translating vietnamese literature

A recent column by Rick Gekoski in The Guardian about how literature in translation lost out in the recent Man Booker International Prize award got me thinking (again) about this precarious art.

The Guardian article summarizes the case against literature in translation, primarily through a series of quotes including the dismissive Robert Frost—”poetry is what gets lost in translation”—and the seriously pessimistic Umberto Eco: “Translation is the art of failure”. The article also repeats more playful and nuanced unbelievers: Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik—like “kissing a bride through a veil”—and of course Yevgeny Yevtushenko: “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.”

The case for the affirmative is put almost equally succinctly though on a very different level by Anna Clark writing on The Bookslut:

“The primer on why literature in translation matters goes something like this:

1. Our worldview, and our literature, suffocates when it exists in a closed-loop, nourished only by its own reflection.

2. There’s some good shit out there.”

Vietnamese literature in translation

Vietnamese literature in translation

I am increasingly aware of the surprising number of people translating Vietnamese literature and poetry into English. American poets like Bruce Weigl and John Balaban. Long-term collaborations between different individuals and teams like Dan Duffy and the Viet Nam Literature Project team, Peter Zinoman and Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm, Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson, Wayne Karlin, Phan Thanh Hao, Nguyen Qui Duc, Bac Hoai Tran, Dana Sachs, Rosemary Nguyen, Ton-That Quynh-Du, Thúy Tranviet and others. Lady Borton working with various writers and historians in Hanoi. The Tale of Kieu by Nguyễn Du has inspired a wide range of efforts both directly from Vietnamese to English and via Nguyen Khac Vien’s French edition, including earlier versions by Le Xuan Thuy, Huỳnh Sanh Thông and Michael Conseil as well as more recent partial or complete versions by Arno Abbey, Vladislav Zhukov and the poet Timothy Allen.

Various blogs like Out on a limb in Ho Chi Minh City, The Westlake Review in Hanoi and others provide sporadic offerings borne out of curiosity, affection for Vietnamese language and culture, and quite probably also out of contrariness, an embrace of the obscure and abstruse and—perhaps the same thing—bragging rights among this absolutely tiny and somewhat random crowd of foreign Vietnamese literature enthusiasts. But they also contribute to wider understanding and accessibility of Vietnamese poetry and literature.

I suppose that poets who translate other poets must face a particular risk of preferring beauty over faithfulness. It is a constant tension anyway, and no doubt rendered more difficult, and seductive, when you have genuine creative and original talent in the destination language. But perhaps they also have a greater range of vocabulary and technical skills available to them, providing some additional resources for faithfulness and precision.

Past Continuous by Nguyen Khai, translated by Phan Thanh Hao and Wayne Karlin

Nguyễn Khải’s Past Continuous (Gặp gỡ cuối năm), translated by Thanh Hao Phan and Wayne Karlin

There are also significant differences in the experience of translation depending on your depth of knowledge of the source language: for bilingual or high fluency speakers, the poem is more accessible on initial reading, although a thorough and careful translation—like any serious mono-lingual analysis or study as opposed to reading for pleasure—will still require significant reflection and quite possibly recourse to background references and literary dictionaries.

For those with less expertise, the pleasure of translation may be more in the detective work and slow discovery of at least some of the layers of meaning that are present. The subleties of Vietnamese pronouns certainly lead to ‘a-ha’ moments when you are able to fix exactly who is who is speaking to (or about) whom.

The question of layers also relates to context and culture. John Balaban, American poet and translator of Hồ Xuân Hương, provided this lovely reflection back in 1999 on the challenges of translating Vietnamese poetry, focused among other things on the rich heritage of traditional ca dao folk sayings and oral poetry that inform Vietnamese writers.

It is certainly easier translating from a second language into your first rather than the other way round. It is also intriguing that some of the now passing generation of older Vietnamese translators into English and French may have started their own formal education foundation in French rather than Vietnamese. Genuine bilingual fluency is still quite rare (Nguyen Qui Duc would be a leading example). Normally, second-language translators will need close consultation with (ideally more than one) informed native speaker in whichever direction they are working.

In the end, though, any translation requires judgement calls: meaning might be bent but hopefully not broken, so that what is found in translation will be more than what is lost.

~ by hanoi ink on June 3, 2011.

5 Responses to “translating vietnamese literature”

  1. How could “Gặp gỡ cuối năm” be translated into “Past Continuous”? Btw, be reminded that I’m still waiting for your translation of some certain poems hah😉

  2. It is a good example of the difficulties of translation, and also of the creative role of the translators.

    I guess the phrase “Gặp gỡ cuối năm” (Meeting at the end of the year) is immediately meaningful in Vietnam in common usage and particularly in the context of the Lunar New Year. In Nguyễn Khải’s novel the main characters—from memory a writer, a progressive priest, a female former resistance fighter now local official, and a journalist who worked for the Americans while secretly spying for the resistance (there is also an older and wonderfully independent character who I recall formerly ran the plantation and now tends the rubber trees)—have a tradition of meeting together on a rubber plantation where they lived some very intense moments during the war. I suppose it implies that they have become ‘family’ to each other, more important than any other claims of love, affection and kinship at that important time in the Vietnamese year. There is also some poignance in that several of the characters don’t have some of the ‘regular’ close family: the priest is of course not married (although his choice to be with this group rather than his brother priests and church is also significant), I think the spy is based on a real character whose wife and children left during the American withdrawal, the woman resistance fighter never married, etc.

    In English, and for non-Vietnamese readers, the resonances of this phrase would be lost in translation to quite an extent. Westerners normally celebrate Christmas with family and New Year with friends, but it is not completely equivalent to Vietnamese Tet (among many other differences, we don’t have the same tradition of visiting relatives, colleagues and close friends that occurs in Vietnam at this time).

    On the other hand, ‘Past Continuous’—a verb tense known to anyone who has studied grammar—is a creative use of the phrase and implies the idea of these profound past experiences and relationships continuing to bear on the present, which is very much the spirit of the book. So it is probably a ‘better’ title in English than just using a direct translation of the original.

    One curious twist on all this is that the formal study of grammar has fallen in and out of favour with Western educators in English speaking countries over the years, so that some generations of readers may not be so familiar with the term. On the other hand, I suppose anyone who has learned English as a second language (including many Vietnamese people) will know it well.

    Phew! It is all rather complicated. Anyway, I am slowly chipping away at those poem translations, may have some time over the weekend.

  3. I think Past Continuous is quite a clever word choice. I read somewhere that a translator is meant to be a secret master of the difference of languages, and choosing a familiar term to English speakers for a novel title works better than the unfamiliar original phrase.

    Btw, Nguyen Qui Duc is an outstanding case isn’t he? I’ve seen lots of people claiming to be bilingual, but his command of two languages that are so worlds apart takes me by surprise.

  4. Garcia Marquez is quoted to have said that the English translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than the original. I have no idea what context it was taken from, but what is your opinion than a translation outperforming the original?

  5. Thanks for this. Great post. Going to come back and reread it later.

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