by Bach Lien
|Never say die: Tuong has never stopped working. He says he thinks he would die if he did. Once he chooses a book to translate, he puts all his passion into it. — VNS Photo Nguyen Dinh Toan
I met translator Duong Tuong for the first time one month after the Vietnamese language version of the well-known novel Lolita , written by the Russian American writer Vladimir Nabokov, went on sale in bookshop and libraries.
Meeting Tuong was something of a success for me, especially since he had refused to meet several times previously, explaining on the telephone that he was very busy.
He wasn't exaggerating. On the second floor of his house, situated in a calm and little alley on Phan Huy Chu Street in Ha Noi, Tuong loves to spend hours and hours translating new books. Though his busy schedule made him forget our appointment, he was still more than ready to spend a lot of time chatting with me about his work.
At 80 years old, Tuong is a weak old man with white hair, dim eyes and trembling hands, though his face lights up when he talks about his work as a translator.
Tuong has never stopped working. "I would die if I stopped working now," Tuong confides.
After finishing translating Lolita, he worked on the translation of William Shakespeare's The Tempest, which was performed by the Youth Theatre at the Shakespeare Festival in the UK in May. Tuong is also currently working on other novels, such as Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Remembrance of Time Past).
An avid translator for many years, the first book he translated was Cay Tuong Vi (The Golden Rose) of Paustovsky) in 1960. After, he became famous for translating several other chef-d'oeuvres including Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Letter from an Unknown Woman (Stefan Zweig), Wuthering Heights (E. Bronte), Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) and plays by Shakespeare.
"In cultural and literature work, and with translation in particular, I love choosing difficult and challenging works in terms of linguistics and thinking," Tuong says.
"Only works of high literary and human value can seduce me." And once he chooses a book to translate he puts all of his passion into it.
Most recently, Tuong spent more than a year translating the 300-page Lolita. He first read the book in the 1960s after an American friend gave it to him. He loved it. "From that moment, I held onto the hope of translating it into Vietnamese one day."
"Nabokov is known as a wordsmith and for his unique style that brings together diverse fields of knowledge. Every page of the book presented new challenges in translation. I had to add almost 500 footnotes to the translated version to help readers understand the text. The subtlety of the wordplay would be very difficult to get across without some explanation. I tried my best to get the nuances across," says Tuong.
"Even after publication, I see changes I might make if I had to do it over again. There is a second publication scheduled, and I will use that as an opportunity to make some perfections," he adds.
"There were several nights I couldn't sleep because I was preoccupied with some difficult words written in Nabokov's book," he recalls.
Tuong hopes the books he translates can help writers in Viet Nam (who aren't often able to read foreign literature) to see how original those foreign books are, and how hard the writers worked to create them.
"Vietnamese writers would also think of renewing their writing style, freeing themselves from their routine to create more invaluable books," Tuong says.
"Viet Nam still lacks outstanding books, that's why writers should make more efforts and apply their creative minds."
For Tuong, a good translator should firstly be a good writer with a good understanding of foreign languages, while constantly mastering their mother tongue.
While translating foreign books into Vietnamese, he falls more in love with the beauty of his native language.
"To be a translator, it's important that you have an abundant knowledge of the Vietnamese language," he said.
"I'm glad to see that many people in Viet Nam are passionate about books. Bookstores on Nguyen Xi Street and in other corners of Ha Noi are still crowded with readers. The only problem may be that they don't yet know how to choose good books."
Tuong has translated more than 50 book titles of various languages, including over 20 classic French books by famous writers. In 2009, the French government presented Tuong with its Officier des Arts et des Lettres (Literature and Art Medal) for his contributions to enriching and promoting French culture and literature in Viet Nam.
"I love, and have been close to, French culture and literature since I was a boy," the translator says.
Among the French novels he has translated, Tuong most likes The Flanders Road by the Nobel Laureate in Literature Claude Simon, Ring Roads and Missing Person by the Prix Goncourt winner.
The passion for translation grew in Tuong every day he read a book. However, not everyone knows that he has not even graduated from high school.
Born into an intellectual family in the northern province of Nam Dinh, after he finished primary school, Tuong went to Ha Noi to study at high school. However, when the August Revolution broke out in 1945, he quit school to become a correspondent for the Viet Minh (Viet Nam Independence League) troops. After the success of the revolution, Tuong returned to Ha Noi to continue his studies. Though one year later, in 1946, the resistance against the French colonialists broke out once again, and he stopped his studies to join a group of correspondents in Ha Dong. Two years later, Tuong went back to school to study in the 7th grade, but he couldn't stay until his graduation. He volunteered to join the resistance army instead.
Even though Tuong had to quit school three times, he still showed an aptitude for literature and foreign languages. When he joined the army he always kept two dictionaries in his bag, one French-Vietnamese and one English-Vietnamese. From a very young age Tuong spoke French very well thanks to his primary school studies. Even then he was passionate about reading books and spent time collecting them whenever he could.
One day, Tuong recalls, after he and his fellow soldiers had overrun a French outpost, he found a trove of French literature, and took as many of the books with him as he could carry. This was the beginning of his lifelong love and appreciation of literature.
During his spell in the army, Tuong often read books to his fellow soldiers during long and lonely nights when they missed their families.
For Tuong, "French is a beautiful language", and he spends time teaching himself both French and English simultaneously. When the war ended, Tuong returned to Ha Noi to work as reporter at the Viet Nam News Agency. He loved to spend time at libraries reading masterpieces in the original.
"At that time, I spent days and days at the National Library to ‘gather' the knowledge I missed out on when I was in the army," Tuong says.
Tuong is known not only as a translator but also as a poet, journalist, painter, and art critic. Though he may have crafted a career for himself as a lauded translator, what Tuong loves most is poetry. He began writing poems at the age of 18 and continues to write them today.
"I am happy to live with passions in my life. Only when I die will I stop writing." — VNS