นิดน้อย : Practical Vocabulary for Little Bilingual Dreamers[1]

by Jai Arun Ravine

“Nit noy” is the Thai word for very, very little. This word is often my response to Thai people, who, after finding out I’m half Thai, show their curiosity—which borders on dissection—by asking me, “So, can you speak Thai?” My response, which both attempts to assert my ethnic belonging and apologizes for my failure to be recognized, is “Poot pasa Thai dai nit noy,” or just simply “Nit noy” (A little).

I have reluctantly and awkwardly stumbled over this phrase many times, but nothing about my relationship to the Thai language—in learning to read and write it, hesitating to speak it, beginning to dream in it—is little.

Interruption and Interjection : วันเกิด   เปิด

I was 20 years old when I started learning Thai. I had decided to study abroad to “visit the homeland,” but found myself surrounded by other—mostly White—American students. While they were getting tan and buying trinkets, I was pretending I couldn’t speak English. I was obsessed with hiding my Whiteness and Americanness and passing as Thai. After four months I had a basic command of reading, writing and conversational speaking. I could talk to my mother on the phone. I was writing bilingually in my journal, and I had even started to think and dream in Thai. While thinking in Thai, I’d sometimes come up with Spanish vocabulary from my high school studies—a result of my brain’s immersion in this new bilingual environment.

When I returned to the States, my writing began to incorporate Thai language for the first time. It was so new to my consciousness and my speech that it began to interrupt and interject into my English, and started to transform the page visually, sonically and energetically. Because I couldn’t type in Thai on my computer, the Thai words are both phonetically transcribed and handwritten. There are also small drawings, arrows and strike-throughs, which, like the handwritten Thai, push and test the limits of space.



I think learning Thai, which is a tonal language and one that has its own script, helped me understand something about physicality, texture and performance. I was starting to understand myself with another language. I had new vocabulary to incorporate, which shattered and reconstructed the way I wrote.

However, I was far from fluent. I was troubled by something ineffable, something sort of small. I could answer simple questions with simple answers, but I sensed an un-diagrammed space in the moments before I opened my mouth that my kindergarten-level worksheets hadn’t covered. I met White men who were so fluent they could simultaneously interpret, but I desired to express myself emotionally, in the pre-verbal spaces of language, and for me this was what it meant to be fluent. When I met my mother’s sisters and brothers for the first time, I had feelings I couldn’t articulate. They felt like very, very, very tiny words, housed somewhere in my body, in places from which I couldn’t yet speak.

Translation as Strategy : ยิน   ภาษา

I have inherited a cultural silence around my mother’s past, which exists in the same space as the specter of fluency or the hauntings of what I can’t say or express in Thai. In the absence of facts and anecdotes, I wanted to write a book that re-imagined her immigration to the US as a kind of mythology, in order for me to have a story I could actually hold on to. แล้ว and then entwine: lesson plans, poems, knots (TinFish Press, 2011) was born from this need.

At the same time I began to write this book, I also discovered the work of Padcha Tuntha-obas, who was the first Thai writer I’d seen engage the process of translation itself, bilingually in Thai and English, on the page. Through critical analysis of her work, later published with some of Tuntha-obas’ poems in a chapbook by Achiote Press[2]. I realized that my own work was possible, and began to shift the way I worked with Thai language in my writing.

In her chapbook composite.diplomacy (TinFish Press, 2005), Tuntha-obas takes each line of an original Thai language poem and translates it into English word by word, syllable by syllable, containing each word in parentheses. Then she transliterates the Thai phonetically, arranging the words visually by tone mark, with an English text block below. Finally, she does a sentence diagram of each line and provides detailed dictionary definitions for each word. I love these examples side by side because they show the multiple layers of translation that can occur within any given line. In her full-length collection, Trespasses (O Books, 2006), there are several sections in Thai and English interacting with each other on the page, and in the English she directly comments on the strangeness of the Thai script to non-Thai readers.

Here, what inspires me are the ways she uses translation as a strategy. She isn’t just equating herself into English; she represents the processes and politics and layers of those translations (and mistranslations and nontranslations) within physical space. Even though she had started to write and express herself in English, she still had agency to move back and forth between “known” and “unknown” languages. In the same way that one syllable in Thai, depending on its tone, can have a multitude of different meanings, Tuntha-obas’ work showed me that a word could house not just one definition, but many—many memories, shapes and alternate histories.

