Vietnamese We

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Translators are servants. They labor in silence, mining a source, conveying its soul to others. Bùi Huy Trang is a photographer and a poet, but he is also a translator, bringing us a depth of soul we seldom see.

Mr. Trang has titled his work in English, Vietnamese, and French. Regardless of language, the phrases Vietnamese We, Người Việt Nam chúng ta and Nous autres Vietnamiens carry several meanings. In their most restricted usage, they may refer only to the Việt (or Kinh), one of Vietnam’s fifty-four ethnic groups. More broadly, they may denote citizens of a nation, Việt Nam, and thus include all its ethnic groups. More broadly still, these phrases may embrace all people of Vietnamese heritage wherever they live.

In this work, Bùi Huy Trang concentrates on lives of ordinary Kinh (Việt) in Vietnam yet also introduces other ethnic groups. He takes us on a nationwide tour of Vietnam – north, center, and south; lowlands, midlands, and highlands. He provides a few wistful glimpses of ethnic Vietnamese living outside the country.

The result is a tour de force, for Bùi Huy Trang translates the quintessential yet untranslatable Vietnamese phrase: Quê Hương.

Quê Hương does not mean birth place. Nor is the phrase adequately rendered by homeland. Except for a few matrilineal ethnic minority groups, Quê Hương refers to the father’s ancestral home.

Vietnamese believe the living can access the spirits of the departed as a source of wisdom and guidance. Each household honors deceased ancestors with a family altar displaying candles or lamps, fruits, flowers, and an incense urn. The family adds to the altar special dishes, votive money, and other ceremonial objects (e.g. clothes, motorcycles) fashioned from paper on a family member’s death-day anniversary and at Tết to welcome the ancestors back home to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

Vietnamese both inside and outside the country may have never visited their Quê Hương, the site of their ancestors’ graves. Nevertheless, their ancestors’ spirits stretch across time and space, drawing the thoughts of Vietnamese back to the source of their family’s soul, back to the source of their very own soul.

With Vietnamese We - Người Việt Nam chúng ta - Nous autres Vietnamiens, we tour Vietnam. We experience the essence of life for ordinary Vietnamese citizens, both Kinh and other ethnic groups. We reach across the world and explore a heritage. We delve into a wider vision of Quê Hương with Bùi Huy Trang as he explores his heritage and translates the source of his own soul.

Hà Nội, Dec. 2010

Lady Borton

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