|En français: From left to right, Dr. Pham Xuan Thach, translator Le Hong Sam and literary critic Pham Xuan Nguyen discussed the current role of French literature in Viet Nam. — Photo courtesy of Nha Nam Publishing House
HA NOI (VNS) — Local scholars gathered yesterday to discuss the role of French literature in Viet Nam's culture and history during a roundtable discussion co-organised by the French Institute and Nha Nam Publishing House.
The participants discussed their reverence for the language, as well as their concerns that younger generations are only interested in learning English.
Le Hong Sam, a veteran translator of French literature, recalled when Vietnamese primarily studied French literature during wartime. The curriculum was filled with French novels and poems, while students spent only one or two hours per week reading Vietnamese prose.
"It wasn't an exaggeration to say Vietnamese literature was a foreign subject at that time," Sam said. "However, rather than a compulsion, my friends and I exposed French literature with admiration and profound comprehension. We ended up loving French culture even though some of us had never been to France."
Sam referred to prominent poet Xuan Dieu as an example of a scholar who was heavily influenced by French literary works.
"We all feel like our heads were filled with the beauty of French culture and literature," she said.
Literary critic Pham Xuan Nguyen, who also attended the discussion, reminisced about the habit of placing books underneath furniture to prevent it from moving during transit.
"Furniture could be thrown away after some time, but I kept those books - mainly French ones – on my bookshelf until now," he said.
French literature has existed – and continues to develop – in Viet Nam for more than a century, and "it is undeniable that it gradually plays an organic role in Vietnamese literature", according to Sam.
Professor Dang Anh Dao, the daughter of leading intellectual Professor Dang Thai Mai, agreed that Vietnamese translations were heavily influenced by French literary works.
"Literary translation is to compare, relate to the origin and find the similarities among different countries' literature," she said.
According to Dr. Pham Xuan Thach, French literature gave him "a new world and a new mindset", even though French works were exposed to his generation through translations rather than the original literature.
"I still remember how Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) and Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery struck me as if there was another world out there," he said. "They brought me a sense of diversity in our life. I feel grateful to French literature."
Dao said she is concerned about the popularity of English at present.
"The youth now are more interested in English translation than ever," she said. "Lots of Vietnamese poetry books that had been translated into French were only used as ... a gift within the local translation community."
Nguyen shared similar sentiments.
"It makes sense that young students have decided to focus on English due to globalisation," he said. "But I'm now wondering which is better: the former generation that had no choice but to study French literature, or the modern generation that is free to choose any language, rendering their minds like a ‘hotpot'," he said.
Sam, however, said the youth tend to view language learning differently.
"They (the new generation) don't necessarily learn the foreign language to be able to grasp the meaning of literary works," she said. "People don't need to learn Russian language to understand the novels of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Vladimir Nabokov."
Thach said that even though the cultural world he was born into and adored no longer exists, "We have to accept the present".
"However much I love French literature, I cannot deny the fact that my kid is living with a different culture," he said. "He still prefers reading Doraemon (a Japanese comic book)."
Sam added, "The diversity itself is the only factor that helps us understand our character." — VNS