‘Nipped and Tucked’ from Translation: Censorship in Vietnam


Censorship in Vietnam is a common topic for the foreign press and rights organizations like Human Rights Watch or the Committee to Protect Journalists. Though both have done good and painstaking work, what gets out to the public is often a macro look at censorship: the locking up of bloggers or blocking of various websites. The quotidian nature of much censorship within Vietnam is bypassed for broader brushstrokes.

Thomas Bass, writing in the Washington Post, has given an in-depth, almost blow-by-blow look into the censorship of his Vietnamese-language translation of his biography of Vietnamese spy Pham Xuan An. To understand this, a little about An’s life must first be explained.

An ended his career as the Time bureau chief in Saigon, after many years working for foreign press agencies. All the while, though, he was secretly working for the regime in Hanoi. The many foreign journalists who worked with him tended to have mixed emotions but regarded him with affection and respect, in the main. An, after Saigon fell, became a “Hero of the People’s Armed Forces.”

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Bass’ biography, The Spy Who Loved Us, was published in English in 2009. Soon after, a Vietnamese translation was commissioned. It is not the first biography of An: Vietnamese publishers have put out books in Vietnamese and English on the spy before. The Gioi (World) Publishers issued an English-language, propaganda-heavy, pocket-sized book in 2003 which I still own and is part of the “Many Faces of Vietnam” series.

Bass writes, “nothing is published in Vietnam without being censored. For five years, I watched people nip and tuck my book.” He is right. But he goes on to note something that often gets lost in the noise: His censors, or the ones who would meet with him, were “the good guys.” They regretted what they had to do, but that was simply the way things had to be. Plenty was cut, from historical events like the disastrous land reforms of the 1950s, to how An had “loved” the United States. Small details, vast swathes of history, certain words and even mentions of General Vo Nguyen Giap, who had by then fallen deeply out of favor with the regime (though not the people; his state funeral in 2013 was a spectacular event).

Also: “But the language of the south and other cultural terms were pruned from the text, replaced by the language of the northerners who overran Saigon in 1975.” Southern and northern dialects are very different and replacing southern expressions and words with their anomalous northern variations would be like changing the Scottish patois of an Irvine Welsh novel or southern idioms of Faulkner with Oxford English. Censorship occurred at every level and it is, as he points out, a power exercise, especially when the victors must change even the slang in what they are set to censor.

Given the charged story, written by a foreigner, and government involvement in the project it is likely that many of the changes were following a certain set of strictures (do not say good things about the French or the Americans or Ho Chi Minh’s “gold campaign”). But Vietnam’s censorship is not often this directed; often instead it is hazy and never quite outlined, forcing many to err on the side of caution. Two of the watchwords might be “suitable” and “sensitive.” Things to do with decadence – nightclubs, sex, drugs – are not “suitable” given Vietnam’s “cultural traditions.” Politics, corruption, government are all “sensitive” and best left alone. As I’ve written before there is a tremendous grey area, so to see a deconstruction of all that was actually cut from Bass’s official Vietnamese translation is interesting. It also puts paid to the official, very public line that the war is over and forgotten: Why else remove mentions of the spy’s “love” for America, even if everyone is now the best of semi-quasi-allies?

Bass commissioned an unofficial translation and the Index on Censorship will be releasing more from it soon.

Helen Clark was based in Hanoi for six years as a reporter and magazine editor. She has written for two dozen publications including The Diplomat (as Bridget O’Flaherty), TimeThe Economist, the Asia Times Online and the Australian Associated Press

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