Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Translator Charles Waugh

While it's commonplace to say that art is a universal language, there is at least one artistic field where this doesn't quite hold true, and that is literature. Unlike visual art or dance or music, literature must go through an intermediary---the translator---before it can be consumed by a larger global audience. The translator's decision to translate a work determines which books we may access, while the strength of his or her craft often determines how well the work is received internationally.

We recently spoke by e-mail about the curatorial and artistic roles of the translator with Charles Waugh, a 2013 NEA Translation Fellow. An English professor at Utah State University and a former Fulbright Fellow, Waugh has worked for several years to expose English-speaking audiences to Vietnamese literature. In collaboration with Nguyen Lien, he translated and edited the 2010 anthology Family of Fallen Leaves, whose stories and essays illuminate the horrors of Agent Orange from a Vietnamese perspective. His recent NEA grant will help support the compilation and translation of New Voices from Vietnam, which will feature the voices of 19 Vietnamese writers born after 1969. For Western audiences, whose knowledge of Vietnam is often limited to American-produced books and movies about our country's conflict there, Waugh's work offers an enlightening look beyond our customary view.

NEA: Translating is a fine art all its own. What is your goal as a translator?

CHARLES WAUGH: The challenge of translation for me is finding that fine line that intersects accessibility and strangeness, faithfulness to the source and the spirit of the work all at the same time. I want my translations to be beautiful, but in an unusual way that can approximate the syntactical thinking of the original story. I hope that my translations honor the author, as well as my heroes of translation: John Balaban, Wayne Karlin, Constance Garnett, Willa and Edwin Muir, William Weaver, and Giovanni Pontierro, just to name a few.

NEA: How did you first become interested in Vietnam and its language and literature?

WAUGH: As an undergraduate, I took a really special course on the history of Laos with an equally special professor named Ken Debevoise. There were just three of us students and Ken, reading pretty much everything we could get our hands on through interlibrary loan about Laos. During the years of the American war in Vietnam, Laos became the most bombed nation in the world (an awful distinction it still holds) as the Americans tried to destroy the supply lines running through the Truong Son mountain range by dropping millions of tons of bombs all over the place. And we read this little pamphlet that had been put together by people working at the refugee camps that included crayoned pictures drawn by children who had stared amazed up toward the sky at the first airplanes they had ever seen dropping bomb after bomb on their village, destroying their homes and killing their families. It was a devastating moment in my life, recognizing the horror of what we had done, and I knew then that I had to know more about why the U.S. had done this and what it was about our culture that had led us to such terrible ruthlessness.

I started taking courses on Vietnam, then completed a master’s degree in history where I focused on Americans in Vietnam in the 1950s and the culture that allowed them to treat human bodies with such disregard. It was also then that I started to learn Vietnamese, read Vietnamese poetry and folk tales for the first time, and caught a glimpse of just how little Americans knew of Vietnam and the Vietnamese before deciding to intrude on their affairs. By then I was hooked.

NEA: In Family of Fallen Leaves, you helped translate a collection of 12 stories. How easy or difficult is it to adapt your translations to the voices of different authors?

WAUGH: I wouldn’t say it’s an adaptation necessarily. Because I try my best to hew to the original syntax, the voices of the narrators and characters emerge all on their own. For example in Family of Fallen Leaves, “Thirteen Harbors” by Suong Nguyet Minh has a narrator that begins the story with “Tôi lấy vợ mới cho chồng” -- “I took a new wife for my husband.” This woman’s voice is so direct and powerful it establishes itself immediately. Of course, there were some moments when it was difficult to word that directness in English, but once the principle is in place, the words come eventually.

NEA: Fallen Leaves tells the story of Agent Orange from different perspectives. Can you talk about the role and responsibility of the translator to bring a culture’s history, traditions, psyche, and literature to the wider world?

WAUGH: I think what that book does best is convey the terror of having been exposed to a teratogenic poison. So many of the risks we take every day have some small dose of this sort of thing. If I smoke a cigarette, I might imagine that one day I’ll get cancer. If I drive without my seatbelt, I might imagine being hurt in an accident, or more likely that a cop will pull me over and give me a ticket. We imagine "what might be" anytime we confront any risk. With exposure to the chemical defoliants used during the American war in Vietnam, the intensity and severity of the consequences magnifies the intensity and severity of what can be imagined. The length of time it can take for an illness to become manifest also magnifies the impact on the imagination. Some of the exposed Vietnamese developed symptoms right away, but many, many more only realized they were sick much later. Knowing they were exposed, and knowing that so many serious illnesses like cancer, diabetes, or Parkinson’s were possible had to weigh heavily on these veterans’ minds. Even worse were the experiences of exposed veterans who returned home and married and started a family. Because dioxin is a teratogenic poison, every pregnancy in an exposed person’s family raises the specter of birth defects and other ailments being passed on to the child. The powerlessness and dread that have accompanied these pregnancies have probably been enough to cause problems on their own, and the only things worse were the cases where people actually had children born with these terrible, often extremely painful illnesses and deformities. The lives these parents and children have had to suffer through have been excruciatingly difficult. And we’re not talking about just a few people here; it’s estimated that more than four million Vietnamese suffer from various dioxin-related illnesses.

