“Terrible Karma” Cambodian Female Garment Worker Song, with translation

From a story by Uon Chin, Radio Free Asia, accessed on August 9, of a union rally in Phnom Penh, from July 25, of an estimate 5-7 thousand unionists.  A very sad song by female garment workers, titled “Terrible Karma.”  I typed out the song lyrics, and have included a first attempt at a translation (I am a bit intimidated by poetic translation, and found some of the lines difficult; suggestions for correction would be lovely, in the comments), below, after the break….

[update August 27, 2010: conversations with Chanroeun Pa, of  Cambodian Translation Link and Trent Walker of the Ho Center of Buddhist Studies at Stanford University have helped me amend some of the lines; thanks, Chanroeun and Trent!  The good things below are owed to the composers of the song, the bad things that remain are my fault.]

បទ «កម្ម​កំណាច​ឫស្សា»

ឃ្លាត​ឆ្ងាយ​ស្រុក ក្នុង​ទ្រូង​កើត​ទុក្ខ ឥត​ល្ហែ
អ្នក​ម្តាយ​កូន​នឹក​ម្លេ៉ះ​​ទេ​ នឹក​ស្រែ​ស្នាម​ច្រត​ថ្មីៗ
នឹក​គ្រប់​ម៉ាត់​ ​ពាក្យ​ម្តាយ​លោក​ផ្តែផ្តាំ​ស្រី
កុំ​ឈ្លក់​ភ្លើង​ពណ៌​អប្រីយ៏ ឱ្យ​គេ​ស្តី​ថា​ស្រី​មិន​ល្អ។

ស្រី​កាត់​ដេរ ដឹង​ទេ​វេទនាយា៉ង​ណា?
ព្រោះ​តែ​ទឹក​ប្រាក់​ដុល្លារ ហេតុ​ថា​គ្រួសារ​ក្រ​ក្រី
ពេល​កូន​ឈឺ គ្មាន​ម្តាយ​នៅ​ជិត​ថ្នម​បី


ឱ!​ មែ៉​អើយ​ម៉ែ គ្មាន​ស្គាល់​យប់​ថ្ងៃ

ប្រាក់​មួយ​ខែ បែង​ចែក​កូន​គ្មាន​សល់​អ្វី
ថ្លៃ​ផ្ទះ​ទឹក ភ្លើង ចំណី

ស្រក់​ទឹក​ភ្នែក សង្វេគ​ម្នាក់​ឯង​កា
ចិត្ត​ខ្លោច​ផ្សា ពោរពេញ​ដោយ​ទុក្ខ
អារម្មណ៏​វិល​វល់ សង្ឃឹម​ថ្ងៃ​មួយ​បាន​សុខ

វិលវិញ​ទៅ​ជួប​មុខ អ្នក​ដ៏​មាន​គុណ​៕

Song “Terrible Karma”
translation by Erik W. Davis

Distant from the village, the ache in our chests works without a break.
Mother, I miss you;  I miss the rice fields after harvest.
We remember all the words of advice, our honored mothers sent with us:
“Don’t be lured by the colored lights of immorality; this will let them call you ‘bad women.'”

Garment Working Women! Don’t you know what type of suffering this is?
It’s Cash Money causes family poverty,
When your children are sick, and mom is too far to comfort and hold.

Thunder and rain and homesickness:
This horrible, terrible, jealous karma
Overtime with no time for rest, and
Ordered around by gangs of bosses

O! Ma! Ma! I can’t tell night from day,
and after we divide it for bills, there’s nothing left of one month’s salary:
the price of rent, water, electricity, and food –
what could be left, to send home to the village?

Anxious tears, and all alone, with
no one to help solve our problems.
Flooded with anguish and suffering,
Dizzy and fruitless, hoping one day for health;

Spinning, until the day we return to our beloved mothers.

[Please that this translation is in no way an attempt at a literal translation.  So for instance, in the second to last line, I say “feeling dizzy and fruitless” to parse “អារម្មណ៏​វិល​វល់” in order to take advantage, for the English-only eye, the resonance of the word វិល in the compound វិលវល់, which seems to me especially important, given the role of mass dizzy spells in Cambodian garment factories.]


6 thoughts on ““Terrible Karma” Cambodian Female Garment Worker Song, with translation

  1. Pingback: “Terrible Karma” Cambodian Female Garment Worker Song, with translation (via imagining the real world) « imagining the real world

  2. Pingback: Documentation of Terrible Karma: U-Haul truck as Mobile Exhibition Space | Experimental Geography in Practice

  3. Merle says:

    Dear David,

    I just wanted to thank you for the translation and to tell you that this song partly inspired (and features in) an audio visual installation that myself and Adeola Enigbokan created to mark the centenary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York on the 25th of March 2011.

    Terrible Karma: reverberations of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought together oral histories of Triangle fire survivors with audio recordings of mega-scale garment factories in Qingyuan, China and protest cries and songs of present-day garment workers in Bangladesh and Cambodia to invoke the contemporary and global resonances of the Triangle fire.

    The title – Terrible Karma – refered to both the title of the protest song sung by Cambodian female garment workers at a union rally in Phnom Penh (July 2010) you hihglight here and to the idea that events of the garment industry past continue to haunt the present, that injustice unresolved always comes back.

    The work arose out of the curators – Adeola Enigbokan and Merle Patchett’s – mutual desire to mark the centenary of the Triangle factory fire whilst also exploring the constraints and conditions in which garment workers continue to work, live and die.

    For more information on the work go to
    And to see documentation go to

    Thanks agains for translating the Song Terrible Karma as it really fed into how we developed the installation.

    Best wishes,

    Merle Patchett

    • Dear Merle and Adeola, I’m so very pleased that my translation of the Cambodian unionists song “terrible karma” was helpful to you in the production of this amazing-looking work of art/action/mobile education station/commemoration (!). Your take on the relationship between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire 100 years ago and the ongoing factory fires throughout the world is dead-on – as a global humanity, we remain haunted by the crimes and behavior of those who feel that murder can be moved without repercussion. You probably know that one of the owners of the Triangle factory was found locking his workers into a different factory less than a year later.

      These workers are the courageous people whose self-organization and actions in their own defense (quite often, literally physical self-defense) are my heroes, and I’m extremely impressed by your actions in support of them.

      In respectful solidarity,

      Erik Davis

  4. Pingback: Speaking with Spectres: Experimental Geographies in Practice | Experimental Geography in Practice

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