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Translating Pham Thi Hoai: The invisibility of the Translator

Introduction: Ton That Quynh Du was born in Quang Tri and grew up in the old imperial city of Hue, Vietnam. In 1972 he received a Colombo Plan scholarship and came to study in Australia. He has worked as a translator and court interpreter, and has taught at Deakin University, Monash University, and the Australian National University. In 2000 his translation of Pham Thi Hoai’s novel, Crystal Messenger, won the Victorian Premier’s award in the literary translation category. His translation of Sunday Menu, a collection of short stories by Pham Thi Hoai, won the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) Book of The Year Award for 2007.

invisibility of translator Maintaining the invisibility of the translator while making the process of translation more visible is a paradox. Is it achievable, and what really is the responsibility of the translator?

There is a widely held view that translators ought to be invisible on the page. Born out of anxieties over the fidelity of translated texts compared to the original texts, this view reflects the belief that the translator should ‘just translate’ and not mess too much with the original texts. This line of thinking tends to encourage the view that the work of the translator is routine and automatic, that translations are similar to photographic reproductions of paintings, mechanical in process, unthinkingly faithful but lacking in creative spirit. Such assertions fly in the face of the nature of translation as I experience it. Most of my published translating has been for one author, Pham Thi Hoai, from Vietnamese into my adopted language, English. I have translated her debut novel, Crystal Messenger, and a collection of short stories, Sunday Menu, published in 2006.

If translating Hoai’s work means bringing the English reader into the world of her fiction, giving the English reader an experience similar to that enjoyed by her Vietnamese readers, then translating Hoai’s work demands close engagement by the translator with the text at all levels, in ways that are intimate and at times interpretive. Apart from mediating between two languages and two literary traditions with very different sets of conventions and artistic vocabularies, the translator also mediates on another level: that of selector, not only of words and whole phrases, but also, as in short fiction collections, whole stories—choosing which stories to include and which to leave out.

In a way, putting together a collection of short stories such as Sunday Menu is a bit like composing a literary portrait of the writer. Some stories select themselves; a collection of short stories by Pham Thi Hoai cannot be without her signature stories such as Saigon Tailor and Sunday Menu. But the translator is tasked with choosing those pieces that best capture the essence of the writer’s work. And the translator’s choice is influenced by how he or she sees the author’s work, how it is understood and how it is crafted. For example, in the collection Sunday Menu I did not include two important polemic works by Hoai, The Poets’ Republic and The Government Inspector Visits, primarily because we were more interested in a portrait of Hoai the writer than Hoai the intellectual dissident.

And how do I see Hoai’s work? What is thePham_Thi_Hoai's_cover in German essence of Hoai’s fiction that really needs to come across as a defining concept of this writer’s work? Two years ago, I was fishing off the rocks in Lunawanna, an isolated spot in Bruny Island, on a perfect Tasmanian day. The sea sparkled, the breeze blew gently, the waves lapped over the rocks, and it dawned on me then that nature was completely absent from the world of Hoai’s fiction. Not for her the struggle of man against nature, Old Man and The Sea, nor seeking solitude in the mountain to contemplate the insignificance of mankind. Instead, the world of her fiction is packed with busy humans living in close friction with each other. There is a relentless focus on the biological needs of her characters. In Crystal Messenger the narrator’s family of six live in one room, queuing up daily to share a single public water tap with nine hundred other people. In Sunday Menu poor cyclo drivers flock to have a cheap meal at a street-side eatery.

In this tight and uncomfortable world, romantic love is largely absent; it afflicts only the few unfortunate ones, usually the incurable romantics and the gullible, as the narrator in ‘Universal Love’ observes of her mother’s taste for men:

[M]other continues to open her heart to everyone, to the men whose desires refuse to mature with their increasing age, men who are lost amongst their own herds, men whose sole aim in life is to revenge the undeserved success of others, men who are shorter than one meter sixty, men with broken hearts, men who check small change given back by paper boys, men who exaggerate their social connections, men who can not find a way to divorce their wife, men who naively rush headlong to syphilis, men who try their best to absorb and disseminate the latest unique ideas, men who desperately resist the tragedy of being forgotten, and her top priority is reserved for the gloomy.

