THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 5 DOUBLE ISSUE WINTER 2003 SPRING 2004
The translator should be able to penetrate the language barrier, that he could render in translation what is in the original.
SPRING ESSENCE: The poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng
Translated by John Balaban
Copper Canyon Press, 2000
ISBN I-55659-I48-9 (pbk. :alk. Paper)
To bridge the gap between Western literature and Vietnamese literature, a number of translators and established writers has introduced to interested readers their works of translation. One of the most recent books in the field is John Balaban’s Spring Essence: The poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng, an English translation of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry, which introduces a Vietnamese poetess born at the end of the second Lê Dynasty (1592-1788) ¾‘The Queen of Nom Poetry’¾ and her poems into the Western literary community.
In his introduction, John Balaban, Professor at North Carolina State University, well-known author of many books of poetry, translation, fiction, and non-fiction, has shown his well knowledge of poetess HÒ Xuân HÜÖng, her poetry language, the Nôm script (as indicated in the Copyright page: “translated from the original Nôm script”), as well as his knowledge of the Vietnam’s culture and the Vietnamese language. This knowledge results from an acclaimed long-termed study of a scholarly professor; it assured the reader of a good translation of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry. Unfortunately, despite the panting of some Vietnamese educators and the support for a literary attempt from a few Vietnamese magazines abroad, the translation has failed. The translation version produces just a meagre 1/3 accuracy, while at least 3/4 of the version doesn’t show HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry at all, much less it shows ‘The Queen of Nôm Poetry’ at her best.
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng is one of the most distinguished poets of Viet-Nam, even not a great in Vietnamese literature, whose poems were originally written in Nôm Script in the end of 18th century, the then Vietnamese writing system which was against the dominance of Chinese’s, mandatory in schools and government. Despite the fact that HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry has been published, republished hundreds of time in a wide range of texts, collections, for education purpose and for the general reader during the last century, her history as well as her original poems are still involving scholars in the dark. In fact, never has there been a record that shows traces of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry committed to writing in her own time (except there’s a turn-up of late for a disputable LÜu HÜÖng Kš). Being written in the late eighteenth century her poems, living on in the memory of the people and being conveyed by oral recitation, were introduced to the literary community much later in the early 20th century. The earliest compilation of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry was compiled by Antony Landes in 1893. The typographically printed compilation in National script existed as late as 1913. (Following ñào Thái Tôn, ThÖ HÒ Xuân HÜÖng tØ c¶i nguÒn vào th‰ tøc ¾ Hà N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän Giáo Døc, 1996)
Through a hundred years being conveyed by word of mouth HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry, of course, is now slightly different from text to text; put aside many other authors’ poems are attributed to HÒ Xuân HÜÖng, which leads to scholarly arguments over the authenticity, resulting in the event that some poems are collected in one collection but omitted in the others. When the poetess’ biography is still open to dispute, the most agreeable facts among researchers are: HÒ Xuân HÜÖng is the daughter of HÒ Sï Danh (1706-1783) of Quÿnh ñôi village NghŒ An Province, her poems were written in Nôm Script during the period from the end of 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, she either married a Mr. Vïnh TÜ©ng or TrÀn Phúc Hi‹n. But in all cases, she was once a secondary wife. Old texts used the word “concubine” for “secondary wife”, but this synonym of “secondary wife”, inflecting complex meanings, has been marked obsolete in many dictionaries. Different meanings of “concubine” contradict each other, which leads to the unsteadiness of the word, even in its own time: concubine is a woman who cohabits with a man she is not married to, a kept mistress, and¾ concubine is a lawful wife. In the old custom, one Vietnamese man might be legally allowed to marry several wives, and the wives besides his first wife are called secondary wives. Using “concubine” for “secondary wife” is considered not correct for now-a-day common English usage.
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng was well educated, and had literary relationship with a number of well-known poets and writers in her time. Living in Confucian tradition and in a feudal system where teachings and laws were abused, where the poor as well as women were merely small parts of the social machine without social benefits, she was the only woman heroically marching through history with her witty poems. She knew Chinese characters, of course; but chose Nôm to write her “poems of realities” (opposite to dreams, fictions, theories etc…). She raised her voice for her own right¾ to live her life as a Man’s, unveiled the then frail, gullible society framed in vicious Confucian morality which fortified a few privileged, and attacked the hypocrisy, which many decades later Walt Whitman of America attempted in his Leaves of Grass. [Quote: “… but the New World needs poems of realities and science and of the democratic average and basic quality, which shall be greater. In the centre of all, and object of all, stands the Human Being, …” (David McKay 1900. Leaves of Grass with Autobiography Whitman. A backwards glance o’er travel’d roads, page 552)].
Most of her poems have two possible meanings, and most of her poems aim at “teaching a lesson” or mocking, through her art ‘nói lái’ (spoonerism) implying sex. Folk verse and folklore that deal in double meanings for “teaching a lesson” and amusing or mocking purpose appeared early in Vietnamese culture. Also it did in the Western fables; take Æsopic Fables, as example. [Quote: “In these allegorical tales, the form of the old animistic story is used without any belief in the identity of the personalities of men and animals, but with a conscious double meaning and for the purpose of teaching a lesson”. (The Harvard Classics, Folk-lore and Fable, Volume 17, page 2. New York: The Collier Press, 1909)]. In Vietnamese literature, ‘nói lái’ or ‘spoonerism’ implying sexual meaning for mocking purpose not only appeared in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry, but also in folk verse and in other authors’ poems. Take Thû Thiêm’s wedding congratulation ‘miêu bÃt t†a’, as example. (Following NguyÍn Væn B°n, 1983. Væn NghŒ Dân Gian; ViŒt Nam: Sª væn hóa thông tin Quäng Nam-ñà N£ng. Volume 1, page 468). Thus, it would be too far wide of the mark to consider her poetry, with “spoonerism” in it, to be merely a kind of poetry for lust, or strong sexual desires. Although some of her poems ably demonstrates her individual longings, her ranging thirst for love, it’s obvious that she need not use “spoonerism” or poems with double meaning for these purposes, when the common thirst for true love appears clearly in the poems ‘T¿ Tình’, ‘LÃy chÒng chung’, ‘Chi‰c bách’, ‘T¿ tình thÖ’, and many more. What fascinates the reader is that her “spoonerism” and her poems with a double meaning are used to attack¾ feudalism, inefficient male authority, ‘ignorant’ intellects, people of religious society: false monks or nuns, fool creatures, zany characters, the egocentric opposite sex struggling for mastery woman. For men she loves and distrusts or disgusts at the same time, the message of her ‘nói lái’ or her double meaning poems is: “I know you well. I know how “this” means to you”. (The scornful message of her time, which is two hundred years ago, turns out to be, alas, the complicity of the 21st century fashionable Western sexuality).
For falsehood, she is a destroyer. In short, for what causing life lifeless she is a mortician.
