Writers say good translations key to international markets

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Vietnam needs to support foreign translators of local works if the country wants its literature to be appreciated overseas, intellectuals from Vietnam and around the world agreed at a six-day conference in Hanoi.

About 13,700 literary works from writers around the world had been translated and published on the Vietnamese market by 2007, according to president of the Vietnam Writers' Association Nguyen Huu Thinh.

Although the country has thousands of years of written history, only 570 Vietnamese works have been translated and introduced to other countries, he told the second International Conference to Introduce Vietnamese Literature, which opened on Tuesday and attracted 300 translators and writers from Vietnam and 31 countries and territories this week.

"It's time for us to address that imbalance," he said. "The world wants to know more about Vietnam through its literature. We've been talking a lot about economic integration, but we're falling behind in terms of introducing our culture through writing."

Support in translation

Thinh suggested that the government establish a literature translation center under the association and create a national award honoring translators of Vietnamese works.

Pham Xuan Nguyen, a literary critic and vice president of the Hanoi Writers' Association, said Vietnam should honor foreign translators such as Kato Sakae, who had translated many Vietnamese works into Japanese, or Peter Zinoman and Nguyen Nguyet Cam, who translated So do (Dumb Luck) by Vu Trong Phung, which was among the Los Angeles Times best sellers of 2002.

But Nguyen said such translators' have had to stand alone.


At the second international conference to introduce Vietnamese literature, being held in Hanoi from January 5 to 10, delegates will discuss four main topics: classical Vietnamese literature, modern Vietnamese prose and poetry, and young Vietnamese writers.

Short biographies of Vietnamese writers are released at the conference so that delegates can get an overview of the nation's literature.

The foreign participants will also be taken to Ha Long Bay and historical Yen Tu Mountain in the northern province of Quang Ninh.

The conference will end with a feast at Hanoi's Viet Phu Thanh Chuong area, where artifacts made during the times of various Vietnamese dynasties will be on display.

Tran Thien Dao, a Vietnamese author and translator who lives in Paris, said most of the Vietnamese works introduced to French audiences had been published through small publishing houses in France and translated by Vietnamese living in France.

Vietnam should make sure it has enough funding to support the foreign translators who work to introduce Vietnamese literature abroad, he added.

Others at the conference said the key was not just translating, but choosing the right books to translate.


Translating is an art but also a way to serve a market, Dao pointed out.

He said the reason Bao Ninh's Noi buon chien tranh (The Sorrow of War) was among the most well-known Vietnamese books in France was because its translator was able to evoke a universal theme: the sadness of warfare.

Duong Tat Tu, who spent the past 50 years translating Czech literature into Vietnamese and also translated the works of Ho Chi Minh, said introducing Vietnamese literature abroad was a huge task that required more systematic efforts, from training more translators to choosing the right works that would be able to capture readers in particular foreign markets.

"There is such an incredible diversity of Vietnamese literature... We need to consider looking at works that have not been at the top of the list," he said.

Time and place

There's a market for Vietnamese literature in the US, said poet Kevin Bowen, a US veteran who fought in Vietnam 1968-1969.

Readers in the US wanted to read Vietnamese works "not just about the war but beyond the war in many ways," said Bowen, director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequence known for his poetry collection "Playing Basketball with the Viet Cong."

"They [Americans] want to understand the war and they always need to do that. But I think people are also interested in Vietnam as a place."

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