Love is not happening, however, to the narrator in ‘Second-hand’, a cynical battle-hardened street trader selling second-hand clothes, a rough character being pursued by an even rougher diamond. Here is how she sees him:

It also disgusts me to see you sit there, yawning till your eyes water, picking your nose and examining the blob of snot on your greying index finger before squishing it on the table. Do feel free to sit there and entertain yourself by cleaning your orifices. Fifteen minutes per orifice, at this rate you’d soon be a clean man, but I can’t quite stand the disgusting way you go about it.

yet, at the end of ‘second-hand’ she accepts his proposal for marriage.

While love is largely absent, death – the biological end of living things, features prominently in the world of Hoai’s fiction. There is a symbolic death in ‘The Toll of The Sea’, a violent death in bizarre circumstances in ‘Saigon Tailor’, and in my view the death scene in ‘Sunday Menu’ is most instructive.

‘Sunday Menu’ is set in a kerbside eatery serving the cheapest food to cyclo drivers—the poorest workers of Hanoi. It’s run by the narrator’s mother, who keeps costs down by all possible means:

I knew for a fact that today’s soup was yesterday’s soup disguised by freshly chopped shallots, and yesterday’s was really the day before’s; that inside that pot over there, happily simmering away and gently browning to a mahogany colour, were the 2.1 kilos of rotten, fly-blown meat bought at the market at the end of the day—the flies and their egg-sacks dotted that piece of meat like black beans and sesame seeds.

Meanwhile, the narrator’s grandma lies by herself in an attic room, waiting for death to come, dreaming of the culinary delights of her former aristocratic days. Every Sunday the narrator visits her grandma. To keep grandma happily cocooned in her nostalgic dreams, she makes a false report, telling grandma about the glorious food being cooked at home, using the names of dishes she reads in cookbooks at the local library. Many things happen, then grandma dies, but our narrator leaves grandma’s body in the room and continues to visit every day, bringing with her a plate of real food that she buys from an expensive restaurant, a funeral banquet for the deceased. Here is the description of her last visit:

The incense smoke curled thick and the flies swarmed black.[…] Icouldn’t see her clearly, she seemed a little more grandly bloated, bursting at the seams of her clothes, destined to disintegrate tomorrow. She seemed to lean towards the colour of Buddha, with her white chiffon blouse having gone almost brown. On her smile there seemed to blossom a purple flower.

Grandma was lying on the floor. Her face was turned towards the door waiting for me, her mouth next to a bowl of shark-fin soup. a terrible flow of slime oozed from her mouth to the bowl, or was it rising from the bowl to her mouth? I couldn’t tell. I tried not to panic, asking her to return to her old place, to turn around to watch the clouds floating past Grandpa, it’s better that way, lying down like this is no way to enjoy a banquet. But the two wobbly timber planks had collapsed upon her possessions. The feather-light goddesses of her fine china potty lay shattered. I closed my eyes tight. When I opened them again I saw millions of busy maggots.

‘Busy maggots’ is an odd but accurate observation. We usually think of maggots as revolting, disgusting, not as busy beings. But if we take time to reflect on it, all that they do is go about their own lives searching for nutrients to sustain themselves, just like the cyclo drivers feasting themselves at the narrator’s eatery, or indeed any of the six billion busy humans in the world.

The focus and emphasis on biological aspects of the characters that populate Hoai’s fiction place her works in a definite place in the way the self, or the person, has evolved in Vietnamese literature.

In classical Vietnamese literature, the self has always been an idealized one, defined in reference to social, cultural and moral values. Take The Tale of Kieu, for example. Throughout the more than 4 thousand lines, the person of Kieu was skillfully and lively developed. We get to know the sense of obligations she felt to the plight of her family, the joyful love she felt for Kim Trong, the anguish of having to sell herself to save her father, her immense literary and musical talents, all depicted in sharp, intimate and moving details.

