A Long Way from Tara
A. Carey Zesiger
Scarlet was the media darling of the publishing world in 1991. As the sequel of Gone With the Wind it was heir to a popularity and notoriety that few contemporary novels or characters could touch. Moreover, it was a book that couldn't help but make waves in the publishing world. It signaled that publishers were following the lead of Hollywood in looking for a "sure thing," for sequels and big budget concepts that with the right publicity campaign just could not miss. It also reflected the way publishing has increasingly become a global enterprise, a sign of the prominent place American culture, media and entertainment occupy on the world stage. On the surface, Scarlet and Rhett might seem quintessentially American characters, unlikely vehicles for a world-wide media coup, but thanks to the film's popularity, these characters and their antics are now known on six continents. It was in the embrace of such notoriety that Scarlet was conceived, amid talk of movie rights, reissues and of course the inevitable translations... including at least one the publishers, with all their foresight, might not have foreseen.
The world of Madison Avenue and media glitz into which Scarlet was born could not be further removed from the reality of everyday life in Vietnam. In Vietnam, marketing, best-sellers and even commercial publishing are all recent innovations, but times are fast changing. Thanks to a booming market in Western translations that has developed over the past few years, you can go to any bookstore and pick up a copy of Scarlet in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese publishers may lack sophistication compared to their Western brethren, but they know a sure thing when they see it. Given that Gone With the Wind is probably the best-loved movie of all time in Vietnam, it didn't take a Ph.D. in marketing to realize that the sequel would be a money-maker here.
Gone With the Wind's popularity in Vietnam may come as a surprise to many Americans. It is not an easy phenomenon to explain and the reasons behind it are fertile ground for speculation. No doubt melodrama and romanticism play a role as does its enduring status here as a "classic." A historian might look to the resonance of the Civil War setting with Vietnam's own recent history, while a psychologist might speculate on the attractiveness of its willful and individualistic protagonists. Whatever the reasons, Scarlet is alive and well in Vietnam and selling briskly. The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out in a matter of months and an additional printing of 5,000 is now on order. While such figures would hardly be cause for celebration in the boardrooms of New York, they are considered quite strong in today's market in Vietnam, particularly when you factor in that it was printed in four volumes and thus the circulation figures are really four-fold. To get an accurate picture of the book's success one must also consider its unusually high price of 70,000 Dong for a complete set. While this is only roughly equivalent to six U.S. dollars, the deputy director of the publishing house in Hanoi put it in more proletarian terms: "If a peasant sold 100 kilos of rice, he still could not afford one new Scarlet, and my salary here at the publishing house for a whole month is only enough to buy one." Fortunately for him he is allowed a free copy, but less fortunately, he says with a smile, he is not allowed to resell it.
The publication of Scarlet shows a considerable amount of ingenuity and dedication, and reveals how competitive the translation business has become in recent years. The publishing house in Ho Chi Minh City called on the talents of four different translators to bring the book to press in under three months. Throughout this time the project was shrouded in secrecy and fear some competitor would get the book to press first. Predictably there are a few rough spots in the translation and some critics complain that since the translator worked from a French translation it is really a copy of a copy. Where copyrights are concerned the book also occupies something of a gray area. When asked about the subject of royalties, the deputy director of the publishing house shrugged and cited the economic embargo the U.S. has maintained against Vietnam since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Under this embargo, the book probably should not be sold here at all, in any language, but it is doubtful the publisher could repatriate royalties to the U.S. if they wanted to. There are signs however that the U.S. is slowly moving towards lifting the embargo and so this excuse may not last much longer.
