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Bringing Literature to Life: Kickstarter Campaign Aims to Translate 2 Vietnamese Novels

For Minh Bui Jones, editor and founder of the Mekong Review, the greatest pleasure of his work is discovering an exciting book or writer that he has never heard of before.

Unfortunately, in Southeast Asia, new finds often haven't been translated into English yet. This is a common problem for Minh, whose literary journal covers Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. 

Instead of waiting until these works are translated, Minh decided to try and do something to facilitate that process.

Earlier this month, the Australia-based editor launched a Kickstarter campaign called "Mekong Translation – bringing great literature to life". The campaign, which ends on July 6, aims to raise AU$15,000 (US$11,489) in order to produce and publish translations of two modern Vietnamese classics, Crossroads and Lampposts (Nhung nga tu va nhung cot den) by Tran Dan and The Young Die Old (Nhung dua tre chet gia) by Nguyen Binh Phuong.

The campaign is all-or-nothing – if the goal isn't met, the project won't happen.

The effort began when Minh met Khai Q. Nguyen and David Payne, translators living in Saigon and Hanoi, respectively. "They introduced me to the authors and the books, and I was smitten by their passion and dedication," Minh tells Saigoneer in an email.

Payne had translated the first chapter of Crossroads and Lampposts, while Nguyen had completed a first draft of an English version of The Young Die Old. Minh decided that both deserved to be published.

"There is a bit of awareness of Vietnamese literature in the West, mainly because of writers like Bao Ninh, Dinh Thu Huong and, more recently, Dang Thuy Tram," Minh shares. "But we know this is just the tip of the iceberg; there's a lot of depth in Vietnamese literature."

Minh believes the two books covered by the campaign are strong examples of this depth. Crossroads and Lampposts, set during Vietnam's turbulent transition from colonial rule, was completed in 1966, but only published in 2011.

The Young Die Old, meanwhile, was published in 1994 and reprinted in 2013. The novel about time has earned a place among the country's contemporary classics.

Minh's goal is to get the translations published and delivered to both local and international bookshops before moving on to other regional literature.

"Once these two books are translated, I would love to get Soth Polin's The Anarchist translated, as well as the Burmese poet Maung Philar," he says.

As of this writing, with one week to go the Mekong Translation page has raised AU$7,130 (US$5,474). "The support we've received thus far has been remarkable for two things: they have come from far and wide, from Nepal to Senegal, Ireland to France, Australia to America," Minh shares.

"But the biggest surprise of all for me is the show of support from Vietnam itself. I think half of our backers have a Vietnamese name and half of them are from Vietnam. That was a wonderful surprise."

To learn more about the Mekong Translation Kickstarter and make a donation, click here. The project will only be funded if it reaches its goal by July 6.

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