An interview with Poven Leace, English translator of Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong

Eagle eyed readers of this blog noted that an English translation of Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong appeared on Amazon.com last month.

Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong is an obscure 1970’s Vietnamese book which purports to be a previously unpublished record of a trip Baird T Spalding took to India. The pseudonymous author Nguyên Phong claims to have found a Spalding book titled Journey to the East in a San Diego library during the 1970’s and published Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong as a Vietnamese translation. Prior to the 1980’s, there was a large number of unauthorized translations of English works in Vietnam, and Nguyên Phong is listed as translator of works by Lobsang Rampa, Myodo Satomi and Mika Waltari.

Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong however, is entirely different from Phong’s earlier translations, as it is actually a work of fiction created by Nguyên Phong. Spalding never wrote a book entitled Journey to the East, and his first book was only published in the US in 1924. Hanh Trinh Ve Phoung Dong also contains numerous historical anomalies that speak to its fictional nature, as outlined in the blog post Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong – A Vietnamese prelude to Spalding’s Life and Teachings? It is likely that Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong is an artifact of the renewed interest in Spalding during the 1970’s, and Nguyên Phong was certainly not the only author who claimed a connection with Spalding during this time. However, he certainly was the most inventive, as no other author to my knowledge has created a prequel to Spalding’s work.

Regardless of its fictional origins, Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong is a fascinating book for those of us interested in Baird T Spalding and the genre of magical autobiographies which Spalding pioneered. The thought that Spalding’s imaginary journey to India in 1894 could inspire a Vietnamese prequel eight decades later that is translated back to English after another three decades adds to the attraction for lovers of the obscure.

I conducted a brief interview with Poven Leace to understand his impressions of the book and motivations in translating it to English.

Q. Thanks for agreeing to the interview, Poven. Can you tell us how you first encountered Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong?

A. I came across “Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong” (HTVPD) by Nguyen Phong through a number of friends who worked with me in the same company in the Philippines.  They all commented, “The book has changed my perception in life.”  With that in mind, I bought a copy of HTVPD that was first published in the U.S. in 1987 by the “Nguoi Viet” Publishing House.  This edition clearly stated that HTVPD was a Vietnamese translation of “Journey to the East” (JTE) by Baird Spalding published in 1924 by the Adyar Publishing House in India, and Nguyen Phong was the translator.

Personally, HTVPD has indeed exerted a great effect on my spiritual and intellectual life.  Given this remarkable influence, I have tried to search for the original English version hoping to introduce it to my American fellows.  Unfortunately, I hitherto have not detected any trace that may lead to the original English edition.  As a Vietnamese translator, Nguyen Phong may be the only person who would have the original “Journey to the East”.  Regrettably, we do not have any luck with contacting him up until now.  Despite extensive searches for “Journey to the East”, I did not succeed.

A few years later, a new 2005-edition of HTVPD has been widely disseminated in Asian public markets in the U.S., U.K., France and Canada.  This edition discloses no publisher, but it unveils itself by a Buddhist calendar year of 2549 and reveals that Nguyen Phong derived HTVPD from a six-volume set of books entitled “Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East”.  After purchasing this six-volume set, it occurred to me that HTVPD had very little in common with Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East.  In another edition printed by ABC Printing in Costa Mesa, California, U.S.A., a short biography of Nguyen Phong on the back cover has divulged that Nguyen Phong is the penname of Vu Van Du.

It comes to our realization that the direct English re-establishment from HTVPD is the only vehicle to disseminate Spalding’s wisdom to a larger group of audience.  It is certainly not escaped our notice that HTVPD only serves people who are able to read and understand Vietnamese.  Given our intention and the unavailability of the original “Journey to the East” in the public domain, Bien Giang and I decided to re-instate it.

Q. There are some names in the Vietnamese text that don’t translate well to English. How did you deal with these words and what do you think Nguyen Phong meant by them? Any other difficulties in translating the text?

A. Regarding the translation, we do not have any problem because it is simply just a normal translation from Vietnamese to English.  In terms of proper nouns, we kept them as they were written.

Q. We’ve posted a fair amount of information on this blog that indicates HTVPD is a fictional work created by Nguyen Phong, because of the many historical discrepancies. While you were translating it, did you consider it to be a fictional work, or a record of a journey which occurred in real life? How do you account for so many discrepancies, and the lack of any record of the original 1924 book that HTVPD was allegedly translated from?

