Vietnam: Translation

October 2017

SAND Went to Vietnam in October

by Jake Schneider, Editor in Chief

Most of the writing SAND publishes is unsolicited, and we’re often amazed at the many places in the world from which our contributors find us, joining the Berlin community in our journal’s pages. Now, for the first time, we traveled in the other direction and met some of our farthest contributors in person on their home turf.

My trip with SAND Poetry Editor Greg Nissan to Ă-Festival 2017 in Hanoi and Saigon came out of one of these artistic relationships, as I’ll explain. The festival brought together more like-minded independent journals and presses with poets, translators, organizers, and publishers from across Asia and the wider world. We took part in five days of readings, discussions, book fairs, and workshops in both cities.

Our original connection to the festival was the poem “a parade” by Nhã Thuyên, translated by Kaitlin Rees, which appeared last year in Issue 14:

The poem’s author and translator are part of a tightknit independent literary scene in the Vietnamese capital, and they co-run a publishing house, AJAR Press, which prints a bilingual Vietnamese-English magazine as well as poetry collections in both languages. AJAR Press is also one of the hosts of Ă-Festival, and we were delighted when they invited us to participate in the second edition.

We first thought of flying to Hanoi when we saw a video from last year’s inaugural edition of Ă-Festival and realized that another past contributor, Tammy Ho Lai-Ming from Hong Kong, was there. And AJAR was publishing the debut poetry collection of B.B.P. Hosmillo from the Philippines. That made three contributors (and a book by a fourth) at the same poetry festival more than eight thousand kilometers away, and it also made the world smaller than we thought.

Besides admiring Nhã Thuyên’s richly textured and cyclical poem, we were struck by Kaitlin Rees’s approach to translating its trickiest elements. The biggest challenge there was the Vietnamese language’s intricate system of personal pronouns, which are poorly matched by the neutrality of English’s I, you, or we. When we asked Kaitlin to compile a glossary of these pronouns to accompany her translation, the glossary (“notes on a parade”) became a poem of its own:

Kaitlin’s encounter with the uncanny specificities of language reminded me of an event I organized in 2015 called “Untranslatable.” Back then, I asked nine Berlin-based literary translators for texts that they considered in some way “untranslatable,” and they sent in everything from Oulipo experiments to Flemish sound poetry to punning riddles by Walter Benjamin. Then the translators swapped texts and had a month to wrestle with them before performing the “impossible” translations at our event, which took place, appropriately enough, on a Friday the 13th.

At Ă-Festival 2017, in addition to participating in a reading and a panel, Greg and held a follow-up “Translating the Untranslatable” workshop, this time featuring even more languages we don’t personally speak. In small groups, the participating poets and translators attempted in two hours what the last group accomplished in a month – to take supposedly untranslatable texts apart and put them back together in a new home: Vietnam.

Greg and I began with a little introduction to various types of untranslatable texts, which we categorized into seven loose families. Here’s a little video clip from our introduction, courtesy of Joshua Ip, showing an example of multilingual/dialect poetry that could be theoretically untranslatable, in this case a poem by Hamid Roslan in Singaporean “Singlish” incorporating words and phrases in Malay and Chinese. Apparently, Roslan’s work was translated into six languages at the Sing Lit Station/Literature Across Frontiers Translation Bootcamp in Malaysia several weeks later.

After our introductory presentation, the workshop participants formed small groups and sprung into action to translate some untranslatable poems of their own. The workshop texts included:

  • Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Park Hong  (“Desert creole,” a mix of many languages) , trans. Emily Stewart (Australian English) and Tse Hao Guang (Singlish)
  • We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks (English), trans. Nhã Thuyên, David Payne, and Ngân (Vietnamese), and also in another version trans. Greg Nissan and Jake Schneider (“Kiez” German)
  • Ur-Sonate” by Kurt Schwitters (Neolithic German), trans. Annika Yates and Alec Schachner (Vietnamese)
  • Eunoia, “Chapter A” by Christian Bök (English), trans. Joshua Ip (Mandarin Chinese)
  • Eunoia, “Chapter I” by Christian Bök (English), trans. Kaitlin Rees, Quyên Nguyen, Hải Yến, and Yen Duong (Vietnamese, then back into English)
  • Any Lit” by Harryette Mullen (English), trans. Justin Lane Briggs and Bobby Krueger (Spanish)

You can hear more about the festival and some preliminary recordings from the workshop on our radio special for Berlin Community Radio, beginning at about 1:17:00:

And here are a few photos of the workshop:

I kept a journal during the festival, which you can read extracts of (with pictures) here.

Also, Joshua Ip has a great recap of the festival, including our workshop, on his blog.

These unexpected chances to build community across continents are part of what excites us about running a truly international magazine.

Travel funded by the Berlin Senate Department for Culture and Europe.

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