Nguyen Bich Lan got an incurable disease at the age of 13, but she still works as a writer and translator. She has translated 24 books, mostly novels, into Vietnamese. Her translation of Slumdog Millionaire was granted the Literature Award for Translation by the Vietnamese Writers Association in 2010. Her latest translation, Life Without Limits by Australian limbless writer Nick Vujicic, was published last month. She spoke to Viet Nam News before receiving Vujicic in Viet Nam this month.
How did you feel when you translated Vujicic's book, as his situation is similar to yours?
When I read Life Without Limits, I felt I was born to translate it. I empathize completely with Vujicic. I understand his feelings and the fear that he may burden others.
Both of us feel that if we look at our difficulties in a positive light, they motivate us to push forward. We want to share our lives and hope with others. Vujicic has travelled to many places and spoken to many people and I have shared my feelings through translations.
Could you tell us about your situation and how you overcame it?
I was born in 1976 in the northern province of Thai Binh. Like many other 13-year-old girls, I loved playing with friends, running around, going to school and nurturing many dreams of the future. Suddenly, I was forced to leave school due to muscular dystrophy, a disorder that weakens the body and hampers movement.
Even a 13-year-old girl who has a normal life likely feels doubtful about the future. At that age, you might have many desires but not much fortitude. When my doctor said that I had an incurable disease, I felt that it was the darkest night of my life. All the doors seemed to close in front of my eyes. And I had to try so hard.
Staying at home, I often furtively picked up my brother's English book to study vocabulary. I tried to learn everything he learnt. During the six years I sat in the bare 10sq.m room, I imagined that I was practising English with an invisible partner. I rushed into learning with the hope of finding a flickering light ahead. It became an effective way for me of blocking out sadness.
I don't study to kill time. I want to use my knowledge to escape from my bad situation. I started an English class and taught hundreds of students in the next five years.
You start your autobiography Khong Guc Nga (Never Collapse) with Victor Hugo's quote "What makes night within us may leave stars." What does this mean to you?
I love teaching but the work requires me to talk so much. The disease beat me once again and I had to give up teaching.
When I read interesting English books, I dreamt about sharing them with other Vietnamese people. But I was afraid that no publishing house would trust me and my translations.
Following my aunt's suggestion, I became acquainted with translating. The first novel I translated was Never Doubt My Love, by Australian author Daisy Thompson. It was 2002, my 13th year living with muscular dystrophy. The book was sent to the Women's Publishing House and the editorial board said they were significantly impressed by my language skills and literary sensibility – the two most important traits a translator can possess.
I was so encouraged. I chose my favourite writer Hugo's quote because I felt that when the disease threw me into a dark night, translating became the brightest star of my life.
A translator should go to many places to enrich his or her knowledge and understand the works' context. How have you accomplished this?
I have translated 26 books into Vietnamese. I'm unable to travel so I need to find many ways to approach the culture mentioned in the book.
You don't know how badly I wanted to go to India when I translated Slumdog Millionaire. I wanted to enjoy the smell of curry described in the story and see if the Taj Mahal was as beautiful as the author says. I used YouTube to find out. That's the way I "travel" to India and other countries.
Would you share with people your secret to success?
There are three parts: the joy of living, patience and the belief that no matter how big any problem is, it can't match up to our will. — VNS