disappointment as I gazed upon a shelf of boxes and papers that were barely recognizable. The termites had turned my precious memories into dust.

Returning to the kitchen, I told Mom the disappointing news. Oh, yes, the termites. Your sister stored her bed back there for a while, and one night she and her husband fell on the floor. The thing collapsed because the termites had eaten through the wood.

Mom, come sit with me for a while on the porch when you’re finished cooking. I want to ask you some questions.

Out on the porch, a breeze was starting to pick up, and we sat on the bench, like we had when I was a girl. Brownie curled up on the floor between us.

I had always wondered where my love of languages came from, but memories of early childhood were too vague. I was hoping my diaries would have provided some clues. Now I wanted Mom to fill in some gaps that the termites had eaten.

Dad had been proficient in English, and I assumed that’s why I became interested too. But how had he learned to speak English so well, and with such a beautiful British accent?

I asked Mom about Dad’s work in Bangkok when I was young. A smile came to her lips as she stared out into the rice fields.

"You know, both your dad and I grew up right here in Yasothon. After our wedding, we moved to Bangkok to start a new life. I was only twenty, and Dad was 22. We were so young, we didn’t know much about anything, and the times were much different. I’d never even seen Bangkok. It was really beautiful back then. People used the old klongs and went by boat or walked. I hardly recall any cars or buses, and only a few tuk-tuks. We had friends in our neighborhood. And many hospitals. You were born in a Bangkok hospital – not at home with a midwife.

"Dad was lucky to get a job as a flight planner with BOAC, which later became British Airways. There were no computers to figure out flight scheduling. It was a complicated process that had to be done manually. Your dad was very good at it, but I think he got hired because he could speak English and communicate with the British bosses.

Your dad had been in the army before we were married, and he learned English there. He enjoyed it so much, he carried on studying on his own. After a while, it was hard to find anybody who spoke English as well as he did. After serving his two years in the army, he applied for the job at BOAC.

I remembered seeing some black and white photos of my dad at Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster. At some point didn’t he go to England for a while? I asked.

Yes, he won a scholarship from the airline to study in London for six months. Everyone in Yasothon knew he was going. Only royalty or wealthy families went to study outside of Thailand. Nobody from Yasothon ever had the chance to do that.

These were new images. I was seeing my dad in a new light. But it sounds like you were having a good life in Bangkok. Why did you and dad up and move back to Yasothon?

Mom was quick to answer: "I didn’t want to move back at all. Life was hard here, and I liked living in Bangkok. I didn’t want to go back to country life, but your dad was getting restless after sixteen years at the airline. He and some colleagues were sent to Hong Kong as part of their training, and they took your dad and his pals to see a farm where the people were growing vegetables, raising animals, and living a self-sufficient lifestyle. He was becoming despondent with his work, and this looked like a good idea for a life change to him. He wanted to be his own boss, without any supervisors. He fell in love with the idea, and

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