The Interpreter’s Journal

From the Author: Benjawan Poomsan Becker

After working for many years writing books for English speakers to learn Thai and Lao, I’m finally able to tell my life story with my new book, The Interpreter’s Journal.

Most people know me as a teacher of the Thai language and as the author of Thai and Lao language books. In the United States I have another flourishing career as a legal and medical Thai and Lao interpreter. I work in the courts, law offices, jails, hospitals, mental health facilities, and I’m also employed by businesses and corporations mainly in the State of California.

I’ve worked on over 2,000 cases over the past 15 years and assisted thousand of immigrants from Thailand and Laos. I have helped hundreds of Thai-Western couples who ended up in the legal system maze.

Follow my very personal journey starting in Thailand, the Land of Smiles. See how the influence of my family, Thai culture, Buddhism, meeting foreigners in Thailand, traveling abroad and living in the United States formed the catalyst for me to master several languages, become a professional interpreter and write numerous books on learning the Thai and Lao languages.

I recommend that lawyers, judges and other legal professionals read this book since it will help them understand how interpreters work and provide insight that should make any case with an interpreter proceed more smoothly.

There are 22 easy-to-read chapters in this book. Many can be read separately and out of order, depending on what you are interested in. However, it’s recommended that you read them in order, especially the first six chapters, to understand my personal background. The table of contents has been coded to help you find the chapters you want to read first.

This book does not explain details of particular cases, or describe any cases that are pending. Some names and locations have been changed, and the content does not invade anyone’s privacy or violate any copyrighted materials. All names of individuals in this book have been changed to protect their identity and privacy, except those for which permission has been granted.

I hope you will find this book both entertaining and educational.




  • Acknowledgments
  • Why The Interpreter’s Journal?
  • From The Author
  • How It Started (P)
  • Family Life In Thailand (P)
  • Life In The Village (P)
  • Mom’s Place (P)
  • Two Influential Americans (P)
  • Khon Kaen Via Kobe (P)
  • Going To America (P)
  • Going To Court (I)
  • Thai & Lao Language Services (I)
  • Thai And Lao People In America (S)
  • Understanding Cultures (S)
  • Thai-Western Relationships (S)
  • My Own Intercultural Relationships (P)
  • Family Matters (I)
  • Criminal and Civil Cases (I)
  • Immigration Matters (I)
  • Other Assignments (I)
  • Mistakes And Misinterpretations (I)
  • Giving Back (P)
  • Trips To Thailand (S)
  • Studying Foreign Languages (S)
  • What Happened Next (P)
  • Glossary
  • About Benjawan’s Published Works

Key to Chapter Content

P Personal – Benjawan’s personal story
I Interpreting – How interpreters work
S Social – Thai-Western relationship stories,
Thailand, Thai and Lao people, languages

Why The Interpreter’s Journal?

The Interpreter’s Journal is the first memoir by a professional interpreter, providing a revealing account of work carried out in legal settings including courtrooms and jails. The story is also a personal one, relating the author’s journey from humble beginnings in rural Thailand to become a professional interpreter in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Earthquakes in Haiti, tsunamis in Thailand, war in Iraq – all of these devastating events, and others, raise the need for interpreters. Immigrants to the United States, the FBI, Interpol, international aid workers, and travelers needing emergency surgery in Russia or Brazil – all require the services of a good interpreter.

Adoption agencies and parents wishing to adopt children from another country; architects and engineers involved in projects overseas; international banking and financial institutions; companies with foreign manufacturing plants or joint ventures with foreign partners; US military personnel serving abroad; travelers and long distance romantics – all may need the assistance of interpreters.

The responsibilities and importance of interpreters has increased so dramatically that they are now indispensable to many agencies and institutions such as law enforcement, judicial systems, social services, hospitals, and schools. Gone are the days when everyone around you spoke the same language.

Learn how interpreters work, the challenges they face and how to work with them by following the author’s very personal journey starting in the Land of Smiles. See how the influence of her family, Thai culture, Buddhism, meeting foreigners in Thailand, traveling abroad and living in the United States formed the catalyst for the author to master several languages, become a professional interpreter and write numerous books on learning the Thai and Lao languages.

This book is an entertaining and informative read for legal professionals, those who work with interpreters, expats living in Thailand and Laos or anybody who simply enjoys a good read.

Some people will be attracted to the personal experience of the author, the background information on Thailand and Thai and Lao people, while others will be drawn to the Thai-Western relationships descriptions. Still others will be engrossed by the author’s first hand accounts of working within the legal system in the United States and the practical and useful information she imparts.

