The following is excerpted from Translation as Transhumance, Mireille Gansel’s humanist meditation on translation, translated into English by Ros Schwartz and forthcoming from the Feminist Press.
The instigator of the project was Nguyen Khac Vien, a doctor whose many activities included organizing the evacuation of children during the bombings, running the foreign-language publishing house he had founded in Hanoi, and teaching his breathing method to patients suffering major trauma in the capital’s hospital, as well as translation and numerous writing ventures in Vietnamese and French. After studying medicine in Hanoi and then Paris, where he defended his thesis in 1941, he had been a patient in the Saint-Hilaire-du-Touvet sanatorium near Grenoble, initially for six months in 1942 and then again from 1943 to 1950. There he came into contact with the French Resistance, and he went on to organize the resistance against the French colonial forces waging war in Indochina while helping and treating his fellow Vietnamese who had been commandeered and brought to France when the “phony war” broke out and then sent to detention camps for foreigners. Between 1940 and 1945, the three sanatoria of Saint-Hilaire became an extraordinary hotbed of debate and political engagement, taking in students with tuberculosis and at the same time offering sanctuary to young people dodging the Service du Travail Obligatoire, as well as Resistance fighters in hiding. One can imagine the richness and intensity of the conversations and discussions between all those young sanatorium patients, among them Roland Barthes, Max Pol Fouchet, Georges Canetti, and Emmanuel Mounier. Vien had a perfect knowledge of the French language and culture, and it was during those years in the sanatorium that he studied Western and Eastern philosophies and developed his own breathing technique based on yoga. It enabled him not only to survive with half a lung but also to continue his multiple pursuits once he returned home in 1963, after being expelled from France because of his political activities—which did not prevent him from winning the 1992 Prix de la Francophonie awarded by the Académie Française.
In 1971 he invited me to Vietnam to work with him on the planned anthology.
During the two years of preparation, I studied the language with the help of an entire team of Vietnamese, some of whom had been living in Paris for many years, others, young students exiled by the war. For the grammatical structure, a linguist who had just completed a research project under the supervision of Noam Chomsky; for the accents and diction of this tonal language, a musician and composer; to understand the music of verse and cantillation—that monotonous chant—my master, the musicologist Tran Van Khe; to teach me to read and speak, a recently arrived refugee woman student from Saigon. Once a week, I’d go to the studio of the sculptor Diem Phung Thi, who had invented what she called her “global poetry immersion method.” She came from the Hue region. South Vietnam was her country, the inspiration and the stuff of her work. Everything she carved, drew, traced, cut out, all the materials she worked with—wood, clay, marble, bronze—everything was an expression of her country. So too were the clothes, the embroidered and woven items she wore, the aromas of the refined dishes she cooked with Diem, her husband. She introduced me straightaway to the Vietnamese words for “native land”: dat nuoc—land (and) water. Two words which evoke a whole different world. Is there any simpler, more concrete word, any word more deeply rooted in human geography and which French usually translates as patrie—fatherland? At the same time, she introduced me to poetry, my first poem in Vietnamese: “Miên Nam” (The South) by the great poet To Huu. He was also born in Hue where, at the age of nineteen, he was arrested and sent to a penal colony under the French. Diem Phung Thi opened a small volume of his poems, so little that it fitted into her hand, and she read and chanted in a low, slightly husky voice. Syllable-words whose modulation made the meaning resonate. I approached this first poem as if it were a letter addressed in turn to a friend, a loved one, a child. The first Vietnamese words of poetry I discovered were words of tenderness, of nostalgia, evoking—invoking—a country amputated, torn apart, a missing country, an absent country:
Nếu tâm sự cùng ta, bạn hỏi
Tiếng nào trong muôn ngàn tiếng nói
Như nỗi niềm nhức nhói tim gan?
—Trong lòng ta hai tiếng: Miền Nam!
If, in hushed tones, you ask me, friend
which single word out of a thousand
opens up inside me like a wound
in my heart two words: The South!
This poem was written in December 1963, at the beginning of the American military escalation. I barely realized at the time the dimension not only of the war but also of the mobilization, as conveyed in those few, delicate words.
I arrived in Hanoi the day after the city had been under heavy bombardment by B52s. Nguyen Khac Vien was waiting for me at the Gia Lam airport, which had been partially destroyed. He had just finished the translation of The Tale of Kieu, the great epic poem by Nguyen Du. Right at the beginning, in his preface, he formulated the translation principle that was to inaugurate my apprenticeship in this utterly new context: “Staying faithful means first and foremost seeking to recreate the work’s humanity, its universality.” An approach that meant liberation from all forms of exoticism, appropriation, and the cultural and spiritual annexation characteristic of the translations produced under colonization.
The first day, mingling with Hanoi’s early-morning crowds, I cycled past the Bach Mai hospital, which had been almost entirely destroyed in the bombing of December 22, 1972, that had killed twenty-eight members of the medical team. When I reached the publishing house, I found there was a shortage of paper but, toward evening, someone brought a bundle of beige-colored sheets that were rough, soft, and thick and which soaked up ink: work could begin.
I drew lines on each page, two lines for each line of verse: the top line for the first, elementary reading of the words, the bottom line for getting to the root of the source word by excavating the poems. I worked alongside the great poet Xuân Dieu, whom I had chosen as my comrade in poetry. He taught me to write on the bottom line the hidden layers of each word, the memory, the implicit allusions of an entire social imaginary, each time placed in the context of the life and history of a people. The bottom line was for the subterranean waters of poetry in the most everyday words, the top line for the customary meaning.
For example, for the word duyen:
love desired by the loved one
love sworn for eternity
bond of the soul that attaches one to the other
Top line: the usual dictionary definition: “attachment.” Underneath Xuân Dieu opened up another lexicon, drawn from the lines of the Kieu, the epic that was so popular that women street vendors would put down their yokes at the entrance to Hanoi’s old theater and, barefoot, chewing their betel, recite the lines under their breath from memory, along with the actors, sharing the beautiful Kieu in the silken skein of its pathways. The word duyen meant, all at once, “loved and desired by the loved one,” “love sworn for eternity,” “bond of the soul that attaches one to the other,” and “nuptials—karma—fate.” One word that contains an entire world of resonances rooted in eighteenth-century feudalism. And written on the bottom line, the words of the poet Xuân Dieu, a slender brushstroke expressing karma, the fate that seals the love known as duyen.
From that moment, translation came to mean learning to listen to the silences between the lines, to the underground springs of a people’s hinterland.
© 2017 Mireille Gansel and Ros Schwartz. Excerpt by agreement with the Feminist Press.