Conjunction and Cross-section : แล้วก็

The Thai title of my book, แล้ว, indicates past tense or is used at the end of states or actions to indicate that they have “already” occurred. However, when combined with ก็ (the name of the mother character in the book), the word becomes a conjunction that means “and then.” In this way, the Thai language in my book allows the space of what is being traversed to expand via multiple meanings. The script, to those who can read it and to those who cannot, becomes a conduit of meaning, creating a serpentine circuitry that circumnavigates the text and weaves itself through it.

The opening piece of the “walk and wade” section was developed from a list of Thai words beginning with the “d” sound, which creates a kind of mutated spine along the page. I wrote in English on an application for a Thai birth certificate, and on my Thai alphabet workbook pages. I wrote a section modeled after a traditional Thai poetic form, which Tuntha-obas also uses. I arranged the syllables visually into “figures,” which I then cut into cross-sections and dissected further. I took each line and translated the words left to right, right to left, up to down, from Thai to English back and forth several times, and then used different iterations of those translations for the English. As part of writing the book I also created collages out of rice paper, developed performances, wrote a song and made drawings.


The space of the book is multilingual, which also means that it is tactile, highly visual and multidisciplinary.

Fluency and Mobility : แต่ภาษาทำให้เราไม่สามารถพูดได้

In 2011 I went back to Thailand for a second time. I had a residency to make a short film for a group exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Tom / Trans / Thai (2011) is part of a larger project that approaches the silence around female-to-male (FTM) transgender identity in the Thai context by addressing tom and trans-masculine identities in Thai and Thai American communities and the transnational relationships between gender and language. I wanted to look at the existing language around gender transnationally, and why certain cultural concepts are more mobile or more translatable than others.[3]

It was seven years since I had been to Thailand the first time, and while I could still get around in Thai, my hesitation to gender myself[4]collided with a loss of confidence in my pronunciation, making my voice very, very small. Also, I was frustrated by the lack of vocabulary around gender. Either I couldn’t access it because I wasn’t fluent, or certain things were just less mobile, less able to be translated or understood by others. Also, Thai doesn’t actually differentiate between “sex” and “gender”; they are translated as the same word. “Trans guy” or “transgender male” could be literally translated into Thai, but how are cultural understandings (of what these words mean) formed?

The film has both Thai and English subtitles. Originally I had decided to speak some of the text in English. Later I decided to remove my voice altogether and found that this worked much better in conveying the struggle around being silenced by language. I think of the film as a bilingual environment that tries to translate a non-gendered or multigendered way of being that doesn’t really exist. Because of the poverty of language, the act of translation doesn’t occur completely in the spoken or written word. During the course of the film I move from dictionary definitions to nonverbal forms. I start to dance; the translation occurs in me dancing. If in speaking I feel diminished, in my writing, dancing and filmmaking I can allow myself to expand, multiply, re-define, open up other spaces and forms of being that are far from little.

As someone who identifies as a person of mixed race and mixed gender, existing between ethnicities feels similar to existing between genders; I’m always creating my own language and writing myself into being. My self-identification and how others perceive me is always in conversation with whatever is the dominant cultural understanding of race and gender. Continually navigating that is what it means for me to be multilingual or multiracial. I don’t always find fluency, but grapple with frustration, hesitation and silence.

To little bilingual dreamers everywhere, to those who dream of being bilingual, here’s a practical lesson:

  1. Interrupt and interject.
  1. Always attempt to translate the untranslatable.
  1. In a conjunction, look for collision; in a cross-section, look for intersectionality.
  1. If you can’t be fluent, seek mobility in the places from which you have yet to speak.


[1] This essay accompanied a visual presentation and was originally written for Si cruzáramos y en el cruce nos cruzamos: Un experimento de espacio bilingüe // If We Crossed and in the Crossing We Crossed Each Other: An Experiment in Bilingual Space panel organized by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker (Antena) with Mónica de la Torre, Hugo García Manríquez and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs for the &NOW Festival of New Writing 7: Off the Road at the University of Colorado, Boulder on September 28, 2013. Hofer and Pluecker simultaneously interpreted the panel from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English.

[2] “Across and Between: Translation as strategy within the work of Padcha Tuntha-obas and other poly-lingual texts.” Across and Between the Void. Achiote Press, 2008.

[3] To learn more about Tom / Trans / Thai and how to acquire a copy of the film and companion critical essay to teach in your college course or student workshop, visit http://jaiarunravine.com/tom-trans-thai

[4] Thai requires that the speaker (or writer) choose either a male or female participle at the end of sentences for polite speech. In other words, the language requires that you gender yourself, or risk being rude.