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng, ‘The Queen of Nom Poetry’, is now acclaimed as one of the most distinguished poets in Vietnamese literature. Her poems were translated into many foreign languages, including a collection translated into Russian by G. Iaroxlapxep, selected and introduced to Russian readers by N. I. Niculin, which was published in Russia in 1968 (following ñào Thái Tôn, thÖ HÒ Xuân HÜÖng tØ c¶i nguÒn vào th‰ tøc, Vietnam: Nhà xuÃt bän Giáo Døc, 1996, page 97). There is a fair amount of her poems translated into English in John Balaban’s “Sping Essence: The Poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng”, which was introduced to American readers.
“Spring Essence: The Poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng” gains a very warm welcome: more or less 20.000 copies have been sold since the first edition was published in 2000 by Copper Canyon Press, which showed that Professor John Balaban’s work has proved popular in US literary communities, and in some US universities as well. The literary community is privileged to have HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry translated into one of the most powerful international language, by a Western established and well-known poet, author, translator, and educator. There was a great expectation: with years of studying, researching, and seeking help from Vietnamese scholars inland and abroad, the translator had been preparing for a fine, accurate translation version of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry. The help, atlas, is counterproductive.
The danger for a translator is grappling with a foreign language he doesn’t master, when the meaning of words, or the meaning of those words in different sentence structures has a tendency to lead him to an unpredictable delirium battle, in which he may get lost. The playfulness of words in any language always, of course, challenges a translator.
John Balaban’s disadvantage of using Vietnamese shows in his trying to assure the reader of his acquaintance with the language, in the introduction, by literally translating the poem Spring-Watching Pavilion as did NguyÍn-Væn-Vïnh (1882-1936) when this writer translated Kim-Vân-KiŠu by NguyÍn-Du (1765-1820) into French. Following are four lines from NguyÍn-Væn-Vïnh’s literal translation given along the translation version of Kim Vân KiŠu, taken as an example:
‘Træm næm trong cõi ngÜ©i ta
‘Ch» tài ch» mŒnh khéo là ghét nhau
‘Träi qua m¶t cu¶c b‹ dâu
‘Nh»ng ÇiŠu trông thÃy mà Çau Ç§n lòng’
Træm (cent) næm (annés) trong (dans) cõi (limite) ngÜ©i (humanité) ta (nôtre)
Ch» (caractère) tài (talent) ch» (caractère) mŒnh (sort, destinée) khéo (habile) là (être) ghét (haïr) nhau (ensemble, réciproquement).
Träi (traverser) qua (à travers) m¶t (un) cu¶c (spectacle, ensemble de faits qui s’enchainent) b‹ (mers) dâu (mûriers)
Nh»ng (les) ÇiŠu (choses) trông (regarder) thÃy (voir) mà (produire effet) Çau Ç§n (douleurs) lòng (cœur).
Cent annés, dans cette limite de notre vie humaine,
Ce qu’on désigne par le mot talent et ce qu’on désigne par le mot destinée, combien ces deux choses se montrent habiles à se haïr, à s’exclure;
Ayant traversé une période que les poètes appellent le temps mis par les mers à se transformer en champs de mûriers et, réciproquement, les champs de mûriers en mers.
Les choses que j’ai vues m’on fait souffrir (ont endolori mon cœur).
(NguyÍn Væn Vïnh, [No date given]. Kim Vân KiŠu, traduction en français. Republished by Khai Trí, Saigon 1970)
Literal translation means to give exactly the same meaning as the original meaning of a word. Yet while using literal translation to give readers the sureness, John Balaban still mistakes the meaning of many words when he understands ‘êm ái’ as “peaceful”, ‘t§i’= “go”, ‘chiêu m¶’= “watch”, ‘gÀm’= “toll”, ‘dÍ’= “easy”, ‘ân’= “love”, ‘khÖi vÖi’= “all over”, ‘nào’= “where”. (see John Balaban’s literal translation of ñài khán xuân, “Spring-Watching Pavilion”, Spring Essence, page 10). [Note: A literal translation of ‘êm ái’ would be “gentle”, ‘t§i’=arrive, ‘chiêu m¶’= early morning and late evening, ‘gÀm’= to roar, ‘dÍ’= easy, not ‘easy’ (in this poem ‘not easy’), ‘ân’= ‘grace’, ‘khÖi vÖi’= ‘hollow out’, ‘nào’= ‘well’ (exclamation, used to introduce following saying)]. Not understanding the meaning of words leads to “not understanding the original” and, of course, to unfair translation, lest to say bad translation, which makes it impossible for the original to be introduced to the audience.
Together with “not understanding the original” (1), the following causes fail at least 2/3 of the translation version Spring Essence:
(2) not showing HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s maliciousness
(3) not showing HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s superiority in her commentary and her sharp tone of voice
(4) losing the double meaning unnecessarily.
What is more, when mistakes make the reader unable to access the original, the translator also misguides them by:
(5) overplaying the sexual meaning of word
(6) perceiving something to be true when it is not..
This writing is not an unfavorable criticism on “Spring Essence: The Poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng”¾ unfavorable criticism is easy to be written, when the art of translation is a great challenge to a translator, and when every literary attempt has a reputation of quality of its own. I only wish to point out mistakes that cause the translation to fail, and to point out the lack of particularity in the judgment the translator passes on the author which gives cause for concern. I will go through six points given above, and give the real meaning of the original lines¾ not by any means it’s the translation of the lines ¾ in square brackets [..].
Besides, I will quote HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poems either from Vietnamese textbooks or collections. Whenever there is a significant difference between the poems published in Vietnamese textbooks or collections and the poems published in Spring Essence it will be noted.
1) NOT UNDERSTANDING THE ORIGINAL
Suffice it to say, John Balaban isn’t able to read understandingly the original, which results in the impossibility of a successful translation, and the impossibility of a faithful rendering of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry into English as well, when in a short literal translation he demonstrates numerous errors. These demonstrable errors suggest more errors in the following pages of the book, and I’m not surprised to read a number of lines in the English version that did not translate well to the art of translation. I will not, however, collect every error contained in Spring Essence, though I’m thorough to observe, and will put aside small features of things. Take, as examples, ‘say låi tÌnh’(now drunk now awake) is translated as “addled but alert” (Spring Essence, page 25), ‘khe’(brook) translated as “pond” (Spring, Essence, page 86), ‘túi càn khôn’(the bag contains Heaven and Earth) translated as “earth’s bag” (Spring Essence, page27), ‘chày kình’(a heavy stick made of wood and shaped into a whale, used for hitting the bell in Buddhist temples) translated as “the temple drum” (Spring Essence, page 81), ‘tang mít’(the temple drum) translated as “the gong” (Spring Essence, page 81), and many more. These errors, and the likes, though betray an unfaithful rendition, hurt not much the original. Also, I will not, as the length of this writing will not allow, go through every translation line in which there is ‘cut’ or ‘change’, i.e. omitting word(s) from the original text or adding new word(s) to it as the translator obviously wants to avoid the language barrier he cannot go through, or wishes to meddle with the meaning of the original he cannot render in his translation. Take, line 1 and line 8 in “Confession (I)” page 21, line 7 and 8 in Confession (III) page 31, lines 4, 6, 7 in “Quán sÙ Pagoda” page 81, and many of the like in another poems.