The fact is that for some years now the embargo has done little to stop the flood of American goods into Vietnam as witnessed by countless novels, videos, cans of Coke and packs of Marlboro cigarettes that line the streets here. Once the Vietnamese declared the period of Renovation in 1986 and stopped resisting the influx of such goods, they appeared virtually overnight, through such indirect sources as Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia, with the result that the embargo has become a one-way funnel. Plenty of goods and information from the U.S. come into Vietnam, but very little ever goes out. In this one-way isolation, Vietnam harbors a quiet obsession with the U.S. which goes beyond the initials U.S.A. that adorn many a hat, T-shirt or pair of socks, beyond Gone With the Wind and the oft-repeated questions about the embargo. The United States in Vietnam as in many parts of Asia, has acquired a mythic dimension for what it symbolizes in terms of freedom and fast-living, largely through images provided by its entertainment industry. This fascination stands in stark contrast to the mood on the other side of the Pacific, where America seems to want to forget Vietnam or to recreate it through the lens of that same entertainment industry. In America, the word Vietnam conjures up ghosts from the past that often obscure the Vietnam of the present. Such dynamics make the U.S. and Vietnam the oddest of couples, more incongruous than Scarlet and Rhett on the worst of days. While Vietnam courts the U.S. as a vision of a potential future, the U.S. shuns Vietnam as a painful reminder of the past.
It is little wonder then that following the market reforms of Vietnam's Sixth Party Congress in 1986, when book publishing was liberalized along with many other industries, there was a precipitous drop in the number of Russian books translated and the American best-seller exploded on the scene. Although several American novels had been translated previously, they had been few in number and tended to be more literary in nature. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain, and John Steinbeck, all translated before in limited quantities, now gave way to the likes of Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel and Xtiven King (sic). It took the industry some time to adjust to the new demands of the market, but it did not take long to realize that there was a huge demand for the sort of mass-market fiction that is popular at many an airport bookstand in the West. This fiction presented a whole range of attractions to Vietnamese audiences starved for information and entertainment. First it had all the proven plot elements of sex, violence, romance and intrigue that made it so popular in the West. Coupled with this was the cachet of being Western and foreign in a country which had lived in virtual isolation from the West for some years. Finally, the fact that this sort of fiction had long been banned gave it a novelty and a prurient appeal that was hard to beat.
During the early years of the boom more and more publishers got into the act and each became adept at procuring novels through associates in Bangkok and elsewhere. The translators of Russian and East European language found themselves displaced at the publishing houses by upstart translators of English. Where all these translators came from, in a country where English was rarely if ever taught is something of a mystery, but from 1986 to 1991 over 150 American novels by 90 different authors made their way into translation. This does not include another hundred-odd books from Great Britain, including such popular authors as James Chase, Agatha Christie, ad Erle Gardner. The popularity of these novels in the early years due to their novelty and lack of competition led to soaring circulations, but such conditions could not last forever. The appetite for mass-market fiction seemed at first insatiable, but sometime about 1989 the bloom fell off the market. Translator and editor Thai Ba Tan of the Writer's Union Publishing House estimates the average circulation of a best-seller from the West is now about 2,000 copies compared to 30,000 or more a few years ago.
The turning point seems to have been about the time of the publication of Mario Puzo's The Godfather, which appeared in 1988 and soon became legend in Vietnam's small publishing world by selling close to a million copies. "What happened?" I asked Professor Nguyen Lien of Hanoi University, who said simply, "There are too many books. The reader is tired." The deputy director at the Literary Publishing House which brought out first The Godfather and now Scarlet, put it slightly differently: "Too much information. It is a boom of information, newspapers, TV, video, radio..." There is no doubt some truth to this. Market reforms have transformed the news media in Vietnam, bringing to the previously dull and colorless newspapers, investigative reports of corruption, gossip, photos culled from western magazines, and a spate of "human interest" stories. This coupled with the growing presence of video cafes, VCRs and video rentals have cut into what little leisure time the Vietnamese have at their disposal. Finally, the cover prices of these books have climbed out of reach of many Vietnamese, who have chosen to rent rather than buy their books. They can now rent eight or ten different books from a neighborhood store for about the cost of buying one.
