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Poet Nguyen Quang Thieu: There should be a national strategy for promoting Vietnamese literature

This is also the main theme that the VNQD magazine exchanged with the poet Nguyen Quang Thieu - Vice President of the Vietnam Writer's Association, director of the translation center and director of Vietnam Writer's Association's publishing house.
Poet Nguyen Quang Thieu: There should be a national strategy for promoting Vietnamese literature
Nguyen Quang Thieu
Never before has foreign literature appeared on bookshelves as much as nowadays. Most of the popular literary works, the best sellers, the ones that won in major competitions ... are quickly translated into Vietnamese and published in Vietnam. Some bookstores and publishers also report that they "live" mainly by translated literature, not Vietnamese literature. This phenomenon is normal, nothing to worry about. And the good sales of translated books will imperceptibly create a pressure of "competition" for domestic writers. There is no other way than to work harder to be able to be at the same level with colleagues around the world. However, the phenomenon of world literature occupying bookshelves continues to raise a question that we have all cared about for a long time: promoting and introducing Vietnamese literature abroad. We have a broad knowledge of world literature, and what does the world know about us?
This is also the main theme that the VNQD magazine exchanged with the poet Nguyen Quang Thieu - Vice President of the Vietnam Writer's Association, director of the translation center and director of Vietnam Writer's Association's publishing house.

JOURNALIST: I know that you just had a long trip to America. In comparison with other trips in the framework of exchanges with American writers and readers, what is new on this trip?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: I went for 3 weeks. This is an annual activity. Thirty years ago, in 1987, the poet Kevin Bowen, director of the William Joiner Center (WJC), advocated inviting Vietnamese writers to introduce and exchange with the Center. And the first Vietnamese writers to come to America were Le Luu and Nguy Ngu. It was a memorable event because back then the relationship between the two countries was still in the cold period. Le Luu even had to wait for 3 weeks in Bangkok because of the problem with granting the first citizenship visa. Since then, WJC has invited Vietnamese veteran writers to the US for their summer literary seminar every year. In there, Vietnamese writers will present their own works, which will cover issues of war, postwar, Vietnamese culture and especially focusing on literature. The most significant activity is reading the work, conversing with American readers - the most advanced readers: writers, professors, university students, researchers who are interested in Vietnamese literature.
I and the poet-musician Nguyen Thuy Kha went on the trip this year.  One of the most important points of this trip is the preliminary summary of the cooperation between WJC and the Vietnam Writers Association, as well as discussing the direction of activities in the future. It is worth mentioning that in the coming time, a number WJC's writers who love Vietnam, understand Vietnam, stick with Vietnam will retire: Kevin Bowen, Nguyen Ba Chung... The substitutes understand little about Vietnam, they are less attached and not even writers..
JOURNALIST: Well that is concerning...
Nguyen Quang Thieu: It is concerning. For some works, we will have to start all over again, and we will have to develop new projects that suit the situation of both sides. I was on behalf of the Vietnam Writers Association to work with the new director. He is not a writer or a literature researcher. However, he has some knowledge about Vietnam, having generally studied Vietnam and has worked in Vietnam for a number of years.
JOURNALIST: To recall things have been done in the past 30 years, what would you mention?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: In the recent trip, we brought 200 books. They are 200 copy of an English-Vietnamese bilingual poetry book, called People Passing through the Sea. This is a book that brings together the pieces on the memories and works in which writers from both sides have participated in over the past 30 years to promote Vietnamese literature to American readers. We gave the books and the oil painting by painter Le Thiet Cuong that was used as the cover of the books to WJC as a gift. This is a book full of memories. Over the past 30 years, the Vietnam Writers Association has collaborated with WJC to translate, print and publish 15 books by Vietnamese writers, including poetry and prose. In addition, hundreds of other writings of Vietnamese writers have been translated, and read all over the US, and were chosen by more than 40 American literary magazines to print and introduce.
The association between the Vietnam Writers Association and WJC is the most effective combination, does the most work in the effort to promote Vietnamese literature to the world. And it is not only recognized by us but also highly value by the US side. On June 27th, the mayor of Boston decided to proclaim the August 27 as Kevin Bowen day. As we all know, Kevin Bowen has been sued repeatedly for "helping the communists" and being "the extended hand of communism in the United States." He has repeatedly testified before the US Congress on matters relating to Vietnam. After 30 years of trying to connect the two literatures, he was honor by the mayor: "We honor Kevin because he has made the American people more deeply understand the culture of Vietnam, an old enemy of ours".
JOURNALIST: Indeed, Kevin Bowen and WJC have done a great deal in introducing Vietnamese literature to Americans over the past 30 years in a tireless endeavor. They were honored in their country, what about in ours?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: In the coming October, the Vietnam Writers Association will hold a meeting and exchange between Vietnamese writers and writers of WJC. From their side, there will be the first to participants of the anti-war movement during the war and after the demobilization. Those are people who have written about Vietnam, translated Vietnamese literature, introduced Vietnamese culture and literature in America for years. In the agenda of the program, there will be a seminar for American veteran writers and veterans of Vietnam to exchange and discuss on what to do to further promote the relationship between the two countries and the understanding of the readers about the two nations. There also will be a poetry reading night. Its tentative title is “Playing basketball with Viet Cong”. This is the title of a Kevin Bowen’s poem dedicated to writer Nguyen Quang Sang when he saw Nguyen Quang Sang played basketball in his yard. The poem is filled with humanity, culture and love of peace...
