MEKONG – THE OCCLUDING RIVER

An Interview with the author Ngô Thế Vinh conducted by literary critic and writer Đoàn Nhã Văn on October 30, 2010.

Đoàn Nhã Văn/ ĐNV 1_ Dr. Vinh, starting with your book Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch in Vietnamese we now have an English version Mekong – The Occluding River that was recently published and introduced to the general public. In your personal view, what type of readers do you wish to target? For example the academics, experts doing research on the rivers of the world, government circles, the people of Southeast Asia or the college students in Vietnam...?

Ngô Thế Vinh/ NTV 1_ With 2,000 copies printed – including the second edition that came out within the same year 2007 – and its audio-book form, the Vietnamese version of Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch could only reach a limited readership of Vietnamese living abroad and a still smaller one at home. Since 2009, when the book was added to the “ Kệ Sách Da Màu” website in “ebook” form it had achieved a wider exposure through the Internet.

As you already know, the Mekong is an international river that flows through seven countries including Tibet. It supplies water to almost 70 million people who speak different languages and possess diverse cultures. English being a universal language serves as a common vehicle of communication to the seven nations in the region. A “Spirit of the Mekong” can manifest itself only through exchanges and dialogues so that “mutual responsibilities” can be developed to conserve the eco-system of the River, the lifeline of millions of inhabitants of the region. Besides the readers who read English and show concern for “nature”, “the environment”, and “ecotourism”; the book Mekong – The Occluding River also attempts to reach the select group of decision makers who directly or indirectly have a say about the fate of the Mekong. I am specifically referring to:

  • The members of the Mekong River Commission, the Mississippi River Commission (Those two Commissions have entered into a formal sister-river partnership in July of 2009), the Commission’s national members like Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the U.S. Department of State that shows signs of wanting to re-engage with the countries of the Mekong’s region.

  • The academia at the universities, students majoring in the environmental sciences. Particularly the colleges in the four countries of the Lower Mekong. The three major universities in Thailand like Chulalongkorn, Thammasat, Chiang Mai. In Laos we have the National University of Laos in Vientiane and in Cambodia the Royal University in Phnom Penh. As for Vietnam, our main focus includes the Universities of Cần Thơ and An Giang in the Mekong Delta.

  • We cannot omit to mention the University of Yunnan in Kunming, China and the National University in Rangoon, Myanmar. Those two countries run along the Mekong current but are not members of the Mekong River Commission.

  • Then we have the experts on the Mekong, the environmentalists, the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA in Thailand), International River Network (IRN in U.S.A.), Stimson (U.S.A.), PanNature (Vietnam)…and of course, the climate change activists worldwide like Al Gore of the “An Inconvenient Truth”.

A bookstore at an American university has recommended that the students use the Mekong – The Occluding River as a reference book in their study of the rivers. I would like to refer the readers to the following quote: “Author Ngo The Vinh combines his vivid travel notes and collection of photographs with a meticulously researched history of the environmental degradation of the Mekong River. Mekong-The Occluding River: The Tale of a River by Ngo The Vinh provides an excellent foundation for Conservation studies. Ngo The Vinh’s style is excellently suited towards Conservation studies, and will teach students the material clearly without overcomplicating the subject… As of July 2010, this revision raises the bar for Mekong-The Occluding River: The Tale of a River’s high standard of excellence, making sure that it stays one of the foremost Conservation studies textbooks.”

The book first reached the bookstores in July of 2010 and the reception so far has been encouraging. It was at one time ranked 8th in the Top Ten list of Bestsellers in Ecotourism / Rivers & Nature. It indicates that the book’s English version has reached the five continents. I’m not referring here to the financial aspect of it.

ĐNV 2_ You have gone through the experience of having several of your books translated into English: Vòng Đai Xanh / The Green Belt, Mặt Trận ở Sài Gòn / The Battle of Saigon etc…, now it’s Mekong Dòng Sông Nghẽn Mạch / Mekong The Occluding River. What have you done differently this time in order to introduce your work more extensively to the intended targets?

NTV 2_ It’s quite a challenge for foreigners to learn about Vietnam through the lenses of a Vietnamese. The number of foreign experts who can speak and read Vietnamese fluently is extremely limited. We may say that good works written in Vietnamese do exist and apparently there is a need to have them translated to familiarize foreign readers with the Vietnamese culture. Putting the quality of the translation aside, I’d say that there are a good number of works written in foreign languages that have been translated into Vietnamese. Unfortunately the opposite does not hold true for books in Vietnamese been translated into foreign languages. We need to overcome that language barrier as soon as possible. To achieve that goal requires a concerted and well funded effort that is beyond the ability of one or a few private individuals.

Let me tell you about a personal experience. My daily professional work puts me in contact with my American friends. Many of them love to read and are what you would call “bookworms’. When they learn that I’m an author, they express their desire to read my works. This is one of the incentives that made me decide to have my books translated into English.

Translation is not an easy task. To do a good job requires the person to have both a thorough understanding of the two cultures and a good command of the two languages in question. On top of that, he or she must have the time – sometimes a year or more - and the patience to work with the author to produce an acceptable result. I am fortunate to have friends who possess such qualifications like Ms Nha Trang and William L. Pensinger, Nguyễn Xuân Nhựt, and Thái Vĩnh Khiêm.

Permit me to share with you and the readers some of the feedbacks I received from foreign readers concerning my translated works. Among them you can find scholars, newsmen, environmentalists…their comments showed that the translations succeeded in conveying faithfully the message of the Vietnamese versions.

The Green Belt:

- GERALD C. HICKEY, former professor of Anthropology at Yale and Cornell and author of “Free in the Forest, Ethno-history of the Vietnamese Central Highlands, 1954-1976”.

“I read The Green Belt with great interest. It brought back memories of the Central Highlands in the 1960s and the events surrounding the Buddhist and student unrest during that period.

It’s clear that Ngo The Vinh learned a great deal about the highland people and their plight during the war and post-war world. What news I now get from the highlands is very sad. The montagnards are facing a worse threat to their way of life than at any time previously. The Americans (like the French) used the montagnards and coldly abandoned them. All one can do is to keep trying to bring it to the attention of American leaders in Washington. Still one hopes against hope.”

- OSCAR SALEMINK, Holland, Professor at the Free University of Amsterdam, author of “The Ethnography of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders”.<fsw.vu.nl/english/salemink>.

“I am impressed with the knowledge, foresight and sympathy that Ngo The Vinh displays in ‘The Green Belt’ which he wrote more than thirty years ago already. Although the novel is a piece of fiction, many of the events alluded to are historical. The dynamics and dilemmas depicted were real dilemmas for various parties involved and especially for the Thượng (highland) people who are portrayed as victims of various policies and conflicts.”

- JOSE QUIROGA, M.D., Chilean American, former professor at UCLA, Director Program for Torture Victims, Los Angeles.

“Historians, journalists, politicians, military strategists, and novelists have written many books on the Vietnam War. ‘The Green Belt’ is a powerful, compelling, and original novel written by a Vietnamese physician and writer that explores the human impact of the Vietnam War especially on the Thượng ethnic minority. They used to live isolated in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and were discriminated against. This territory became a strategic area during the conflict and their peaceful lives changed forever. The human rights conditions of the Thượng minority needs international attention.”

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