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Culture Vulture (June. 11 2013)

Update: June, 12/2013 - 10:53

Dr Charles Waugh will introduce several contemporary Vietnamese writers under 40 to English-speaking audiences in New Voices from Viet Nam, an anthology set to be released this month.

The writer, translator and associate professor of English at Utah State University in the US has previously published two translations in the US, Family of Fallen Leaves and Collection of Vietnamese Short Stories.

He spoke to Culture Vulture about his most recent project.

How did you choose the Vietnamese writers for the project?

Working with my project partner, Nguyen Lien, we set up a few parameters, then sought help from the Viet Nam Writers' Association.

We wanted prize-winning stories from writers who came of age just as Viet Nam turned to a market economy in 1986. That would mean that they may have been born during the war, but most likely were not as impacted by it as by the new way of life that followed that 1986 change.

Our oldest writer was born in 1969, our youngest in 1980. Associate Professor Ngo Van Gia, Ha Noi Culture College's Dean of the Literature Writing and Journalism Department, was especially helpful in locating stories that met these two conditions, and we whittled the collection down to the best ones from there.

But maybe the question is more about why we set up those parameters. As important as our last collection was to bring to a US audience, we felt it was equally important to address the notion that Viet Nam is just the location of a horrible war.

So many Americans stopped thinking about Viet Nam when they walked out of the theatre playing the last movie that was made about the American soldiers who fought there.

For them, the lasting impression of Viet Nam is really a lasting impression about the American experience of Viet Nam. Because they've been so mired in getting over all the very real troubles our veterans had after the war, they've not been able to see that life for many people in Viet Nam has not only moved on, but changed dramatically.

Our focus on writers coming of age after renewal progress is meant to show American readers what Viet Nam is like today, when 65 per cent of the population is under 30 years old and global capitalism has a far greater presence in everyday life than a war that was just one in a series of wars fought in Viet Nam during the 20th century.

What do you expect from the project?

Receiving an NEA Literature Fellowship means a great deal to me. Translation, and its ultimate goal of understanding someone else and their culture, is the key to a more peaceful world, and Americans benefit from every single one of the translation projects the NEA has sponsored. But I feel a special sense of responsibility working on translations from Vietnamese writers. The war ended long ago, and yet so much between our two nations remains misunderstood and unresolved.

Have you had any difficulties in implementing the project?

I try my best to hew to the original syntax, letting the voices of the narrators and characters emerge all on their own. For example, in Family of Fallen Leaves, Thirteen Harbors by Suong Nguyet Minh has a narrator that begins the story with "Toi lay vo moi cho chong" ("I took a new wife for my husband"). This woman's voice is so direct and powerful it establishes itself immediately.

Of course, there were some moments when it was difficult to word that directness in English, but once the principle is in place, the words come eventually.

It seems that some people who have never translated think that a translator is some kind of robot who just takes in what's there and spits out some equivalent in another language. But in fact, a translator has to be an artist as well, making difficult choices that ultimately make that literary work come to life all over again in a new form. — VNS


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