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Translation as Difference: From Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều to Bùi Giáng’s Shakespeare
Author: Hải Ngọc
Published on: 11/23/2017 8:18:46 PM

Which works of William Shakespeare could be associated with the phrases “Hoa ngõ hạnh” [Beauty alley flower] and “Trăng tỳ hải” [Moon leaning ocean]? The question remains a difficult one for anyone yet to discover the legacy of Bùi Giáng, who titled his “translations” of Shakespeare’s Othello and Antony and Cleopatra in the characteristic style of his poetry, with images bearing the mysticism of an antiquated poetics, both intimate and vague. But why must these “translations” be inside quotation marks? Both Hoa ngõ hạnh and Trăng tỳ hải test the sense of authority that a translator has in relation to an original, prompting us to reconsider our demands that faithfulness be a translation’s highest virtue and the translator be placed in ultimate submission to a greater source.


In all likelihood, when working with Shakespeare’s text, Bùi Giáng was not much concerned with  faithfulness, the biggest challenge and greatest source of anxiety for other translators. History records dozens of cases in which translators have undergone heavy sentences for their infidelity to an original work, from translators of the Bible such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, to those whose tongues were cut and even executed during the war in Afghanistan earlier this century. But rather than submitting to the source, Bùi Giáng imposed his identity and poetic style on the works of Shakespeare, from title to content, even going so far as to insert many of his own poems written in English that he dedicated to famous Western female celebrities of the time. Referring to the abandonment in his practice, Bùi Giáng explained: “Translation? The translator occasionally has something to say, which I have to admit, is a bit wild. But when you think about it, it is nothing more than what is demanded by the Ineffable Shakespeare and the Crystal Vietnamese language, which have withstood many changes of tide.”

Translation for Bùi Giáng was essentially a mode of hermeneutics as well as an exploration of the Vietnamese language’s deepest wonder, its “crystal” as he said. To translate Shakespeare is to re-read Shakespeare, to emancipate the works from Western rational interpretation. Bùi Giáng read Shakespeare’s plays as “ancient romances” which, in order to recreate and be moved by their sentiment, required a Vietnamese language of “poetic artistry”, a language as cherished, as exuberant, as captivating as that of The Tale of Kiều, “Shakespeare stands on the shores of Leaning Sea, raising Nguyễn Du Homer, a few hidden words, the perfumed manuscript of ages ago, rolling in the wild winds and reeling waves of adventurous love.” Bùi Giáng recreated Shakespeare with a skepticism towards rationality and regarded translation as a means of reviving the poetics of Vietnamese, so that the human soul could find shelter in the language. Bùi Giáng’s translation practice thus culminated in a form of spiritual therapy amid unstable and traumatic times, and for this, reflects his modernist worldview.


What are we to make of Bùi Giáng’s treatment of Shakespeare? And not only Shakespeare, as he treated the texts of many other authors in the same wild, free and innocent way. As Bùi Giáng was evidently not interested in faithfulness as a criterion for translation, when evaluating the legacy of his works, we in turn rarely use this measure. An icon of freedom, Bùi Giáng gets placed in the realm of legendary - and perhaps for this reason, can be exempt from the trials of faithfulness. A more cautious way could be simply to view these translations as adaptations or transformations. However, surely both adaptation and transformation still fall on the spectrum of translation, as acts of transferring a text from one language into another. Translation, and in particular, fair and just translation, therefore calls for a more complicated perception.



It is no accident that Bùi Giáng mentions Nguyễn Du in the preface to his Vietnamese translation of three Shakespeare plays. He places Nguyễn Du on equal footing with Shakespeare and places The Tale of Kiều’s language in correspondence with that of Shakespeare’s. To a certain extent, Nguyễn Du can be seen as Bùi Giáng’s predecessor, with The Tale of Kiều being a refined work of translation in Nguyễn Du’s bold and distinctive voice. Long before Bùi Giáng, Nguyễn Du changed the title of Thanh Tâm Tài Nhân’s original Kim Vân Kiều Truyện [The Tale of Kim, Vân, and Kiều] into Đoạn trường tân thanh [A New Cry from a Broken Heart] in his translation of it. In transforming the novel, he made use of “hometown speak” the logographic Nôm script written in the Vietnamese “six-eight” verse form called lục bát. While trying to preserve the original plot’s numerous tribulations an allegory for the turbulent rises and falls of the period that Nguyễn Du himself experienced he deemphasized the novel’s action and accentuated a more lyrical gesturing through internal monologues of self-reflection and lament. If later Bùi Giáng wanted to translate Shakespeare in order to revive a contemporary language that was becoming impoverished and sterile from authoritarian rationality, and thus returned to a “far and forlorn” language of remote antiquity, then Nguyễn Du not only used “hometown speak” to translate Thanh Tâm Tài Nhân’s original, but also in order to revive that very language. By infusing the “hometown speak” of lục bát with classical references and allusions, with images from Tang Dynasty poetry, Nguyễn Du shaped a poetics of timeless beauty in The Tale of Kiều, which goes beyond its allegory of tribulation and human misery.


But from all the textbooks surrounding The Tale of Kiều, practically no one views the work as a translation. Within this context, the word “translation” seems to bear a negative connotation, as if occupying an inferior position to the original work. To call The Tale of Kiều a translation is nothing short of blasphemy against Nguyễn Du. To deny the uniqueness of his creation, to see the work as merely the derivative of an original, to trivialize it in this way is something dangerous indeed when The Tale of Kiều has come to be canonized as an epic embodiment of the nation. And this canonization process is also complex: from a work once considered, particularly for women, as “harmful literature", The Tale of Kiều has come to symbolize the soul of a people and the soul of an era. It is interesting that even without official recognition as a translation, The Tale of Kiều continues to be translated many times over in Vietnamese popular culture through the phenomenon of “Kiều fortune telling”. “Kiều fortune telling” is basically the translation of Nguyễn Du's “archaic language”, with numerous underlying layers of meaning, into an everyday vernacular that corresponds with specific circumstances.



