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The scientist who‘s in love with literature


Pham Van Thieu loved writing and poetry from the moment he learnt to read. However, he wanted to be a mathematician. In the end he became a physicist. He has written 18 popular science books and is editor-in-chief of Physics and Youth Magazine.

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A man of many parts: Pham Van Thieu - award-winning translator, linguist, physicist, writer, and poetry lover - with his family and friends. — File Photos

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Just desserts: Thieu (red tie) attends the Phan Chau Trinh Cultural Foundation Awards Ceremony in March 2011.

The life of Pham Van Thieu reads just like a book, with a seemingly endless string of adventures for the hero. Born in 1946 and raised in a poor village in the northern province of Nam Dinh, he began to nurture a love for literature from his early years. Although he was infatuated with writing and poetry, Thieu wished to become a mathematician and decided to apply to the mathematics department of the Viet Nam National University. However it wasn‘t until moving to the physics department that his studies really began to take shape. He devoted all of his time to studying the difficult and varied subject. "After a while, I realised that physics is far more interesting than maths - physics is the door to the world," Thieu says.

After graduation, Thieu became a lecturer at a recently established university, and then entered the military service alongside his teaching. He spent 17 years living far away from Ha Noi and his family and enhanced his knowledge while learning new languages. In 1990, he became the vice director of the Science Magazine and Book Publishing Centre, which is part of the Viet Nam Science Institute.

Although Thieu was busy with publishing, he tried to maintain his physics knowledge as much as possible. After nine years working in the field, Thieu realised his destiny did not lie in the business world.

"Being a businessman was not for me at all - it was neither my passion nor my goal. So once again I returned to physics, but this time in a different aspect: writing a popular science book." He didn‘t expect to be so successful when he gave up a lucrative job to pursue his passion.

Thieu recalls learning Russian as a student, but only being able to read basic books. Driven by a love of Russian literature, he decided to spend an entire year focused on learning the language.

He began by reading novels with easy grammar, like First Love by Turgenev, a well-known Russian novelist and short story writer. After that, he switched to more difficult masterpieces, until he could comprehend Dostoyevsky‘s works. He then stopped to learn English and French. He recalls, "back then there weren‘t too many books around, so I had to learn both of them through Russian."

In 1982, during a refresher course in France, Thieu discovered a famous popular science library of books, none of which were available in Viet Nam. "I was 36 years old back then and I thought I couldn‘t continue doing science research anymore. The only thing that suited me was exploring popular science books, written by the world‘s greatest scientists and physicists, that somehow stimulated a passion for science in readers," he says.

In order to translate well, especially with foreign books, having only a foundation in the language is not enough, Thieu says, you need to have advanced knowledge of the Vietnamese language and a deep understanding of science.

Thieu began translating scientific briefs for other journals, short stories, detective fiction and eventually selected popular science books.

The first book which marked the translating career of Thieu was Luoc su thoi gian (A Brief History of Time), authored by Stephen Hawking. "Though it was one of the world‘s greatest books, the masterpiece was not available in Viet Nam. Fortunately, a friend of mine, Professor Cao Chi had translated a few chapters of this book into Vietnamese, so I borrowed him immediately. I was worried that the book would not be comprehensible among readers, but when a British physics professor of King‘s College told me his mother knew nothing about physics but the book was one of her favourites, I had more determination to work on it. The book was then translated by me and Prof Cao Chi and received publishing invitations from many domestic publishing houses. Until now, the book is in its 10th reprint, the same amount as foreign countries and it proved that Vietnamese readers love science books, especially physics ones," Thieu adds.

After the success of the first book, Thieu was confident to walk his own path. He had completed the translation of various books written by Vietnamese-American Trinh Xuan Thuan including Secret Melodies and Chaos and Harmony.

One of the books Thieu has worked on, Giai dieu day va ban giao huong vu tru (The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory) by Brian Greene, Professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University, has been his favourite. To the 65-year-old physicist, this has been the greatest book ever written about the world, and a real challenge to translators. He remembers, "I only had a few months to complete this book before travelling to France - the time pressure I was under was immense but there was some kind of magic in the book that pushed me to work day and night. My diabetes even returned and I lost 4kg, and when my brother picked me up from a railway station in Germany, he didn‘t recognise me.

Above all, Thieu sees his biggest reward as the deep affection which readers give him. "In 2003, I had an exchange with readers in the Youth Cultural House. It was beyond my imagination that the conference room would be crowded with young people and they told me that they loved my books."

Apart from translating, Thieu focuses on developing physics books for young people. He has revived the Physics and Youth Magazine from nearly shutting down, with aim of helping teachers and students expand their understanding of physics. "Having access to this material will enable younger generations to immerse themselves in the plentiful and colourful world of physics. That is the reason I maintain the magazine and I will keep working as long as my health allows it," he says.

Teaching, writing and translating have made Thieu become the man he is today. He knows how to nurture his dreams and inspire young generations through his actions. He has, through his passions, become a combination of scientist and poet.

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