An interview with Poven Leace, English translator of Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong
Hanh Trinh Ve Phuong Dong is an obscure 1970’s Vietnamese book which purports to be a previously unpublished record of a trip Baird T Spalding took to India.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.