วันจันทร์ที่ 21 กุมภาพันธ์ พ.ศ. 2554

The Interpreter's Journal - Stories from a Thai and Lao Interpreter

From the Author: Benjawan Poomsan Becker

After working for many years writing books for English speakers to learn Thai and Lao, I’m finally able to tell my life story with my new book, The Interpreter’s Journal.

Most people know me as a teacher of the Thai language and as the author of Thai and Lao language books. In the United States I have another flourishing career as a legal and medical Thai and Lao interpreter. I work in the courts, law offices, jails, hospitals, mental health facilities, and I’m also employed by businesses and corporations mainly in the State of California.

I’ve worked on over 2,000 cases over the past 15 years and assisted thousand of immigrants from Thailand and Laos. I have helped hundreds of Thai-Western couples who ended up in the legal system maze.

I recommend that lawyers, judges and other legal professionals read this book since it will help them understand how interpreters work and provide insight that should make any case with an interpreter proceed more smoothly.

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 six chapters, to understand my personal background. The table of contents has been coded to help you find the chapters you want to read first.

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.


  • Acknowledgments  
  • 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)
  • Glossary
  • 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

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.

Available at...


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.

Going To Court
I hurried down to the mailbox every day until finally it arrived – my interpreter’s badge from the Judicial Council of California. I must have been grinning from ear to ear because this little plastic badge would soon provide me with special access to a host of wonderful places like the county jails, state prisons, and mental health facilities.
As a newly registered interpreter, I had to sign up to take the required ethics workshop and orientation class, which I did right away. Interpreters are also required to attend approved continuing education seminars and workshops for a total of thirty hours every two years. This is a very important part of the training, and I look forward to these seminars each year. They help us improve skills and keep pace with what’s current in the field.
Soon after passing the exam, I started getting phone calls for assignments from coordinators in the various counties of northern California. “Benjawan, are you available on June 1st at 9:00 a.m. in San Francisco? I have a half-day assignment at the Hall of Justice.”
I work mainly in the northern counties of San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Marin, and Sonoma. There are enough cases in these six counties to keep me busy, but I do travel to more distant counties or even other states if it’s a well-paid assignment or the case is appealing.
Most of my cases are in criminal courts, because in criminal procedures any defendant that has a limited understanding of the English language has a constitutional right to be provided with a court interpreter at every stage of the case. The job of the interpreter is to translate to the non-English speaking defendant, to make the content exactly what an English-speaking defendant would hear. The court has the obligation to provide an interpreter skilled in the language that the defendant speaks. This means in California that the court system has qualified interpreters for over 200 languages....

Author’s Comment: This chapter tells how I work in court, how I see other court personnel from the standpoint of an interpreter. And later, I describe my first court assignment.

Thai & Lao Language Services

Now that I’d passed the court interpreter’s exam, the jobs started to trickle in. I needed to get the word out to attract new clients, so I advertised, handed out flyers, and spread the message by informing everyone I knew. At the same time, I started getting phone calls from translation agencies asking if I offered translation services. Translating and interpreting are different, even though most people use the terms interchangeably. Translations are made using written text, whereas interpreters work with the spoken word, relaying what someone says into another language and vice versa.
After receiving a number of requests to take on translation jobs, I decided to start my own business for both types of assignment. Thai & Lao Language Services was born in the mid 1990s at the height of the dotcom boom in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. The Internet was getting popular, computer programs were being created to help translators work quickly and efficiently, and there was a lot of investment money to establish high-tech companies. Many businesses were seeking international markets like Thailand; computer companies need manuals translated into Thai, and Hollywood needed Thai subtitles for movies that were going to be made into a new format called DVD.
I sent my resume to translation agencies all over the US, created a Website, put ads in the Yellow Pages, and continued to hand out flyers to Thai and Lao people at temples and social events. The assignments for both translation and interpretation started to pour in. I never made so much money or worked so hard, and I was scrambling to keep up with the volume of work. I was bombarded with work from the agencies. At the time, there were only a few individuals that did translation work in Thai or Lao, and finally I had to hire assistants and farm out work to other translators and editors…..

Author’s Comment: This was the point in my life when I started making money but also ruining my health and became trapped in the rat race of U.S. society.

