Translating Titles

During the colonial period a series of white men published books about elephants based on their experiences of working with them in Burma. By independence in 1948, there was a clear canon of texts about elephants. Authors cited certain writers who were deemed to be ‘authorities’ in the subject: Mitchell, Pfaff, Hepburn, Ferrier, Evans, Sanderson were the names usually referred to. However, there were at least two Burmese authors who published in the field, although their short treatise was not mentioned by later writers. This was a manual of elephant medicines complied by Maung Ye Gyan and U Ba Cho, two employees of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, and published in 1913 by the Burmese-owned Thuriya Press. It was printed in both English and Burmese.

Cover [English]

The Burmese Cover

As readers with Burmese language skills may have noticed, there is a subtle difference between how one of the author’s names have been recorded on these covers. In the English version he is Maung Ba Cho, and in the Burmese version U Ba Cho. Detail English Detail‘Maung’ is a title usually used as a suffix to the names of young men. ‘U’ is used when addressing male elders or men of status, deserving of respect. In a post that I wrote just over a year ago I noted how within the correspondence of the colonial bureaucracy the title ‘maung’ was always used. I suggested that this was to preserve the racial hierarchy of the colonial state. Is that what is happening here? Has the translator deliberately downgraded U Ba Cho’s title?

When I was researching in the National Archives of Myanmar last summer I stumbled across some correspondence that addressed the issue of appropriately translating titles directly (NAM, 1/115(E) 3964, 1915 File No. 6M-30). In 1915 a Burmese advocate, hitherto referred to in government correspondence as Maung Kin, was made a judge at the Chief Court of Lower Burma. This raised the question of whether ‘maung’ was still an appropriate title, or whether he should be now referred to as U Kin.

To resolve the issue, a discussion of the matter from 1894 was dredged up. In it the government’s translator, Maung Tun Nyein, argued in favor using ‘maung’ for all. In noting the continuity with the now dissolved Konbaung court, he stated that ‘when the ruling authority addresses a subject population it occupies a higher status, thereby exacting respect and enforcing obedience to its commands.’ In contrast, ‘Mr’ (a notable adoption of a title) Taw Sein Ko, a famous Sino-Burmese scholar-official, argued that on occasions the Konbaung court did use ‘U’ for some favored individuals. He recommended that, although it was ‘not in strict accordance’ with courtly practice, when some Burmese officials rose to a certain rank in the government they should be addressed with ‘U’.

Back in 1915, it was decided that ‘U’ was not to be used. The higher status of white imperial officials had to be maintained. Evidently racial hierarchies shaped the history of this manual. Burmese elephant knowledge was not formally cited by imperial writers, even while these white male authors often appropriated this knowledge. When Burmese authors did publish for themselves, subtle forms of marking the author’s inferior status were still apparent in how it was translated for English-speaking readers.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. leminhkhai says:

    Great job of finding a “tidbit” that points to much bigger issues. “Favored individuals” suggests a more personal form of rule, while from what you say here it looks like there was an effort to maintain white hierarchy through impersonal rule (i.e., have to find a uniform “law” to follow). So there are various strands that come together here. Very nice!!

  2. Kenneth says:

    Great find! The difference between “U” and “Maung” in the present day accounts for age (U as the prefix for older adults; Maung for young men). However, your examples, being the cover pages of the same book in English and Burmese, point to signs of a deliberate use of “Maung” to lower the social status of the person, Ba Choe. A more blatant mistreatment would be to address the person with the prefix “Nga” as in “Nga Ba Choe,” to further lower the person’s stature with a disdainful form of address reserved for servants and slaves.

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