Skip to content

Mooching Around Laos

March 22, 2011

Colin Cotterill: Thirty-Three Teeth

What creature is mauling the women that end up in Dr Siri’s morgue? What terror prompted a man to jump from the top floor of the Ministry of Culture, landing on a passing cyclist? Who sabotaged the plan to smuggle out the deposed king? How will the Communist Government make the spirits obey Party orders? And who murdered Saloop, Dr Siri’s dog?

The second book in Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri series is just as much fun as the first. (See my review of The Coroner’s Lunch here.) There’s more of the supernatural in this book, based on shamanism and Lao beliefs in spirits, but the ultimate explanations of the mysterious deaths are always grounded in the material world.

I did feel that the prose was not quite as vibrant as that of the first book, and I wondered if the New York publisher had influenced Cotterill to orientate the writing more to the American market. In one example, Siri asks his friend Civilai if he has anything to eat. Civilai says to a third person: “The man makes over fifteen dollars a month, and he still has the gall to mooch off poor folk like us.”

“Dollars” startled me.  Perhaps in 1977 Lao people still thought in terms of US dollars despite the communist takeover. But the interesting word in this passage is “mooch”, meaning “to beg, cadge, freeload.” This is American usage, as in the song “Minnie the Moocher”. In Australia “mooch” usually means “to loiter about, or saunter along.” In Britain the word has both meanings.

Cotterill is writing an English version of dialogue that his characters would have spoken in Lao. He faces the same issue as those who translate books from one language to another – getting the right balance between:

  • Foreignization, which strives to preserve the flavour of the source language and culture as much as possible; and
  • Domestication, which uses target language idioms to make the translated text easier for target readers.

I am faced with similar choices in Daughter of Independence, the life story of Wenny Achdiat – rendering in English remembered conversations originally spoken in Indonesian. In one example, Wenny’s father described someone as benalu, meaning “parasite, sponger or freeloader”. The Australian slang word “bludger” exactly conveys what her father meant, but it clashed with the Indonesian flavour I am trying to retain, so I used “parasite” instead. American publishers usually want complete domestication, so I might have to use “moocher” if we want to sell the book in the USA.

I did wonder if Thirty-Three Teeth was a little too domesticated, but this is a minor concern. The book is clever and entertaining, and I enjoyed reading it as I mooched around the cities in which it was set – Luang Prabang (pictured below) and Vientiane.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:33 pm

    Great combination of book review and travel piece. And thoughtful issues on writing raised. Congratulations Bryce


  1. Luang Prabang « The Echidna and the Fox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: