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Cambodian legends rescued from the depths of obscurity

Cambodian village life during the years of French colonialism.  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Cambodian village life during the years of French colonialism. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Cambodian legends rescued from the depths of obscurity

Many years ago in Cambodia, a devious woman tricked a group of thieves into disposing of her lover’s corpse. Less than grateful, she subsequently sold them into slavery. When the gang escaped, they tracked down the woman and one admitted her shrewdness, which caused him to fall in love with her. So, naturally, she tricked him into French-kissing her, bit off his tongue and left him with the slaver.

This fable, called "Women’s Wiles", is a Khmer morality tale that has been handed down through the generations. It now appears as the first story of a newly translated anthology of old folk tales, also titled Women’s Wiles, with topics ranging from the birth of Angkor to piracy.

“These are morality stories. They’re zany, they’re witty, they’re wise,” Kent Davis, the 49-year-old independent researcher who spearheaded the new English translation, said in a Skype interview from Florida.

The anthology was first put to paper in 1922 by Guillaume Henri Monod, a French geologist who heard the stories from a Pursat governor known only as Khieu. The original collection, published in 1922 as Légendes cambodgiennes: que m’a contées le Gouverneur Khieu, was never republished and disappeared into the obscure depths of university libraries.

But three years ago, Davis, a self-described “literary archaeologist”, stumbled upon the book while researching old Southeast Asian texts and decided to translate it into English.

Kent Davis edited the translation of "Women’s Wiles".  PHOTO SUPPLIED
Kent Davis edited the translation of Women’s Wiles. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“We really have a time machine of Cambodian culture and oral tradition,” said Davis, who previously republished the works of colonial-era anthropologist George Groslier.

“Monod was collecting these things 92 years ago from a guy who was probably born around 1850, so he grew up hearing these stories from his parents who were born around 1800.”

After posting an ad online asking for a French-to-English translator, Davis found Solang Uk, a 75-year-old retired Cambodian-Swiss biologist who had previously translated Chinese diplomat Zhou Daugan’s account of 13th-century Angkor.

Uk, who grew up in Tuk Meas town in Kampot province under both French and Japanese occupation, said that he recalled hearing the stories from his town’s elders. Despite being a Frenchman, Uk said that Monod accurately captured the essence of the tales.

“Reading the stories in French, I see no difference between what [Monod] wrote and what I had heard,” Uk said.

According to the translator, the morals of the stories are still a source of debate, with some seeing Women’s Wiles as a celebration of intelligence while others see it as a cautionary tale against treacherous women.

Many other aspects of the tales remain shrouded in mystery. Given the unstable transmission of oral stories, as well as the shortage of surviving written Khmer records prior to the 19th century, neither Davis nor Uk know for certain how old the legends are.

A depiction of Cambodians in an 1887 edition of "Popular Science Monthly" magazine.  WIKICOMMONS
A depiction of Cambodians in an 1887 edition of Popular Science Monthly magazine. WIKICOMMONS

“Oral legends are going to change depending on the story teller, the place, the time, his or her mood, his memory, his sobriety,” said Davis.

“Some of these tales could easily be a thousand years old, but we don’t know and we can’t tell.”

Monod himself is a mystery, with only a handful of genealogical and colonial records confirming his existence, while no mention of Governor Khieu was discovered at all.

“We spent a couple years trying to piece things together, and even after digging through all this information, we were unable to find a single photograph of Monod, we were unable to find a single document by his hand or that he signed. It can be very frustrating when you go back to look at these people who created these literary works and then disappeared.”

The stories themselves are told less and less among Cambodians, said Uk, with the overseas Khmer community particularly disconnected with the legends. He hoped the English translation would increase awareness among the Cambodian diaspora of their cultural narratives.

“The young generation might not speak Khmer, so it’s a way of providing a link to this Cambodia diaspora to keep in touch with their culture.”

Women’s Wiles will be available at Monument Books next month in both English and French.

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