Thai-Western Relationships

The majority of marriage assignments that I work on are unions between Thai women and American men. Thai men do occasionally marry Western women, but I’d say this represents less than five percent of these intercultural couples. I’ve also interpreted for more Thai-Western gay couples than Thai men with American women.
There are many Thai immigrants in the United States, but the largest number with legal visas, I believe, are Thai women married to American men. These Thai women enter the US as tourists, students, au pairs, or on a fiancée visa. They eventually get married and begin the arduous process of securing a green card, also known as permanent resident status. Most of my experience with Thai-Western relationships is with Thai-American couples, but the stories are similar for the Thai women living in other countries.
A lot of Western men looking for love aren’t necessarily seeking a Thai woman. There are entertainment venues in Thailand that cater exclusively to gay men. Lesbians also go to Thailand to find their Thai darling. Same-sex couples experience all the same bureaucratic hurdles, and more, that Thai women face when they apply to come to the US.
As with any collective description, my observations are generalizations of the experiences of the Thai women I know. Many of these women certainly did not work as prostitutes, and not all Thai women come from poor families. Many Thai women will not find themselves described in these pages because their individual experiences and their paths to America or any other Western country were different. As with all portrayals of a group of people, there are many exceptions to the rule, and the same applies here.
Before the 1960s Thais had little contact with Western visitors and tourists. That changed during the Vietnam War, when US Air Force personnel were stationed in Thailand. A lot of the servicemen in the war came to Thailand for their “rest and relaxation” when they had leave from duty. The tiny fishing village of Pattaya became a huge entertainment center, as did the Patpong area of Bangkok, catering to the needs and desires of these Western visitors. The attraction was mutual; the exotic Thai women intrigued the GIs, and the Western men were foreign and exciting to the Thai women. Plus, these new visitors had money to spend, and spend they did. Not all these relationships were simply sexual business deals; many of the couples fell in love, and later the Thai girlfriends became wives and American citizens.
Before the influx of Western men into the country, Thai women married Thai men, and that was it. They didn’t come into contact with tourists, the Internet hadn’t opened the world to unlimited possibilities, and Hollywood movies with handsome leading men didn’t make it to the village screens. But times have changed and the alternatives have increased dramatically.
Many Thai women marry Western men to escape economic hardship, to start anew after failed marriages with Thai men, and simply because of the allure of the handsome foreigner. The second group of Thai women that married and migrated to the US and became my clients, in general, were working in the service industry in Thailand.
Thailand’s tourist industry now provides any level of comfort from rock-bottom guesthouses to elegant and expensive spas, resorts, golf courses, and yachting facilities. Traveling in Thailand is easier and, in general, less expensive than any of the other Southeast Asian nations. Consequently, with more tourists coming to Thailand, the Thai ladies now have more options when it comes to choosing a husband.
Until recently, most Western men who didn’t speak Thai had little opportunity to meet any Thai people beyond the limited circle of service-industry personnel in hotels, restaurants, and shops. Most educated and affluent Thais had little need for contact with foreign tourists if these visitors were unable to speak Thai. The Thai people that tourists came into contact with most were those who had come to Bangkok and other cities to make money to send back to their families in the villages. For taxi-drivers, waitresses, maids, and shop workers, contact with the tourists was inevitable.
All it takes is for one Thai woman from the village to marry a foreigner, and the stage is set. If she begins to send money to her family and their standard of living increases, then marrying a foreigner becomes a positive aspiration for other girls in the village. And when she visits home, she’ll usually be well-dressed and maybe driving a Mercedes – the ultimate status symbol in Thailand. She is then hi-so in the village. What her life is like with her husband, most people in the village will never know, since she’ll only talk about the positives. She’ll exaggerate a little, making life overseas sound more glamorous than it is, and she won’t usually talk about the hardships. Yes, some of these Thai women are happily married and in a loving relationship, but many struggle every day in a life that they don’t particularly enjoy. However, the most important consideration is if her family back home is better off.
These women from the service industry usually need translation and interpretation services quite often. In some cases, for the same client, I’ve started with birth certificates and other documents for the green cards, prenuptial agreement, marriage documents, adoption forms, and then when things didn’t work out, the divorce settlement and negotiation proceedings and court appearances.
But not all Thai women who are married to Westerners come from poor families or work in the service industry. With the advent of the Internet and online dating sites, educated and affluent Westerners and Thais are able to meet like they never would have been able to in the past. More of my recent customers belong to a third group of Thai-Western relationships that began online…..
Author’s Comment: This is a must-read chapter for those who are interested in having a relationship with someone from the Orient and from Southeast Asia in particular. It can be adapted to many countries close to Thailand, such as, Laos, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines. People who have read the book Thailand Fever will find this chapter very informative.

Go Green, Save Paper: Buy the e-book version if you can on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
The book is available in digital formats for the Amazon Kindle, Apple iPhone, iPod, iPad and Android devices.

Also available on Amazon.com, PaiboonPublishing.com



The Interpreter's Journal: Product Details

  • Author: Benjawan Poomsan Becker
  • Book: Paperback. 230 pages
  • ISBN: 978-1887521994
  • Size: 6" x 8.5"