Translating Vietnamese Poetry

From Manoa 11:2. University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

John Balaban

Translating Asian Poetry: A Symposium

Tony Barnstone's phrase "the poem behind the poem" offers a useful way of looking at translation. In the translation of a poem--as opposed, say, to a technical document--we are always looking for more than mere denotative equivalencies. We want to feel how the poem felt in its original. We want to inhabit the condition of its first reader or listener. Traveling in English, we seek to cross cultural borders and encounter the poem on native ground. To do this, we must hear "the poem behind the poem."

What lies behind, or even prior, to the poem depends on several things at once. First is the poem's historical tradition, including that tradition's habits of prosody, its abiding themes, its range of language, and its notion of what a poem is (and is not). Second, to hear "the poem behind the poem," we must consider the poet's unique operations within his or her poetic tradition. We must be able to feel the dialectical commerce, as it were, between the poem and the tradition it plays against. And finally, for the above to be working in a translation--for our incognito travel to take place--the translator must possess true talent in English poetry so that all prosodic possibilities seem alive and attendant. As Stanley Kunitz writes in the introduction to his and Max Hayward's beautiful translations of Anna Akhmatova:

The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination. One voice enjoins him: "Respect the text!" The other simultaneously pleads with him: "Make it new!" He resembles the citizen in Kafka's aphorism who is fettered to two chains, one attached to earth, the other to heaven. If he heads for earth, his heavenly chain throttles him; if he heads for heaven, his earthly chain pulls him back. And yet, as Kafka says, "all the possibilities are his, and he feels it; more, he actually refuses to account for the deadlock by an error in the original fettering."

The discovery of "the poem behind the poem" for a translator of Vietnamese is a long prospect. The literary poetry of Viêt Nam began in the first century c.e. with poetry written in Chinese. From the tenth century and into the early twentieth, Vietnamese poets wrote in nôm, a calligraphic script devised by the literati for Vietnamese phonetics. This nôm literary tradition, with its characteristic forms, subjects, and allusions, was heavily influenced by the poetry of China (particularly the T'ang)--even more than the literary models of classical Greece and Rome influenced English poetry.

These literary poetries are only part of the Vietnamese landscape. Alongside and beneath the nôm and Chinese poetries, an even older poetry [End Page 76] known as ca dao runs like a vast river or aquifer. This oral poetry, still sung in the countryside, originated perhaps thousands of years ago in the prayers and songs of the Mon-Khmer wet-rice cultures to which the Vietnamese are tied. The word-stock of ca dao is native, bearing few loan words from Chinese. It is a lyric poetry--not narrative--and its power lies in its allusive imagery and brief music. Its references are to nature, not to books; to delta fish and fowl, to creatures of the field and forest, to wind and moon, to village life. It belongs to the farmers of Viêt Nam, which is to say that it belongs to most Vietnamese because eighty percent live, as ever, in the countryside.

This repository of images, melodic patterns, aspirations, and beliefs is the cultural center of all Vietnamese poetry. Even literary poets--whether they are working in lü-shih regulated verse (thoduòng luât in Vietnamese), modern free verse, or the metrics of the oral tradition, like the great classical poet Nguyên Du--seem always to be working in some relation to ca dao. Ca dao is the fixed foot of the literary culture's compass. Representing a folk culture resistant throughout the millennia to Chinese acculturation, it is an important aspect of "the poem behind the poem" in Vietnamese.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, which is to say that every syllable has a linguistic pitch that creates the semantic meaning. , with a falling tone, is the verb "to be." , with a high, rising tone, means "leaf." La, with a low, constricted tone, means "strange." There are six tones in the language, indicated in writing by diacritical marks. In prose, these tones fall at random. In poetry, these tones fall at certain places in the metrical line. In ca dao, as in the example below, the various arrangements of linguistic pitches give rise to patterns that easily become musical pitch patterns, that is, melodies or, more correctly, what the musicologist Trân Van Khê calls "singing without song" or cantillation. It is just this singing that is ca dao's chief delight to the Vietnamese listener.

How on earth does the translator convey this? One can approximate the rhyme scheme (da/ma, hàng/ngang/dàng in the rove rhyme of the luc-bát couplet) with "heart/dart," "streaks/leaving/creek," but "the poem behind the poem" is essentially lost. To paraphrase the late critic Nguyên Kháac Viên, this kind of translating "is like drawing a bucket from a moonlit well at night and losing the silvery shine of its light." For it is the lone voice of the singer that makes one sad for the woman left behind in the field.

Buóc xuông ruông sâu man sâu tâc da
Tay ôm bó ma nuóc mát hai hàng
Ai làm lõ chuyên dò ngang?
Cho sông can nu'óc dôi dàng biêt ly?
Stepping into the field, sadness fills my deep heart.
Bundling rice sheaves, tears dart in two streaks.
Who made me the ferry's leaving?
Who made this shallow creek that parts both sides? [End Page 77]

In the poetry of Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng, who wrote around 1800, near the end of the high tradition of nôm, we find poems behind poems behind poems. Almost all of her lü-shih or chüeh-chu poems, while apparently about natural landscapes or everyday activities, have hidden within them a complete, parallel second poem: a double entendre whose topic is sex. Sometimes, as in the poem below, the translator can succeed by finding words that are both true to the physical landscape she describes and suggestive of other things to the English ear: for example, "cleft," "bearded," "plunges," and "mount." Here, the translator's task is to also set up a double meaning with a single set of images.