Following are just few examples:
Autumn Landscape (Spring Essence, page 19)
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Cänh thu:
“Thánh thót tàu tiêu mÃy gi†t mÜa
“Khen ai khéo vÈ cänh tiêu sÖ
“Xanh om c° thø tròn xoe tán
“Tr¡ng xóa tràng giang ph£ng l¥ng t©
“BÀu dÓc giang sÖn say chÃp rÜ®u
‘Túi lÜng phong nguyŒt n¥ng vì thÖ
“÷ hay, cänh cÛng Üa ngÜ©i nhÌ,
“Ai thÃy, ai mà ch£ng ngÄn ngÖ.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 93)
We see here¾ in this poem, the landscape. It’s not only a desolate landscape, but also the real Self of Nature, in the absence of any kind of dream or fiction. A revived brand new landscape, after rain¾ it seems. Few last drips of rain tapping against the banana leaves, the old trees, the long river. And it’s life. It suggests the landscape’s sensibilities, and in the sensibilities of the landscape it’s enchanting to see how Nature is sensitive to Man. The enchantment of Nature turns up, not because of the poet’s muse but life, real and whole. And that life the poet is possessed of¾ the wind and the moon in her bag, rivers and mountains in her gourd. She is actually living, enjoying the joy and the freedom of a living creature in a living Nature. Feeling this sense of freedom, freedom to live, freedom to love, which is the main theme of the poem, is really seeing the author as she works out the central concept through her attack against society afterwards. For HÒ Xuân HÜÖng freedom is Life. There is no Life if there is no freedom. This freedom Man possesses; but, at the same time, it has been taken away by Man.
Like the poet’s gourd (dry shell of the gourd, bottle-shaped, used for holding wine) containing rivers and mountains, her bag contains no impedimenta, but some books, pens, and the likes¾ her leisured life-style, more moon and wind than anything else (fig.). ‘Túi lÜng phong nguyŒt’ means she carries the bag almost full (‘lÜng’) of moon and wind. ‘Túi lÜng’ is “the bag’s almost full (of somthing)”, not the “backpack” (a pack carried on one’s back). John Balaban’s “My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems” (Spring Essence, page 19), is not the translation of ‘túi lÜng phong nguyŒt n¥ng vì thÖ’. In Spring Essence we can see many translation lines of this sort, with “cut” and “change”, and “meddling”. Line 7 and line 8 in the original imply the communication between Man and Nature. The translation of line 7 is hopelessly inefficient at conveying the right meaning. What is more, the key word of the poem ‘ngÄn ngÖ’ at the end of the last line, an immutable word, which evokes and prolongs the soul of the poem, is imperfectly translated. “Stunned”, if not a wrongly selected adjective for ‘ngÄn ngÖ’ in line 7, it’s only aptly for the translator’s imagination as the above actual landscape suggests a sexual landscape. Somewhere, he says: “her landscapes are seldom innocent” (Spring Essence, pages 11-12). With his imagination of a sexual landscape, and with “stunned” and its sound, the translator puts a full stop at the end of the poem. There is no more echo. The communication is dead.
“Look, and love everyone.
“Whoever sees this landscape is stunned.”
(Spring Essence, Autumn landscape, page 19)
Line 7 in literal translation: ‘Ô hay’(exclamation used to express surprise)= ‘Oh’; ‘cänh’= ‘landscape’; ‘cÛng’= ‘also’; ‘Üa’= ‘to love, to be fond of’; ‘ngÜ©i’=‘Man’. In line 8: ‘ngÄn ngÖ’=perplex, indecisive, dreamy.
Line 7 means the landscape is sensitive to Man.
“Confession (III)” (Spring Essence, page 31)
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Chi‰c bách:
“Chi‰c bách buÒn vŠ phÆn n°i nênh
“Gi»a giòng ngao ngán n‡i lênh Çênh.
“LÜng khoan tình nghïa dÜ©ng lai láng,
“Nºa mån phong ba luÓng bÆp bŠnh.
“Chèo lái m¥c ai læm Ç° b‰n,
“Giong lèo thây kÈ r¡p xuôi ghŠnh.
“ƒy ai thæm ván cam lòng vÆy,
“Ngán n‡i ôm Çàn nh»ng tÃp tênh.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 126)
The poem is about a widow who wants to imitate Princess Cung-Khuong refusing to remarry. But fate may not let her doing so. Line 3 implies her love still remains with her late husband, but (line 4) life storms (fig.) keeps pushing her (the boat) drifting and unsafe (line 7, and 8). ‘Thæm ván’ in line 7 is a metaphor for ‘to take a new wife’; ‘ôm Çàn’ in line 8 is a metaphor for ‘to take a husband’.
‘Ai’ in line 7 is not ‘who’, or ‘whoever’. It is a pronoun used in an expression in which the subject is left to be understood, referring to a person the speaker wants to mention, it may be ‘you’, or ‘he’, or even the speaker himself. The common phrase ‘ai bi‰t Çâu ÇÃy’ doesn’t mean ‘who knows’ or ‘whoever knows’; it means ‘I don’t know’. Thus, ‘ai’ in line 7 implies ‘the man who wants to marry her’ (who should ‘cam lòng’ / content himself with her decision not to remarry ‘vÆy’/ instead). ‘VÆy’ in this line by no means echoes ‘ª vÆy’ or ‘never to remarry’ as the translator remarks in the endnote to the poem (page 119).
Not understanding ‘Thæm ván’ and ‘ôm Çàn’ in lines 7 and 8, John Balaban confuses the reader by conveying a meaning that contradicts the meaning of the whole poem:
“Whoever comes on board is pleased
“as she plucks her guitar, sad and drifting.”
(Spring Essence, Confession (III), page 31)
The Floating cake (Spring Essence, page 33)
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Bánh trôi nÜ§c:
“Thân em vØa tr¡ng låi vØa tròn
“Bäy n°i ba chìm v§i nÜ§c non
“To nhÕ m¥c dù tay kÈ n¥n
“Mà em vÅn gi» tÃm lòng son.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 84)
Note: Line 1 and 2 in Spring Essence:
“Thân em thì tr¡ng, phÆn em tròn
“Bäy n°i ba chìm mÃy nÜ§c non.” (page 32).
This poem is about the “floating cake”. But it also implies the woman’s fate. In the line 2, ‘mÃy’ is ‘with’, ‘nÜ§c non’ is ‘rivers and mountains’, means ‘nation’. ‘NÜ§c non’ has a double meaning: ‘nÜ§c non’=‘nation’, and ‘nÜ§c non’=‘water’ (‘non’ in the latter is only a parenthetic word which is added to ‘nÜ§c’ and is assigned no meaning). The first meaning of ‘bäy n°i ba chìm v§i nÜ§c non’ is that the cake is rising and sinking in the water. The second meaning implies the woman’s fate being shaped, controlled by her society, or implies a person’s fate, which depends completely on his nation, is ill fated like his nation’s. Without understanding the line, especially the word ‘mÃy’= with (‘v§i’), the translator suggests a translation unexpectedly incorrect for line 2:
“rising and sinking like mountains in streams.”
(Spring Essence, page 33, line 2).
“Tavern by a Mountain Stream” (Spring Essence, page 41)
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Quán nÜ§c bên ÇÜ©ng:
“ñÙng tréo trông theo cänh h¡t heo
“ñÜ©ng Çi thiên thËo, quán cheo leo.