The experiences of interpreters described in this book are applicable to any country where there are cultural or language differences and people need to make themselves understood.


How It Started

“You must be the girl that people told me about.”

She was a beautiful young woman with black hair down to her waist. Her colorful sarong made her a striking sight in the plain surroundings of the restaurant.

“I’m looking for someone to help me,” she said. “And they told me to come here.” She was in her early twenties, and since I was the younger one, I instinctively greeted her with a wai – hands pressed together, prayer-like – to show respect.

Her words carried a sense of need, and her eyes darted around to see if anyone was within earshot. “I was told that you speak good English,” she continued. “And that you teach kids. I’ve got these letters from my German boyfriend. He’s been writing me in English. I kind of understand them, but I want you to translate them properly for me, and I want you to help me write him back in English.”

Moments before, I’d been in the room above my mother’s simple restaurant in Yasothon, northeast Thailand, studying for my high-school exams, but unbeknown to me, this event would open a new world of opportunity. How could I have known – this small-town Thai girl of fifteen – that this day would be the beginning of my career as a professional interpreter, and that this chance meeting would, years later, lead me to the Federal and State courts of California?

I learned that her nickname was Oy, which means sugarcane, so I called her Pee Oy because she was older than me. In Thailand, where long first names and family names are the norm, almost everyone has a short nickname, often of only one syllable, and often with a colorful meaning. My formal name is Benjawan, meaning five colors, and my nickname is Ja-Ae, which means peek-a-boo – the same thing that people say to a baby to elicit a smile or a giggle. I was a rascal as a baby, so my parents decided that this name fit me perfectly. Thai society is highly stratified, and each person is regarded by his or her status, which is determined by factors like wealth, education, or family connections. The most obvious indicator is age; the older the person, the higher their status. The Thai word pee is used in front of a person’s name to politely address someone who is senior, to show that you respect that person like an older brother or sister. Oy, on the other hand, addressed me as Nong Ja-Ae, nong being the polite way to address a younger person.

Oy handed me three envelopes, each addressed in precise handwriting, and I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful foreign stamps. I opened each letter and read a paragraph at a time, then translated the meaning into Thai.

The letters were filled with sweet words and promises to take care of Oy. I was lucky because they were quite simple, so I didn’t have any problems with the words. But they seemed the most romantic words I’d ever read, and I must have blushed a bit. I explained softly so that nobody could overhear her story and start gossiping. But after the final letter, I couldn’t contain myself any longer, and blurted out, “Sounds like you’ll be going to Germany soon.”

Oy looked around to see if anyone had heard. “Yes, he wants me to go to live there. I think he wants to marry me. Can you help me write back? Okay?”

I didn’t need to think for a second. “Sure, I can do that.”

As the delicious aromas of Thai cooking filled the air, she revealed to me her hopes, her joys, and her love for her German boyfriend. I took notes, then excused myself and scurried upstairs to find the special writing paper I’d been given as a New Year present. Only the best paper would do for this letter. Back downstairs, Oy sat in amazement as I composed her reply in English, then rewrote it in my finest penmanship.

After the letter was finished, Oy and I talked for a long time as customers came in, ate their meals, left and were replaced by others. She told me that she had met her boyfriend when she left her village to go to work in the beach resort of Pattaya. I’d heard about girls from the area going to Pattaya and getting jobs. Many of them sent money back to their parents, and it seemed like a good and honorable thing to do. I was still quite innocent at this age. I had no idea what kind of work Oy was doing in Pattaya, but I was sure that she had been lucky to meet and fall in love with such a nice man.

Her boyfriend eventually had to return to Germany, and had been sending her money so she could stay in her village and not have to work far from her home and family. I believed that he must be a wonderful person to send money and take care of Oy and her family – the kind of thing that earns much respect in Thailand.

Nobody understood English in Oy’s village. That’s why she had to ask around for someone who could help her. And this was the first time I realized that I could “make merit” – do a good deed and accumulate good karma – by helping someone through my language ability.

It also impressed me when Oy handed me 200 baht for the work. With the baht then at eighteen to the US dollar, my first translation job had earned me eleven dollars. It had only taken two hours, and at fifteen years old I had never earned so much money. Wow. A lot of people around there would have to work for days to earn that much. I started to get the idea that this might be a good career to pursue.

I used my newfound wealth to buy audiotapes and English-language books from ads in the English-language Student Weekly. I was inspired, and I set about my English studies more intensely.