While liberalized strictures on publishing have made it possible for the first time to publish the great authors of the West, they have in the same stroke made these authors unmarketable because of competition from thrillers, romances and detective novels. Translator Thai Ba Tan complains there is not enough interest in serious literature in Vietnam today, so that while Harold Robbins has been translated in bulk, such writers as William Faulkner have not been translated at all. Mr. Tan said he would like to personally translate The Sound and the Fury and Light in August, two of his favorites, but in today's market they are unpublishable. "We want to publish such books," he said, "but the taste of the readers is not for that.... There is no publishing house now that can publish poetry. It's the market mechanism, it's very sad." Right now Mr. Tan is working on a translation of the Canterbury Tales, which he also may have trouble getting published. If so, he might choose to bankroll the project himself as he did last year with a collection of translations of Classical Japanese poems which he published himself at a cost of one million Dong. "Ten years ago people read serious books," he laments, "before 1986 the government would tell the publishing house what to print and they would print it." The people then had no choice, because there was nothing but "serious" books to choose from.
Mr. Tan also had some things to say about the influence this literary invasion is having on Vietnam's domestic writing. "Our writers now tend to write books with exciting plots. Thrillers you see. Then some started to write about sex from their point of view. Not so openly as in the U.S., but..." As he listed off subjects of sexuality, violence, social problems, rape and murder, I began to wonder if anything was still taboo. He replied that often the publisher will opt to tone down some of the more graphic scenes. "In a publishing house such as ours we have to consider everything carefully, from a pedagogical point of view for the whole society." If they are not careful, he said some "old people" have been known to write letters of complaint to the authorities which can lead to fines or other problems for the publisher. The subject of domestic politics is also dangerous ground, and advocacy of democracy and a multi-party system is still strictly off-limits.
Now is a difficult time for the publishing houses. The competition between the various publishers has grown cut-throat and it seems there is a glut in the market and declining demand. Mr. Tan hopes perhaps some foreign sponsors can help him in his ambitious project of creating a library of the world's best authors, translated into Vietnamese. Despite the recent downturn, he is hopeful for the future. "I am not a prophet," he said, "I am concerned about translating to make money, but I think the problem will be solved. The good novels will be popular again. The ballooning popularity of cheap books is because they were forbidden for so long. We were thirsty, hungry for this... Maybe soon it will be balanced according to the laws of market economy."
Whether or not the Vietnamese readers acquire a taste for more literary fare, or the publishers find their way out of their current fiscal problems, something irrevocable has taken place in Vietnam. In a few short years the publishing houses have gone from being bastions of conservatism and Party ideology to being the heralds of Western influence. In the process old dogmas have been jettisoned like so much excess baggage in the haste to meet the demands of the market. The deluge of mass-market American fiction that has come rushing in to fill the vacuum cannot help but have cultural repercussions here, though exactly what they will be, or what form they will take is hard to say. Clearly not all the effects will be positive. Already reading of more serious fiction has sharply declined and it is increasingly difficult for even the most talented local writers to find readers.
I spoke with Dr. Phan Cu De about some of the potential implications of this spree of translation. Dr. De has read the translations of some forty or fifty American best-sellers as part of his research on the American novel in Vietnam. From his bookshelves he produced stacks of books by Sidney Sheldon, Jacqueline Susann, even a novelization of the TV show Dallas that bears a gunslinging rabbit on its cover. According to Dr. De, when the Vietnamese reader picks up one of these books, he is making an imaginative voyage to America: "The young students [of Vietnam] don't know anything about life in America and the West. That's why they read. They don't have the opportunity or the money to visit." In talking to many Vietnamese youths I have gathered a similar impression. Their curiosity about American society is so great and their knowledge so uneven that every new bit of information becomes another piece of a vast puzzle. Never mind that the pieces come from sources of widely different reliability, here fact and fiction comfortably intermingle. America is a catch-all name for the place where Scarlet, Michael Jackson, George Bush and Rambo all coexist amid a landscape of fast cars, vast mansions and untold wealth. At first I did not understand why science fiction was the one popular genre that seemed notably unsuccessful here, then I realized that ALL these books serve as science fiction. When readers here want to indulge in the escapist urge to travel to a futuristic technological society, they need look no further than the next continent. From the vantage of Vietnam and much of the developing world, the America of pop-fiction, film and TV is a curiosity, an oddity, a strange world populated by alien beings who inhabit a landscape that is as breathtaking as it is unreal.
