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The world is not aware of Vietnamese literature because of a lack of translations

The translated literature shelf at a Fahasa Bookstore in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Noi buon chien tranh (The Sorrow of War), seen in the photo, is one of very few Vietnamese novels that have been translated into foreign languages.

Vietnamese literature has yet to become famous internationally mainly because few works have been translated into foreign languages. The best way to popularize them is to translate more of them, Dr. Ivo Vasiliev, a linguist and academic who translated President Ho Chi Minh's "The Prison Diary" into Czech, said.

Vietweek: You have translated some Vietnamese literature into Czech. What motivated you to do this?

Ivo Vasiliev: I don't understand much about literature, especially poetry. But in my country there are many Vietnamese people, including vocational students. A friend of mine, a Vietnamese professor, started to collect love poems, which young ladies usually kept in their diaries. This was the time of war, so the subject was not much encouraged officially.

We started from the reality that young people like those poems. And we collected them. My friend explained to me the poems' meaning, which was sometimes rather difficult for me to grasp. At that time I had a young Czech friend who was a poet. He was very enthusiastic about trying to translate poetry. My Vietnamese friend gave us some poems. I translated them into Czech, not word by word, but the meaning. The young poet has created beautiful poems from them. So there were three persons in the production line. I started to translate poems in 1972.

The first poem I got from the Vietnamese friend was Huong tham by Phan Thi Thanh Nhan.

At first, I didn't understand what the title meant, but my friend explained to me that it meant "the scent deep in the heart." My young Czech friend liked it very much, so I gave it to him in the morning, and he brought me the translation in the afternoon. He published the poem in Czech in a newspaper under his name.

It went on and we translated 50-60 poems by authors like Nam Giang and Xuan Dieu. I liked very much a long poem, Bai tho ve hanh phuc (The poem about happiness), by Duong Huong Ly. All the poems are about love. We had the poems published in Czech newspapers.

With this experience, in 1980, I tried to translate "The Prison Diary" of President Ho Chi Minh, and I gave it to my Czech friend. To make people understand the diary better, I translated it from its original in Chinese. The diary had been written in Chinese. It was a very special translation. "The Prison Diary" was published in 1985.

Since then I have not translated any Vietnamese poems, because I had a lot of other work to do. I am one of many people who speak Vietnamese. I researched linguistics and worked as an interpreter and teacher. I also wrote a lot of newspaper articles.

Among poems you translated into Czech, which impressed you the most?


"The Prison Diary." It is a very special work. There are very interesting poems in "The Prison Diary" which I like more than some others - for example Troi hung (Daybreak), Nghe tieng gia gao (To the sound of rice pounding), and Hoc danh co (Learn to play chess). I was extremely impressed by them. Some others like Huong tham and Bai tho ve hanh phuc were also very impressive.

What difficulties did you face in translating the poems?

You had to retain the original meaning. The other problem is to make it sound like Czech poetry. They may be very good poems in Vietnamese, but may lose their interesting nature when translated into Czech. That's why I decided to work with a poet.

I have some knowledge, which is important to render the original source into Czech, but not in poetic styles. My friend could do it much better than me.

What was the most interesting aspect of translating the works?

The most interesting aspect, of course, was finding how to express the meaning, and what the beauty in Vietnamese is. The translation sometimes is far from the original version, because the cultures are different. For example, the poem Nghe tieng gia gao has the phrase "trang tua bong" meaning white like cotton. But, people in my country do not have the concept, so we translated into "snow white."

How do people in your country like the Vietnamese works?

They like them very much.

Vietnamese literature is not famous abroad. How can it become more popular?

They need to be translated more. There are a few people who translate Vietnamese literature into foreign languages. Recently, some people who studied Vietnamese also translated the novel Vo bo (Edge Break) by Nguyen Dinh Thi, and poems by Ho Xuan Huong.

Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) was also translated into French. But it was not well-known.

Very few people read it because it was published in 1958 and never again.

Will you continue to visit Vietnam and help take Vietnamese literature to the Czech Republic?

Yes, of course. I have two rather big tasks: One is to make good Czech-Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Czech dictionaries.

It is a pressing task. I have started to work on it with a Vietnamese colleague. Then I do some teaching for Vietnamese children. I teach Czech to some five children who studied in Czech schools.

In future maybe I will translate some poems by Tran Nhan Tong (a Vietnamese king) into Czech.

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