I threatened to love my body, refrain from liver…

Here in Myanmar, the holiday of Tazaungdaing (တန်ဆောင်တိုင်), marking the end of the rainy season, has almost arrived. On my trip back from the tea-house after a breakfast of potato curry and paratha, there was dancing in the streets, even though it was still early. There is tinsel everywhere, and the raggedy back-streets around my apartment rocking with loudspeakers.

I really like this kind of public liveliness. Yesterday, whilst getting ready to head out in the evening, I heard a Burmese song being played out on the street, and it was so very lovely, I ran out into the street, and asked the somewhat astonished cluster of middle-aged men who were standing around a record player what they were playing. They wrote down the title for me, so that I could look it up later. The song turned out to be a cover of the movie song Pan Twe Ne Way (ပန်းတွေနဲ့ဝေ) by Htoo Ein Thin (ထူးအိမ်သင်). And it is very pretty indeed. Here it is.

Thinking that this should be my first Burmese karaoke hit, I thought I’d look up the words as well. At this point, it occurred to me that my Burmese needs a bit more practice before I’m going to be able to get up to karaoke standard; so just to get a sense of the overall thing (which is about love and wearing flowers in your hair and stuff like that) I ran the words through Google Translate. The result was a kind of obscure modernist poetry. See, for example, following four lines: “One day I did not see this / I threatened to love / My body / Refrain from liver.” And so I was forced to conclude that Google’s understanding of Burmese is not much far in advance of mine. A dispiriting thought.

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Later this morning, I have my first Burmese lesson in a year and a half. Having spent years working on getting my Chinese up to workable levels, coming to Burmese has been a shock. There’s quite a clear path you can forge when learning Chinese from scratch. Mandarin is not an easy language, perhaps, but the resources are brilliant, and the path is well-trodden. Burmese is a rather more chaotic affair. Inconsistent and mutually antagonistic font encoding systems (how annoying is Zawgyi?), endlessly diverging approaches to romanisation, and patchy learning materials mean that navigating your way through the first stages of Burmese is a bit like getting from A to B in downtown Yangon: the paths are uneven, there are endless potholes and ways to lose your footing, and progress overall is agonisingly slow.

Nevertheless, I’m going to keep on keeping on and see how far I get – because there is fun to be had in these kinds of uneven, erratic journeys.  If one day I get up to karaoke levels of linguistic competency, I’ll post the evidence here on this blog. And if it is a struggle, I’ll take comfort from the fact that even the great global mind that is Google seems to be all at sea when it comes to translating from Burmese into English – unless, of course, Pan Twe Ne Way is, in fact, a song about the virtues of refraining from liver.

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