For example, after her lover protector, the warrior Tu Hai, was killed, defeated by trickery, and Kieu was required to play her Tipa for the victor at the celebration banquet, this is how the music poured out of her instrument.

Lashing winds of sadness, howling rains of misery

On the four strings drips the blood from her five fingertips

We know everything about her throughout her 15 years ordeal, but not once do we see her cooking, eating, or attending to her bodily functions. Biologically, she was absent from the work, except for a two line description of her naked body when she bathed herself, and an equally brief hint at the kind of sexual skills she had to acquire during her time in the brothel, which helped cause The Tale of Kieu to be branded as pornography by the more conservative scholars of the time.


In early modern Vietnamese literature the self remained idealized, although the surrounding social norms and cultural landscapes had greatly changed. Only in very few works of this period, Doi – Hunger by Thach Lam, for example, that we see a flash of a sharper definition of their biological dimensions.

During the Vietnam wars, the person in the revolutionary stream of Vietnamese literature acquired an extra dimension: patriotism, and in the works of the writers of South Vietnam, the person appeared to be more fully developed, the sexual self emerged strongly in the works of Duy Lam, Nguyen Thi Hoang and Tuy Hong, and this trend continued, became sharper in the works of many émigré writers.

But it is in the works of Pham Thi Hoai that the person is constructed as a biological being in ways that are consistent, comprehensive, non-judgmental, and natural. This is why I think the scene of grandma’s death in ‘Sunday Menu’ so revealing of the nature of Hoai’s works.

In terms of style, I have come to appreciate Hoai’s dry wit and the way she combines it with insightful observations to give sketches that sum up the essence of her characters in only a few lines. But there are also other occasions when her keen eye for detail provides comprehensive descriptions, missing nothing. An example of the first is found in ‘Saigon Tailor’ at a dressmaking class. It is set in post-war Vietnam and deals with young women from the countryside, who come to the capital city Hanoi in search of a better life:

I felt that it was time to sew a pair of shorts, so I took the material upstairs to ask Teacher Tuc to cut it for me. But Tuc wasn’t there, only Teacher Quyet lying on the table right underneath the overhead fan, singing La Dieu Bong.  A few strands of his hair were swimming in a bowl of vegetable soup served on a tray placed on the table next to his head. He asked me what I wanted to make. I said a pair of shorts. He said, ‘Follow the basic cut for a pair of pants, just cut off the legs.’ I thought that wouldn’t be quite right, that this special present needed the artistic touch of Teacher Tuc, so I tried to take leave, excusing myself by saying it was his lunch break. But he got up and said, ‘Give it to me,’ and two seconds later the material had been cut and he returned to his lying position, his hair again swimming in the bowl of soup.

As a contrast, in ‘Vision Impaired’ we are offered an absorbing and detailed description through the ears of the narrator receiving a massage from a masseuse that has been brought home by her husband:

For the whole duration of the session the master took his time, leisurely explaining to my husband every move and every trick. This is punching, fluid and shallow punches only, withdraw as soon as the blows connect, the force coming from the wrist and not the arm. a good pummeling must sing cracking pleasure to the ears. I’ve said this sort of massage is for the common folk. Our folks like noisy crowds. That’s why we fear solitary confinement more than execution. at executions at least there’s gunfire and yelling spectators. This is called patting, your hand forming the dome shape of the tortoise’s shell, cupping air and slapping down. You must also make a nice slapping sound. […] and this is called catching the mouse. Along the back, here and here, under each side of the ridge, there hides a mouse, you have to flush it out to make it run like this, that’s called catching the mouse. This is called the march of a thousand ants. Use the tips of your fingers lightly, but the customer must feel the goose-pimples rising if you’re any good at it. […] Now this is called the wading stork, your fingers walk like the deliberate and rhythmic feet of a stork, take your time and don’t rush. You can also call it the pecking stork, pecking in single strokes, in a leisurely and unhurried manner. a flurry of typist finger-strokes may cause the customer to feel he’s reaching the height of pleasure, but that’ll be no good. The height of pleasure must be when it hurts the most, the waves of pain followed by a moment of feeling faint, and a few seconds later, pleasure hits at its most extreme. […] and now, the height of pleasure, it’s simply called plucking. You start plucking here at this spot of the back, and move down, all the way to the coccyx, like this.

