Vietnamese book translator Nguyen Bich Lan provides best-selling stories of other people’s adversity and physical disabilities — by overcoming her own. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Fred Wissink.
Nguyen Bich Lan’s voice is gentle but weary on the phone. She apologises and says she needs to continue our conversation by email. We’ve only spoken for several minutes, but she audibly strains and fights to deliver every other word, drawing quick, short breaths.
I promptly hang up the phone with the 37-year-old, Hanoi-based book translator, whose pain stems from 24 years of muscular dystrophy, an incurable physical disorder that weakens muscles and hampers locomotion.
“I have not spoken a lot since I had heart problems 10 years ago,” Lan writes me a few days later. “It is so lucky that I can translate books because this kind of job does not require me to speak, just work in silence.”
Having loved literature since she was five, Lan’s translation of 27 books from English to Vietnamese gives voice to the bibliophile’s triumph over her physical pain. Before she was a translator, she taught herself English for six years. In 2010, the Vietnam Writers’ Association awarded her the top literary award for her translation of Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup.
“Nguyen Bich Lan weighs less than the total weight of all the books she has translated, about 29 or 30 kg,” says Duong Ngoc Han, managing editor at Ho Chi Minh City-based publishing house, First News–Tri Viet. “When you first meet her you see that she is very slim and weak, but inside you know she has an incredible power of will to overcome her situation. She also has a great ability to translate books and novels.”
Recently, Lan completed translating the self-help autobiographies of 30-year-old Nick Vujicic, an Australian-Serbian born without limbs, for First News-Tri Viet. Her translation of Vujicic’s first autobiography, Life Without Limits, became an instant best-seller in Vietnam in December of last year.
Lan spent 75 days translating Vujicic’s second book, The Unstoppable, which was released in March. It was so widely anticipated that First News–Tri Viet announced that Vujicic will tour and lecture at universities and shelters in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi this month, when Lan is expected to meet him for the first time.
“The Unstoppable is good and meaningful,” Lan writes in her email. “In this book, Nick shares his experience of overcoming personal crises. … When I translated this book, I felt happy to be a bridge to bring his messages to our Vietnamese readers.”
It’s no coincidence that Lan was tasked with translating Vujicic’s books. She and Vujicic are a poignant pair, both kindred champions of major physical challenges who want to inspire audiences with their stories. At around the same time Vujicic’s Life Without Limits was released in Vietnam last year, Nguyen launched her own comprehensive memoir, Never Give Up.
“Books about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Donald Trump, these books sell very, very low in Vietnam,” says First News-Tri Viet general director, Nguyen Van Phuoc. “They are very far, very rich. Vietnamese people cannot relate as easily with them. Nowadays, stories of those who must fight and can overcome hardship have the greatest impression on the people of Vietnam.”
Phuoc, who encouraged Lan to write her memoir, describes Lan as a “seed of the soul”, in reference to the name of First News-Tri Viet’s sales campaign for motivational books initiated 12 years ago. Lan is also one of 10 women whose life story is featured in an exhibition at the Vietnam Women’s Museum in Hanoi.
Born in a small village in Thai Binh province, Lan began experiencing symptoms of muscular dystrophy at age 13, when she had trouble riding her bike and falling on her way to school. Her family visited 14 hospitals before a doctor at Bach Mai hospital diagnosed her. A year later, she dropped out of school.
“My sadness gathered itself like clouds gathering for a storm,” Lan writes. “A month later in the corner of my small room in the village I burst [out crying]. Then I thought of my life and I told myself, ‘I have many things left.’”
Spending the next 20 years in her 10-metre room, bedridden and restless, Lan lost one-third of her weight in three months. One day, she overheard her little brother speaking English. She frequently stole his textbooks and studied English to university-level proficiency. She later taught English to 200 children at her home.
But when the muscular dystrophy began to affect her heart, she was forced to quit teaching. Her aunt, a poet who worked for a publishing house, suggested translating books so she could work from home. Her first translation was Australian author Daisy Thomson’s romantic novel, Never Doubt My Love, in 2002 for Women’s Publishing House.
“As soon as I could get out of the bed, I wanted to work,” writes Lan.
At First News-Tri Viet, Han, who corresponds with Lan by phone and internet, is impressed by Lan’s sensibilities and literary prowess. For every project, Lan engrosses herself in the topics and themes of the book beforehand.
“Translators don’t get paid very much and it is a difficult job,” Han says. “At the same time, healthy translators who want to translate books cannot translate as well as Bich Lan. She is very serious about her job.”
Lan aptly continues to choose heartrending books about people and tragedy to translate and share with Vietnamese readers. Next, she will translate William Faulkner’s Wild Palms, a harrowing love story, and Julia Otsuka’s novel Buddha in the Attic, a poetic tale of Japanese picture brides immigrating to America.
“Lan has changed her life and worked for herself ‘— she doesn’t want any pity from others,” Phuoc says. “She is a suitable person to translate and understand people and things that aren’t perfect.”