Vietnamese-French researcher, lecturer and translator Doan Cam Thi recently spoke on Vietnamese literature in the context of the globalisation. Currently an associate professor at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO) in Paris, Thi, has actively promoted contemporary Vietnamese works to France and the Francophone community. She spoke to Bach Lien about her work.
Can you tell us something about the Contemporary Vietnamese Literature Collection that you have co-founded with funding from French publishing firm Riveneuve.
We set up this collection in 2012. At first, I translated some Vietnamese literary works for my teaching work at the university. As I did that, I wanted the works introduced to French readers, not just my students.
The collection initially aimed to promote contemporary Vietnamese works to French and Francophone readers by showcasing works originally written in French by Vietnamese authors or translating Vietnamese works into French.
Since its foundation, we have published 11 novels.
It is not the first collection of Vietnamese works in France. Previously, in 1992-94, two other French publishers had established two collections of Vietnamese writings on the nation's renewal process. But they do not work anymore, because their translators are getting old.
UNESCO statistics show that France is the country which translates the most number of Vietnamese works in the world, more than the US, Russia and Germany.
What kind of literary works do you typically translate for your collection?
I focus mostly on books written by authors of the "new generation", who may be born and grown up before and after the end of the war, but didn't directly take part in it.
But the most important criterion is the quality of the work. And content by itself is not the deciding factor. I try to appreciate better the new and original writing style of the authors. In fact, my group and I tend to pick Vietnamese works that have creative writing styles and unique perspectives. The "ego" (the personal opinions and ideas of the authors) is what I appreciate.
Readers in France often look for Vietnamese literary works on traditional themes that interest them, like the life of "boat people", war, colonies, Indochina and Vietnamese-French love affairs.
But we, who manage the collection, have chosen another way. We want to change the cliches and inherent notions of the West about Viet Nam. We believe that it's time for French readers to know about the new generation of writers in Viet Nam who are born or grew up after the war.
Has your collection experienced success in France?
No, I cannot tell you that we have seen a lot of success. I can only say that despite many difficulties, we have seen some positive signs.
Those books are read by a selective group of readers in Viet Nam and this is even more so in France.
The biggest difficulty for us in maintaining and promoting this collection is the translation. It is very difficult to find a good translator from Vietnamese to French. Translating a literary work requires not just excellent knowledge of the languages, but also a lot of time and of patience.
I do not live on translating and I cannot spend all my time on it. I am both a professor and researcher and the translation only occupies one third of my time. Sometimes I spend three years translating a book. After finishing the translation, we also have to look for a publishing house that is ready to publish it.
So, as I understand, Vietnamese literature is not widely known in France or other countries. What do you feel should be done to promote the country's literature abroad?
Literature is Viet Nam's treasure, not just our group. So I think everyone has to contribute to this effort.
We should create a specific prize to honour good translations of Vietnamese literary works into a foreign language. The country should also sponsor publishing houses so that they can publish the books abroad, pay the translators and pay copyright fees to the authors.
But the first condition is that no one can intervene in the choice of the translators about the books they want to translate.
Viet Nam can be more privileged in catching the attention of French people because of the history that connects the two people. Moreover, the largest number of Vietnamese people in Europe live in France. — VNS