“L®p lŠu, mái cÕ tranh xÖ xác,
“XÕ kë, kèo tre ÇÓt kh£ng kheo
“Ba tråc cây xanh hình uÓn éo
“M¶t giòng nÜ§c bi‰c cÕ leo teo
“Thú vui quên cä niŠm lo cÛ
“Kìa cái diŠu ai thä l¶n lèo.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 108)
The poem is titled ‘Quán nÜ§c bên ÇÜ©ng’, ‘Quán khách’, or ‘Quán khánh’ in different collections. In Spring Essence, ‘VÎnh hàng ª Thanh’ (page 40). Whichever title is selected, the poem is about a small, simple hut which serves as a tea shop by the roadside.
Line 3 and line 4 describe the small hut: covering the hut is the tattered grass roof; its short drafters are pieces of skeletal bamboo with one end inserted into a gap. Line 5 and line 6 describe the landscape about the hut: green trees with its wriggling branches, the stream of blue water with sparse grass in it.
(Literal translation of words in line 4: ‘xÕ’ = insert, ‘kë’= ‘gap’, ‘xÕ kë’= to insert (something) into a gap, ‘kèo tre=‘short bamboo drafter’, ‘ÇÓt kh£ng khiu’= skeletal section).
Put aside cut and change in line 1¾ ‘ÇÙng chéo’ turns into another word in the translation: ‘leaning out, and ‘cänh h¡t hiu’ into ‘the valley’, the lines 3, 4, 5, and 6 above-mentioned are not correctly translated. In fact, the translator meddles with these original lines, depicting a quite different picture:
“thatch roof tattered and decayed.
“Bamboo poles on gnarled pilings
“bridge the green stream uncurling
“little tufts in the wavering current.”
(Spring Essence, Tavern by a Mountain Stream, page 41)
“On a Portrait of Two Beauties” (Spring Essence, page 51)
Line 3, 4 in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Tranh hai tÓ n»:
“ñôi lÙa nhÜ in t© giÃy tr¡ng
“Nghìn næm còn mãi cái xuân xanh.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 121)
Line 3 in Spring Essence:
“Træm vÈ nhÜ in t© giÃy tr¡ng.” (Spring Essence, page 50).
[Hundred looks of beauty seems to be printed on the white paper. Their spring youth will stay for thousands of year.]
‘Træm vÈ’ = “Hundred looks (of beauty)”
Mistake is made in line 3. The translator fails to understand the meaning of ‘træm vÈ’, and suggests a reading for line 3 and line 4 which exhibits both the obscurity and the weakness of the translation:
“In 100 years, smooth as two sheets of paper.
“In 1,000, they still will glow like springtime.”
(Spring Essence, page 51, lines 3 and 4)
“The Unwed Mother” (Spring Essence, page 53)
Line 3, 4, 5, and 6 in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Chºa Hoang:
“Duyên thiên chÜa thÃy nhô ÇÀu d†c
“PhÆn liÍu sao Çà nÄy nét ngang
“Cái t¶i træm næm chàng chÎu gánh
“Ch» tình m¶t khÓi thi‰p xin mang.”
(Quÿnh CÜ Væn Lang NguyÍn Anh, 1998. Danh Nhân ñÃt ViŒt, Volume 3, pages 337,338).
Line 5 in Spring Essence:
“Cái t¶i træm næm chàng chÎu cä.” (Spring Essence, page 52)
The meaning of lines 3, 4, 5, and 6: [Having no husband, yet I’m pregnant. You are guilty of the sin of what you had done (the sin against conjugality), but I’m to bear our love burden.]
Line 5 and line 6 are translated as:
“He will carry it a hundred years
“but I must bear the burden now.”
(Spring Essence, page 53, line 5-6)
The translation of line 5 fails to convey the meaning from the original. ‘Træm næm’ in ‘cái t¶i træm næm chàng chÎu cä’, standing after the noun ‘cái t¶i’, is used as a metaphor to mean ‘suÓt cä Ç©i ngÜ©i (nói vŠ tình nghïa v® chÒng)’--‘the whole of a lifetime (of relationship between husband and wife). [T¿ Çi‹n ti‰ng ViŒt/ Vietnamese dictionary by Hoàng Phê, 8th edition, VN: ñà N¤ng Publisher 2000, page 1026]. Besides, the meaninglessness of the translation of line 5 obstructs the reader, and ‘ch» tình’ not translated causes the translation of line 6 to be flat and simple.
“Girl without a Sex” (Spring Essence, page 59)
Line 1, 2, 3, and 4 in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s VÎnh n» vô âm:
“MÜ©i hai bà mø ghét chi nhau
“ñem cái xuân tình vÙt bÕ Çâu
“Rúc rích thây cha con chu¶t nh¡t
“Vo ve m¥c mË cái ong bÀu.”
(ñào Thái Tôn 1996, 209. ThÖ HÒ Xuân hÜÖng tØ c¶I nguÒn vào th‰ tøc. Hà N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän Giáo Døc,)
‘Thây cha’ or ‘m¥c mË’ means ‘not caring about / who care/ doesn’t care’. Thus, ‘rúc rích thây cha con chu¶t nh¡c’ and ‘vo ve m¥c mË cái ong bÀu’ means ‘doesn’t care about the mouse squeaking’ and ‘doesn’t care about the bumblebee buzzing’. John Balaban mangles the original when he understands ‘thây cha con chu¶t nh¡c’ and ‘m¥c mË cái ong bÀu’ as “the little father mouse”, and “the mother honeybee”, and lines 3 and 4 are translated as:
“The little father mouse squeaking about, doesn’t care,
“nor the mother honeybee buzzing along, fat with pollen.”
(Spring Essence. Page 59, lines 3,4)
“Buddhist Nun” (Spring Essence page 83)
Line 1 and 2 in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s VÎnh ni sÜ:
“XuÃt th‰ hÒng nhan k‹ cÛng nhiŠu
“L¶n vòng phu phø mÃy là kiêu.”
(Spring Essence, page 82)
are translated as:
“Many pink-cheeked girls abandon the world.
“Many vain spouses break their marriage vows.”
(Spring Essence. Page 83, lines 1 and 2)
‘L¶n vòng phu phø’ doesn’t in any sense mean “break their marriage vows”. It means to try living without relationship between a woman and a man as husband and wife. But, this definition may lead to opposite meaning in now-a-day mass culture where a man and a woman can still have sex without marriage relationship. In the old times, when sex outside marriage was strongly considered a sin in Vietnamese culture, living without relationship between a man and a woman as husband and wife meant trying to break way from the way of life¾ refusing to marry and have sex. Thus, ‘l¶n vòng phu phø mÃy là kiêu’ means ‘But living without conjugal relationship they are unusually able women’. ‘L¶n vòng phu phø’ once appeared in CUNG OÁN NGâM KHÚC by Ôn-NhÜ HÀu NguyÍn Gia ThiŠu (1741-1798).
“Ý cÛng r¡p ra ngoài Çào chú
“Quy‰t l¶n vòng phu phø cho cam
“Ai ng© tr©i ch£ng cho làm
“Quy‰t Çem giây th¡m mà giam bông Çào.”
(Vân Bình Tôn ThÃt LÜÖng [No date given]. Ôn NhÜ Hàu Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc. US: republished by Zieleks Co.)