Although imageries can be culturally bound and need sensitive treatment, bringing them across into another language can be attained with reasonable attention and moderate competence on the part of the translator. More interesting and more challenging is when language itself is central to the enjoyment of the story. Let’s again look at ‘Saigon Tailor’.

‘Saigon Tailor’ begins with the line, Sai Gon Tailor’s not in Saigon, not in Cali, taking the reader to a dressmaking shop named Saigon Tailor, but it’s not in Saigon, not in California, but in HaNoi, the seat of revolutionary power that prevailed over the Sai Gon regime. It’s a succinct introduction to the post-war economic reforms of Vietnam, when fashion replaced firearms, and a cheeky comment on Ha Noi’s cultural cringe: Revolutionaries are not known for their confidence and good taste in the fashion stakes. But there is also musicality in the opening sentence. Hoai once told me that the titles of her stories serve as time signatures, and that the opening sentences are the movements of conductor’s baton that set the pace, rhythm and the musical tone for the rest of the story.

Tiem May Sai Gon khong o sai gon khong o cali. Those rythmic opening sixteen syllables tune the reader’s inner ear for the language that follows, a very specific language of the street traders of Hanoi.

I was lucky that I had experienced this street trader language first-hand before I translated ‘Saigon Tailor’. In 1999 my family and I lived in Vietnam for nearly four months, courtesy of an Asialink literature residency, and while in Hanoi I used to go to the market everyday to buy food. One day I went very early to avoid the crowds. Nobody was around except for a group of female small traders circling around watching two women involved in a particularly nasty argument. One was obviously having the upper-hand, delivering abuse after abuse at her hapless victim who was unable to answer back simply because the abuses came thick and fast, witty and cruelly funny, one abuse gliding rhythmically into the next without a break, with the unstoppable momentum of a T54 tank. at one point, the dominating woman actually dropped her pants and demonstrated what she might do to her victim’s husband, complete with thrusting movements in rhythm with the delivery of her abuses. Although abusive and aggressive, her language was also creative and extremely powerful. I haven’t haggled with the street traders of Viet Nam since that experience.

The owner of Saigon Tailor, Tuyet, speaks in a way that reminds me of this street language. Here is an example of Tuyet’s language when the narrator found her in a raging mood:

As I came down the stairs the girls were trying to calm Tuyet down, holding her at the waist as if trying to keep her guts from spilling out. They might well have been able to hold her guts but nobody could ever hold back her tongue. […] I walked straight into the middle of her sentence, ‘making a mess and not tidying up after yourself finishing with the iron and leaving it there unplugged is like going to the toilet and not flushing like shitting and not shoveling it away leaving this old woman to clean up after you, you little young sluts so that you can sit and chat amongst yourselves don’t say that you’ve come here to learn not one of you can manage to sew a straight line your buttons are uneven like the dirt tracks of your paddy fields your button-holes are coarse and hairy like your cunts don’t bother calling yourself students I’ll send you all packing this is a place for serious learning we are all educated and cultured here this is not a bloody brothel this is not a market that you can come and go as you bloody please in this day and age nobody cares about anybody if I don’t look after you who would …

George Steiner once said, ‘The translator invades, extracts, and brings home.’ Having brought home the language, the translator then has to find some way of placing it. Where in contemporary Australian usage of English do I place the sort of language found in ‘Saigon Tailor’? I have an adequate knowledge of Australian abusive language, but I don’t know if there is anything quite its equivalent. Staff at David Jones certainly do not speak like this, and neither do the stall holders at Canberra Farmers’ market. If there isn’t an obvious equivalent sub-register in the target language to aim for, somehow the translator has to imagine that there is one and go for it.

