A Few Words About Louise Buhler, whose Friendship and Connections with Vietnam Span Decades
by Đoàn Đức Lưu,
Member of the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC),
Interpreter for MCC in the 1980s
I was so lucky to meet Louise Buhler in the early 1980s, when Việt Nam was a very different country than it is today. I don’t remember exactly how and when I met her for the first time, but I had a chance to be her interpreter when she represented Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), one of very few Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) working in Việt Nam in that era. The other NGOs from that time which I also interpreted for include Oxfam, CIDSE (Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité), and Terre des Hommes. At the time, I was working as one of the few Vietnamese interpreters working for AidRecep—the Committee for Aid Reception, an unit of the Ministry of Finance, the Government Agency dealing with foreign counterparts and aid to Việt Nam.
My strongest impression of Louise was that she connected so naturally to Vietnamese people, regardless of the vast cultural differences and language barriers. She was a simple and sincere person, very friendly, easy to talk to, and her English was clear and beautiful. When I was still learning English, I found that Canadian English was quite easy to understand, especially when compared to English from the U.K., the U.S., and Australia, which were more likely to have strong regional accents. That said, I’m lucky to have had the chance to work as an interpreter for delegations from all these countries during my career. Now, I continue to enjoy interpreting for English speakers of all accents, including speakers from Japan, India, and elsewhere.
Pinpointing exactly what set Louise apart from the other English-speaking foreigners who were in Việt Nam at the time is not difficult—she was strikingly humble and always open to learning from Việt Nam and lay people like me. I could easily have been dismissed as unimportant, especially since I was just a young man with little experience. Instead, she often came to ask for my advice about projects, when others would never have considered doing so. It also didn’t hurt that Louise was a lovely young woman who quickly and sincerely embraced the Vietnamese culture. This further sets her apart—her ability to balance the Western and Eastern mindset in many situations. Balancing the Vietnamese inclination for friendship and status with the North American inclination for efficiency is what made Louise such an effective friend of Việt Nam over so many years.
In the years I worked with Louise, I had a chance to travel with her to Quảng Trị, Huế, Ho Chi Minh City, and several other provinces in northern Việt Nam. We very quickly become close friends, though at that time it was not easy for a foreigner and Vietnamese to become friends—it could have raised suspicion if we talked frequently in public. Still, we had plenty of chances to talk, and I really enjoyed talking to Louise after work and on our travels together. Unlike nowadays, back in the 1980s very few people in Việt Nam could speak and understand English, so it seemed to me that Louise and I could communicate very well about everything, not only with me working as her interpreter but also as friends and trusted colleagues. We shared a lot of stories and time together, which is part of the reason we still maintain a close relationship today, even though we haven’t had a chance to meet often in the past twenty years.
When, after unification, Việt Nam faced great difficulties, MCC’s support to our country was flexible and responsive, including support projects for agriculture, irrigation, health, education, and more. My English vocabulary, especially of technical terms, improved a lot during my years of traveling to project sites with and working as an interpreter for Louise. I often checked my translation of technical terms with her and took notes, and she always took the time to explain very clearly. I really enjoyed working as an interpreter at that time, as we visited many projects and met many people at the grass roots level on our trips. Before leaving a province where MCC had a project, we would always have a farewell party with the People’s Committee. At the beginning of the party everything would be quite formal, but then the formality would give way to a very informal and cozy atmosphere since everyone considered Louise a close friend. We would talk about a lot of things and even sing or read poems together, which was quite challenging for an interpreter but also a very good chance for me to learn things.
Working as an interpreter for Louise also helped me a lot professionally; later I become a confident and competent professional interpreter. I am lucky to have been able to study English in Budapest, Hungary during the late 1970s, Canberra, Australia, at the University of Canberra in 1992, and Brussels, Belgium, where I attended the European Commission Interpreters training in 2004. I’ve had the honor to interpret for many high-profile guests to Việt Nam and important political figures in our nation, including General Võ Nguyên Giáp, Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, President Trương Tấn Sang, Prime Minister Pham Văn Khải, and many more. I’ve also interpreted for important events, such as the G-7, G-20, and other international conferences.
English also opened a lot of personal doors for me. Around the time I worked with Louise, I was lucky enough to travel with Madame Tai, AidRecep chairperson, as an interpreter on a rare trip to Europe, arranged by CIDSE, to visit Dublin, Ireland. London, UK and Brussels, Belgium. Though today Vietnamese people visit countries all around the world, in the 1980s visiting western Europe was a significant privilege. On that trip, I met Madame Mary Robinson, who would go on to become the President of Ireland and whom I later met again in Việt Nam and worked as interpreter for her when she attended a Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI) high-level meeting about children’s vaccination in Việt Nam. On the way back from that trip to Europe, we stopped in Bangkok, where we met Louise and her family. Louise graciously helped us tour some pagodas and see the sites before we returned to Việt Nam.
