Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: A Terrible Translation

It’s possible the diary of Thuy Tran, a Vietnamese doctor serving in the National Liberation Front army, is a good read in Vietnamese. In English it is… terrible. I tried hard to remind myself of the real life behind the narrative voice, of the fear and sacrifice, of her youth… but despite the evocative form (reading a diary feels like – maybe because it is? – an invasion) the writing is so terrible it’s distracting. I appreciate, too, that Thuy wasn’t a writer by trade and so my expectations for knock-em out sentences shouldn’t be high, but at a certain point – and I’d suggest this book reaches that point and then well passes it – bad writing (and by that I mean repetitive sentences, poor diction, exaggerated/universalizing statements) gets in the way of any appreciation of content.

I’m inclined to give Thuy more credit and blame the translator. I’d say, from my limited experience evaluating translations, that this is terrible translation. Randomly selected sentence: “These simple letters cannot diminish my longing. My heart lacks the warming fire of the Party” — lots of talk of anguish, transportation of feeling, longing – her heart/head are frequently “filled with many thoughts”.

Okay. So I didn’t like the writing.  Content? I was interested in her story of rising the ranks of the Party, of administering medical care in the jungle, of hating the “American imperialists.” All neat. I was far less interested in her jealousy and various crushes. I know its unreasonable to expect a diary to put limits on these kinds of entries, but all the same, by the end I was pretty fed up with her.

So. There you go.

On another note, I received a comment from a reader on my “The White Bone” entry to the effect that I didn’t do enough research into elephants, and that I considered humans to be far too unique, especially in my characterization of what elephants can and cannot do. I do appreciate the comment. I did try to be as careful as possible to limit my criticism to those things elephants cannot – to the best of my knowledge do – for instance, creating art. I rescind my comments about elephant burial practices to the extent that elephants do bury their dead, but do not, as far as I can tell, speculate on the afterlife of those elephants living with She-woman in the sky (as the novel suggests). I could have added elephants do not understand their world through the Biblical story of Adam and Eve (as the novel suggests), or practice monogamy (again, as the novel suggests). My criticism of the book was not intended as a criticism of elephants. Quite the contrary, I didn’t like the book because it reduced the complexity of elephant mindscape to that of humans.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read

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