Oy came back to see me one more time, about six weeks later, for another translation. It was during Songkran, in April – the traditional New Year water festival – and the hottest time of the year. I came home soaking wet from the water festivities in town, and saw her at one of the tables near the back of the restaurant. She was happy to see me, greeting me with a big smile, animated as she waved a new letter in the air. I ran upstairs and quickly changed into dry clothes. My mom had brought Oy some noodle soup, but she stopped eating as soon as I was ready for her. Yes, she had received a marriage proposal, and wanted to write back with her answer – an emphatic yes. She also wanted to make a note of her dowry requirements.

I never did see Oy again. I assumed she’d worked out all the details and was happily in the arms of her German husband. Not only did Oy provide me with my first translation assignment, she also gave me my first glimpse of a Thai-Western relationship. Before this, I’d never dreamed that a Thai girl could marry a Western man and live in another country.


Thai And Lao People In America

I feel blessed to be able to live in the United States. I truly enjoy and appreciate my life here, and I love the country just as much as my homeland of Thailand. America is what it is because of the contributions of the millions of immigrants who settled here from all over the world. In the past half-century, joining them has been an influx of migrants from Southeast Asia, including arrivals from Thailand and Laos. These Asian people have brought along their cultures and values and have contributed a great deal to the communal melting pot.

The timing and reasons for the Thai and Lao migrations to the US are quite different. Lao people started coming soon after the end of the Vietnam War and when the communist government took power in 1975. More than 300,000 Lao refugees crossed the border into Thailand and waited in camps until they got permission to move permanently to other countries. Most of the refugees were ethnic Hmong, a hilltribe people who fought for the US against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communists. The Hmong have their own culture and language, and inhabit the mountains that stretch across southern China and the northern regions of Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. The Mien and Khmu are two other ethnic groups that come from Laos but speak their own languages. Some of these hilltribe people speak a little Lao, but many only speak their own language. This occasionally becomes a problem when a court requests a Lao interpreter and it turns out that the client is actually from one of these hilltribes and can’t communicate in Lao or English. Luckily there are now professional interpreters in California for all of these hilltribe languages. Some of the Lao immigrants have incredible stories about how they fought in and escaped from the war in Indochina. These older Lao people were the largest group I interpreted for. But their children and the kids that were born in the US all speak English now and don’t need an interpreter.

Unlike the majority of Lao people who entered the US as refugees, the Thais came to the US back in the 1950s and 60s for academic study. They were royalty and high society who could afford to travel abroad…. The bulk of my translation business is comprised of Thais who have recently moved to the US. And the majority of these clients are Thai women married to American men…..

Author’s Comment: This chapter (and Chapter 11) is a good summary of how Thai and Lao people live and work in the United States. You’ll learn about the background these people bring with them to the U.S. and understand why it is important to know the culture of people you are interpreting for.


Thai-Western Relationships

The majority of marriage assignments that I work on are unions between Thai women and American men. Thai men do occasionally marry Western women, but I’d say this represents less than five percent of these intercultural couples. I’ve also interpreted for more Thai-Western gay couples than Thai men with American women.

There are many Thai immigrants in the United States, but the largest number with legal visas, I believe, are Thai women married to American men. These Thai women enter the US as tourists, students, au pairs, or on a fiancée visa. They eventually get married and begin the arduous process of securing a green card, also known as permanent resident status. Most of my experience with Thai-Western relationships is with Thai-American couples, but the stories are similar for the Thai women living in other countries.

A lot of Western men looking for love aren’t necessarily seeking a Thai woman. There are entertainment venues in Thailand that cater exclusively to gay men. Lesbians also go to Thailand to find their Thai darling. Same-sex couples experience all the same bureaucratic hurdles, and more, that Thai women face when they apply to come to the US. As with any collective description, my observations are generalizations of the experiences of the Thai women I know. Many of these women certainly did not work as prostitutes, and not all Thai women come from poor families. Many Thai women will not find themselves described in these pages because their individual experiences and their paths to America or any other Western country were different. As with all portrayals of a group of people, there are many exceptions to the rule, and the same applies here.

Before the 1960s Thais had little contact with Western visitors and tourists. That changed during the Vietnam War, when US Air Force personnel were stationed in Thailand. A lot of the servicemen in the war came to Thailand for their “rest and relaxation” when they had leave from duty. The tiny fishing village of Pattaya became a huge entertainment center, as did the Patpong area of Bangkok, catering to the needs and desires of these Western visitors. The attraction was mutual; the exotic Thai women intrigued the GIs, and the Western men were foreign and exciting to the Thai women. Plus, these new visitors had money to spend, and spend they did. Not all these relationships were simply sexual business deals; many of the couples fell in love, and later the Thai girlfriends became wives and American citizens. Before the influx of Western men into the country, Thai women married Thai men, and that was it. They didn’t come into contact with tourists, the Internet hadn’t opened the world to unlimited possibilities, and Hollywood movies with handsome leading men didn’t make it to the village screens. But times have changed and the alternatives have increased dramatically.

