[I need to fix this entry. The general point I make is still correct, but Ong Tran Nghia did not translate the passage I said he did. He was merely the editor. This was my first posting. I was more focused on the mechanics of setting up a blog than the content of this entry. I subsequently checked and got the information straight. I’ll update it at some point.]

One very big problem for people who research Vietnamese history is that the vast majority of sources for the period prior to the twentieth century are in classical Chinese, or “Hán” as it is termed in Vietnam, and very few people today who study Vietnamese history can read that language. So people who do not possess the ability to read classical Chinese rely on modern Vietnamese translations of pre-twentieth-century sources. Over the course of the past century, Vietnamese who can read classical Chinese have translated numerous historical texts into modern Vietnamese by employing the Romanized script known as “quốc ngữ.”

One of the most fundamental requirements of any historian is that she base her research on primary sources in their original language. For serious historians, translations are not acceptable. Unfortunately, however, this basic professional standard is not upheld in Vietnam. Instead, scholars there rely heavily on quốc ngữ translations of classical Chinese texts, and their work suffers as a result. It suffers because one can never get a true feel and understanding of a text from its translation, and also because many quốc ngữ translations omit information which does not fit with the outlook of modern Vietnamese and their perceptions of the past. This is a phenomenon which I have observed over and over. Now with the wonderful of this blog I can share these tidbits as I come across them.

Today, for instance, I stumbled across the following lines. It comes from a passage in an entry on “Terrestrial Arteries and Personages” [Địa mạch nhân vật] from the early-nineteenth-century work, [Vũ trung tùy bút], a collection of short writings on various topics by the literatus Phạm Đình Hổ. That entry begins as follows:

嘗按内閣版圖,而我國山川形勝,視中州不多讓焉。蓋崑崙之脈入中國者三幹龍. . .

“I have often examined the Grand Secretariat’s map(s) [and found that] the advantageous formations of our kingdom’s mountains and rivers, when compared to [those of the] Central States, do not concede all that much. As for the arteries of the Kunlun [mountains], there are three stem dragons [meaning powerful terrestrial arteries] which enter the Middle Kingdom. . .”

Compare this now with the manner in which Trần Nghĩa translated these lines in his edited volume, Tổng tập tiểu thuyết chữ Hán Việt Nam, tập 2 (Hà Nội: Nxb Thế Giới, 1997), 27-8.

Ta thường xem bản đồ trong Nội các, mới biết hình thế non song nước ta so với nước Trung Hoa, từ mạch núi Côn Lôn chạy vào, chia làm ba cán long. . .

“I have often looked at the maps in the Grand Secretariat, and have only then known that the formations of the mountains and rivers of our country compared to China, extending from the artery of the Kunlun mountains divides into three cán long. . .”

There are several points which can be made about this translation. The first is that it doesn’t make sense. What is it that the author has “only known” “compared to China” in looking at the maps? This is not clear in this passage here, nor later, for the rest of the sentence follows the original in explaining where the three stem dragons extended. This passage here is incoherent.

The reason why it is incoherent is because Professor Trần Nghĩa has omitted an important point which Phạm Đình Hổ made. Phạm Đình Hổ stated that in comparing the terrain of his kingdom with that of “China” (more about this term in a minute), he realized that the terrain in his kingdom did “not concede all that much” (不多讓, bất đa nhường). This means that he felt that it did concede something. In other words, what Phạm Đình Hổ was saying was that “In comparing the terrain of our kingdom with that of China, our kingdom is not all that inferior.” This means that he is saying that it is inferior. This is a perception which many Vietnamese today cannot accept. We should thus not be surprised that Professor Trần Nghĩa decided to substitute an incoherent sentence for the truth.

With the issue of the term “China,” my gripe here is that Trần Nghĩa uses the term Trung Hoa, when the text uses the terms Trung Châu and Trung Quốc. Trung Châu, the “Central States” is a term which Phạm Đình Hổ deliberately used because it refers to that area centered around the Yellow River where “civilization” in this part of the world emerged. As such, of course the terrain of his kingdom could not compare with that of the Central States, because someone like Phạm Đình Hổ believed that there was a correspondence between areas of the earth and what happened in those areas. The rituals and teachings which scholars followed had emerged in the Central States, and therefore the land there had to be powerful. Nonetheless, people like Phạm Đình Hổ who lived far away from the Yellow River partook of the same culture which had formed in the Central States, and that surely was a reflection of the fact that the terrain in his own kingdom was powerful as well. Obviously it couldn’t compare with the terrain of the Central States, but second best wasn’t all that bad, was it? Not to Phạm Đình Hổ it wasn’t. As for Vietnamese today who have learned nothing but the modern nationalist myths of Vietnamese history, that is another issue. Hence Professor Trần Nghĩa’s “translation.”

Finally, I also find that translators of Hán texts take the easy way out and simply Romanize terms in the original text rather than explain what they mean. Does the average Vietnamese reader understand what a cán long is? Readers in English will not understand what a “stem dragon” is without an explanation.