Publishing Western Classics in Vietnam

by AFP/Aude Genet, Oct 5, 2010 | Destinations: Vietnam

The title of French author Alexis de Tocqueville's seminal work, "Democracy in America", was not well received by authorities in communist Vietnam, so it appeared under another name.

When Hanoi's Knowledge Publishing House issued the work three years ago there was no reference to democracy in the title, which became "Governance of the American people."

Censorship in the one-party state is only one of many challenges faced by the publisher, which aims to translate key works of Western philosophy, political thought and social science.

It also faces a shortage of translators able to handle the great works of Western thought, as well as a lack of readers.

"Because of war, and problems bequeathed by history, Vietnamese education happened with a near-total absence of universal values contained in the classics," says Chu Hao, 70, editor and director of the publishing house.

"What one could learn was limited to what was contained in the manuals of Marxism-Leninism," he says. "Even today, philosophy, especially the history of philosophy, is foreign to Vietnamese students."

Hao, a former vice-minister of science, says philosophy is essential for personal development and its neglect is "extremely harmful in both the short and long term to the development of the country."

When it began about four years ago the publisher chose to focus on several well-known authors, says Pham Toan, who translated Tocqueville's 1835 classic.

Other featured works included the 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill and, from the modern era, the American critic Noam Chomsky.

Later came works by 18th-century French thinkers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as others.

In all, more than 100 titles have been translated, selling about 2,000 copies each. They are read mainly by researchers and business people rather than students or bureaucrats, Hao says with regret.

Like other publishers in Vietnam, Knowledge is linked to an agency of the state. In this case, it is the Vietnam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA).

Along with financial contributions from VUSTA, the staff get by on private donations or support from foreign embassies.

For translation from the various European languages to Vietnamese, Hao, the editor, relies on linguists in their sixties or older.

Younger Vietnamese are increasingly less fluent in the former colonial tongue, French. They prefer English or other foreign languages to better connect with the wider world.

But even their mastery of Vietnamese is often insufficient, Hao says. He deplores their "low level of general knowledge due to the weakness of national educationfor decades."

About half of Vietnam's population is younger than 30.

Experts have said the country's educationsystem is far from an international standard, afflicted by corruption and unsuited for providing the skilled workforce the country needs.

Critics say the education system relies more on repetition than reflection.

Works on liberalism or democracy, such as Tocqueville's, run up against another challenge in the country's ideological constraints.

"There are unwritten rules, a 'sensitive' zone that publishers are not allowed to cross," Hao says.

But this sensitivity has diminished since Vietnamin 1986 began its "Doi Moi" policy of opening up to the world, he says.

When the censor still tries to intervene, Hao says he patiently explains the importance of accepting differences and argues that "everything that is not similar to the Communist Party's point of view is not reactionary."

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