[I just want to get free from the Heaven’s proposal, to break away from the relationship between a man and a woman as husband and wife. But, unexpectedly, Heaven let not me do it, using the pink thread (chÌ th¡m or chÌ hÒng, a metaphor for marriage) to lock me (bông Çào, a metaphor for woman) in marriage.]
Mistake in line 2 also throws line 3 into ruin.
(Read Buddhist Nun, Spring Essence, page 83.)
“Old Pagoda” (Spring Essence, page 87)
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s Chùa xÜa:
“Thày t§ thung dung dåo cänh chùa
“ThÖ thì lÜng túi, rÜ®u lÜng hÒ.
“Cá khe l¡ng kŒ, mang nghi ngóp;
“Chim núi nghe kinh, c° gÆt gù.
“Then cºa tØ bi chen chÆt cánh,
“Nén hÜÖng t‰ Ç¶ c¡m ÇÀy lô.
“Nam mô khÈ hÕi nhà sÜ tí
“Phúc ÇÙc nhÜ ông ÇÜ®c mÃy bÒ.”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 107)
At the pagoda, the poet feels nothing but the scorn for the monk who feels virtuous but is of no virtue. The meaning of line 7, and line 8 is: [Respectful monk, may I ask you a little: “Of your virtue, how many bamboo baskets do you have?”]
Mistaking the meaning of the words ‘Nam mô’, ‘bÒ’, John Balaban wrongly translates line 7, and 8:
“Buddha asks so little of his monks.
“Blessed, they gather many friends.”
(Spring Essence, page 87, lines 7 & 8)
‘Nam mô’ is a Buddihsm’s term, meaning ‘Homage to’. It comes from ‘Nam mô PhÆt’ = ‘Homage to Buddha’, or ‘Nam mô A Di ñà PhÆt’ = ‘Homage to Amida Buddha’. ‘Nam mô PhÆt’ or ‘Nam mô A Di ñà PhÆt’ is often practiced in the Buddhists circle as greetings with deep respect shown for a master, a monk, or a co-religionist. ‘Phúc ÇÙc’ is ‘virtue’. ‘BÒ’ is “bamboo basket”. ‘BÒ’ also means “friend, boy friend, or girl friend”, but only a South Vietnam dialect which doesn’t exit in the North and Central Viet-Nam. ‘BÒ’ with double meaning is obviously not for this poem, as HÒ Xuân HÜÖng was born in NghŒ An, living in the North.
In the endnotes to Old Pagoda, the translator says: [Quote: “Many friends” in the last line has a hint of licentious sarcasm” (Spring Essence, page 126)]. This kind of posturing also appears in page 122 as he follows Ngô Thanh Nhàn: [(Quote: “Enjoying Spring (Xuân), do you really know Spring (Xuân), or is it a matter of swingposts removed, leaving the hole bare?” (Spring Essence, page 122)].
“TrÃn QuÓc Temple” (Spring Essence, page 93)
Line 3,4, 5, and 6 in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s ñŠn TrÃn QuÓc:
“M¶t tòa sen låt hÖi hÜÖng ng¿
“Næm thÙc mây phong Çi‹m áo chÀu
“L§p sóng ph‰ hÜng coi vÅn r¶n
“Chuông hÒi kim c° l¡ng càng mau”
(NguyÍn Væn Hanh [No date given]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng - tác phÄm, thân th‰ và væn tài, page 99, lines: 3, 4, 5, 6)
Line 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Spring Essence:
“M¶t tòa sen tÕa hÖi hÜÖng ng¿
“Næm thÙc mây phong n‰p áo chÀu
“L§p sóng ph‰ hÜng coi vÅn r¶n
“Chuông hÒi kim c° l¡ng càng mau”
(Spring Essence, page 92)
[Round the Lotus Seat seems still lingering the incense the King had burned. A five-coloured cloud evokes memories of the mandarins’ robes. The falling and rising waves of decadence and prosperity have never ceased. The bell (of the present, which echoes that of the past) is hurriedly fading away.]
‘Áo chÀu’= mandarins’ robe, not the king’s robe as the translator understands, ‘Ph‰ hÜng’= decadence and prosperity, ‘L§p sóng ph‰ hÜng’= waves of decadence and prosperity, ‘HÒi chuông kim c°’= the bell (of the present and the past).
John Balaban translates incorrectly four lines above-mentioned:
“No incense swirls the Lotus Seat
“curling across the king’s robes
“rising and falling wave upon wave.
“A bell tolls. The past fades further.”
(Spring Essence, page 93. TrÃn QuÓc Temple).
2) NOT SHOWING
hÒ xuân hÜÖng’S MALICIOUSNESS
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s maliciousness, witticism, her technical skill of language, besides her literary talent, are contributing factors which make her ‘The Queen of Nôm Poetry’. Failing to convey these factors to the translation, even when translation bearing no error, the translator can hardly introduce HÒ Xuân HÜÖng to his audience. Yet while John Balaban is well aware of that, HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s style seems only appeared in few lines through out his whole book of translation. Without HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s maliciousness and witticism, the translation version will turn out to be shallow a kind of poetry. Take the following poem as example. ‘M©i trÀu’ has only four lines. But there is a clever game being played here, in the second line.
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s M©i trÀu: (lines 1,2)
“Quä cau nho nhÕ mi‰ng trÀu ôi
“Này cûa Xuân HÜÖng m§i quyŒt rÒi.”
(ñào Thái Tôn 1996, 168. ThÖ HÒ Xuân HÜÖng tØ c¶I nguÒn vào th‰ tøc. Hà N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän Giáo Døc).
The cunning ‘Này cûa Xuân HÜÖng’ in line 2 ‘Này cûa Xuân HÜÖng m§i quyŒt rÒi’ is lost in the translation:
“Here, Xuân HÜÖng has smeared it.”
(Spring Essence, page 23, line 2.)
‘Này cûa Xuân HÜÖng m§i quyŒt rÒi’ has a double meaning: Here, the betel leaf Xuân HÜÖng has just smeared (with lime paste), and¾ words are here playing game. English, of course, is able to cope with it: [This here Xuân HÜÖng’s smeared].
In the above-instanced line, words are playing game in three different ways, and one or two may convey a sense of Xuân HÜÖng’s cleverness:
This here Xuân HÜÖng has smeared. (the betel leaf here)
This here¾ Xuân HÜÖng has smeared. (‘here’ understood vulgarly).
This here Xuân HÜÖng’s¾ smeared. (‘here’ used adjectively, and (’s) could be understood as ‘thing’ belongs to (the stated person), although it’s formally used to mean ‘house’ or ‘shop’ belonging to).
This here Xuân HÜÖng¾ is smeared. (not applied to the original, this is only showing how the words in the line are playing.)
3) NOT SHOWING hÒ xuân hÜÖng’S SHARP TONGUE
HÒ Xuân HÜÖng possesses a disdain for male authority. The words “gentlemen”, “learned men” in her poems she uses with a scornful tone. Her attitude is shown in the poems C®t ông Chiêu H°, VÎnh Óc nhÒi, Quä mít, VÎnh dÜÖng vÆt, VÎnh ÇŠn SÀm Nghi ñÓng. In ‘VÎnh dÜÖng vÆt’ HÒ Xuân HÜÖng compares the male member with a French gendarme. In ‘C®t ông Chiêu H°’, she attacks man with her sharp tongue:
“Này này chÎ bäo cho mà bi‰t
“ChÓn Ãy hang hùm ch§ mó tay .”
