Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)

Note on Translation

Whatever people think about the war in vietnam, Most agree that in many ways Americans appropriated that war and very often did not try to understand their Vietnamese allies and opponents. Thus, my main goal in translating Mourning Headband for Hue was not to misappropriate Nhã Ca’s work by turning it into an American wartime horror story with Vietnamese names but rather to give readers a chance to hear otherwise silenced Vietnamese voices. To achieve this, I tried to stay as close as possible to Nhã Ca’s original work while at the same time not forgetting that it should be easily accessible for English-speaking readers. This proved to be a difficult task. I often consulted with Nhã Ca to be sure that I did not violate her intent. She helped me with amazing grace and patience.

The work was written in 1969, in the midst of war, with the author still in a state of shock. Thus, there were some points in her writing that needed clarification. I intentionally chose to translate the original 1969 edition so that I could work with the unadulterated voice from the time of the war, the version written shortly after the events of the 1968 Tết Offensive and the tragedy of Hue took place, not the later, perhaps slightly edited, version that was published in the United States in 2008 on the fortieth anniversary of the events described in Mourning Headband for Hue. As requested by the author, I made some minor corrections in the text, and they should not be perceived as mistranslation. I also made necessary clarifications because of the Vietnamese grammar or because of some confusion that became apparent during translation. In addition, with the permission of the author, I reordered chapters 3 and 4 for the sake of the flow of the narrative.

I attempted to stay faithful to the Vietnamese spirit and idiom of the work. I found it to be important to keep, at least partially, the Vietnamese system of personal pronouns when people address each other because the Vietnamese language does not have a simple “you.” Unlike in English, Vietnamese pronouns reflect the structure of society and a constant awareness of one’s position vis-à-vis other people, be it at work, with neighbors, or within a family. That’s why the “you” on the following pages will be in such forms as “elder brother,” “elder sister,” “aunt,” and “uncle” but also in compounds like “I and my sister,” in which the word order will immediately indicate that the person calling himself or herself “I” in any situation is older or holds a more important status in age or position than the other person being mentioned. There is nothing denigrating or even impolite in these pecking orders. On the contrary, all these elements highlight the intensity of human relations on which the account is based and which give some semblance of order amid the chaos of war.

While I have adjusted certain features of the original to increase its accessibility to readers of English, I have retained other aspects that may seem odd or stilted in certain respects but that nevertheless help to convey the strangeness of encountering not only another culture but also a society directly experiencing the terrible fear and violence of war. For example, the original contains very few exclamation points. Some readers may imagine that this book should be studded with exclamation points, but adding them not only would disfigure the translation with emphases not in the original but also would remove the understated quality of the author’s voice as she narrates horrific events that had become everyday occurrences. The entire text is an exclamation point, and to use exclamation points would simply imply that there is something in the text not needing such punctuation.

These and some other elements hopefully help to preserve Mourning Headband for Hue as a faithful document of wartime Vietnamese culture and history and to establish it as a necessary text for a better understanding of the Tết Offensive and of the war in Vietnam from a voice of that time. Many dozens of people come to life (and die) on the pages of the book; some of them remain anonymous while others are identified. I provide a list of the recurring names before the beginning of the translation to assure an easier comprehension of the work.

Quite often Nhã Ca uses the pronoun “they” or an equivalent. In most cases it refers to the Communist forces. As she wrote in the book: “We usually use the word ‘they’ to refer to the Việt Cộng and to avoid the word ‘liberators.’ In fact, would it not be ironic and cruel to use the word ‘liberation’ at the sight of such pain and utter destruction in the city?” While it was apparently clear at the time to the Vietnamese to whom she referred in such cases, it is not always as clear in translation. Thus, to avoid possible confusion in ambiguous contexts, I clarified in brackets to whom reference is being made. I used “the Communist forces” to identify the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army and “the Nationalists” for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and its supporting units, for whom Nhã Ca uses the term lính Quốc gia. This term is distinct from the term translated into English as the Armed Forces of South Vietnam (ARVN). Quốc gia has different meanings: “country,” “state,” “national,” or “nationalist” as, for example, in the expression chủ nghĩa quốc gia—“nationalism.” I could not use the term “state” because Nhã Ca uses it as an adjective in expressions such as xác [corpses] Quốc gia, referring to the corpses of the people from the South Vietnamese anti-communist forces. Moreover, North Vietnamese forces were also state forces. I also wanted to avoid the confusion between the Communist forces in the South known in English as the National Liberation Front and members of the anti-communist forces of the Republic of Vietnam, who considered themselves to be nationalists. Thus, referring to South Vietnamese forces I use the term “nationalist.”

After much deliberation and consultation, I decided to keep Vietnamese script with diacritical marks in the text for a number of reasons. First, I hope that it will help to preserve some of the Vietnamese spirit. Second, for those who know Vietnamese, it will be easier to identify people and places as they know them. Third, the diacritics will not prevent those who do not know Vietnamese from engaging with the text. They can be disregarded in most cases; however, sometimes they are important as most Vietnamese are mentioned here only by their personal names, and some of these personal names, while pronounced differently (for example, Lễ and Lê), look identical in print without diacritics, thus causing confusion. Including diacritics also precludes instances of similarity, in the absence of diacritics, between English and Vietnamese monosyllabic words. For example, the often-mentioned Vietnamese name “Bé,” when occurring without its diacritic as the first word in a translated sentence, might cause confusion about whether it is a Vietnamese name or an English verb. As an exception, I dispensed with diacritics for the names of two cities – Hue and Saigon – as they are already firmly rooted in the English language in this form.

Working on this project, I envisioned myself as merely a conduit for Nhã Ca’s voice and, through her, for the voices of the people of Hue at the time of the Tết Offensive. It was a hard and exhilarating task as the amount of information that can be and should be brought to light and that I read, heard, and collected is overwhelming. In order to keep my focus on her work, I have tried to stay as concise as possible in my introduction to the work so that it will provide only necessary information and not turn into a thorough study of the Tết Offensive, the Hue massacre, or the general situation in the South.

Each of these subjects deserves separate study, and while some aspects of them are covered extensively elsewhere, others still wait their turn. This project is not about these topics. My aim is to bring into English, for the first time, the voice of one of the best South Vietnamese writers who, along with her countrymen, lived through the nightmare of war: the nightmare of Hue during the Tết Offensive.

In the notes to my introduction, I have attempted to give a significant number of references to English-language sources for those readers who do not know Vietnamese but would like to read further on the subjects touched on in the book.