Môt -dèo, môt dèo, lai môt dèo.
Khen ai khéo tac canh cheo leo.
Cua son do loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn dá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lát leo cành thông con gió thôc
Dâm dìa lá liêu giot suong gieo.
Hiên nhân, quân tu ai mà chang...
Moi gôi, chôn chân vân muôn trèo.
A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene

The cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
Showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

As scholars have noted, the title "Dèo Ba Dôi" (Three Mountain Pass) would probably suggest to a Vietnamese reader the range in central North Viêt Nam called Dèo Tam-Diêp. But the poem's peculiar grotto would invite suspicion, and of course a literate Vietnamese reader would recognize immediately the pine and willow as male and female symbols, respectively. "Gentlemen" and "lords" ("Hiên nhân, quân tu") are traditional terms for the elite, mandarin class. Yet Hô Xuân Huong is anything but traditional. A woman writing in a male, Confucian tradition at the end of the decadent Lê dynasty, she only makes honorific references to men when she is being derisive.

The main aspect of the poem behind the poem (behind the poem) for Hô Xuân Huong is that she is almost always working against tradition. [End Page 78] Behind her traditional landscapes lies sexual dalliance. Behind her pagoda walls, irreverent fools. In the widow's funeral lament, she hears infidelity. Yet all her poetic subversions are launched in exquisitely made, regulated lü-shih and chüeh-chu: verse with traditional requirements for line length, rhyme and tone placement, and syntactic parallelism. But here too she is unique and surprising, often using the word-stock of ca dao and the aphorisms of the common people where her male contemporaries are content with flowery rhetoric and stock ideas.

In "Three Mountain Pass," the double meaning is conveyed through the imagery; that is, the poetic manipulation of the landscape suggests the second meaning. For the translator--as Ezra Pound learned from his efforts with Chinese--this visual, or phanopoetic, aspect of poetry is a challenge, but an answerable challenge. More difficult to render are Hô Xuân Huong's poems in which the second meaning is suggested through verbal puns, tonal echoes, and contemporary cultural detail. In the poem below, she makes allusions to the decadent state of the Amida Buddhist clergy.

Cái kiêp tu hành nang -dá deo
Chi vì môt chút teo tèo teo
Thuyên tu cung muôn vê Tây-trúc
Trái gió cho nên phai lôn lèo.
A life in religion weighs heavier than stone.
Everything can rest on just one little thing.
My boat of compassion would have sailed to Paradise
If only bad winds hadn't turned me around.

The "little thing" that weighs down the monk and keeps him from entering the paradise of the Amitabha Buddha seems to be his penchant for sex. This is not said explicitly but rather with puns, some of them tonal: by changing the pitch of the words she's chosen, you get ones with obscene meanings. For example, in the last line of the original, lôn means "to confuse," "to turn about." Ldôn lèo, then, means something like "to turn over" or "to capsize." But lôn with a falling tone means "vagina." Leo with a low, constricted tone means "to copulate." Deo in the first line means "to bear" or "to carry." With a high, rising tone, it also means "to copulate," as does trái ("ill winds") if the pitch is shifted to the monotone, as in trai gái. It's not so much that this poem has a clear second line of argument or double entendre as that obscenities unexpectedly seem to be trying to invade the poem, as if it expresses the tormented mind of the monk himself. Finally, balanced against this set of suggestions is the Buddhist notion of perfecting oneself, which is centered around the "perfection"--paramita in Sanskrit [End Page 79] --of compassion. With the Buddhist symbol of the journeying boat of the spiritual self, we have a doctrinal echo from the very etymology of paramita: "to get to the other side," to the opposite shore.

This Vietnamese delight in covert verbal play reached its apogee in palindromes in nôm, with lü-shih that could be read forwards and backwards to yield a second poem with a different meaning. There is a poem in nôm that, read in reverse, becomes a poem in Chinese about the same landscape, but of course with a different point of view. Then there is the fabulous cyclical palindrome composed by Emperor Thiêu-Tri. in 1848 and set in jade inlay in the imperial city of Huê. In this one sun-shaped lü-shih, there are concealed twelve perfectly metrical lü-shih. Each can be found by starting at any one of the calligraphic rays and going clockwise or counterclockwise, from the inside out, or the outside in.

One of the last practitioners of poetry in the lü-shih style was Tan--Dà, the poet and patriot who ran a newspaper during French colonial rule in the 1930s. When informed that a more enlightened colonial administration had lifted censorship, Tan--Dà lamented that a direct telling of the news would be too easy.

Two great traditions lie behind any Vietnamese poem: the oral folk poetry of the common people; and the nôm poetry of the literary elite. These two great and ancient streams of poetic tradition feed nearly every literary endeavor in Viêt Nam, even today, and even in prose. Any effective translator of Vietnamese would have to have traveled some in these two realms of beauty and belief.

Di ra môt ngày, vê môt sàng khôn. "Go out one day," the proverb says, "and come back with a basket full of knowledge."