When the Vietnamese look in on this alien world, Dr. De suggests that one of the things that catches their interest is the range of personal freedoms they see. Dr. De explains: "What interests me in these [American] books is freedom. In the Vietnamese family there are many feudal ties and the young people are subject to a lot of pressure from the old and also from society. But in the American family they have freedom. They can make their own decisions and choose their own future." While the youth of America might dispute this claim, to the Vietnamese students who can expect to live at home until marriage and beyond, the freedom of American youth is readily apparent. For these youths, America offers a vision of the possibility of freedom without responsibility: individualistic, willful, monetary, sexual. Buried deep beneath these dreamed-of personal freedoms one occasionally hears a whisper of longing for political freedom, but often more as an afterthought. Except with a very few thinkers and intellectuals it seems the draw of conspicuous spending, consumerism and free living is so much more tangible that it all but eclipses political concerns.
It is significant perhaps that while the government feels the need to control some of its more avante-garde local writers and artists, it has very little need to interfere with the business of translation. So little thought is involved in many of these books from the West that there is very little of substance to censor. Rather they are effectively self-censored for they present America and the West in its most dissipated and fetishized form and generally eschew questions that might demand that the reader stop and think. Whether the book in question is a self-indulgent romance or an action-packed thriller, the political content of the average best-seller insofar as it might concern the government here is virtually nil. It is one of the outstanding ironies of the transformation that has taken place here, that the same aspects of Western capitalism that were vilified a few short years ago as signs of "decadence" are now put on a pedestal in the pop media and admired as "freedoms." One may wonder if they were completely wrong.
The perception of America here in Vietnam is in many respects distorted and incomplete. Under the circumstances it could hardly be otherwise. What is disturbing, however, is that these distortions have little to do with a War that was fought many years ago and still less with government organs of propaganda. We in the U.S. are printing our own propaganda and painting our own likeness. If it amounts to little more than a crude caricature of our ideals, our beliefs and ourselves, we have no one but ourselves to blame. In Vietnam they merely translate, howeerfectly, the scripts and the plots we provide. As entertainments spun for our own amusement, perhaps these stories have their place, but when held up to the world audience they become tokens of our society, often taken as a model for imitation. This is a role to which they are poorly suited. It seems there is a chasm, if not an outright contradiction between the role America wants to play on the world stage and the way it wants to behave at home. This disparity is particularly crucial in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we are to be a role-model in the widely proclaimed New World Order, we should take care to put our best foot forward and offer a role worth emulating.
I attended a party recently in Hanoi where I spoke with several Vietnamese college students. One student told me about her favorite film, Gone With the Wind, which she was proud to have seen four times. She had read the sequel she said, but it wasnt as good. After a while another student asked about a more topical subject: he wanted to know more about the recent events in Los Angeles.
Unlike their Chinese neighbors to the north the Vietnamese press was notably silent on the recent events in Los Angeles. They seemed to want to play it down and scorned the kind of grandstanding the Chinese indulged in. However, news travels fast these days with the liberalized press and so they ran, without editorials, the facts as they came in off the wire. Again it was mainly our cameras that did the filming and our press that did the reporting and again the Vietnamese could only translate what we gave them. But perhaps something was lost in the translation. These Vietnamese students approached me as if seeking an explanation for the events. How could such a thing happen in America, they wondered, werent the police in control? Above all they seemed to want to know what to do with this latest incongruous piece of their jigsaw Americas. How was this latest snapshot of urban America to be reconciled with the vision of gleaming and prosperous consumer society from sea to shining sea? I looked at the pieces they held before me and saw their confusion and I suddenly found myself at a loss for words.
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