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Guenter Giesenfeld and Marianne Ngo, who won a notable award in Germany this year for their translation of a short story collection by Vietnamese author Le Minh Khue

I first met Professor Guenter Giesenfeld at an international conference on promoting Vietnamese literature more than a year ago. Our paths crossed again after Le Minh Khue's short story collection, "Small Tragedies," translated by Giesenfeld and Marianne Ngo, won a notable translation grant from the society for the promotion of African, Asian and Latin American literature in Germany this year.

Congratulations on the translation award. What motivated you to translate Vietnamese literature? When did you start and what results have you achieved so far

Guenter Giesenfeld: I have been a professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Marburg, so I know to which extent literature can be an indicator for social situations and issues. Novels, short stories and poems are often good sources of knowledge. But more importantly, these literary forms have a very intensive effect on the minds of readers, because they inform readers about inner events or occurrences depicting the character and experiences of societies. And I think that Vietnamese literature includes many writers who are able to suggest this process of approximation of souls and hearts, and who can show German readers that although Vietnamese people live in a country far away from Germany, they are humans with the souls and hearts similar to German people


I met Professor Giesenfeld at a time many foreigners were fleeing Vietnam because of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in Asia. People were so fearful. But a slim, tall man with grey hair and a professorial air arrived in Hanoi, calmly walked on the streets, met with acquaintances, and talked as if nothing bad was happening. That left a very positive impression on me and after subsequent meetings, my admiration and regard for him grew stronger and stronger. He does not follow Buddhism, but the Buddhist way of living exists in him naturally, and in his love for other people. He has many Vietnamese friends, some of whom have passed away, such as Nguyen Dinh Thi and Che Lan Vien. When he speaks about them, he still gets emotional. A few years after meeting Professor Giesenfeld, I got to meet Marianne Ngo, a beautiful, open and bright lady. Both of them seem to have the same interests. Watching them on the streets of Hanoi, I see that they stand out from other foreigners. Perhaps they don't tend to be curious in the nosy way most foreigners are when they visit Vietnam for the first time. They are friendly and natural.

Both Professor Giesenfeld and Marianne Ngo are not well-off, financially. They could use their time to earn money, but instead, they translate Vietnamese literature, which is a very risky task. During their many visits to Vietnam, they always met with me and carefully asked me about details in my stories which they were not clear about. Vietnamese people these days tend to work quite carelessly so as to finish their work quickly, which irritates me a lot. When I saw the way Marianne Ngo and Professor Giesenfeld worked, I wished that my people had such a thorough method of working as the German people. I believe that the German translation of my stories, done by Professor Giesenfeld and Marianne Ngo is wonderful, unlike the versions that have been translated into English. Both translators have invested a lot of effort, clearly liked their work, and have obtained good results. They have dedicated their entire grant of 5,000 euros for the promotion of the book. I can only bend my head in admiration and gratitude to both of them.

I started to know Vietnamese literature when I made the personal acquaintance of Vietnamese writers such as Che Lan Vien and Nguyen Khac Vien. Then I began to translate, first poetry. The Vietnamese-German collections of poetry by Che Lan Vien and Nguyen Dinh Thi, with the German versions translated by me, were published by Xunhasaba and Kim Dong Publishers in 2002 and 2006.

In addition, since 1992, the quarterly magazine Viet Nam Kurier of the Vietnam Friendship Association, of which I am the chief editor, has translated and published many literary works by Vietnamese writers, including those of young Vietnamese authors. Then we found Mitteldeutsche Verlag, a German publisher, who was ready to take the risk of publishing Vietnamese literature in a market completely foreign to this literary tradition. The Mitteldeutsche Verlag has until now published two volumes, of Nguyen Huy Thiep and Le Minh Khue. We hope that these are the start of a collection of modern Vietnamese literature in the German language.

You have chosen to translate well-known authors. What about young Vietnamese writers? Do you get books from young Vietnamese writers and are you paying attention to the works of any of them in particular?

We have translated and published in our magazine Viet Nam Kurier many works of young authors we know, often personally. For example, after translating and publishing Y Ban's short stories, we invited her to come to a reading tour in Germany. We know writers of the "8X-generation" and have translated works of some of these writers for the magazine. If our publisher gives us the opportunity, we might create an anthology of "Prose of Young Vietnamese Women Writers."

Vietnam has many new and established writers. How do you select an author to translate and whose works are you translating now?

Unfortunately, none of the translators, who are native Germans, are able to read original Vietnamese texts very quickly, so the choice of works is restricted to those translated already into English or French, or to those works about which we can get very detailed information from the authors. At the moment, at the request of our publisher, we intend to translate a Vietnamese novel into German. We are considering two options: the first is to translate one of the three very famous novels of 1991, written by Bao Ninh, Duong Huong and Nguyen Khac Truong. These writers and novels are unknown to German readers. The second alternative is to translate a more recent work by authors such as Ma Van Khang and Ho Anh Thai. Some Vietnamese friends have advised against the first alternative, saying that nobody is interested any longer in war stories. This may be true for the Vietnamese public, but not for readers in our country.

How long did you and Marianne Ngo work on the "Small Tragedies" collection and what difficulties did you encounter? What were the richest and most interesting aspects of translating Le Minh Khue's works?

As we both are not full-time translators, we are not working continuously on one project. So for Le Minh Khue, the work began before we had found the German publisher. But the final stage took about one year of intensive effort. The difficulties lay in the language: expressions or idioms not translatable, or metaphors and comparisons that do not exist in German. We tried to find analogous expressions in German and sometimes added a footnote to explain. In these cases we discussed the problems with our Vietnamese friends here in Germany, or with Le Minh Khue herself. This was absolutely necessary. Finding out the best way to translate Le Minh Khue's beautiful expressions is the richest and most interesting aspect of our work. Translating Le Minh Khue's stories is a joy because of the aesthetic quality of her work. And also, the issues and problems presented in her stories are so relevant to us, much more relevant than we thought.

Your award came with a translation grant valued at 5,000 euros. You gave the grant to the publisher to better promote and distribute the book "Small Tragedies."

The publisher, Mitteldeutsche Verlag, had to take risks to publish Vietnamese literature. Typically publishers demand that the author or translator share in the printing costs. Not only has our publisher not done this, but they have also invested in the design of the book, appointed good artists to create illustrations, and used beautiful paper for printing. The books are bibliophilic treasures. We do very much appreciate the efforts of the publisher and so we gave them the grant for that reason. And we would like the publisher to use the grant for the promotion and distribution of "Small Tragedies" so that Le Minh Khue's works can reach as many German readers as possible.

As an experienced and successful translator, what advice would you like to give to those who would like to translate Vietnamese literature into other languages?

It's a difficult job, but a rewarding one (although not financially!). And don't refer to or rely upon already published translations; often they are edited to avoid difficult passages. We have had this experience with English and French versions.

Vietnamese literature is not yet well known abroad. What do you think should be done about this?

The process of translating Vietnamese literary works has just begun and should be continued, not only by ourselves but with the joint efforts of many others. And one must fight against the tendency to translate and publish only works of authors who are known as "dissidents," and are living abroad. These books are not always bad texts, but they give an incorrect idea of the broadness of Vietnamese literature.

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