(ñào Thái Tôn 1996, 168. ThÖ HÒ Xuân HÜÖng tØ c¶I nguÒn vào th‰ tøc. Hà N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän Giáo Døc).
[Say, let me tell you something:
It’s the tiger’s cave; don’t stick your hand in!]
Her sharp tongue and her sense of superiority seem not to reflect in John Balaban’s translation:
“Perhaps there’s something I ought to say:
“Don’t stick your hand in the tiger’s cave.”
(Spring Essence, page 43, lines 3,4)
There are cut and change. “Perhaps” is a change; ‘này này’ a cut. Change and cut weaken the author’s sense of superiority.
4) LOSING THE DOUBLE MEANING OF WORD
Somewhere, John Balaban shows his skill when he adds words to where needs be, without cut or change, like in the poem Quä mít/ “Jackfruit” (Spring Essence, page 37). In line 3, with “your” he adds the word “stick” is made to have a double meaning:
“Kind sir, if you love me, pierce me with your stick.”
(Spring Essence, page 37, line 3)
But when he adds a word the author intends to leave out, in other poem, he loses the double meaning unnecessarily. In the original ‘VÎnh quåt giÃy’, the word ‘nan’= “rib” which is intentionally left out to personify the fan, is used again in the translation as seen in line 2. (Spring Essence, page 61, line 2).
“Ribs” left understood in the original has the reader wondering if the fan could be personified in the translation.
II) When mistakes, cuts, and changes make the reader unable to access the original, the translator also misguides them by:
1) OVERPLAYING THE SEXUAL MEANING OF WORD
While it’s interesting to observe how HÒ Xuân HÜÖng is clever in using her ‘spoonerism’ and her poems with double meaning as a weapon to attack, the reader also feels they have to go through all the palaver when sexual words hidden in spoonerism are stripped naked in the translator’s introduction and endnotes. Put aside the overproduced explication that makes the book is more of a textbook than a literary translation, the translator explicates the author’s poems and her art of ‘nói lái’ in a way that is convoluted when he gives a crossed intricately ‘nói lái’ and “phrase reversals”, and the tonal echo of word which, of course as he wished, implies sex or love. It results in the reader’s confusion. The reader would not understand how ‘nói lái’ (explained as “phrase reversals”) works, nor would the reader understand why should exist all over the original such tonal echo implying sexual meaning the way the translator points out. Take, as example, the word ‘Çeo’(to carry) sounds a tonal echo of different word to him. Similarly, ‘xuÃt th‰’ sounds ‘xuÃt thê’. The translator’s imagination at some point goes too far, when he reads vertically some poems to find implicit meaning he believes the author intends.
‘Nói lái’ is one thing; “phrase reversals” is another which never appeared in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry. The art ‘nói lái’in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s is quite similar to ‘spoonerism’ in English. In spoonerism, the first sounds of two or more words are exchanged, mistakenly or intentionally, in speaking. In Vietnamese it is the art of transposition of the last sounds of two or more words to produce a second intended meaning. ‘Nói lái’, spoonerism, is popular in the past time, but now rare. Examples of spoonerism in folksong:
“Cá có Çâu mà anh ngÒi câu Çó
“Bi‰t có không mà công khó anh Öi.
(following Tôn ThÃt Bình, Dân ca Bình TrÎ Thiên, Hu‰: Nhà xuÃt bän ThuÆn Hóa, 1997, page 95)
‘câu Çó’ is a spoonerised version of ‘có Çâu’
‘công khó’ is a spoonerised version of ‘có không’
During the course of French domination, Vietnamese students even played spoonerism when speaking French. Take, for example, ‘très chaud’ (very hot) is a spoonerised version of ‘trop chère’ (too expensive).
And the tonal echo. Obviously, there are “like-sounding words” in speaking or writing, prose or verse, in any language. Also, there are homographs, homonyms, and homophones with manifold meaning that suggests different things. But the sentence structure is other consideration. The meaning of a word is secured by the sentence structure, and is enforced by others, which makes the word stay with a certain meaning in a certain way. Take, as example, ‘She had it’. The phrase has three meanings, which will be enforced by other words for a particular meaning the author intends: She had it in her purse (the key, for example, was in her purse), she had it last night (sexual intercourse), she really had it (sex appeal). Or, take “Brave New World”, title of a book by Aldous Huxley published in 1932. In literal translation, “brave’ is ‘courageous’, or ‘fine, good’. When it’s true that ‘brave’ in the structure “brave new world” cannot be ‘courageous’, it still suggests this meaning to certain readers. But whatever the meaning the word ‘brave’ may suggest, ‘new’ which follows immediately after it cancels out the meanings ‘courageous’ and ‘fine or good’, enforcing the meaning of ‘brave new’, which is ‘completely new’. Particularly interested in a special meaning one reader still may want to understand ‘brave’ as ‘courageous’ as so it appears to him at the first time or he may want to understand it as ‘fine or good with doubt that it can be’ depend upon he favouring the ‘new world’ or not, which is just his imagination. In poetry reading, particularly interested in a special meaning a reader is especially illogically vulnerable to attack from his imagination, rather than logically sensitive to the imagery in the poem. Same thing happens with a translator or critic, who would produce an incorrect translation, or a superb analysis of his exaggeration. John Balaban lets his imagination go too far when he says: [Quote: “And since like-sounding words can mean vastly different things, a whole world of double meanings also is possible in any poem” (Spring Essence, page 11)], and states that ‘Çeo’(to carry or to bear) sounds ‘to copulate’. The statement makes me wonder¾ since an actual landscape in the original always suggested a sexual landscape to the translator, and every sexual like-sounding word suggested a sexual meaning¾ if the word ‘Çèo’ in the following famous folksong, which also appeared in ‘ñèo Ba D¶i’, possibly has a tonal echo implying a different meaning.
“ChiŠu chiŠu d¡t mË qua Çèo
“Chim kêu bên n§, vÜ®n trèo bên tê.”
[Walking Mother through the pass every evening
There birds singing, and there gibbons climbing].
What is more, words in Vietnamese are monosyllables. The five tone marks make every monosyllabic word five or six completely different words including the word without tone mark, which sound at a particular level, have its own pitch value, and may be compared to the musical notes in a musical scale. ‘La’ is one note; ‘lá’ is another note. Still, ‘la’ is one word; ‘lá’ is another word. ‘Lá’ is not a ‘stressed version’ of ‘la’. In Vietnamese poetry, tone-marked monosyllables, considered as musical notes, capture exactly the poem’s pattern, or decide the sound pattern of a poem, and “the music of pitches in every poem”, not vice-versa. In English, it’s the metrical pattern, or the meaning of the verse, or a particular sense, that decides a syllable should be stressed or unstressed. Take, as examples, level stress, hovering stress, logical stress (rhetorical or sense stress). The variable syllable in English is a syllable which may be stressed or unstressed according to the need of the metrical pattern (even English poetry has mostly escaped the traditional metrics of the distant past before 6th century). John Balaban may believe tone-marked words in Vietnamese could be compared to stressed or unstressed syllables in English, and he imagines: (Quote: “With a music of pitches inherent in every poem, an entire dynamic of sound ¾inoperable in English¾ comes to play” (Spring Essence, page 11).
