In Memoriam: Huynh Sanh Thong

Huynh Sanh Thong, considered the preeminent translator of Vietnamese poetry and literature into English and the former director of the Yale Southeast Asian Refugee Project, died on Nov. 17 of sudden heart failure. He was 82 years old.

Huynh dedicated much of his life to bringing the achievements of Vietnamese literature and culture to Western audiences. He was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987 for his efforts to keep alive the Vietnamese culture for future generations and for making it known to the English-speaking world.

He is best known for his English translation of Nguyen Du’s “The Tale of Kieu” — published by Random House in 1973 and reissued as a revised edition 10 years later by Yale University Press — and his “An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems: From the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries,” published by the Yale Press in 1996. In 1984, his translation of “Flowers from Hell,” a collection of poems written by Vietnamese dissident Nguyen Chi Thien during his imprisonment, was published in bilingual format by the Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies (SEAS). The book won the International Poetry Prize in Rotterdam the following year, even though the prize committee was not certain that Nguyen — who spent a total of nearly 30 years as a political prisoner — was still alive.

Born on July 15, 1926, in Hoc-mon, Vietnam, Huynh came to the United States in 1948 as a political refugee after being imprisoned for one year by the French colonial government in Vietnam for his involvement in the independence movement. After graduating from Ohio University in 1951 with a B.A. in economics, he taught Vietnamese language at the Foreign Service Institute of the State Department in Washington, D.C., and also served as an aide to Ngo Dinh Diem, who later became president of Vietnam. A political disagreement with Diem forced a break in their relationship, and Huynh came to Yale in 1957 to teach Vietnamese language and literature. In 1960, he co-authored a Vietnamese language textbook.

He began translating “The Tale of Kieu” — a narrative poem considered to be the masterpiece of pre-modern Vietnamese literature — when Yale’s Vietnamese language program was shut down in 1972. He then translated nearly 500 traditional Vietnamese poems for his book “The Heritage of Vietnamese Poetry.”

Huynh returned to Yale in 1981 as director of SEAS’ new Southeast Asian Refugee Project, an archive for oral accounts, memoirs, histories and writings contributed by refugees from Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Huynh helped found and was editor of two of the project’s publications series, “The Viet Nam Forum,” which featured collections of literary works on Vietnamese history, folklore, economy and politics, and the “Lac-Viet,” volumes of poetry, essays and novels written by individual authors. He translated many of these from Vietnamese to English.

“Huynh Sanh Thong did more to introduce the English-speaking world to the glories of Vietnamese literature and poetry than anyone in the world,” says Huynh’s friend and colleague James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology and former chair of SEAS. “His selfless dedication to faithful and felicitous translation and his gift for the ‘mot juste’ [right or exact word] was such that he belongs in the small pantheon of great 20th-century translators.”

Huynh was known for completing his Yale publication projects almost single-handedly. In an interview in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, he commented, “Since I was not used to giving out orders, I preferred to work alone, doing everything all by myself: soliciting and selecting articles, typing, setting up pages, and so on.”

In addition to the MacArthur Prize, Huynh’s honors include the Harry J. Benda Prize in Southeast Asia Studies, which he was awarded in 1981.

Huynh and his wife, Van-Yen Huynh, who retired from her Yale University Library position in March of this year, also assisted and supported many Southeast Asian students who came Yale. Commenting on how much Vietnamese students appreciated the occasional dinners and other events at the couple’s home, Yale alumnus Quyen Vuong ’89, a founder of the Vietnamese Students’ Association at Yale, wrote in 2005: “It was like coming home to our own family with loving parents and a rich cultural heritage. In retrospect, those were precious moments that helped us nurture the desire to learn more about Vietnamese cultural heritage and to shape us as Vietnamese Americans.”

After retiring from Yale in 1990, Huynh worked on developing another Vietnamese literature collection series and on an independent research project regarding the origins of language and culture. He expounded these theories in his self-published book “The Golden Serpent: How Humans Learned To Speak and Invent Culture.”

In 2005, Huynh had his first opportunity to meet “Flowers From Hell” poet Nguyen Chi Thien, whose work he had translated more than 20 years earlier. The meeting in Huynh’s home was a powerfully meaningful event for the translator, according to his family.

In addition to his wife, Huynh leaves two daughters, Van-Thi Huynh of Nashua, New Hampshire, and Thanh Huynh of Baltimore, Maryland; a son, Tùng Huynh of Oslo, Norway; four grandchildren; and two younger sisters and two younger brothers.