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A Forest of Words: A Conversation with Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng

Chronicles of a Village by Nguyễn Thanh Hiện, the author’s first work to be translated into English, is an incantatory poetic novel that interweaves the legends, tragedies, and histories of a village in Vietnam. In this Q&A, we talk with the book’s translator Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng about the joys and challenges of the translation process.

Chronicles of a Village is the first full-length book that you have translated. What was your path to working in translation, and how did you find your way to this book specifically?

I started translating Chronicles of a Village after graduating from college. I had previously translated poems and essays by writers in Vietnam, one of whom sensitively noticed that I was young, full of energy, unemployed, and needed something to do, so she introduced me to the work of Nguyễn Thanh Hiện. So I came to translation through the wonder of literary friendship.

In addition to being a translator, you are also a writer and art curator. How does your other work influence your translation?

My work in poetry and art curation taught me three things: patience, carefulness, and an attunement to the colors and sounds in the work of other writers and artists. Those three skillfulnesses are helpful in translation. I am still learning and find that I am never patient enough, never careful enough, never attuned enough, both with my own work, and others’ work. So the cultivation quietly continues.

In the Translator’s Afterword, you write that “A translator is someone trying to grasp not only the rhythm or tone, but the scent of the text.” How did you detect the scent of the text in Chronicles of a Village?

I like practices that focus on the breath, like running, for instance, or walking. I walk a lot these days. Knowing how to breathe helps me focus when I read. Sometimes, when the focus is sharp, deep, thorough and total, I can picture what’s written on the page and also hear it, feel it on my skin, smell it. So for example, when someone in the book is lying down on the upturned soil, or falling asleep among mountains, I can smell the fresh scent of grass fluttering next to their closed eyes. Perhaps absorption is the short answer to your question of how to sense a scent rising and falling away.

Can you explain your reasoning behind translating the word quê as “birthsoil,” as it is usually translated as “homeland” or “hometown.”

When I hear the English word “homeland,” I immediately, unfortunately, think of “homeland security.” So that wouldn’t quite work because translation, for me, is about stirring border securities of all sorts. The word “hometown” also brings to mind images of identity cards and passports, which are similarly unpleasant because I dislike paperwork and its function of categorization and containment. I realize these are such arbitrary, sad, infelicitous associations, my apologies, but this is how my mind works. And because home and translation are words, and practices, of the heart for me, I wanted to find a word that carries a loving atmosphere of beginnings, and groundedness, in a deep, bodily way. “Birthsoil” seemed like a nice, weird option with an earthly, somatic ring to it, so I went with that. Home-cooked translations like this have a sonic awkwardness and strangeness that I enjoy, but I admit, with wholehearted sighs, that “birthsoil” is not perfect, and it’s quite a mouthful to enunciate. Perhaps someday I will come up with a lovelier, homelier phrase for quê.

Chronicles of a Village goes against the conventions of typical novel. It is written with only lowercase words and commas instead of periods, which creates a stream-of-consciousness narrative. What challenges and joys did you encounter in your translation?

It was both challenging and joyful to try to sustain a rhythm, and a simplicity, in the English translation that keeps the reader reading. A whole chapter, even if it’s a short one, that has no capitalization, no full stop, no line break can look like a looming wall of words that unnerve some readers, myself included. So the key was to create a sense of space for air to circulate throughout the pages, so that readers can somehow feel invited into the text and breathe with ease among a forest of words.

Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng is a widely published writer, translator, and art curator, and is winner of a Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation. She lives in Saigon, Vietnam.

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