The translator has to sense what works and what doesn’t, what sounds right and what sounds wrong. What guides the translator is his or her own appreciation of the original work by the author and an ability to render it in another language, both of which are affected by the translator’s own life experiences.

So, what do I make of the question of the (in)visibility of the translator. I am tempted to quote the Hanoi-based translator Duong Tuong and say that a good translation should have a hundred percent of the author and a hundred percent of the translator. But this observation somehow doesn’t quite capture the sense of close engagement between the translator, the author and the original text. Perhaps I should quote the words, used in a very different context, of the critic Nguyen Hung Quoc, and say that a good translation is the ‘love child of a three-way relationship’ between the translator, the author and the original text.

The translator may prefer not to be in the limelight, and his or her presence is not always conspicuous. But the translator is there, definitely there.

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  • Chu Việt says:

    I am in complete accord with your keen and insightful analysis of the nature of Pham Ihi Hoai literature. As it is, it occupies a very distinguished place in contemporary Vietnamese literature. It can also be said that after Hoai, Vietnamese literature is never the same again, to wit the many talented young writers of today whose works adorn the pages of this e-magazine and others.
    When you chose to translate her works, you know your are bound like a horse whose reins are fastened to a post – the original text. You can walk around a few steps, but when you venture too far, the reins would jerk you back to the post. Your freedom of expression is measured by the length of your reins. Only those who are passionate and devoted enough can take up the courage to do translation of Hoai’s works. You are one among them, and people – including me – admire you for your courage since you chose to tackle the most fearsome of tasks and come out with flying colors. Although I nitpick at some of your shortcomings, the fact is I just want to help in some way to make your work read better. Maybe, instead of whining about the invisibility of the translator, you probably would be better off with trying your hand at creative writing, given your talent and background. And I am sure you’d make it. Your career is still ahead of you, and beckoning.


    Tôi hoàn toàn đồng ý với sự phân tách bén nhọn và sâu sắc của anh về bản chất văn chương Phạm Thị Hoài. Trong văn học Việt Nam đương đại, văn chương của cô đã chiếm một địa vị cao quý. Cũng có thể nói rằng sau Phạm Thị Hoài, văn chương Việt Nam đương đại không còn như trước nữa. Chứng cớ là đã có biêt bao tài năng văn học trẻ đang có tác phẩm trang trí cho những trang cùa tạp chí điện tử này và ở những nơi khác.
    Khi anh chọn lựa dịch các tác phẩm của cô Hoài, anh cũng biết rằng anh bị ràng buộc như một con ngựa mà dây cương bị thắt vào một cây cột – đó là văn bản gốc. Anh cỏ thể đi loanh quanh dăm ba bước, nhưng nếu đi quá xa, dây cương sẽ giật anh trở lại với cây cột. Tự do biểu đạt của anh chỉ là độ dài của dây cương. Chỉ có những người đam mê và có nhiệt tâm mới có can đảm dịch tác phẩm của cô Hoài. Anh là một người trong số đó, và thiên hạ – gồm cả tôi ngưỡng mộ anh vì anh đã lựa chọn làm một công việc dễ sợ nhất và thành công rực rỡ. Mặc dầu tôi có xăm soi những điểm yếu trong một tác phẩm cũa anh, nhưng tình thật, tôi chỉ muốn đóng góp sao cho bàn dịch của anh sáng sủa hơn.
    Thay vì ca cẩm về sự vô hình của người dịch thuật, có lẽ anh sẽ thành công hơn nếu anh thử sáng tác. Với tài năng và kinh nghiệm của anh, tôi chắc anh sẽ thành công. Sự nghiệp của anh còn ở trước mặt, nó đang vẫy gọi anh đó.

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