Picture a northern
teen-age soldier imprisoned in a jungle cave
watching frogs and rats being roasted on an open fire and you are immediately
drawn into what can only be described as a very special if not unique
story. What makes this tale such a gripping and at the same time
significant one? There are at least two subjects to consider for the
purpose of grasping it
s importance. The first is the process
around which this novel was written and something of its illustrious history.
The second is coming to know and appreciate the Vietnamese author Pham Trung
Dinh (pen-name Trung Trung Dinh) himself.
“Lost in the Jungle” has won a prestigious State Prize in Vietnam, one of two which its author Trung Trung Dinh has been awarded over the years. For the western reader this may constitute an appealing, but, on the other hand dubious, distinction. We don’t really quite yet ‘get’ the post-war “Socialist Republic of Viet Nam”. What does a State Prize from a “Communist” government signify? At a minimum we know there is recognition that the story is well told and has cultural, historical or social value. The current government of Viet Nam is big on rewarding personal ethics and contributions to one’s community or the common good. So let’s leave the reasons for the choice of a State Prize by a government so different from our own – is it really? – and concentrate instead on what we in the West might learn from this jungle tale and how its English version came about.
Most of us are in the dark when it comes to
appreciating the arduous and creative tasks that go into the telling and
translating of a chronicle of this kind. This is not a longish
novel. Perhaps that is a good thing when you think of the effort that must
go into translating lively Vietnamese prose into English. These are two
very diverse languages, the first based so fundamentally on tonal qualities and
perhaps closer to Chinese or even ancient Hebrew for its earthiness and
concreteness. English is every bit as creative and versatile but much more
linear and certainly much more forgiving or limited when it comes to number of
tones in speech or as demonstrated in writing.
The Vietnamese version of this book has been out for almost a decade and the decision to bring it to a Western (English-speaking) audience was only reached a few months ago. But translating fiction is not an easy task. Legal documents and verbal explanations, in a court room for example, call for accuracy. “Just tell me exactly what the person has said and don’t give me any interpretation of the words or your opinions.” I’ve often had to say that to my own translators as I worked and traveled in Viet Nam. Translating story is quite different. One must labour both with the words but also with the creative ideas and neither one of these must be sacrificed to the other. It takes Dr. Gary Donovan, a specialist in both linguistics and the pedagogy of linguistics to patiently struggle with the rough English translation to bring out both a faithful rendering of the author’s words plus a meaningful expression of ideas in a totally dissimilar language-type. This is a different level or constituency of creative expression. It also takes the quiet genius of cultural appreciation plus a full knowledge of the Vietnamese language of celebrated short story writer McAmmond Nguyen Thi Tu to provide a level of insight into meaning both of words and ideas, culturally shaped as they inevitably are.
Consider something as simple as the title of
this book “Lost in the Jungle”. Around a dinner table in Calgary, Canada
with the author, Dr. Gary, Tu and husband David; or in the Volga Hotel in
downtown Ha Noi, again with author Dinh, plus a distinguished professor
comrade, and myself: we all weigh the pros and cons of changing the title to
properly reach a Western audience. Some of us argue that “Lost in the
Jungle” sounds too much to our Western ears like an old Tarzan movie. Back
in Canada, those working day and night on an accurate yet appealing translation
hold tightly to a faithful rendering of the original. And what does “lost”
signify? I, myself, listened while Dinh and his faithful colleague and
professor of literature Nguyen Van Loi reiterated the importance of allowing
the reader the right of determining what might be meant by that word and that
title. And in the end simplicity and verity won the day. Now, you
gentle reader, are left to supply your own interpretation of events, which is
as it should be in any great literature and is certainly in keeping with Trung
Trung Dinh’s intent.
One final comment on the substance of this
story and its process serves as a convenient bridge to some words about Pham
Trung Dinh, the man. This is a story which centres on very young
soldiers. Perhaps the real strength and contribution of this narrative is
that it is told innocently, candidly, sometimes confusedly, through the eyes
and ears, ideas and fears, feelings and tears, of a very young and sensitive
man. That man is as in all good fiction a compilation of real figures not
the least of which is Trung Trung Dinh himself. If we take nothing else
from this story I hope it will be a deep appreciation of the author’s capacity
for re-imagining those days in his own life and the perceptive nature which
enables and enhances the recall. In addition there is the determination (nine
years of work) to tell this
Today Pham Trung Dinh is the personification of generosity and social conscience. His dearest friends, most of them writers, editors, translators, educators and poets, know him as a leader not only in the publishing field (he is now both writer and publisher) but as something of a moral guide or beacon. Picture, if you will, a little man, somewhat scruffy black and graying hair, a ruddy complexion, usually a painfully serious expression on his face. He takes you, his new friend, out for dinner. You know you make more money in a few hours than he may make in several weeks but he absolutely refuses to have you pay for anything. He meets you at your hotel after arriving on his motorcycle. He holds firmly to your hand or arm and guides you safely across the motorbike-infested streets of Ha Noi to a specially chosen restaurant where he believes you will be comfortable. He ensures that you have abundant food and drink – he himself prefers his iced Ha Noi Bia. Now he guides you home late at night after a delightful evening with his colleagues many of whom know at first-hand – may they even have been characters in? – this story. Safely returned to your hotel, Dinh must drive his bike across town to his own home. Yet, 5:00 a.m. the next morning he is at your hotel door to walk you safely to the train station where you will board a coach for other enchanting cities in Viet Nam.
And when you walk the streets, often hand in hand, with this gentle, attentive former “Vietcong” you observe his disappointed, almost disgusted critical glances and grunts at crass commercialism, pollution and waste, greed and pumped-up glamour – “Viet Nam – ergh!” What was that war all about? Here is the profoundest lesson of all – that you hold such a close and valued friendship beyond language differences, and in spite of cultural diversity – just this deep sense of shared friendship, of a shared humanity. This is what this story is able to do for us. It is after-all, an encapsulation of the incompleteness and uncertainty of a teen-age Vietnamese soldier – a school boy. It is a walk through the bewildering realities of war. It cannot by its age and nature come to any startling conclusions. That you would have to receive from the mature adult Trung Trung Dinh as he walks the streets of Ha Noi still yearning but so disenchanted with what Viet Nam has become, or is becoming.
- Larry J. Fisk
Canada, November 2009