JOURNALIST: About the 15 books that have been introduced in the US, in consideration of 30 years long, I feel that the number is still pretty modest.
Nguyen Quang Thieu: The 15 books are a great effort because WJC is not a publishing agency. They are just an intermediary introducing our works to American publishers. In addition to these 15 books, WJC also helps us to present a very large number of individual works in journals, at universities. On June 27th, the mayor of Boston also emphasized: WJC is the only organization that translates, prints and publishes that many Vietnamese literary books. And we have to understand that WJC has a lot of other interests in the countries that related to wars, postwar: Iraq, Afghanistan ... but mainly Vietnam. Perhaps because the Vietnam War was the most special war in many aspects to the Americans.During the recent meeting, the two sides reached an agreement with the main contents: the US continues to invite Vietnamese writers to attend the annual summer literature seminar in America; The US side helps the Vietnamese side to find scholarships to train literary translators because our lack of literacy translators. We have a lot of people with good English, but in term of literacy translating there are very few people can do it; both sides started to have a more specific book translation strategy. The Vietnam side will also translate works of famous writers from WJC into Vietnamese. The writers at WJC also continue to help us to translate our typical works into English. In particular, we will choose not only works on war and postwar but also on other topics, especially contemporary ones. And because it's not simple to print in the United States, they will help us to get the best translations, and the printing will be handled by the Vietnamese side. They will be bilingual and distributed in both countries; In addition, the Vietnamese side will seek scholarships for the American writers coming to Vietnam to study Vietnamese, Vietnamese culture and literature. They also suggested that we begin to not only send veteran writers to the US for the annual summer seminar but also send young writers, new voices of Vietnamese literary life. In addition, the two sides will also look for a replacement for poet Nguyen Ba Chung to work at WJC. An American Vietnamese writer who is good at Vietnamese and understand the culture and literature of Vietnam.
Nguyen Thuy Thieu speaks at the Summer Literature Seminar - Boston, USA - Photo: Le Thiet Cuong

JOURNALIST: Up to now, apart from WJC, do we also coordinate with other organizations?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: There are a few small organizations in Columbia, Japan, and Asian-African and Latin American Writers Association (Nguyen Quang Thieu is currently Deputy Secretary-General of the Asian-African and Latin American Writers Association – JOURNALIST). Especially for the Asian-African and Latin American Writers Association, we began to re-publish the Lotus magazine. There are the contributions of Vietnamese poets in the first and second volume. Lotus Magazine is available in English, French, and Arabic. These are the three languages spoken by Asian-African-Latin American writers. In the future, maybe in the meetings where I attend as a representative of Vietnamese writers and as the first deputy secretary general, I would like to win the right to host the Lotus prize every three years in Vietnam. This will be the award for the best works of three continents, the contemporary works that are translated into English and French. Accordingly, every three years, the best writers of the Association will gather in Vietnam to receive the award and we will have a very meaningful day. When adopted by the Standing Committee of the Asian - African and Latin American Writers Association it will be an official document. The course will be that the Member States will nominate outstanding works of their countries that have been translated into one of the two languages. The judges will be great writers and critics around the world, but there will be no one in the standing committee of the Association to avoid choosing by region.
If we can do it, I think we can all expect a big regional award. After my presentation at the meeting, the whole meeting agreed to give Vietnam the right to host, organize all the printing, translation and honor of writers in Vietnam.
JOURNALIST: Talking about the promotion of Vietnamese literature to readers of the world, I would like to ask about the Translation Center of the Writers Association where he is holding the position of director...
Nguyen Quang Thieu: Last time, the center also made some books. For example, we cooperated with Thailand, Japan, Columbia, China ... to introduce some, but we have no fund. There is one key point in the decision of establishing this center: being in charge of its own revenue and expenditure. This is a tremendous challenge. I think that there should be a national strategy for this center to work effectively. In countries near us like Korea, Japan, China, Singapore ... they have the strategy to spread the culture and literature to the world in a very large, thorough, detailed way. Korea has a lot of big funds, not just for literature but for many fields, and they are always willing to "catch" the people who intend to translate their literature. We have worked with a representative of a Japanese publisher, a representative of a Korean fund, and they are all eager to introduce their good books, and they give us the money to translate, to print and to release. But Vietnam cannot do that. We have to be able to do that. And it must be the strategy of the state. I still wonder why we spend a huge amount of money to promote the image or things but don't spend a very small amount for promoting literature, including translation. Literature is the most persuasive, the voice that easily opens the widest the door for the people of the world to understand us, but we did not do it.  For years, the Vietnam Writers Association has worked hard in its very limited capacity with a small amount of money, there are also efforts of individuals. For instance, the Mountain and River is the first volume of Vietnam in  the collection of poems about the Vietnamese people during the anti-American resistance years, based on a selection by the poet Anh Ngoc and I translated it for free for the William Joiner Center. We work without getting money for many years to launch the book. Kevin writes the preface of the book, which reads: The "Mountain and River" book originates from a famous Vietnamese poem about their sovereignty.