What the authors in Family of Fallen Leaves have captured is the immensity of the ways the cultural imagination of the Vietnamese has been affected by this toxic exposure. You can try this for yourself: imagine 5 percent of the U.S. has been sprayed with 40,000 times the amount of dioxin the World Health Organization says can be “safely” absorbed by a human in a single day. Now imagine it moving through various ecosystems, including a significant portion of that exposed land being farmland. Who’s been exposed? Were you? Was your spouse? Directly or indirectly? Where has your food come from? Was it from one of the exposed areas? What level of exposure can be tolerated and a person still have a healthy child? A normal life? It’s like four million people have been given the possibility of having a time bomb lodged deep within their DNA. The Family of Fallen Leaves authors tapped into all this cultural anxiety and terror and expressed it in some very powerful ways. Do I have a responsibility to bring this part of the Vietnamese imagination to an American audience? You bet. The damage from that war just keeps coming; many, many people right at this very moment are still suffering because of it.

NEA: Why did you choose the particular stories that will appear in New Voices from Vietnam?

WAUGH: Working with my project partner, Nguyen Lien, we set up a few parameters, then sought help from Van Gia, who is the head of the creative writing program at the University of Culture, Hanoi, and who knows many writers and editors through his affiliation with the Vietnam Writers Association. We wanted prize-winning stories from writers who came of age just as Vietnam turned to a market economy in 1986. That would mean that they may have been born during the war, but most likely were not as impacted by it as by the new way of life that followed that 1986 change. Our oldest writer was born in 1969. Our youngest in 1980. Van Gia was especially helpful in locating stories that met these two conditions, and we whittled the collection down to the best ones from there.

But maybe the question is more about why we set up those parameters. As important as our last collection was to bring to a U.S. audience, we felt it was equally important to address the notion that Vietnam is just the location of a horrible war. So many Americans stopped thinking about Vietnam when they walked out of the theater playing the last movie that was made about the American soldiers who fought there. For them, the lasting impression of Vietnam is really a lasting impression about the American experience of Vietnam. Because they’ve been so mired in getting over all the very real troubles our veterans had after the war, they’ve not been able to see that life for many people in Vietnam has not only moved on, but changed dramatically. Our focus on writers coming of age after doi moi (the Vietnamese policy to embrace a market economy) is meant to show American readers what Vietnam is like today, when 65 percent of the population is under 30 years old and global capitalism has a far greater presence in everyday life than a war that was just one in a series of wars fought in Vietnam during the 20th century.

In the last 15 years, the U.S. has again begun to have a large cultural impact in Vietnam, having become their number one partner in trade. As our dollars go to Pottery Barn and J. Crew and bring furniture and vases and clothing made in Vietnam to homes all over the U.S., many Vietnamese have achieved an unprecedented spending power. But  these gains are always uneven, and while some Vietnamese have become insanely wealthy, others have been left behind. We felt that Americans need to see all the transformations, displacements, and possibilities that have come thanks in part to the engagement between our two countries.

NEA: You are a writer yourself. Do your writing and translation work inform one another? If so, how?

WAUGH: I think my sense of sentence rhythm comes from my own writing, as does my sense for the sound and emotional context of words. These are good things generally, but they can also force some tough decisions when translating a passage where the original doesn’t conform to my sense of them. But that’s also okay. I think translation is supposed to push us outside our comfort zones.

NEA: If there’s one misconception you could change about the field of translation, what would it be?

WAUGH: It seems that some people who have never translated think that a translator is some kind of robot who just takes in what’s there and spits out some equivalent in another language. But in fact, a translator has to be an artist as well, making difficult choices that ultimately make that literary work come to life all over again in a new form. Michael Cunningham once wrote that all writing is translation since the writer must take the ephemeral images, actions, thoughts and feelings in his head and somehow make them come out in a different form on paper. That rings true to me.

NEA: What are you reading right now?

I’m one of those ADD readers who always has to have several books going at the same time. Right now I’m reading Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam, which is an ethnographic study of Vietnamese beliefs in the impact of spirits on everyday life; Max Lane’s translation of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s excellent novel, This Earth of Mankind, about a young man coming of age and grappling with modernity in colonial Java; the latest installment of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo; with my son, the third book of Trenton Lee Stewart’s fantastic Mysterious Benedict Society series; and perpetually, John Stevens’ beautiful, spare translation of Morihei Ueshiba’s Art of Peace.

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