Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2015

The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, translated by Phan Thanh Hao & Frank Palmos

Update 25/2/15 Re what follows below: As of today, I still haven’t had any response from Random House so I’m going to assume that the copy referred to is indeed a counterfeit and that they have nothing to do with it. (In fact they may be victims too, through lost sales).   I have had a response from Fishpond (who sold me the book through its Sell Yours system, i.e. they provide a space for people to sell second-hand copies) and they say I can return the book at the seller’s expense and get a refund, and they’re investigating.  I am leaving the rest of this post as is, to warn other readers to be careful.  (After all, I’ve never encountered a counterfeit book before, I bet most other people haven’t either).


Ok, before I start with my impressions of this novel, here’s a copy of some feedback I sent to Random House UK:

The book I received (The Sorrow of War)  is not the quality I have come to expect from Vintage (Random House).  This edition ISBN 9780749397111 is published under the Minerva imprint, but it looks more like a pirated copy.  It has the same cover as the original Vintage edition with the B&W photo of a soldier, except that there are typos in the back page blurbs (“untilnow”, “Pulitze”, “require reading”), and the Vintage logo has been replaced by Minerva.

The verso page looks a lot like a badly done scan of the Vintage verso page, and nowhere on the pages (as distinct from the cover) is Minerva Press mentioned at all.  The scanned pages are badly mis-aligned, and some words in the text have letters incompletely printed, making it hard to read.

If this edition has indeed been reprinted by Random House as Print On Demand under the Minerva imprint (See for the history of their acquisitions) then Random House should be ashamed of themselves.

Ok, got that?  Yes, I am very cross indeed that a fine book like this one, should be so shabbily published.  I have had Print-on-Demand books before, and while I don’t like the cheap print, they have been readable enough.  But this one is a disgrace.

What I didn’t know when I sent that feedback because I hadn’t read very far, was that there’s an even bigger problem: some of the pages are out of order and some of them are missing altogether.   I now think it’s possible that this copy is a counterfeit copy, possibly not published by Random House’s Minerva imprint at all…

Here’s what happened:

I wanted to know something about the translation process for this book.  What did it mean, I wondered, when it says that this English version by Frank Palmos is ‘from the original translation by Phan Thanh Hao’?  I had to go to Wikipedia to find out:

Bảo Ninh achieved prominence in Hanoi with the first version of the novel, Thân phận của tình yêu (literally, The Destiny of Love), which was published in roneo form (similar to photocopying) before 1990. Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation. Bao Ninh had read Phan Thanh Hao’s Vietnamese translation of Ridding the Devils and was willing to accept this arrangement. After several meetings with both the author and the translator, Hao, in Hanoi, and journeys throughout Vietnam to check details, Palmos wrote the English version over seven months . It was published in 1994 under the title The Sorrow of War.

The book went on to win the International Foreign Fiction Prize in 1994, and was included in the Best 50 Translations of the 20th Century by the Society of Authors in London, 2010.  So although it’s not clear to me whether the ‘English version’ is just a version edited to tidy up English idiom and so forth, or whether it’s a thorough rewrite resulting in a different version altogether, the judges for these prestigious awards must have been satisfied enough with this dual translation process to award the accolades as they did, and the author shared the prize money with the two translators.  Interesting, eh?

Alas, Wikipedia goes on to say that counterfeits of the English version became widely available in Vietnam, aimed at the tourist trade. Counterfeit sales have reportedly far exceeded sales of the original edition.  Is this what I have read, a counterfeit that means the author has received nothing in payment for my purchase?  I suspect this is the case.

But it’s not just that the author has been diddled out of his royalties…

I was becoming deeply absorbed in the book, a melancholy account of the way in which war dehumanises people and a meditation on the author’s writing process when I reached the part where the narrator Kien meets the girl Hanh. Hanh was almost immediately re-named Hanna, which threw me a bit, but that was nothing compared to my confusion when at the end of pages 58-59, she calls a halt to the digging of a air-raid shelter in her room so that she can try it for size.  She then says ‘We might need some…’ and I turned the page and was taken aback by …”We’ve each been ghosts in each other’s mind,’ he said, and lo! Kien is with a different girl called Phuong, and that’s because page 59 is followed by page 76-77 – and then reverts to page 62-3.  But page 60-61 is nowhere to be found – I looked through the entire book for it, only to find that there was more grief to come.  This is the page sequence:


and from there on it seems to be in the correct order, though I noticed that a fair few of the page numbers are actually written by hand -not typed – so I am not entirely confident about that.  But the book is unreadable anyway, I can’t make sense of it without the missing pages.

I have abandoned books before, but none with such regret as this one, because from what I have read of it, it is a beautiful war novel, nostalgic for lost youth and lost values, and deeply personal in tone.  Bao Ninh served in the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade and of 500 men who served with him, most of them teenagers, he was one of only ten to survive.  He begins the book by describing his work with the Missing In Action Body Collecting Team and although he is restrained in the telling, the Jungle of Screaming Souls is a terrible place to be.  The book is said by an impressive collection of blurbers to be another All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque, but until I can source a legitimate copy with its pages in order and intact, I am going to have to wait to see if this is true.

Author: Bao Ninh
Title: The Sorrows of War
From the original translation by Phan Thanh Hao, English version by Frank Palmos
Publisher: (allegedly) Minerva, an imprint of Vintage (Random House)
ISBN: 9780749397


  1. Hi Lisa – I was going to study this with my IB class a few years ago but they just didn’t like it so we studied Woman at Point Zero instead. If you email me your address, I’ll send you my copy. It’s the least I can do after the number of books you’ve reviewed that I have gone on to read.

    • Glenda, that is so very kind of you! I’ll email the address now:)

  2. I saw this very title in a second-hand bookshop, Lisa, and, lo and behold, it too was a dodgy-looking photocopy. I wouldn’t be surprised if pages were missing either.

    • I think it’s tragic. Vietnam is such a poor country, and it must be so hard for any author to make a living there, and yet people rip off the author & the legitimate publisher like this.

  3. Lisa: You are right. You got one of the several thousand counterfeits that came to life on Hanoi streets around 1997. Some even decided they would try writing the English themselves, pretending it to be a different book, and they are easily discovered after two or three paragraphs of mauled language.
    An English Version means that months of extra work checking was done translating the ideas rather than the word-for-word reproduction, much of which would not make sense because of the cultural differences. There were other attempts to translate directly from the Vietnamese, but they failed, so the 14 or 15 other translations are all from my work. Madame Hao is credited with bringing the original manuscript to light at a time when the Communist government had oppressive censorship, some of which remains today in the political arena. US publishers use the word “edited” which is incorrect. The book was not edited in the traditional sense, and this was done without my permission. But they were late on the scene, after all the awards had been won. Sorrow has changed the entire literary scene in modern Vietnam, so it will be used as a reference for decades to come. If you can get a good copy from England you will get one intact. Sorrow is not Bao Ninh’s only book, but it the only significant book with international appeal.
    – Frank Palmos

    (Dr Francis Palmos,
    Historian, UWA,
    Western Australia). .

    • Hello Frank, thank you so much for clarifying this.
      Congratulations on your work, even in the mangled version that I had I could see that it was an important book.
      I now have a good copy, thanks to a good-hearted reader of this blog *smile* but I haven’t read it yet. Other things have got in the way, but I shall certainly return to it.
      Best wishes, Lisa

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