For Cambodia's literature lovers, reading Western classics like Oliver Twist or Les Miserables in the original language is a labour of love
Photo by: VANDY RATTANA
Lost in translation: Young Cambodians enjoy reading Western books in their original language.
THE National Library is a peaceful,
solemn space with only a dozen or so people - on this day - seated at
its long wooden tables. An overhead fan whirs noisily above, and a
breeze from outside stirs the newspapers in their racks.
Many people still do not know where to find the National Library.
The management used to rent out the front garden as a nursery when
times where tight, so any confusion may be forgivable.
More than sixty years ago, a consultant at the library - he
preferred not to be named - used to visit on Saturday afternoons and
browse the dense shelves for French literature.
"My family was unusual, I think," he said, recalling his boyhood
days in French colonial Phnom Penh. "We were not into politics or
business, but we had a large library. We were intellectuals, I think,
and my whole family was literate."
He attended an elite French college, and during his high school years read French, Russian and English novels.
"One of my favourite authors was Victor Hugo."
His literary education was thorough and included such classic works
as Tolstoy's War and Peace, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath,
Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist.
That old, beautiful language
"There are so few now who read for pleasure," he said pensively.
Keuk Chan Narita, coordinator of literature studies at the Foreign
Languages Institute at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, agrees.
"The biggest problem I face with my students is that they have not
adopted the habit of reading," she said. "Most of my students read
because they have to."
The books he offers his students are typical of English-language
courses across Cambodia, and include the usual popular classics.
"These are popular for a very good reason. Romeo and Juliet is very
similar to a Khmer classic Tom and Teav, which is, of course, about
love and societal prejudices, and ends with the two main characters
committing suicide. It is much easier for students to have this
reference point because Shakespeare is very challenging, but also very
important. We want our students to read that old, classic, beautiful
Other books taught include George Orwell's Animal Farm, Jane
Austen's Pride and Prejudice, selections from John Steinbeck and Anita
Desai, as well as the short stories "The Necklace" by Guy du Maupassant
and "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde.
"Our selections haven't really changed for 10 years since this course
began. Although as students get better, we do introduce more
challenging texts. The very top students often enjoy Ivan Turgenev's
Fathers and Sons, though there really are only a few of them."
Keuk Chan Narita says his students' interest in local and foreign literature is improving.
set a new assignment recently and gave the students almost no
information on the text, Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I was so
impressed with the depth of their analysis. One group spent a long time
comparing the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, to other strong woman
like Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi. That is
the sort of learning I want to continue."
Thearn, a second-year English student, says he enjoys reading foreign novels more than Khmer because they challenge him.
I read foreign novels I have to try hard to understand them, and then I
appreciate it a lot. But with Khmer novels, sometimes I don't need to
use my brain at all."
Thearn said he likes to read for pleasure, and named mystery and detective novels as his favourite types of books.
But he is the exception to the rule, according to the 2002 literary
study Publishing in Cambodia, updated in 2006, which finds that young
Khmers generally prefer radio and television to books.
The lack of time was a major disincentive to reading, the study
found - a problem Keun Chan Narita noted as well - as many students
pursue two degrees at once and often at different universities.
The study also found Cambodia's literary tastes remain locked in
the past, with Victor Hugo ranking across generations as the most
favoured author, followed closely by William Shakespeare.
Not since the 1940s has the Cambodian government made serious
efforts to raise the level of national literacy, at a time when novels
were widely available in their original languages or in translation.
The old library adviser stands like a relic among his books - old
editions he has struggled to preserve and new ones donated by foreign
embassies in recent years.
"When this place is occasionally busy, it makes me remember how it
used to be. The small food stalls outside and young people clamouring
for the latest editions. I hope such times will come again."