Many Thai women marry Western men to escape economic hardship, to start anew after failed marriages with Thai men, and simply because of the allure of the handsome foreigner. The second group of Thai women that married and migrated to the US and became my clients, in general, were working in the service industry in Thailand.

Thailand’s tourist industry now provides any level of comfort from rock-bottom guesthouses to elegant and expensive spas, resorts, golf courses, and yachting facilities. Traveling in Thailand is easier and, in general, less expensive than any of the other Southeast Asian nations. Consequently, with more tourists coming to Thailand, the Thai ladies now have more options when it comes to choosing a husband.

Until recently, most Western men who didn’t speak Thai had little opportunity to meet any Thai people beyond the limited circle of service-industry personnel in hotels, restaurants, and shops. Most educated and affluent Thais had little need for contact with foreign tourists if these visitors were unable to speak Thai. The Thai people that tourists came into contact with most were those who had come to Bangkok and other cities to make money to send back to their families in the villages. For taxi-drivers, waitresses, maids, and shop workers, contact with the tourists was inevitable.

All it takes is for one Thai woman from the village to marry a foreigner, and the stage is set. If she begins to send money to her family and their standard of living increases, then marrying a foreigner becomes a positive aspiration for other girls in the village. And when she visits home, she’ll usually be well-dressed and maybe driving a Mercedes – the ultimate status symbol in Thailand. She is then hi-so in the village. What her life is like with her husband, most people in the village will never know, since she’ll only talk about the positives. She’ll exaggerate a little, making life overseas sound more glamorous than it is, and she won’t usually talk about the hardships. Yes, some of these Thai women are happily married and in a loving relationship, but many struggle every day in a life that they don’t particularly enjoy. However, the most important consideration is if her family back home is better off. These women from the service industry usually need translation and interpretation services quite often. In some cases, for the same client, I’ve started with birth certificates and other documents for the green cards, prenuptial agreement, marriage documents, adoption forms, and then when things didn’t work out, the divorce settlement and negotiation proceedings and court appearances.

But not all Thai women who are married to Westerners come from poor families or work in the service industry. With the advent of the Internet and online dating sites, educated and affluent Westerners and Thais are able to meet like they never would have been able to in the past. More of my recent customers belong to a third group of Thai-Western relationships that began online…..

Author’s Comment: This is a must-read chapter for those who are interested in having a relationship with someone from the Orient and from Southeast Asia in particular. It can be adapted to many countries close to Thailand, such as, Laos, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Burmese, Indonesia and the Philippines. People who have read the book Thailand Fever will find this chapter very informative.


Criminal and Civil Cases

As an interpreter registered with the Judicial Council of California, most of my assignments are in both criminal and civil court cases. I work in federal and trial courts (also known as Superior Court). I never work in Appellate Courts, since there are no witnesses or defendants called. The Superior Court tries all criminal cases, including felonies, misdemeanors, and traffic cases. Superior Court also hears civil cases, which include family law, juvenile, probate, and civil law suits.

A criminal defendant who cannot fully understand English, or who is deaf, has a constitutional right in the United States to be provided with a competent interpreter in every court procedure from his initial arraignment to final sentencing. He is entitled to understand all of the proceedings in order to discuss his case with his lawyer and defend himself. This includes interviews with his lawyer in jail.

There are plenty of opportunities for immigrants in America to get into trouble with the law. But there are a few types of cases that seem to appear more often. I tend to be hired more frequently for cases involving drunk driving, domestic violence, hit-and-run, drug dealing, and prostitution, but only occasionally for Thai and Lao people who have been arrested for selling alcohol to minors in Thai restaurants, or selling illegal lottery tickets in Asian grocery stores.

A fair number of drug cases involve Thai and Lao people, both young and old. Some are charged with possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia, while others are charged as dealers. These types of cases appear frequently in juvenile court. Dealing drugs is an easy way to make money quickly. For the most part, the Thai and Lao people who break the law by dealing or using drugs are in the US legally, meaning they have a green card or are US citizens. It’s my observation that most illegal immigrants try to avoid having anything to do with the police or breaking the law because they’re afraid of being deported…..

Author’s Comment: I have interpreted on enough cases in civil and criminal matters to fill another book or two.

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