translating foreign literature
Moving around different bookshops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City lately, and following various websites about new books published in Vietnam, I’ve been thinking about the increasing range of foreign-language texts being translated into Vietnamese.
Of course, high quality translations of some European classics have been available since the colonial period. Aside from the incredible architecture, the first thing that foreigners usually learn about the Cao Đài religion in the south is that Les Misérables and Hunchback of Notre Dame author Victor Hugo is considered a saint. Recently in Hanoi there is renewed interest in the work of important early 20th century essayists and translators such as Phạm Quỳnh and Vũ Văn Vịnh, who brought an enormous energy to translating French and other European texts.
Connections with the Soviet bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement have also resulted in a range of texts being translated. It was in Vietnam that I first heard of the Turkish author Aziz Nesin (Azit Nêxin), whose humorous tales are widely loved by people now in their early 30s and older. Likewise Russian children’s author Nikolay Nosov’s trilogy about the anti-hero Neznaika (known in Vietnamese as Mít Đặc) and his friends.
More recently, a much greater range of Western literature has been translated into Vietnamese, as well as books from elsewhere in Asia. A few years ago, it seemed that every smart 20-something Vietnamese woman was reading Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (Rừng Na-uy).
At the height of the global Harry Potter craze, the books were released in installments by Trẻ (Youth) Publishing House so that each translated section could be rushed to readers. Self-help books, political and business biographies and pop-finance texts are multiplying seemingly daily. Japanese comics are extremely popular, particularly the Đôrêmon series. The Archie cartoon series from the US was also recently translated, though I think much less popular.
On a more cerebral level, former Vice-Minister of Science Chu Hảo has been working with Sự Thật (Truth) Publishing House of the VIetnam Union of Science and Technology Organizations (VUSTA) and various translators to issue more than 100 titles in philosophy, including Rousseau, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Noam Chomsky and de Tocqueville. Separately, novels by Satre are available, and translators like Bùi Văn Nam Sơn are tackling the works of Hegel and Kant.
In all this amazing output one small, tattered book recently caught my eye. Amazingly, back in 1988 someone was translating The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth. I suppose about the same time I was reading a copy of this book that I found on my father’s bookshelves. How and why did this early-1970s English thriller, with its Nazi hunters, secret organizations, crime reporters and biological weapons plots come to be published in Vietnam right at the start of the Đổi mới period?