The High Mountains

Mountains English coverThe High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Vietnamese title: Miền Non Cao Xứ Bồ Đào

 Translated 2017, printed 2018. Tre Publishing.

I love this book. I think it is enchanting, beautiful and incredibly moving. It is also the kind of book where every reading can reveal something new. Also, and quite importantly, it is short and highly readable (can be finished in one reading, maybe two if you have to do laundry and cook dinner).


High Mountains is one of my lighter projects. I also had a very generous deadline, so no time pressure whatsoever.

The main challenge in High Mountains, for me, is the rhythm. The sentences are short and well connected, one leading onto to the next in a seamless, almost legato fashion (especially the third part).  Martel’s first language is French, not English (he is trilingual) but apparently, English is the language he feels most comfortable writing in. He says he “can play it like an instrument” whereas French and Spanish make him self-conscious. In his own words, “once you’re self-conscious, you lack that linguistic forgetfulness that allows you to tell your story freely, as if existed purely, beyond language”[1]. High Mountains’ writing is measured, well thought out, and with superb clarity. I hope I have done some justice to his work.

Having said that, I can only do my best. Since this may well be my last project, please allow me to digress a little.

The fiction translation scene in Vietnam is a metaphorical minefield with devastating casualties in all factions. Well, you know what I meant.

But there are no two identical readers. Something can be wonderful to me and yet revolting to you and vice versa. As such, a translator can only translate in the way s/he reads the original and to the best of his/her ability. Getting outraged over the quality of someone’s translation, to me, is as ridiculous as asking them to be taller.

This also means two things: First, readers of the translated version can only access the original through the translator’s eyes. Second, there is no such thing as a definitive translation that would render everything else rubbish, “diseased”, toilet-paper etc.…

I think meaningful debates on fiction translation can only be had with these caveats in mind.

It is my greatest hope that in the future we will not have to wade through the mud of personal attacks, moralisation and intellectual-peacocking before getting to the real interesting bits in any translation debates.

Having said that, I LOVE feedback.

Feedback on accuracy (remember that awful seafood incident) and grammar points can be immediately helpful- I can tell the editor before the book goes for a reprint (if it does). I still find mistakes in things I did 4 years ago.

Feedback on stylistic interpretation will help me in the long term, if I return to translation.

Even the personal attack, moralisation and intellectual-peacocking varieties will help thicken my skin, which is always useful in life.


High Mountains also leaves me with a very interesting Internet browsing history, which includes among others:

  • Anything Martel related
  • Old cars and car parts both in Vietnamese and English. An awful lot of image searches (and I am still not sure)
  • Different Vietnamese versions of the Bible
  • Pathological terminology
  • Primates
  • Portugal and Portuguese (I learned a bit of Portuguese to appreciate the sound of the “slurred mournful whisper”. I can now order coffee with lots of milk).

I hope you enjoy this book. I did enjoy reading and translating it. I laughed and cried when doing both.

If this is to be my last book, I think I’d be quite happy.

Here are some extracts (order scrambled as usual).