Louise also played an important part in my career. After working with her and seeing how many cultural and career doors English opened, I focused my career not only on interpretation but also on improving English education in Việt Nam. I’m very proud to have operated an English Club for children, called Awakening Potential, for many years now. I love helping children unlock their language studying capabilities, and it is such important work, since children are the future of Việt Nam. Dozens of my students have gone on to higher education in countries like the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the U.K. I’m also proud of both of my children, for whom English has become a natural second language. My daughter now works as a professional interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as I did when I was younger, and my son graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam and now works as an English teacher at the Canadian Maple Bear School. Both of them still help me with my English club, and I’m so happy that my enthusiasm has planted a passion for English in them.
Việt Nam still has a long way to go in terms of English education. Though I’m proud of the increasing pervasive presence of English language in certain circles in Vietnam, especially among young people in cities, I still dream of Việt Nam one day to become a place where the English education is as strong as it is in Singapore—a place where education and English learning connect Việt Nam as an equal partner with Western countries. As Louise’s work demonstrated, a successful melding of Vietnamese culture and Western culture can improve the lives of my countrymen very quickly, and it is this hope and growth that I wish for my people. In fact, it is important to remember that Vietnamese people and North Americans only fought for a short while; now, we are close friends and have complimentary skill sets. Still, English is a necessary bridge between our countries. In my role as an interpreter, I see myself as an ambassador for Việt Nam. Through my English Club and other efforts I hope to help other people become new ambassadors for my country.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu interprets for the former president of Việt Nam Trần Đức Lương and Unicef CEO Carol Bellamy. Mr. Lưu receives his Master’s degree in Population and Social Research from Thailand’s King Bhumibol at Mahidol University, 1995. Mr. Lưu with his colleagues and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Trần Thị Thanh Thanh at the UN Special Session on Children, 2001. Mr. Lưu interprets for General Võ Nguyên Giáp at an event celebrating Ho Chi Minh’s 100th birthday.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu interprets for former Australian Prime Minister Gaugh Whitlam. Mr. Lưu with Madame Nguyễn Thị Định, Commander in Chief of the Provisional Revolutionary Government and chairwoman of Việt Nam Women’s Union. Mr. Lưu interprets for Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng during a meeting with a visiting U.S. Senator. Mr. Lưu interprets for former Prime Minister Võ Văn Kiệt and Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the UN Fund for Population (UNFPA).
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu at home in an interpretation booth during a conference in Istanbul, Turkey. With Prime Minister Phan Văn Khải. Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, Vice President of Việt Nam, most famous for her role as the foreign minister for the PRG at the Paris Peace negotiations. Mr. Lưu with executives of Baker-Mackenzie celebrating the opening of their Việt Nam office at the Hà Nội Opera House.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu with his daughter, Đoàn Thị Thanh Mai, who has followed in her father’s footsteps and now works as a professional interpreter for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr. Lưu interprets for Trương Tấn Sang, President of Việt Nam, at the Asia-Pacific Poetry Festival. Mr. Lưu with the Vice President of Ford Automobile Company. Mr. Lưu with his son, Đoàn Đức Minh, who now works as an English teacher at the Canadian Maple Bear School in Hà Nội. Mr. Lưu with Queen Noor of Jordan and the Vietnamese Minister for the Committee for Protection and Care of Children.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu with the Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at a meeting in Oslo, Norway. Mr. Lưu interprets for the Ford Foundation and Professor Nguyễn Khánh Toàn, the first President of the Committee for Social Sciences, now the Việt Nam Academy for Social Sciences. Mr. Lưu interpreting in the 1980s, the same period when he collaborated with Louise Buhler and MCC. Mr. Lưu with friends while studying English in Australia at the University of Canberra.
Clockwise from top left: With professors and friends at Mahidol University in Bangkok, Thailand. Mr. Lưu celebrates his graduation from Mahidol University with his father; his mother passed away while he was studying in Thailand, 1995. Mr. Lưu and his family with the UNICEF Country Directors in Việt Nam. Mr. Lưu with Madame Tài in the United Kingdom, visiting the Oxfam headquarters. Mr. Lưu with Madame Tài in the United Kingdom.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu with his family, 1996. Mr. Lưu with Madame Mary Robinson, the head of the UN Human Rights Commision and later President of Ireland. Mr. Lưu and his English club, late 2000s. Mr. Lưu at Ho Chi Minh’s fish pond in Hà Nội in the 1980s.
Clockwise from top left: Mr. Lưu visiting the Colosseum in Rome. Mr. Lưu visiting the White House in 2001. Mr. Lưu with Madame Trương Mỹ Hoa, Vice President of Việt Nam. Mr. Lưu with his interpretation trainers at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, 2004.