A. In our opinion, Journey to the East could be considered as a fiction book.  As you notice, the last sentence of the book suggests that another journey was about to begin.  As to the various discrepancies that are posted on your blog, we have coincidently addressed some of them in our book.

For the rest of your discrepancies, we are afraid that we cannot make any comments because they are not parts of our translation.  Regardless of whether the remaining of your discrepancies is substantiated by any source or by anyone or not, the entire contents of the English re-translation entitled “Journey to the East” remain consistent with the Vietnamese translation entitled “Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong”.

Q. Any other thoughts?

A. From our perspective, it really does not matter who composed the book; what really matters is the wisdoms from the contents of this book are disseminated widely to a larger group of audience.  Honestly speaking, the notion that is far more noteworthy is what subject matters were written than who wrote them at this point.

Thanks for the interview Poven. The English translation of Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong, titled Journey to the East, can be purchased at Amazon.com. Readers are invited to post their comments here.

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13 Responses to “An interview with Poven Leace, English translator of Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong”

  1. Michael Duong says:

    When I read the book HTVPD, I thought it was about facts, about an actual journey to India with meeting with the Masters… It was so interesting. It provoke my thoughts about this world based on inspiring supernatural phenomenons described in the book. When I found out it was just a fictional work. I was so disappointed. I was cheated.
    Thank you very much, Todd, for providing us with the truth.
    Michael Duong.

  2. Paul Nguyen says:

    Wouldn’t the HTVPD book be a fraud, a lie?

    I don’t think this book should be classified as “fiction”. Fictional books always state at the beginning, or at the end, or somewhere that this book is fiction (part or whole), is an imaginary work of the author, or something in similar. What I understand is this book stated clearly that it was translated from Baird Spalding’s book, which was published in 1924, and it was presented as true accounts of Baird Spalding’s journey to India.

    Here are my takes from the interview transcript stated above:

    “Spalding never wrote a book entitled Journey to the East”
    – My take: many, many Vietnamese read this book, believed that it was from the famous author Baird Spalding, who actually went to India, and learned the East’s way of life.

    “Hanh Trinh Ve Phoung Dong also contains numerous historical anomalies”
    – My take: Many Vietnamse who read this book believing in every events, every conversations with Indian gurus, as true facts. And many memorized, quoted, and used these anomalies as facts. How would they know these anomalies?

    “They all commented, “The book has changed my perception in life.”
    – My take: Yes, and this change is based on a deception. Would this be a good thing? If

    “This edition clearly stated that HTVPD was a Vietnamese translation of “Journey to the East” (JTE) by Baird Spalding published in 1924 by the Adyar Publishing House in India, and Nguyen Phong was the translator.”
    – My take: can you see the deception here, the supposed details of famous author, the published year of 1924, even the publisher is stated. Yet, none of these are true. I wonder why Nguyen Phong needed to lie this much for his “translated” book? I think he needed to loan the air of authenticity, and leverage of a famous author.

    “This edition discloses no publisher, but it unveils itself by a Buddhist calendar year of 2549 and reveals that Nguyen Phong derived HTVPD from a six-volume set of books entitled “Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East. After purchasing this six-volume set, it occurred to me that HTVPD had very little in common with Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East.”
    – My take: Not until 2005 that somewhere in the re-published book this “fact” was included. Still, it is still a lie. HTVPD had very little in common with the books written by Baird Spalding. I think by 2005, they knew people might find out that there was no such book by Baird Spalding, and they just stated in the re-print book to soften the lie.

    “From our perspective, it really does not matter who composed the book; what really matters is the wisdoms from the contents of this book are disseminated widely to a larger group of audience. Honestly speaking, the notion that is far more noteworthy is what subject matters were written than who wrote them at this point.”
    – My take: It really, really does matter who wrote the book. If Baird Spalding composed the book, then Spalding was really there in India, talked and conversed with Indian gurus about life, ways of life, meaning of life. But the book was written by Nguyen Phong, who did not travel to India, who did not talk to the monks, and his fictional book had very little common with Baird Spalding’s books.

    In addition, with knowledge that this was not Spalding book, Poven Leace translated the HTVPD, and still stated that that this was Spalding’s book.

