Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên’s self-translation of “Learning Late Letters” was one of four winners of WWB’s 2020 Poems in Translation contest, presented in partnership with the Academy of American Poets. The winning selections will be published in POETS.org’s Poem-a-Day series and in Words Without Borders every Saturday this September, which is National Translation Month, and into the first week of October. Join WWB and AAP in celebrating the contest winners at “World in Verse: A Multilingual Poetry Reading,” a virtual event that will be held on Wednesday, October 7.
WWB: Quyên, in your work, do you find that you return to particular ideas or themes? What was the catalyst/inspiration for your poem “Learning Late Letters”?
Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên: “Learning Late Letters” happened because these two textual fragments, which I quote front and center in the poem, kept ringing in my head for unknown reasons. The poem is a surface-level effort to do something with these voices and elsewhere-authorities that vibrate inside my brain.
WWB: You translated “Learning Late Letters” yourself from Vietnamese. Could you tell us why you decided to self-translate and what the process was like? What were some of the pleasures and challenges?
Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên: As I extract, recombine, and ventriloquize other authors’ lines, the translation process involves self- and other-translation. With the daughter’s passage on haunting, I tried to be faithful to the original French of Linda Lê and the primary Vietnamese translation. With the father’s song of death, I kept a loose translation (which I’d improvised at a reading once) of Trần Dần’s irreplicable, untranslatable rhythm. With my own lines, I swayed between straightforward and unstraight translations. So the poem ended up with a range of translation styles, from the conventional to the slantwise, from the revised to the impromptu. The poem’s unmarked quotations and translational registers could make readers anxious to read the authors and look for more, or not.
WWB: Do you feel that you’re writing within (or against) a specific cultural or linguistic tradition? What authors or works have influenced you?
Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên: I am wary of overzealous traditions and movements—patriarchy, nationalism, standardized language. Making texts that are potentially wrong or slippery keeps me heedful of officious frames of correctness.
My influences often fluctuate. Right now, I’m thinking about Pier Paolo Pasolini.
WWB: Are there contemporary Vietnamese poets you wish more people were reading?
Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên: Nhã Thuyên is a stellar poet, writer, translator, and scholar. Her disorienting writings dispel many clichés associated with notions of native language, womanhood, marginality, (self)censorship, Vietnameseness, and poetics. The tender grain of her voice bears the grief and lightness of a boundless writer drifting inside and outside the homeland. She’s been an unfluctuating influence of mine.
Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên (b. 1993) is a translator, writer, and curator based in Vietnam.
Read Nguyễn-Hoàng Quyên’s “Learning Late Letters,” translated by the author.