Learning a language can sometimes go by unexpectedly, thus not the way you’re expecting it to. You don’t always have to devour grammar manuals in order to excel in a language. Timothy Allen has experienced this himself when he was able to improve his Vietnamese language by translating a popular Vietnamese literary creation.
After traveling to Ho Chi Minh city back in 1999, the writer was able to find a Vietnamese classic work that would teach him a lot about the culture and language of the country. As such, he translated it and ended up getting better at his own Vietnamese skills. It’s a story with a nice conclusion, so here’s how Tim Allen had the ability to learn a language through translation.
Who Is Timothy Allen?
Tim Allen is a poet and translator who became known especially for translating “Kieu: A New Lament for a Broken Heart”, a Vietnamese verse-novel. Born in Liverpool in 1960, Tim has worked in many parts of the world, including Albania, Uganda, Liberia, Mozambique, as well as Vietnam and many others. Not to mention, he has translated works for multiple languages, such as Spanish, Vietnamese and many others.
In 2008, he was awarded a prize thanks to his translation of the opening lines of the popular Vietnamese novel, as well as a Hawthornden Fellowship later on. The latter allowed him to continue and, ultimately, complete translating and reworking the poem.
How He Learned Vietnamese through Translation
Timothy arrived in Vietnam in late November 1999, being his first time visiting the country. He was there to look for some projects, for which he had funds from the NGO. After being picked up from the airport by his Vietnamese counterparts, he started telling them about how he’s interested in learning more about their culture and language.
When asking about literature, one of the counterparts told him about a book that Timothy would definitely love, and which would be a life-changing experience for him. Of course, upon hearing the name “Truyen Kieu, the Tale of Kieu”, it didn’t mean much to him, so he couldn’t know how much of an impact it would have on his life. The tale was written by Nguyen Du, a diplomat-poet, and published in 1920.
During his time in Vietnam, Timothy Allen spent enough time analyzing the life of Vietnamese people and was impressed. They had a special sense of family and solidarity.
One evening at the restaurant, Timothy engaged in conversation with one of his new colleagues and asked her to tell him about the “Truyen Kieu” book.
It was revealed that the story takes place in China and is about a Chinese girl who falls in love with a boy. However, the boy has to move away due to a family business, after which she is somehow tricked into working in a brothel. She doesn’t stay there forever – she manages to escape and has plenty of adventures. But one thing is sure – she never forgets her first love.
The story is known by all Vietnamese people, and some even use it as a fortune teller – you open the book and put the finger on a verse, and that’s what future has in store. So, Tim Allen traveled the country and asked locals about the story. Many were eager to share their knowledge about it, and he was even lucky enough to find a bilingual version of it. Therefore, he started deciphering it.
He was impressed by the message of the story. The story told you to keep going despite the difficulties life is throwing at you, and stay true to yourself. It also tells you that bad people will fade away too.
At the end of the trip, when Timothy had to leave Vietnam, he brought the book with him, together with a dictionary. He only wanted to maintain his knowledge of the language, not make a proper translation. But little did he know that reworking the book will develop his own Vietnamese skills.
Apparently, what Allen was aiming for was capturing the essence of the story and being able to deliver the same magic as Nguyen Du was able to. He wanted to maintain the lyricism, as well as the characters and the flow of the story while translating it properly. Now that he translated it, he wishes that many people will be in awe stumbling upon the wonderful story of Kieu.
A language can be learned through other methods, rather than simply reading grammar books and dictionaries. As the story of Timothy Allen has proven, you can start translating something out of pure fascination, and before realizing it, your skills have improved.
If you’ve been impressed by this story and now you’re curious about Vietnamese literature, yet you don’t find translated one, don’t hesitate to seek Vietnamese translation services.