From the translator’s purposefulness¾ his explication of tonal echo, his reading vertically the lines, and his posturing (as seen below), the reader is under the mistaken impression that HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poems are obviously smeared with obscene language, which is opposite to what the translator somewhere notes: “the obscene secondary meaning must never appear obvious” (Spring Essence, page 12, line 1,2).
2) PERCEIVING SOMETHING TO BE TRUE
WHEN IT’S NOT.
Like every translator making no mistake about his knowledge of a foreign culture and language often makes mistakes, John Balaban does, especially when he goes far off the field of translation, to another field for which he needs more reference materials. In his introduction, he says that rhymes in a lu-shih. must be bình, or even “tones”. (Quote: “Rhyme words must be bình, or even “tones” (Spring Essence, page 12). In fact, in lu-shih, rhyme words could also be “sharp” tones. Take, for example, “Då qui” [Coming home at midnight] of Chinese poet ñ° Phû (712-770):
“Då bán qui lai xung h° quá
“SÖn h¡c gia trung dï miên ng†a
“Bàng ki‰n b¡c ÇÄu hÜ§ng giang Çê
“NgÜ«ng khan minh tinh ÇÜÖng không Çåi
“ñình tiŠn bä chúc sân lÜ«ng c¿
“Giáp khÄu kinh viên væn nhÃt cá
“Båch ÇÀu lão bãi vÛ phøc ca
“TrÜ®ng lê bÃt trøy, thùy næng nä? ”
(Phåm Doanh 1999, page 310. ThÖ ñ° Phû, thÖ ñÜ©ng tuy‹n dÎch, TÆp I. US: Dam Ninh, Inc.,)
Besides, he obsviously imposes his imagination on where the particularity needs to be, or takes some special opinions that make him believe something to be true when it’s not, which, on one hand, blocks the way to a better understanding of the original, on the other it shows, unnecessarily, the translator’s weakness of reason when following odd and old texts or some pieces of advice that is just a matter of opinion. Take, as example, John Balaban says in his endnotes to Confession (II): “a drumbeat is sounded through the required end rhymes (dòn, non, tròn, hòn, con con) as well as some internal echoes (hÒng, bóng, xuân, xan or san” (Spring Essence, page 117), and says that in line 4 the poetess plays on her family name, and in line 7 her name. The above remarks aren’t very convincing. Onomatopoeia is commonly used to achieve a special effect, but HÒ Xuân HÜÖng doesn’t need the drumbeat rumbling through the end rhymes, and the onomatopoetic rhythms to express her sad feelings in a desolate night. Indeed, there is a drumbeat echoing at the end of the first line, but it was immediately canceled out by the sound and the meaning of the following word ‘trÖ’= ‘lonely, motionless, still’ at the very beginning of the second line. And it comes as a surprise to me when the translator assumes that HÒ Xuân HÜÖng plays on her family name and her name in line 4 and line 7. ‘VÀng træng bóng x‰’, ‘træng bóng x‰’, ‘xuân Çi xuân låi’ are old clichés in Vietnamese writing and speaking, and of course, the author needn’t use old clichés to play the game. And as true as John Balaban mentions, to play on her family name ‘HÒ’ she must play with the words ‘c°’(old) and ‘nguyŒt’(moon). The word ‘x‰’ in the line 4 is not ‘c°’(old), it’s ‘inclining’; ‘træng x‰’ is ‘setting moon’. The posturing is seen in many more endnotes. Take, as examples, John Balaban gives endnote to The Unwed Mother: [Quote: “Additionally, ‘ÇÀu d†c’ in line 3 means head, implying a birth” (Spring Essence, page 121)], and [Quote: “For peasants, socially far more free in sexual encounters, there’s a folk proverb that HÒ Xuân HÜÖng seems to support: Không chÒng mà chºa m§i ngoan/ có chÒng mà chºa th‰ gian s¿ thÜ©ng” (Spring Essence, page 121)]; to Swinging: [Quote: “Ngô Thanh Nhàn points out that the last two lines can be read: “Enjoying Spring (Xuân), do you really know Spring (Xuân), or is it just a matter of swingposts removed, leaving the holes bares.” (Spring Essence, page 122)]; to The pharmacist’s widow mourns his death: [Quote: “The woman is a ‘thi‰p’, or lower category of concubine” (Spring Essence, page 123)]; and to Old Pagoda: [Quote: “Many friends in the last line has a hint of licentious sarcasm” (Spring Essence, page 126)].
Put aside ‘head, or birth’ John Balaban believes ‘ÇÀu d†c’ implies in the line 3 of The Unwed Mother, which will give line 3 and line 4 a logical contradiction, sexual encounters couldn’t by his imagination be “socially far more free” for peasants. [Quote: “For peasants, socially far more free in sexual encounters…” (Spring Essence, page 121)]. Encounters between young sexes are encouraged for marriage purpose, but sexual encounters aren’t. There seems to have a sense of mockery (not support) in the line 8 of the poem, and in the proverb John Balaban mentions above as well. Still, there is another proverb which is cruel the way it mocks at the unwed mother, like a prostitute: ‘MË ÇØng mÀn Çï chºa hoang/ Cho làng b¡t vå/ Cho xã n¶p cheo’ (following ñinh Gia Khánh-Chu Xuân Diên, Væn H†c Dân Gian, tÆp 2, Nhà xuÃt bän ñåi h†c và Trung h†c chuyên nghiŒp, Hà N¶i 1977, page 278). In the endnote to “Swinging”, (Xuân) in round brackets may have an allusion to the author’s name, and obviously it imposes on ‘chÖi xuân’ a hint: ‘to make Xuân or to have sex with Xuân’ (‘chÖi’ has a double meaning: ‘to play” and ‘to make, to have sex with’). In fact, ‘chÖi xuân’, a cliché, could be found in folkverse: ‘tháng bäy tôi Çi chÖi xuân/ ª Çây lÆp h¶i trÓng quân tôi vào’ (following ñinh Gia Khánh - Chu Xuân Diên, Væn H†c Dân Gian, TÆp 2, Hà-N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän ñåi h†c và Trung h†c Chuyên nghiŒp, 1977).‘ChÖi xuân’ also appeared in NguyÍn Khuy‰n’s poetry: ‘ChÖi xuân kÈo h‰t xuân Çi, cái già xÒng x¶c nó thì theo sau’. (NguyÍn Khuy‰n -1835-1910). In “The Pharmacist’s Widow Mourns His Death” ‘thi‰p’ doesn’t mean ‘concubine’; it’s a pronoun which represents the speaker who is a wife or a woman speaking to her husband (‘chàng’, pronoun, refers to her husband in this poem) or to a man. In “Old Pagoda”, “many friends” is a wrong translation version of ‘mÃy bÒ’ which means ‘how many bamboo baskets’ (explained previously).
