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Slumdog translator looking for the sunrise

Update: July, 31/2012 - 10:52

by Nguyen Thu Hien

 

Book translator Nguyen Bich Lan looks through her works. — Photo courtesy of Nguyen Bich Lan
HA NOI — A crimson cluster of bougainvillaea sways in the breeze, brightening up the balcony of a house in a quiet lane of Ha Noi. Sitting at a desk next to a large brown window, Nguyen Bich Lan, 36, is translating the last chapter of a book.

Lan, one of 10 women whose life is on exhibit in the Viet Nam Women's Museum, won significant prizes for her literary translations. The Viet Nam Writers' Association awarded her their top honour for her translation of Slumdog Millionaire.

Over the course of her career, Lan has translated 24 books from English into Vietnamese. She has also written a collection of poems and short stories and taught English to nearly 200 village schoolchildren. Her autobiography will be published soon.

For Lan, who was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at age 13 and cannot type on a keyboard without supporting one hand with the other, these achievements are particularly remarkable.

"No one wishes to meet difficulties in life," Lan says. "However, if you look at them in a positive light, difficulties motivate us to push forward."

The translator's struggle with her health began when she was a teenager. She began to fall down without apparent reason, so her parents took her to a hospital, where they discovered that she had muscular dystrophy - a condition that could not be cured. They took her to 14 different hospitals, but no one offered a magic solution.

Despite the grim prognosis, however, Lan remained hopeful. Her main concern was not for her own health, but for her family's well-being. "She never asked about her disease," says Lan's mother. "She shed no tears and expressed no sadness. She just insisted on coming back home because she was afraid that we were exhausted."

Lan says: "Looking into my mother's eyes, I knew I needed to be strong to lessen my family's burden."

For Lan, having her family there to support her made all the difference. "Difficulties themselves are not the most terrible thing. What's terrifying is overcoming them if I was alone without family," she says. "Every morning, when I got up, I had to face troubles in movement caused by the disease. But I knew I had my family by my side."

After a year, Lan's physical condition deteriorated to the point where she was forced to drop out of school. Sitting at home one day, she heard her younger brother speaking in a foreign language - English. Curious about the mysterious words he was saying, she began to spend hours secretly studying English from his textbook. "It became an effective way for me of blocking out the sadness," Lan says.

The more Lan studied English, the more she became interested in the subject. She decided to ask for more books from her cousin, who was studying English at Ha Noi University. "The language became my passion," Lan says. "I studied not only to kill time, but also to be able to apply this knowledge to something useful in the future."

When she exhausted the available textbooks, Lan turned to radio. The BBC and Voice of America became her private tutors, and she even created a series of cartoon characters with whom she held imaginary conversations. After five years of solo study, Lan achieved university-level English proficiency.

One hot summer afternoon, Lan saw some children watching her through the window railing. It seemed as if they wanted to know what she was studying. Inspired, she asked her mother to let her teach English to village children who never had the chance to study it.

Lan taught for five years, giving hundreds of village children the basics of the English language. When her disease began to weaken her heart, she was forced to stop teaching. But this did not alter her desire to make a difference.

Difficult

"Whenever I fall into a difficult situation," Lan says, "I keep reminding myself that there must be a way out."

Following an aunt's suggestion, Lan tried translating a novel titled Never Doubt My Love, by Australian author Daisy Thompson. It was 2002, her thirteenth year living with muscular dystrophy.

"When I read interesting English books, I dreamt about sharing them to other Vietnamese people," Lan says. "So, when I had a chance to realise my dream, I had to grab it. If you feel you like doing something, don't hesitate to try!"

She sent her first translation to Tran Hong Thuy, an editor at Women's Publishing House. Thuy was significantly impressed with Lan's language skills and literary sensibility – the two most important traits a translator can possess, according to Thuy, who has 33 years of editing experience.

After Thuy sent her suggestions for revision through the post, Lan wasted no time editing her previous draft. "Without asking again, Lan was good at catching my ideas and finished her first work in several months," Thuy says.

Now, Lan chooses her own assignments. After choosing a book she likes, she makes sure it is relevant to Vietnamese readers. Then she negotiates with the author via email to get the legal right to translate it.

Thuy says Lan has a good sense of what her readers want. Moreover, she is strict about maintaining the book's integrity. "Unlike most translators, who often choose words that may be good," Thuy says. "But Lan spends a lot of time searching for the perfect word."

Before starting to translate, Lan conducts extensive research on the topic at hand. She speaks at length with experts and scientists in the field so that she can be adequately informed about the issues in the book, and asks the author about any cultural peculiarities that she does not understand.

As a result, Lan is extraordinarily knowledgeable about various fields considering that she never attended university, says Nguyen Phan Que Mai, a writer and translator.

Despite her often debilitating pain, Lan remains constantly devoted to her work. "Readers' interest in my translations brings me happiness which money cannot buy," she says. For Thien Minh, a lecturer at Ha Noi National University, this sense of commitment sets Lan apart from other translators.

Perhaps the reason for Lan's extraordinary devotion is that her own life is not so different from the literature she translates: a long journey full of unexpected complications, in which protagonists have to make every effort to achieve their goals. When her disease eventually disables her fingers, she plans to teach herself to type using her toes.

"I will keep working as long as my head is conscious and my heart is warm," Lan says. "When I see the sunset of today, I hope I can see the sunrise of the next day. When I start translating a book, I pray that I am strong enough to finish it. Then, when I come to another, I also make the same prayer. Am I too greedy?" — VNS

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