by Minh Thu
HA NOI (VNS)— Translators should work responsibly and always strive to enhance their knowledge, heard a recent seminar.
While many translated works have been criticised recently due to poor quality, the Wednesday seminar titled Translation in Publishing Reality was held to raise insiders' opinions on translating, translation editing and translation criticism.
Le Hong Sam, an 84-year-old translator who has made a great contributions to bringing French literature to Vietnamese readers, said the public's criticism and feedback were good signs for the industry.
"It proves three things: more and more readers have a wide knowledge and understanding of foreign languages and are daring to express their own opinions; people are interested in translated works and foreign cultures; and the number of translated works is increasing," she said.
Responding to the fact that some recently translated works were of low quality and even considered "disasters", Sam said that all translators could make mistakes, adding that the translators of her generation didn't have many chances to travel abroad or approach foreign cultures, but they still managed to produce good quality work.
"In my opinion, the reason is that they had a deep knowledge and took their work seriously. They lived the characters' in the stories they worked on," Sam said.
"They had more time to work on their translations because the number of publishing houses, book companies and foreign books available were much less than today. Translators had no deadlines back then, and they didn't have to translate as many books as possible in order to make a living as they do these days."
Sam said translating was a creative obedience, meaning the translator has to respect the writer's opinion while using their own creativity to "Vietnamise" the book to make it suitable for the local market.
However, she pointed out that readers are quick to criticise.
"They're interested in looking at the shortcoming of translations and are stingy with their applause," she said. "I desire a fair and multi-facet view of the readers."
Trinh Lu, the translator of The Great Gatsby and Norwegian Wood, agreed with Sam. He said many readers knew foreign languages and culture so they had a strict view on translations and required very high quality.
"When we're criticised, translators should understand the attitudes and reasons why readers do so, and learn from that experience," Lu said.
Recently, Tran Tien Cao Dang's translation of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried about a platoon of American soldiers in the war in Viet Nam has stirred public opinion.
For a sentence "the dumb cooze never writes back" expressing the anger of a soldier when his letter isn't replied to, Dang understood the word "cooze" to mean a female sex organ, and translated it into Vietnamese as a swear word.
Many readers said they were shocked when they read the book, and added that the word should not be printed.
Dang said that using rude words in this case was not inappropriate because it was staying true to the original by using the language of war and conversations between soldiers.
"I know my words irritate some people but they don't have to read the book," Dang said. "In the midst of a cruel war, did soldiers have a coarse manner of speaking? I think, yes."
Taking an unprejudiced look at the problem, poet Nguyen Quang Thieu, vice chairman of the Viet Nam Writers' Association, said although Dang's translation may be correct, it was difficult to accept because it was unsuitable for Vietnamese culture.
"Although Dang understands O'Brien exactly, I think the translator should find another way to convey the author's idea," Thieu said. "In this case, I will tell O'Brien that we respect him but please let us do the best thing for Vietnamese readers. I believe that he will agree."
As a long-time friend of O'Brien, Thieu contacted him and told him about the situation. O'Brien told Thieu he was moved that his book had been translated into Vietnamese because that was where his stories originated from. He also agreed with Thieu that in certain instances, rather than following the original to the letter, translators should respect the local culture and religion.
O'Brien told Thieu that he didn't mean female sex organ when he wrote "cooze".
"He referred to a woman who's unlearned, vulgar, rude and sensual," Thieu said. "That word is not in the English dictionary, but slang used by US soldiers in the war."
"O'Brien said the translator should find another way of interpreting the meaning of the sentence without using obscenities."
When Thieu asked O'Brien to provide another sentence similar to the controversial original, he wrote, "The dumb bitch (or bimbo) never wrote back."
Translator Dang said that while he was translating the book, he didn't have a chance to talk with the author. "I respect and sympathise with Thieu because he has approached the problem with humanity, care and an objective attitude," he said.
Thieu said he did not think there was any reason to criticise Dang because no one understands or knows everything.
"I pursue accuracy in translation to give me a chance of understanding the sentence to the full so it can be shared with other readers," Thieu said.
"This problem highlights why we should work fairly and seriously, and not put a label on somebody irresponsibly. Translators may be right or wrong, but we can't deny their creativity." — VNS