Duong Tuong: He Introduced a Wide Range of Western Literature to Vietnamese Readers

From a New York Times obit by Seth Mydans headlined “Duong Tuong, Who Opened Western Eyes to Vietnamese Readers, Dies at 90”:

Duong Tuong, a prolific translator who for more than half a century introduced a wide range of Western literature to Vietnamese readers, died in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A poet who turned to translation to support his family, Mr. Tuong translated more than 50 books, large and small, from English and French, as well as performing secondary translations from Russian, German and several other languages.

“He brought the magic of the world’s most famous books to Vietnamese readers,” said the writer and journalist Ngo Thi Kim Cuc.

Mr. Tuong’s interests were eclectic and he said he liked challenges, taking on difficult writers like Proust, Nabokov, Camus, Sartre, Emily Brontë, Céline, Chekhov, Murakami, Günter Grass and Tolstoy.

Mr. Tuong was influential in both literature and art as Vietnam’s postwar cultural world expanded, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote art criticism and worked with a creative painters’ group called the Gang of Five.

“From within a rigid Vietnamese Communist system that aspired to force all culture to serve the interest of the state, Duong Tuong translated humanist masterpieces such as ‘Anna Karenina’ and nurtured the artistic talents of young progressives and nonconformists,” Peter Zinoman, a professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email message. “He played a huge role in the liberalization of Vietnamese culture under extremely illiberal conditions created by war and revolution. He was also an incredibly sweet human being.”

Mr. Tuong took an idiosyncratic approach to translation, infusing his work with his own personality. “An ideal translation should be a work in which the translator is the co-author,” he often said.

“I have held this view when translating nearly 60 foreign works into Vietnamese,” he told a journalist with the newspaper Than Nhien. “Clinging to the words is not loyalty but becomes slavery, which may run counter to the general idea, the common theme.”

This was true of what he considered his greatest challenge and crowning achievement, the translation from Vietnamese into English of the classic narrative poem “The Tale of Kieu” by the 19th-century poet Nguyen Du, which Mr. Tuong took on in his mid-80s, when his health and his eyesight were both failing.

“The Tale of Kieu,” which had previously been translated several times, is considered the crowning masterpiece of Vietnamese literature, about a young woman who sacrifices herself to save her family. Most educated Vietnamese can recite its opening lines, about a struggle between talent and destiny.

When it was published in 2020 by Nha Nam Publishing with 3,354 lines of text and nearly 10 pages of translator’s notes, it bore the title “Kieu: In Duong Tuong’s Version.”

“This is the biggest peak on my journey so far at almost 90 years old,” he told Than Nhien. “When I was still physically and mentally strong I dreamed of doing it, but didn’t dare. When my eyes could no longer read, with many diseases of old age, I decided to enter the final adventure, the ultimate test.”

Suffering badly from shingles, unable to see more than shapes and shadows, he said he repeatedly injected medication into his eyes, employed young readers to act as assistants and acquired a gigantic computer screen that slowed his work to a few words at a time. “I groped, meticulously typing each word,” he said.

But he had another way to overcome his blindness: he had, he said, memorized so much of the poem that he was able to translate a good deal of it from memory.

“‘The Tale of Kieu’ is already in my head,” he said. “I just switched to English.”

Tran Duong Tuong was born on Aug. 4, 1932, in Nam Dinh Province in northern Vietnam. His father, Tran Phuc Gia, and his mother, Vu Thi Tho, were both small merchants. He attended high school in Hanoi, then joined the anti-French resistance in 1949.

He was a committed revolutionary.

“To this day, I still think — and still affirm — the resistance war against the French was the golden age of the Vietnamese revolution,” he told a journalist, Pham Tuong Van. “If I could live in that time again, I would still act the same, that is, leave home and go to the army,”

It was a period that combined what he once said were the two great themes of his life: the revolution and a literary career.

He taught himself French and English and started reading books he found in outposts captured from the French, what he called “the most significant spoils” of war.

“In 1955, when I was discharged from the army, I continued to study on my own at the library,” he said. “It can be said that the library was my university.”

For the next decade, while writing poetry, Mr. Tuong worked as one of the early reporters and editors at Vietnam News Agency, then spent a decade as a translator for a government committee investigating American war crimes.

His income from poetry and the news agency was not enough to support his family so he turned to translation, as well as selling his blood, for what he called “rice, rice, money.”

His choice of translations reflected a lively mind and seemed to come from everywhere, both high art and low.

“Widely known for rendering ‘Gone with the Wind’ into Vietnamese, Duong Tuong translated a huge range of world literature, from Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ to Stefan Zweig’s ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman,’ to Alex Haley’s ‘Roots,’ to Nikos Kazantzakis’s ‘Zorba the Greek,’ ” Cam Nguyen, a lecturer at the department of South and Southeast Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said.

He continued to write poetry, sometimes in innovative forms, producing scores of compositions, some of which, like “Love Song 24,” a romantic ballad released in 1998, were turned into popular songs.

“My biggest concern, the thing that makes me lose sleep the most, is still poetry, the anxiety of wanting to innovate and open up new directions,” he said.

The words never stopped coming, he said, even when he was asleep, sometimes waking him in the middle of the night with new inspirations.

“I still ‘sleep with words,’” he told an interviewer in 2020. “A habit I have had for nearly 60 years. My mind never rests.”

Mr. Tuong’s most often quoted line, which he said could be used as his epitaph, was, “I am on the side of tears.”

He said the phrase represented his belief that it is the duty of all people to address the suffering, weakness and oppression in the world, and to “make the tears stop flowing.”

Seth Mydans reported as a foreign and national correspondent for The New York Times and its sister publication, The International Herald Tribune, from 1983 to 2012. He continues to contribute to The Times.

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