Sunday, January 01, 2006

Translation of the Burmese Rajadhammasangaha

This important online book may have passed under your radar as it did mine, until it was pointed out to me by a colleague.

The translator Mr. Euan Bagshawe has provided an inestimable service by making important primary source translations from the Konbaung period available to scholars in their unabridged form. It is difficult to get anyone to finance this sort of book project. Online ebooks are therefore the ideal format for disseminating this important scholarly information.

Ornate prose often makes books like this, from the period of Burmese kings, difficult for westerners to read. This is a major cultural difference between the Burmese and western writing traditions. Bagshawe's literal translation gives a window into the richness of the Burmese prose tradition.

Most westerners were raised on Strunk and White and are unlikely to appreciate this ornate prose. I find myself constantly paraphrasing and summarizing so I can relate to what is being said. Forcing ourselves to read, absorb, and reflect on the style itself rather than filtering it out, might be a good way to explore a different cultural dimension of Burmese history.

This book falls within the didactic literary genre of advice to kings by their councilors. The book was written for the new king Thibaw and presented to him in 1878. The purpose was to provide the new king with "thoughts upon how the monarchical government of Burma should be exercised."

It is the culmination of a long didactic tradition in Burmese literature that starts with Rajaniti (aphorisms for kings) borrowed from Indian literature and copied literally into the early sections of the Burmese chronicle (I will post my translation soon), develops with the advice given by ministers to Burmese kings in the Burmese chronicle, apparently often based on actual documents (see U Thaw Kaung's paper on the sources used to write Bayinnaung's biography Hsinpyushin Ayeidawpon), and finally ends in Thibaw's reign with this work.

Here is the announcement in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research together with the translator's preface. The ebook was published online at David Arnott's Online Burma Library, the most comprehensive collection of Burma-related weblinks. There is an introduction to the library as well as a mini-biography of David Arnott at his photography website which includes a gallery devoted to photos of Burma.