The Riddle of Nationalism
The recent Thai translation of Benedict Anderson’s seminal Imagined Communities could help redefine the Thai nation
By: VASANA CHINVARAKORN
In one of his essays last year, former London School of Economics and Political Science scholar Fred Halliday revealed why Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is one of the three books that gave him “particular satisfaction in teaching”.
“[It’s] a study of how the sentiments and affinities of people who had no direct experience or contact with one another could coalesce into a shared identity, which they came to understand as national, and of the arbitrary and artificial [if often inexorable] nature of this emergent belonging. To tell a group of 100 young people from all over the world that their own much cherished nations were modern rather than ancient, little more grounded in objective fact than the loyalties of a club of football supporters, and that the very concept of ‘nation’ was analytically and morally questionable, was a rare, professorial and cosmopolitan, pleasure.
“If they remember nothing else of what I taught, I hope they remember that.”
The above passage was cited by political scientist Kasian Tejapira during the recent launch of the Thai translation of Anderson’s much-cited work. Though slow in coming, the arrival of Imagined Communities in Thai, its 31st language since the book’s first appearance in 1983, seems a well-timed antidote in this period, when confrontations and conflicts abound both within and without the country, often fuelled along the nationalistic line. At any rate, Anderson’s thought-provoking thesis should enable us to at least understand the complex deep-rooted sense of nationalism that has ironically pitted different sectors against one another. Who should have a say in defining the boundaries—geographical as well as demographic—of the so-called Thai nation? How could this tantalising notion of “Thainess” exert such huge influence that a large number of people are willing to defend it at all cost?
Like Halliday, Kasian himself also shared similar “pleasure” from his years of (re)educating Thai students at Thammasat University. The typical prevalent view held among them, he said, is of a “Thai nation” as something unique, unquestionably clear-cut, with an axe- or dipper-like contour (as depicted in the national map), and last but not least, what the people could uphold as one of the three institutional pillars throughout their lives. But Kasian would ask the young ones to review their assumption—what exactly is the entity called Thailand? Were they to be transported to outside the earth and looked back, could they distinguish a so-called Thai nation out of the contiguous mass of land surrounded by waters?
“Strangely enough, the nation is something you cannot see with your eyes, but once you close them, it could instantly be conjured up, created, in your mind,” Kasian mused.
But Imagined Communities (or in Anderson’s preferred coinage, “IC”) is less an outright attack on nationalism than, true to its sub-title, a nuanced effort to understand its origin and phenomenon. In one interview, Anderson the writer reckoned that he could possibly be “the only one writing about nationalism who doesn’t think it ugly ... I like its Utopian elements”. In the same lecture, Kasian shared his observation of the radical reactions among some students he has come across: Once believers, they became disillusioned and turned into ultra-anti-nationalists who look down on others still subscribing to patriotism. The academic cautioned against such an incomplete “discovery” that may hinder the person from seeing the whole bigger picture.
For we should not forget that one key question raised in Khru Ben’s IC is “why do millions of people love something they cannot see with their own eyes, something that has been imagined, and yet they love it to the extent they can sacrifice their flesh and blood, even their lives for and on behalf of this? Where is its strength? Could [nationalism] contribute to the struggle by the downtrodden? How?”
One suggestion, proposed by historian Nidhi Eosriwong in a separate lecture, is to contest the process of defining nationalism as being practised here.
Historically, the Thai ruling elite has played a dominant role in cultivating and (re-)shaping the ideological seed among the populace. The strategy has been necessary: It renders legitimacy and power to the establishment, especially when facing challenges from external and internal forces. But as years go by, the limitations of this version of “nationalism without the people” have become increasingly apparent, proving it problematic, untenable even.
“The nation should no longer be a property of the few elite,” said Nidhi, “it belongs to the small people, to everybody; the people should have a say in the nation, not just to wait for handouts from the powers that be. For they have as much ownership in the nation as the privileged ones. “In the past, no issue has been raised regarding the Nation-Religion-Monarchy. But now more questions have been pushed forward like: ‘Are the three [national] institutions one and the same? Or are they in fact separable, independent from one another? Could there be incompatibility among them?’ ”
The rendition of Anderson’s Imagined Communities in the Thai language, making it more accessible to the wider circle, might contribute to such debate locally. After all, the book itself has had a fascinating “geo-biography” over the past quarter of a century. In the last chapter added in the third English edition (2006), Anderson traces how his originally polemical writing has become part and parcel of the nationalistic (and counter-) movements in several countries. The translation into Serbo-Croat in 1990 was an unsuccessful attempt to keep “Yugoslavia” together. Nine years later, the Hebrew version was carried out as a “critical intervention against prevailing Zionist-Likudist orthodoxy”. Last but not least, the publication in Greek in 1997 was aimed at providing a dissenting voice to the nationalistic fervour at the time (it subsequently drew criticisms, among others, that the book was “full of inaccurate information on Greek history,” noted Anderson).
Incidentally, the book has found its way to become standard university textbooks in several continents, which in Anderson’s words, was “the last thing” on his mind when he first put the pen to writing.
The translation process adds another dimension to the subject of nationalism itself. On a few instances, the decisions by the respective translators reflect their national-linguistic consciousness. The book has had its fair share of piracy and censorships. Anderson noted with a wry sense of humour of the edition published in the People’s Republic of China where besides arbitrary changes by the censors, one whole chapter, which included some ironic remarks about Mao Tse-tung and the Communist Party, was deliberately cut out; a Chinese friend once told him to take it “as a compliment ... Look at Hillary Clinton[’s books]—the deletions are only sentences here and there!”
Due to his multi-language facility, Anderson noted he has been personally involved in the French, Indonesian and Thai versions (and thus has added extensive additional footnotes to the last two). The experiences have given him insights into the treacherous nature of translating across different languages and cultures—and the wisdom of non-attachment to his own works. In the Thai case, he has this much to say:
“The Thai version [now close to completion in manuscript form] has been prepared by a team of progressive, critical professors, several among them former students of mine. Going over the draft chapters I was very surprised by one thing. The aura of the Thai monarchy is such that I expected the translators to use the special ‘feudal’ vocabulary required when describing any activity by Thai kings present and past. What I did not expect was that the same special vocabulary was applied to all foreign monarchs as well, including such unlovely figures as London’s William the Conqueror, Paris’s Franacecois I, Vienna’s Franz II, Berlin’s Wilhelm II, and so on. When I objected that the entire spirit of IC is republican, and almost all monarchs are handled with irony or hostility, the objection was quickly brushed aside, ‘You don’t understand our traditions and our situations’. With a mixture of laughter and apprehension I look forward to what may be taken as IC’s first ‘royalist’ translation!”
See if you will agree with the author—or the translators.
Chumchon Jintakam, a Thai translation of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson, is edited by Charnvit Kasetsiri and published by the Foundation for the Promotion of Social Science and Humanities Textbooks Project and is available in major bookstores. Call 02-433-8713, or visit www.textbooksproject.com.
Published in the Bangkok Post, 23 February 2009