We do it with individual effort but never with a strategy. We need a strategy, strategy for 10 years or more, and the fund must be reasonable. And in the absence of strategy, we had to combine in a small scale, smartly taking advantage of the interest of organizations, publishers abroad, so the introduction was very lame.
JOURNALIST: I also think that it is no coincidence that Vietnamese readers read Japanese or Korean literature so much in recent years, especially in Korean literature. As far as I know, Korea has a culture promotion strategy, and they do it very well, and it's a whole process. For example, they are willing to send thousands of directors, actors, filmmakers ... to Hollywood to learn film making. It's no surprise that Korean dramas and movies are gaining big market shares in many countries around the world, including Vietnam. But in the field of literature, I have not figured out what they did, as we see that Korean literature is not a major literature in the world.
Nguyen Quang Thieu: They have very strong strategies. They have been strategizing for centuries in the effort to spread the image and culture of Korea, including literature, culinary arts, fashion, film, music ... and so far they have been very successful in many countries. And their reputation is not mentioned as a new Asian dragon, a very strong economy but as a culture, history, literature ... Korea. And it's clear that today people choose Korean cosmetics, Korean cars, Korean fashion, Korean home appliances, watch Korean movies and ... read Korean literature. Without a state strategy, no organization can do it. In Korea, writers have their backs covered by big funds, they carry out the mission of their country, there are government or private funds doing the same thing. I remember a dozen of years ago when I met a representative of a Korean fund who accompanied a group of Korean writers visiting the Vietnam Writers Association. They ask me if I have any interest in Korean literature? I replied that I did not know anything about Korean literature. They asked, do you want to know? Please translate Korean literature into Vietnamese. I said, "but we do not have the funds". They answered me with a question: How much do you need? And they immediately gave me the money to translate. The first Korean poem book in Vietnam which is the work of five modern Korean poets was translated by me. Since then, Korean literature has got into Vietnam a lot. They are also willing to invite international poets to exchange and organize many international literature awards.
JOURNALIST: Talking about promoting Vietnamese literary works to the world, I have the feeling that we have not yet been able to choose which authors, which works to represent, where to go if they know about Vietnamese literature they would only know Bao Ninh. Are we confused about something?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: We do not have a strategy, no budget so only do micro things. When there are a strategy and budget, we need a specialist team to map out a route. Therefore, nowadays, the international readers only get to know Vietnamese literature through a few books, which are selected by the interested people. They chose to translate and introduced their ways to meet some of their studying needs. Only when we can be proactive can we lead them to the Vietnamese literature in a more comprehensive, diversified and deep way.
Back to collaboration with WJC topic, they are not a publishing house, just the research center. So they will help us to get the best quality translations, then we will look for a fund to print it in Vietnam. Printed matters in Vietnam today are very nice and reach international standards. We then ship them to the US. The center they will do the releasing for us. When we have a good English version, we can introduce it to other countries, such as Japan, France, Egypt, Korea, etc. They can translate Vietnamese literature from English versions. When it is released in the US, it was considered to have recognition of quality. Only that this strategy has to last for ten years, just a few years can't do anything.
JOURNALIST: You are one of the few writers who have traveled to many countries. So in your opinion, what do international reader envision of Vietnam?
Nguyen Quang Thieu: Vietnam has diplomatic relations with many countries, but only a few are aware of Vietnamese literature and only through a handful of authors and works. Americans are interested in Vietnamese literature because they want to understand the Vietnamese people, want them to explain their failures in Vietnam so they translate the literature. Same for the French. The Japanese are also more or less involved. Also with Sweden, the home of the Nobel prize, it's their job to care about all literature in the world. Most countries do not know how Vietnamese literature looks like. All of Africa, Latin America, Chinese-speaking countries ... hardly know. China is close to us but they only printed a single book - a collection of 30 short stories by Vietnamese authors. Many countries know about Vietnam through the war, but do not know about Vietnamese literature. If they know, then only know Bao Ninh with Sorrow of war. All the American veteran writers that I've met know Bao Ninh. China has also translated Bao Ninh's work. Bao Ninh is worthy but besides, we also have other authors and works that are worthy but we do not have a promotion strategy, there are some people who are interested, but when meeting each person we are introduced in a different way so it was limited, not diversified or multi-dimensional, incomplete, they also do not have the funding of Vietnam to do it. We have to introduce ourselves, but if we let them take the lead, they will choose only one side, one that does not reflect the common ground of Vietnamese literature. Therefore, I want to repeat that: We need to have a strategy, national literature promotion strategy. Only then there's a hope that Vietnamese literature is known to international readers in a comprehensive, sufficient and deep way.
JOURNALIST: Thank you for this interview. As a writer, I also hope that in the coming time Vietnamese literature will be known to more international friends!
Translated by HIEN NGOC