About writing in Vietnamese and English, poetry and translation – An Interview

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Speaking of Vietnam  

Ahead of this Thursday’s Talking Writing: Speaking of Vietnam, we spoke to Quincy Phan about writing in Vietnamese and English, poetry and translation.

Can you tell us a little about how you approach writing poetry as a bilingual poet?
Generally speaking, I don’t choose the language for my poems; my poems choose the language for themselves. Sometimes, a poem comes to mind with a Vietnamese rhythm and/or tone, and I write it down in Vietnamese; other times, the same applies for English. However occasionally I find myself in a different situation: after finishing a poem in either Vietnamese or English, I am still not satisfied. The poem has to end; its structure has to be closed, and I cannot add anything else. However, emotionally and intellectually, I still have something to say. As a result, I write a second version of that poem in the other language. It seems that the poem is only complete in both languages, Vietnamese and English. In such cases, I don’t translate my poems. I rewrite them in the other language.
You’ve translated works by Mario Vargas Llosa and Richard Flanagan (among others) into Vietnamese. Can you tell us how you got started in translation?
I have translated work by a variety of authors, including Nicanor Parra, Charles Bukowski, Jorges Luis Borges, Milan Kundera, and Maree Dawes. How did I start to translate these works? Firstly, because I love them. For example, many years ago, I loved Kafka’s Metamorphosis so much that I attempted to translate it into Vietnamese. This has never been finished because I was never quite happy with it, and I got “caught up” with other writers and poets. Secondly, because sometimes I found that I was reading an English poem with a Vietnamese resonance in my mind. What I saw was English but what I heard was Vietnamese. And finally, because I want to share the works that I am interested in with my Vietnamese readers.Are there any specific works you’d like to translate?
Recently I’ve been very interested in works by Anne Carson, Gertrude Stein, Susan Sontag, etc and ideally I would like to translate all authors whom I love but the list is quite long. In “Poets for rainy days”, I mention a few of them. Here’s a snippet:

When I want to live and think about being I read Bodet
When I want to live but think about death I read Merwin
When I want to die but think about living I read Langston Hughes

Click here to read more.

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