Breaking the Back of One’s Own Tongue

The translator Victoria Pitaktong proposes crossings between the intelligible and opacity that accompany translation exercises. Placing her own experience within the Materia Abierta program (2023), she shares her notes surrounding the betrayal of one’s own languages.

Writing is to make a choice.

I am making a choice to write in English right now. I also made the choice not to write in Thai, my mother tongue. Although Thai is my mother tongue, it is not my first language, however. English was, not only because I was born in the United States of Amerikkka, but also because my dad only spoke to me in English when we were there, a well-intentioned act to prepare and protect me from the absurdity of language hierarchy. It was my mother who resisted the English-only rule and spoke to me in Thai. In a way, Thai is truly my mother tongue, a tongue passed on by mothers.

I did not write in Thai, because I could not…I could not find the right pronoun for myself.
The singular first-pronoun—‘I’ in English or ‘yo’ in español—seems to be neutral and harmless, but is a contested topic in Thai. There are more than 30 ways to refer to oneself, but, again, one must make a choice as to which would be appropriate to the situation at hand. The choice is made on the condition of relationships one has with the counterpart. How do I know this person? Am I younger in age? Which gender do I want to identify with? How formal do I want to appear? In this sense, to be a woman in the Thai language poses a complication.

Silence can also be a choice

Textbooks would say if she’s younger in age, she can say “หนู” (nhoo). Aside from literally being translated to the animal rat, nhoo assumes an inferior position, always. She could also use the word “ดิฉัน” (di-chan), but to some it is presumptuous. To say “ฉัน” (chan), the supposedly most neutral choice, is also too…archaic, too literary for some occasions. A man (or a boy) could simply say “ผม” (phom, meaning hair, a ‘high’ part of the body in our culture), and there is no charged connotation aside from identifying with a male gender. The convenient solution is to opt for the plural first pronoun— “เรา” (rao) or we. This option is popular among all genders, but it is still perceived as a bourgeois thing to do. So, for me as a woman, I could either be inferior, idiosyncratic, peculiar, or simply pretentious. How then can I refer to myself, bring myself into existence in writing, without having to relate to others in this given repressive structure? Without such a reference, how can I express, opine, agree, argue, or simply voice? All I want is to say something, and be heard. At times, I have just stayed quiet.

Silence can also be a choice. It seems with this body, self-reference in Thai writing denies my voice. My mother tongue has betrayed me.

turning my heart inside out (กลับใจ; glub-jai) is to repent, and to see someone else’s heart (เห็นใจ; hen-jai) is to empathize



Betray = หักหลัง (hak-lang, translated to breaking someone’s back)

I noted this during the summer program I was a part of in August of 2023. Throughout that month, I was a participant of Materia Abierta, “a summer program on theory, art, and technology.” The vagueness of its description is perhaps intentional as it is difficult to capture something in words when it is constantly shifting and evolving. It was during this program that I noted words down as I was writing and drawing what I called a “word map” (in Thai). I started the map with a one-syllable word “ร่าง” (pronounced rang), which in a noun form could mean “form, figure, structure” or “a draft,” and in a verb form could mean “to draft, to outline.” Then, I branched out what “ร่าง” (rang) could be matched with to form other compound nouns. “ร่าง” (rang-figure) + “กาย” (kai-physical form) is a body. “ร่าง” (rang-figure) + “แห” (hae-a fishing net) is a net or anything that has a similar form. Then, I branched out what “แห” (hae-a fishing net) could be paired with to form new words, and what “กาย” (kai-physical form) could be paired with to form new meanings, and the play went on.

I would come to realize how many words could be formed by “น้ำ” (Nam-water) alone. “น้ำ” (Nam-water) + “ตา” (Ta-eye) is tears, and “น้ำ” (Nam-water)+ “เงิน” (Ngen-silver or money) means the color blue. I never thought about how compound nouns are formed in Thai consciously, the way I did not realize how the word “betray” in Thai, which says that it is “breaking someone’s back,” employs the body, the figure of flesh everyone is familiar with, to evoke sensibilities and express actions. They are not figures of speech like a metaphor that functions through comparison. They are the actions. Almost three decades of speaking Thai, I never realized this fact, perhaps because I never rationally thought about it, the way one does not consciously think about chewing or digesting.


