For the first time, the entire 67-poem Lyrical Intermezzo from renowned German author Heinrich Heine's collection Book of Songs have been translated into Vietnamese. Nguyen Thu Hien speaks with translator Chu Thu Phuong, a diplomat who spent years living in Germany, about her recent work.
Inner sanctum: Why did you choose Heine to translate?
I decided to translate Heine's poems after a small debate with my friends in a small literature forum when I was working at the Vietnamese Embassy in Germany. We often discussed literature and, once, we mentioned Heine. I could not express my feelings on Heine because there are only a few translations of his works.
I was struck when a friend raised the question: "What do you understand about Heine?" In order to answer that simple question, it took me more than a year.
I chose his most popular collection: Book of Songs. At first, I translated only some poems. But they were not sufficient enough for my understanding, so I translated more and more. All the poems were from the Lyrical Intermezzo section.
Inner sanctum: What were the difficulties you faced when you translated Heine? How did you overcome them?
In Viet Nam, many people used to think that Heine's works are romantic with noble words, but actually the author used very simple words that are easy to understand by ordinary people. He played with words a lot, which was very challenging. Sometimes, I felt I could not succeed. I thought a lot so I could translate the verses with the same rhythms and musical characteristics inside.
I spent a week just to finish the first draft. After each poem was translated, I posted them to that literature forum's site to seek the comments of my friends. It took more than a year to complete the section.
Inner sanctum: Did you rely on any previous versions by other translators? What do you think about your translated version, in comparison with others'?
No, actually I did not dare to read any previous versions. I just concentrated on trying to maintain most of the melodies in the sounds of the words, rhythms and meaning of Heine's original poems.
One reason is that I have been lucky enough receive the priceless assistances of German and Vietnamese experts.
I went to Marburg to meet Guenter Giesenfeld, a professor of German Literature and chairman of the Viet Nam - Germany Friendship Association, and translator Marian Ngo. They told me a lot about Heine's art methods over two days.
Prof. Giesenfeld took me to his home to open Heine's books and look up for interpretations of each poem in the Lyrical Intermezzo section with the word playings, rhythms that I have to take great care of in my translations.
I also visited Heine's homeland, Duesseldorf, to meet researcher Christian Liedtke, who works at the Hand Written Archive Department at the Heinrich Heine Institute. He was the one who explained to me how to understand Lyrisches Intermezzo (title in German) and Lyrical Intermezzo in English. That explanation helped me successfully translate the title into Vietnamese Khuc Dem Tru Tinh.
I also had help from Truong Hong Quang, a Vietnamese scholar residing in Berlin. He possesses a delicate understanding of languages and contributed valuable comments for me so I could complete the book.
Music researcher Nguyen Van Nam also guided me about the musical characteristics in Heine's poems. Without Nam's advice, I could not correctly translate rhythms in the poems.
My daughter helped me a lot. At that time she was 12, and she helped me with all the housework so that I could concentrate on translating. She used her fluency in German language and music to offer sharp comments on musical characteristics in the verse, melodies and meaning.
One more reason is that today's readers are more open to Western free-style poetry. Hence, they may have a better acceptance of my translation.
Inner sanctum: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your family?
I graduated from the German Language Faculty of the University of Languages and International Studies. I love literature, particularly poetry since I was a little girl.
My dad used to be a diplomat and is fluent in German. He once challenged me, when I was a student, to translate a poem by Heine. Nearly 20 years later, the book of 67 poems by Heine has been published, which is my answer to his challenge. — VNS