    The way I see it: The deceptive book was a fictional work of Nguyen Phong, who lied that he “translated” from a famous author, and now, Poven Leace tried to authenticate a deception by translating a fictional work and giving the book the name and the author of which Nguyen Phong lied in the beginning. It almost worked on me: I looked online and found “Journey to the East” by Baird Spalding, and I thought the book was an authenticate translation of Baird Spalding book (Amazon, eBay, AbeBooks, Alibris all currently states the author of the “Journey to the East” is Baird Spalding), until I found this site and this interview. What I don’t understand is that if the “wisdom” of this HTVPD book is so great, so life changing, then, why the deceptions, the lies? The great wisdom should be great on its own, not based on lies.

    Why am I writing this much details and responses?

    I am offended that many of my Vietnamse people had been deceived, and many are still practicing/following the “teaching” and the “wisdom” of the Indian gurus/master’s sayings in the book. The lie was cemented by the sales of the English book titled “Journey to the East.

  3. Ha Nguyen says:

    I was so inspired by this book for such a long time and tried to find the original English book from Professor Spalding to introduce it to my Indian friend but then I found this. I am ashame to say to my friend that this book, though brought so much meaning and inspiring to so many people is a lie, a fiction and really had nothing to do with real events.
    Shame on you Nguyen Phong and the publisher for not doing their job to research “the fact”.

  4. Simon says:

    Ha Nguyen, please note that actually nobody can confirm at 100% every content of the book are true or false. A lot of mystery surrounding the books and authors -at this moment- stay uncovered and inexplicable. However, research continues…

  5. Antelope says:

    The quality of writing in Spalding’s “Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East” Volumes 1-5 appears uneven, not only within each volume, but also between volumes. The first and second books have good narrative interspersed with mini sermons on what the author considers to be the true teachings of Jesus. Volume 3 has even more mini sermons. The 5 volumes are clearly a composite work, volumes 4-5 being written in a less entertaining and more didactic style.

    By contrast, the prequel, “Journey to the East” as re-translated from Vietnamese, is well constructed with a clear narrative style, no mini sermons and a lot of information on Eastern esoteric and spiritual topics. It does not read like Spalding’s main work which is short on detail, visionary and impressionistic.

    Professor Evans-Wentz features as one of the characters in the Vietnamese re-translation, and I wonder whether he was responsible for some, if not all of the narrative of Spalding’s “Journey to the East”. Spalding’s “Journey to the East” starts with a demonstration of miraculous powers given by a monk from an Indian delegation at Oxford University. Professor Evans-Wetz studied social anthropology at Oxford University and was awarded a D.S in 1910. In 1917 he travelled in India and later went on to spend 3 years in Sikkim in the company of a Tibetan lama, the headmaster of a boys school in Gangtok, who died in 1922.

    According to the Vietnamese translation, “Journey to the East” was originally published in India in 1924, the same year as the publication of Spalding’s first volume. Even if it was not written by Professor Evans-Wetz, it does not read like Spalding’s other works. If it is not by Spalding, the question is, why would it be attributed to him?

    It has been suggested that the prequel is cashing in on Spalding’s popularity. But there could be other reasons. We have to consider why these books were being published. “Life and Teaching of the Masters of the Far East” is clearly intended as a vehicle for spiritual teachings. Volume 4 even has sections headed “For the Teacher” at the end of some chapters. If there were ghost writers, perhaps they did not wish to risk their reputations in what could be seen as a controversial alternative to mainstream Christian teachings.

  6. todd says:

    Thanks for the comment Antelope. The reason for Volumes 4 and 5 being different to the others is that they were published posthumously from a collection of group study guides Spalding had published in DeVorss inhouse magazine before his death. That is why there is a section titled ‘For the teacher’.

    There are numerous hints in HTVPD that it is fiction, not the least of which the biographies of people like Evans-Wentz and others in HTVPD do not mention Spalding or the supposed India tour. At least one of the people mentioned in HTVPD, Paul Brunton, never met Spalding until the 1930’s, which is clearly stated in Brunton’s published notebooks. And HTVPD opens with a reference to a Time magazine cover from the 1960’s, which is fairly unlikely for a book allegedly written in 1924 by an author who died in 1953. As you said, I believe HTVPD was simply cashing in on the Spalding name. The author of HTVPD had written several other similar unofficial sequels, prequels and translations, and no information to the contrary has turned up despite extensive searches and the input of many readers of the blog.

