Even though the well-known novel Lolita, authored by the Russian-American writer Vladimir Nabokov, was originally published in English in 1955 in Paris, and 1958 in New York, it was just recently translated into Vietnamese. Since then it has become very popular throughout the country. A month after its publication in Viet Nam it has caused quite a sensation, and stirred up a bit of controversy.
Culture Vulture chatted with Duong Tuong, who translated the book into Vietnamese, about his love for translation.
This book is infamous for being difficult to translate. Why did you choose to undertake such a project?
I first read the book in the 60s, after an American friend gave it to me, and I loved it. From that moment, I held onto the hope of translating it into Vietnamese one day.
Even in the US the book was quite controversial. Four publishers had already rejected it before publication there. I thought it would take a lot of time to get it published in Viet Nam. Still, it was something that I really wanted to do. Actually, I thought of this translation as something of an adventure. The real surprise for me was to see it published so quickly. It's a sign of the openness of publishing houses in this country.
The book was in the World Library's list of one of "100 Best Books of All Time". What made it so difficult to translate?
It took me more than one year to translate this 300-page book. Nabokov is known as a word smith, and for his unique style that brings together diverse fields of knowledge. Every page of the book presented new challenges in translation. I had to add almost 500 footnotes to the translated version to help readers understand the text. The subtlety of the wordplay would be very difficult to get across without some explanation. I tried my best to get the nuances across.
Even after publication, I see some changes that I might make if I had to do it over again. There is a second publication scheduled, and I will use that as an opportunity to make some perfections.
As you know, much of the controversy centres around the subject of the novel: the protagonist, a middle-aged professor named Humbert becomes sexually involved with his 12-year-old step daughter. It is also told by an unreliable narrator. This book has been widely criticised for being too sexually explicit. What is your opinion?
This is true. Many people have talked about Lolita as bordering the pornographic. In my opinion there is nothing immoral in the novel. In fact, people should consider the full title: Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male. I think that it is an sincere and frank account of a story of a man loves younger girl. Perhaps this might be seen as immoral by some. But to me the story is touching. If readers approach the material no prejudices, I believe they will also find the beauty in it.
Are you surprised by the reception by Vietnamese readers?
Yes, I am. The fact that the book has sold so well in Viet Nam is a good sign. It shows that readers in this country still have curiosity and a love for literature.
I was astonished at the lack of comment from the newspaper Van Nghe (Literature and Arts), under the Viet Nam Writers Association. They have said nothing about the book, even though it may have a big impact on writers.
You have long been an avid translator. Are there any more projects your working on?
Yes, I currently work on the translation of The Tempest (by Shakespeare), to be performed by the Youth Theatre, during the Shakespeare Festival in the UK in May. I am also working with others, such as Proust's great novel A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, (In Remembrance of Time Past). — VNS