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A meeting portends exciting happenings for Vietnamese literature, but it's no time to get carried away.

As Hanoi prepares to make the most of its 1,000th anniversary next year, the Vietnamese Writers Association is making a momentous move of its own.

With blessings from the highest authority in the country, the association will organize a major national conference to promote Vietnamese literature abroad.

This is a much more ambitious undertaking than a similar event organized seven years ago that gathered around 16 foreign guests and cost a few hundred million dong.

The six-day conference next January envisages 300 foreign translators, publishers and others interested in Vietnamese literature, from 38 countries as well as an exhibition at the National Library in Hanoi showcasing Vietnamese works that have been translated into foreign languages and vice versa.

"I estimate only 50 foreign guests will actually attend, but that would be good enough for a start," said Hoang Thuy Toan, a veteran translator in charge of the exhibition.

More than two decades into the nation's shift to a market-based economy, the association feels it is high time that Vietnamese literature has a larger presence in the international market.

It is not that local literature has been languishing in obscurity.

In its heyday, the Soviet Union did a systematic job of introducing Vietnamese writers. Local works translated into Russian ranged from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands of copies.

Classical works such as Ho Chi Minh's Prison Diary, Nam Cao's Chi Pheo and To Hoai's The Adventures of a Cricket had been translated from Russian into many other languages.

Over the past two decades, several countries including the US, the Republic of Korea, Sweden and Japan have also started translating works of Vietnamese authors. A few, especially Bao Ninh and Nguyen Huy Thiep, have attained more popularity worldwide than the rest.

Yet, all things considered, Vietnamese literature isn't as well known as it merits.

For instance, in the US, the country with the highest number of guests (26) invited to the conference, American poet Bruce Weigl said the market could easily absorb many more Vietnamese titles.

Proponents believe Vietnamese literature's international standing shouldn't be left to individual and spontaneous efforts that have characterized post-USSR translations, or what literary critic Pham Xuan Nguyen called "mere border trade."

There may be other reasons explaining why local literature is little known worldwide, such as the still restricted local publishing market. "But the most important one is that we don't know how to introduce ourselves," said Nguyen, also vice president of the Hanoi Writers Association.

This time around, the Writers Association aims to set that right with as thorough an introduction as they can pull off.

Association chairman, poet Nguyen Huu Thinh, recently told the press that the conference's biggest purpose was to provide an overview of local literature which is so interesting that participants can sign translation contracts then and there.

Indeed, besides an anthology of Vietnamese literature published in Vietnamese, the association will also resurrect its defunct English journal, The Vietnam Literature Review in time for the conference.

After fitful beginnings in 1999 and 2000, the journal had folded, not making much of an impression. The new edition, managed by poet and translator Ngo Tu Lap who has an extensive foreign education background, promises to be more focused and ambitious.

Another original feature will be a report on all Vietnamese works that have been translated abroad. Thuy Toan, who is preparing this report, said around 400 titles have been translated into foreign languages and he has been able to put his hands on 300 that will be shown at the exhibition.

As for a database of all major translators of Vietnamese literature, Nguyen said it was essential for any promotion effort to be meaningful, but is unlikely to be prepared in time for the event. Toan agreed, though, that it would be very useful.

It's all very well, but...

"There is still something not voluntary or intimate enough about this whole thing, which is, after all, an official, governmental effort," said literary critic Lai Nguyen An.

He felt foreigners often appreciate what comes out of their own personal contacts with individual writers much more than conferences and the like.

"They would gladly accept book souvenirs directly from local writers, yet ignore the same books when they are displayed in embassies presumably for political reasons," he said.

It is indeed through informal meetings with local writers that Weigl, also a translator of Vietnamese poetry, became fascinated with Vietnamese literature, though he does participate in many official events whenever he visits Vietnam.

"The real important conversations happen after the formal business is done, in the small bars and cafes around the city where we gather to eat Vietnamese food, drink beer and talk about poetry," he said.

Yet, as Nguyen said, both approaches are necessary in this worthy cause, and the conference is only the beginning.

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Patricia D. Norland, US Cultural attaché in Vietnam, tells Thanh Nien Weekly in an interview that good translations will be the key to bringing Vietnamese literature to a wider foreign audience.

Do readers in your country know about Vietnamese literature? What do they know about it?

In this age of globalization, you can be sure that people in my country know about Vietnamese literature. Perhaps most widely recognized and studied remains the "Tale of Kieu". That said, students, teachers, and the general public - including of course the Vietnamese-American community - also read other classic poems and works, as well as try to keep up with current Vietnamese writers and poets. One challenge is that not a lot of books have been translated and published in the US; but again, as the world gets smaller, that too will change and we will all be reading more of each other's literature.

In what ways do you want to learn more about Vietnamese literature?

I'd be interested in learning more about Vietnamese literature that introduces contemporary themes. These might include how people adjust to a fast pace of life. How traditions survive or adapt. How the roles of men and women are changing - or not.

In your opinion, do you have any advice on how we can promote Vietnamese literature effectively to international markets/readers?

Good translation is a key to promoting Vietnamese literature more widely. Which is a lot easier said than done! Translation between any two languages is a fine art, and translating between Vietnamese and English is an even more delicate art requiring profound linguistic, cultural, and historical understanding. To promote literature, specific groups that should be approached are the networks of Asian Studies associations and university departments that are found all across the US.

Given the challenges of accurate, readable translations makes one wonder if it would be useful to focus on a few terrific translations that are easy to read, easy to grasp - and count on those to reach a foreign audience and trigger wide interest. Sometimes, just one gripping book from a less-known author can spark a whole avalanche of readers!

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