A translation, as it were, is subjected to greater and more rigorous demands of fidelity than either an adaptation or transformation, and yet, it is simultaneously seen as an inferior and less creative version of an original, often automatically presumed to be a semantic reduction. Such prejudices are still firmly rooted in criticisms of translation inside Vietnam.


The field of translation criticism here began shaping its voice in a clear way over ten years ago, initially through exchanges on literary forums or via the writings of Phan Thị Vàng Anh and Phạm Thị Hoài. Around that same time ten years ago an article appeared in Tia sáng newspaper that was the first to synthesize various online controversies surrounding the collective translation of Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude by Nguyễn Trung Đức, Phạm Đình Lợi, Nguyễn Quốc Dũng. Nearly ten years after its 1986 publication, when rereading the award winning translation (honored by the Vietnam Writer’s Association, who also went on to bestow it with a Good Books award in 2012), participants in the debate found many inaccuracies and illogical aspects. These errors in translation probably had not previously been discovered and were publicized then for first time.  


And yet the translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, despite its abundant shortcomings and errors, was once proclaimed a rather compelling literary phenomenon of the early Đổi Mới [Renovation] period, and the fact that the book was made available in Vietnamese has had a long lasting impact. There remains a need for more in-depth research into how the translators were able to depart from the frames of realism, in which Vietnamese literature was entrenched at that time, to be able to create the atmosphere of Gabriel García Marquez’s magical realism in all its extravagant and perverse detail. How could translators handle the graphic sex scenes of the original, for example, when such a topic was for so long considered prohibitively sensitive to write about in Vietnam? The translators introduced a completely unexpected manner of writing that all the more provoked the aesthetic experiences of readers at that time. And still the novel was received with enthusiasm by its Vietnamese readership, immediately turning into a bestselling phenomenon upon its first public appearance. How were Vietnamese readers prepared, what was their state of mind, to be able to meet the book and not be bothered by the details of its translational errors? These are interesting questions that lie beyond the analytical scope of this paper. There is just to add: the emergence of Gabriel García Marquez and the translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, despite having several incorrect or flawed points, instigated a significant change of tide for writers after 1986, with Nguyễn Bình Phương one such example.


Looking further, the case of an imperfect translation having a substantial cultural influence like that of One Hundred Years of Solitude in Vietnam is not a singular phenomenon. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a compelling critical essay on Western translations of The Thousand and One Nights in which he emphasized that not one translator had been perfectly faithful to the original work, that all had rewritten the book in their own way. That of Antoine Galland was considered the most egregious rewriting, the least faithful translation that nevertheless was also the most widely read in Europe at that time. Contemporary readers were fascinated by the Eastern color of Antoine Galland’s translation, which was certainly influenced by French literature of the moment, and derived a kind of pleasure and astonishment that Edward Lane’s more precise rendering, with edits made in places of Galland’s inaccuracy and error, could not satisfy. With this in mind, it can be said that although the criterion of faithfulness is necessary in translation criticism, it should certainly not be the only or most crucial standard. As such it can limit the perception of what translation offers and creates. Here, one might be interested in a new definition of translation proposed by two leading scholars in the US - Maria Tymoczko and Edwin Gentzler: “Translation thus is not simply an act of faithful reproduction but, rather, a deliberate and conscious act of selection, assemblage, structuration, and fabrication - and even, in some cases, of falsification, refusal of information, counterfeiting, and the creation of secret codes. In these ways translators, as much as creative writers and politicians, participate in the powerful acts that create knowledge and shape culture.”




Such a broad understanding of translation affirms its significant cultural role despite the fact that translators throughout history have been made into invisible presences and translation has been and continues to be placed on the periphery. And from this marginal position, translation gets attached to biased proclamations of detrimental implication, such as “translation is betrayal”, “translation is elimination”. Who still remembers the names of those who translated the canonical collection of Marxist works in Vietnam, given that from these anonymous translators innumerable terms of political and philosophical concepts were imported into Vietnamese, forming new ideological discourses, dominating all views and interpretations. And there has yet to be research acknowledging the work of amateur translators of film and video from the late 1980’s onward – those who in fact recreated the space of post-war popular culture in Vietnam. The list goes on.

And so, perhaps there needs to be a change in the negating proclamations about translation in favor of one that better embraces the essence and role of translation: translation is difference. From an outside position, translation not only acts as an agent to import or cultivate something other, it is also creates something other within the heart of of a culture. By this means, translation has the ability to resist the threats of rigid, authoritative, and dogmatic culture, to tender more tolerant attitudes among those who are exposed to something other, someone other. In today’s multicultural world, tolerance is a quality more important than ever. And for translation to blossom, if it is to foster greater tolerance in human awareness, one supposes that tolerance would also be a necessary quality in translation criticism. This tolerance does not mean a permissive leveling out all values, it always issues forth from respect, accepting different viewpoints and values, a stranger to authoritarian language. Only with this attitude of tolerance will we be able to unlock a wider and more open-hearted space for translations in Vietnam today, particularly when we need more catalysts to spark meaningful change in our society and culture. This is what translation can manifest.



Translation by Yến Dương and Kaitlin Rees