From an impassioned Poetry Foundation article on translation by Linh Dinh:

One of the defining figures of Vietnamese literature, Phạm Quỳnh helped to modernize the language, encouraged the writing of short stories and novels, and the anthologizing of folk poetry. Admiring the logic and clarity of Western thinking, he felt that Vietnamese needed to learn from it, but that they also needed to identify and protect their distinctiveness. In 1922, he wrote about Vietnamese folk poetry, ca dao: “Even though our oral literature has not been recorded in any book, I will insist that it is a very rich one, richer, perhaps, than any other country. [The more illiterate a population, the richer the oral tradition—L. Dinh.] Although it is not without its crudeness, this oral literature is also profoundly resonant; one can say that the wisdom, morals, and aesthetics of our common folks are all contained within these idioms.” In short, don’t be half-Westernized and half-Vietnamese, one must become an Uber-Westernized Uber-Vietnamese. Warning Vietnamese writers against composing in French, Phạm Quỳnh wrote: “In borrowing someone’s language, you are also borrowing his ideas, literary techniques—even his emotions and customs.” After centuries of writing in Chinese, the Vietnamese had produced no Li Po, he pointed out, and writing in French, it is unlikely that they will ever produce a Victor Hugo or a Anatole France. After reading a story in French, Phạm Quỳnh suggested as an exercise, Try retelling it to one’s wife in Vietnamese.

Pham Quỳnh translated tirelessly from Maupassant, Pierre Loti, and Alfred de Vigny, among many others. He wanted to have his Trojan Horse and eat it too. He wrote travel pieces, scholarly articles and books about Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Descartes and Confucius… He ridiculed men into cutting their hair short, begged women to not sleep in the kitchen, even if it was the warmest nook in the house. His considerable political engagement brought about his demise, however. Advocating gradual Vietnamese independence within the French union, he worked with Bảo Đại, the figurehead emperor. Quỳnh’s compromised stance towards the Colonialists, his lack of militancy, is revealed in this famous saying: “As long as [Nguyễn Du's epic poem] Kim Van Kieu remains, our language remains, our nation remains.” He equated great poetry with language, with nationhood, all else is Bushism. On August 23, 1945, he was captured by the Việt Minh, the Communist-dominated guerrilla group supported by the O.S.S. (precursor to the C.I.A.) in W.W.II, along with Ngô Đình Khôi (brother of Ngô Đình Diệm, future president of South Vietnam) and his son. All three were killed on September 6, 1945. Although I wasn’t within earshot, I’m convinced Phạm Quỳnh’s last words were “At least I translated.” His body was only found 11 years later, in Hắc Thú [Black Beast] forest, near Huế.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. AshRivers says:

    Does ‘translating’ poetry mean anything? Surely the writer is really just using the original poem as the model for a new one and, in effect, carving an Oak from an Elm.
    This must be a very old question is there a good summary of it somehere?

  2. J. Del Col says:

    What could this mean in this context? Surely not a reference to the Crawford Cretin, is it?

  3. I wondered about that, too.

  4. There is something tragic in the way that a nationalist and prolific contributor to the culture and literature of his country should be considered such a threat that his existence had to be terminated.

  5. Perhaps “Bushism” is a variation of “Bushwah” = nonsense.

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