I came to think about these words, not because I was prompted to think about language, but actually because, during Materia Abierta, I was prompted to think (in a very expanded definition of what thinking could encompass and entail) with and through the body. In one workshop with Ber Zabalaga, we were asked to be in pairs with another participant. The first person stood with eyes closed. The second person used one finger to point any part of the first, and another finger at any other part of the first person’s body. The first person was then asked to imagine a route that could connect the two dots pointed by the second person. During this process, one would first feel the presence of another’s finger on one’s own body, then feel the presence of those particular parts of the body. Imagining the “routes,” one would be aware of the body— its contours, its vulnerability, its aliveness—and of the negative space that surrounds the body itself—the gravity that grounds us still, the air that is made palpable by its movement. It was only when eyes are closed that the absence of visibility made the body present. It was when one learned a new language that one could reflect back upon one’s mother tongue. Closing my eyes, my mind wandered through the veins and vessels that could connect those two dots. Closing my eyes, my mind realized how this body existed before it was given a name.

Betray = หักหลัง (hak-lang, translated to breaking someone’s back)


The program took place in Mexico City. Most mentors and participants were Spanish-speakers. However, since some were English-speakers with different levels of proficiency in Spanish, the program also relied on the collective translations among members. Therefore, throughout the duration of the program, I switched between speaking Spanish and English, the two languages I learned in structured curriculums. For English, I forgot English as soon as my father decided we would return to Thailand when I was three years old. I relearned the language in the public schools. As for Spanish, I started taking classes in 2020 when I was in Mexico City during the pandemic, unable to return home.

Learning a language through structured classes is learning a system in its dissected form. One collects the building blocks—the parts of speech, the tenses, el modo verbal, el estilo indirecto—and makes elaborate decisions to construct a system.

In English, words cascaded down my mind like Tetris pieces, constantly shifting their orientations to search for the ‘right’ places, conditioned by punctuation. Period. Semicolon. Comma. Like rocks in a river, directing and diverting water flow with their seemingly still firmness, in turn being shaped and reshaped by the water itself. Punctuation governs where things continue, end, relate, and reason. Punctuation provides the readers the space to breathe. Punctuation gives the water its form. As I think in español, my focus moved to the verb, the action. Conjugating: I transformed each Tetris piece according to the temporality of the action. I transported myself in time-the point of time, the continuity of it, the frequency, the duration… Time itself is abstract but its perception is frozen in designated forms.
Speaking other tongues is being very conscious about your choices.

By translating between the languages that were not “my own,” I recognized the different factors that conditioned linguistic decisions. For instance, Spanish is a binary-gender grammar system. Every word is either masculine or feminine, and one is required to think about the designated gender before uttering the word to know how to end each word and hence sentence. Or in English, one is also required to designate a binary gender when one is to refer to a third person in a singular form. Is it a she or a he? Betrayal exists in every language, I came to realize.

Barbara Cassin wrote in “More Than One Language” published in e-flux Journal, that speaking at least two different languages “allows you to understand that yours is not the only possible one” and “forbids us from believing that we are the only ones who possess the truth.” By speaking different languages, we also know that other truths and possibilities exist as alternatives in other worlds. While in English, one could only use “he” or “she,” in Thai there is a gender-neutral pronoun for a singular third person which is “เขา” (kao). In the context of humor, one could also use the pronoun “นาง” (nang), which literally means a lady, to refer to anyone of any gender. However, it is important to note that using this supposedly feminine pronoun to refer to a masculine-identifying person does not have the intention to ridicule, or to undermine the manliness of the person in question. Femininity in this case is not assumed to be inferior. Kao is official and formal, nang is just…fun.

Any language will betray the speaker, at some point, but we can also break the back of one’s own tongue. Knowing other possibilities or knowing that they exist, we could always reclaim, reinvent, and reborn. Even though I felt the quote-unquote betrayal from my mother tongue, Thai, I would not be able to renounce the tongue completely. It has become the language I embody. Breaking the back might mean betray, but turning my heart inside out (กลับใจ; glub-jai) is to repent, and to see someone else’s heart (เห็นใจ; hen-jai) is to empathize. My tongues have been the paradigm through which I have comprehended and constructed the universe as I know it. I have always thought through the body, and it is irrefutably impossible to renounce that fact, this very body I live within.


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