  7. John Nguyen says:

    There is an article about one reader, Phan Lac Tiep, tried to meet and talked with Nguyen Phong. Tiep described the appearance of HTVPD in biweekly magazine Đất Mới and the chance of meeting the author. To the main point, Nguyen Phong explained how he made HTVPD to Tiep:

    “As you you know , I am a scientist . During high school , I have to say I didn’t appreciate Eastern philosophy. As one who grew up in developing countries , I admired Western scholarship , not only in the field of science , but I had been longing to learn European philosophers. But after studying hard, I learn that Western philosophy does not solve all human problems , as well as science’s, especially the crisis and conflict between materialism and Idealism today . From there I returned to learn the philosophies of the East. It’s a long story, but I see everything, as the Buddha said : Everything comes from the heart . Especially after I just finished the PhD thesis, our South Vietnam was defeated. My parents and all my relatives were stuck there. My heart was traumatized. Knowing that I cannot do anything for them, every weekends and holidays, I climbed up to the mountain, with a little snack , I meditated. Several times, I only drank cold water for a whole week. With a relaxed mind and a light body, sometimes I felt that I can see clearly the thoughts and the situations of my loved ones, so I could wait with peace in mind. Looking for a good miracle will come . Of course in the meantime I go to the library very often. One day I went through the religious section, I found a small book fell in the aisle , I picked up and put it back to the shelf, but did not see what book it was . After one round, I saw it fell again on my way. I picked it up and glanced through the book name before put it into the shelf. After a day in the library, when everyone had left, I went through the old books section, then I found the book in the middle of the aisle. I picked it up. A thin book, titled Journey To The East by Baird Spalding , published by Adyar in 1924 in India. It’s too old, but suddenly I did not want to let go, I want to read this book. But strangely , during the night it had conquered my mind, I read the whole book at once, then read it again . Things said in the book have drawn in me a new space not only mysterious but also very clear, it also stimulated my deep pride in Eastern philosophies . It was then that I met Vu Duc Vinh and Thanh Nam with the intention to publish the Dat Moi (New Land) magazine. They invited me to in charge a column answering scientific entries . I immediately accepted with the series “Inside electronics”. At the same time I translated the book – The Journey To The East. I sent it to Thanh Nam , he liked it a lot, told me to keep doing. So in Dat Moi, I have two columns which are quite opposite in content, but with the same penname, Nguyên Phong, a new fresh wind . . .”

    In Vietnamese: http://www.thienlybuutoa.org/Misc/MotLanGioTinhKhoi.htm

  8. todd says:

    Thanks John, that’s very interesting. I’ve been unable to get a reply from John Vu (Nguyen Phong) about the discrepancies in HTVPD which shows that Spalding never authored it.

  9. Zos Nguyen says:

    @todd: why do you come back San Diego library to find a Spalding book titled Journey to the East?

  10. todd says:

    Zos, I’ve already looked for the book, and it doesn’t exist. You can search the library catalog of every library in San Diego (and elsewhere) at http://www.worldcat.org. The only books you will find by that title are the ones published by Nguyen Phong in 1989 and later. There is also no record in Spalding’s own writings of such a book.

  11. Toan Nguyen says:

    Hi Todd,

    Have you had a chance to look at the first few chapters of “A Search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton (it’s available online for free)? I’ve noticed STRIKING resemblances between this book and the Nguyen Phong book. I haven’t finished the book by Brunton but I guess there will be more similarities.

    If Brunton’s story turns out to be based on his actual trip to India, will this mean Nguyen Phong is a blatant plagiarist, not crediting Brunton in the HTVPD book?

    Thanks for providing the enlightening facts about the HTVPD book. I value truth, a Buddhist value, which means from now on I’ll leave every book by Nguyen Phong out of my reading list.

  12. Minh Trinh says:

    HTVPD is a composite translation book by Nguyen Phong. It is related to Buddhism and thoughts from many sources. Nguyen Phong just correlates what he knows about Philosophy of the East through Buddhism of many countries, I m delight to read more about the subject and author
    Buddhism is neither fiction or truth, just the thought of wisdom and each perceived differently.

  13. Victor Diem says:

    Hi Todd
    I think I know Proven Leace as quoted by him in the interview.
    I did say to my colleague in the company that the book changed my life. I felt quite low at the time and the book gave me inspiration. I am disappointed in Phong’s unethical approach by giving an impression that it is the book written by Mr. Spalding. I even remember by heart the stories.
    However the impact of the book is great, it gave me a new outlook on life and after life. Perhaps Buddhist teaching that we should not judge people by their action but by their intention or motivation behind their action is valid here. On this note I still thank Phong for his fictitious work.

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