In some ways, his imagination and his posturing is to support his idea of repressed sexuality in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry. Obviously, as seen in page 35, when he uses “screw” (a curse, but also a sex taboo slang) to translate ‘chém cha’ (a curse) in ‘LÃy chÒng chung’, John Balaban has been tempted to seize every single opportunity to intimate the sense of sexuality. Despite being aware of “many dangers for a translator of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng” (Spring Essence, page 11), he is driving the original “too far toward one pole of meaning” (Spring Essence, page 11).
“ñÜa tay v§i thº tr©i cao thÃp
“Xoåc c£ng Ço xem ÇÃt v¡n dài!”
[I raised my hand trying for the height of Heaven
Spread wide my legs measuring the Earth’s length.]
The young lady HÒ Xuân HÜÖng, daughter of HÒ Sï Danh of Quÿnh ñôi Village said out loud the above improvised poetry lines right at the moment she pulled herself up in an attitude of complete self-assurance, after her slipping and falling onto the ground, before the eyes of her teenaged friends standing round laughing.
The staunch spirit of the young beauty had prefigured a heavy storm going to hit the solid wall of the feudal system in Viet-Nam at the turn of the 18th century.
Not long afterwards, the prefigured storm came into existence. Her poems, lines after lines, as a sharp sword, were slashing across the amoral ideology and the social etiquette that had stopped her to get to her real life. Her sharp sword slashed across the faces of men of authority, attacking the ‘ignorant’ intellects, the assumed moral and ethical people, piercing the Confucians temples, mocking the religious men and women with hammy performance in Buddhist churches. As a revolutionist, she marches through life heroically. As a destroyer, she smears with dirt peoples in business of monitoring and controlling others for their own benefits, marks them face-besmeared. And, of course, to throw mud onto the face of the then society her hands must be smeared with mud. Spoonerism enters her poems with sexual language. Lifeful words enter her poems now teasing lustful men now mocking the learned:
“M¶t Çàn th¢ng ng†ng ÇÙng xem chuông
“Chúng bäo nhau r¢ng: Ãy ái uông”
[A bunch of stutterers stood looking at the bell
They said to each other: “ook ik ur el”*]
*Look, it’s the bell.
‘ook ik ur el’. For the first time in the Vietnamese poetry history HÒ Xuân HÜÖng breaks words into pieces, which serves her purpose; never she minds the awfulness making her lines nonsense verse, much less the obscene spoonerism. (Nosense verse in the West could be traced back as far as to circa 1765 when Mother Goose’s Melody was published). All these facts John Balaban knows very well through his long-termed and careful study on HÒ Xuân HÜÖng as shown in his introduction. [(Quote: “her literary pen might be read more accurately as defiance rather than as a psychosexual malady”. (Spring Essence page 5)]. But still, his explication shows great interest in drawing the reader towards the vapid fashionable Western sexuality.
To translate, however, is not to explicate. To explicate clearly the original is fine for the reader’s privilege of understanding profoundly the author and the original. But if the translation version doesn’t reflect what the translator tries to explicate he seems to write a literary critique or an essay, which tends to be glanced off the task. It is no part of a translator’s duties to tell his readers to understand the original this way or that way. The translation version should speak for itself.
Emphasizing on obsessive sexuality by conceiving of the tonal echo of word implying sex, or by reading vertically the lines for sexual innuendo the translator sidetracks his audience into only the implication of sex in HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry, and destabilises the other self of her poems which is for other purposes. Does not the woman in ‘PhÆn Çàn bà’ feel any screw but scorn for her husband who sexually abuses her when the child is crying by her side? Does not the girl in ‘Bánh trôi nÜ§c’ mock man monitoring and controlling woman? Do we know the author intention? If the poem ‘LÃy chÒng chung’, and the likes are the complaints about HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s unhappy marriage, or they are the attacks on polygamy practised in the feudal system? And the author’s intention. Nobody knows for sure an author’s intention. Yet John Balaban, when following old texts, insists on supporting his idea of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s sexual revolt. [Quote: “Lacking this, HÒ Xuân HÜÖng had to settle for shelter and sex” (Spring Essence, page 8)]. HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry has sexuality in it, some of her poems ably demonstrate her lust for life, her ranging thirst for love which is the way of nature, but most of her poems use sexual language as risky weaponry to attack. Surprisingly, some scholars (still, ‘male authority’ in literature) seemed to indulge themselves to judge her dual-purpose poetry to be one homogenous kind of poetry for her lust for sex. To read HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poems as only a kind of poetry that implies sex or love, is like reading “Romeo and Juliet” as a love story and completely ignoring William Shakespeare’s trying to say about the adult’s irresponsibility, the moral corruption of the adult’s world.
Pitiful are non-Vietnamese speaking readers who cannot reach beyond the language barrier, who could see only a sample of the bathos presented and the half-length portrait of a naked woman on the cover of the book, her face covered with a flat winnowing basket, introduced as “Spring Essence”. Of course, the word “Spring Essence” does not in the least imply the author’s name. A person’s name cannot be clumsily, and impolitely translated into any foreign language. Thus, the book cover spirit is to imply the book itself, and, despite the translator might pre-empt critics by extolling sexual revolution, such spirit is quite opposite to HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry. In HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s, the offensive language she uses to attack, to unveil her society is covered perfectly under her art of spoonerism, while the poetic beauty of her language is obviously to be seen in the highest standards. In the picture on the translation version’s cover, the beauty as well as the intelligence of poetry (the face of the woman, it may be understood) is covered, and “what is not” is shown to the book’s readers with poetic words to advertise it as Spring Essence.
When Vietnamese literature is almost unknown to the world, thanks to John Balaban’s remarkable concern and his greatest diligence we have HÒ Xuân HÜÖng’s poetry finally introduced to the Western readers. Our great hope is to see if John Balaban will be able to find the poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng a right place in the literary world. In fact, we have only a “Spring Essence: The Poetry of HÒ Xuân HÜÖng” infested with a number of mistakes, with the translator’s tampering with the original in his translation. Not only John Balaban’s weakness in Vietnamese leads to an unreliable translation, his imagination and his radically mistaken judgment, not necessary and infelicitous for the art of translation, also introduces a false picture of an author of unrecorded times having been completely unknown to his audience.
The judgment, however, may be or may be not his own as he just concurs with one-sided opinion which on the whole tends to be far from the truth as appreciable studies let it be known that many offensive poems by other authors were attributed to HÒ Xuân HÜÖng. But¾ his literary attempt has failed, if he wants to render in his translation what is in the original. While every literary translation that bridges the gap between different cultures is fully appreciated, an inaccurate and unfair translation version, in a sense, betrays another kind of language barrier.
(Simultaneously published in Wordbridge Magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723)
Double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004)
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- David McKay, 1900. Leaves of Grass with Autobiography Whitman. Philadelphia: Sherman & Co.
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- Hoàng Phê , 2002. T¿ Çi‹n ti‰ng ViŒt, 8th edition. VN: ñà N¤ng Publisher
- Vân Bình Tôn ThÃt LÜÖng, 1950. Ôn NhÜ HÀu CUNG OÁN NGÂM KHÚC dÅn giäi và chú thích. US: republished by Diên HÒng [ No date given].
- Tôn ThÃt Bình, 1997. Dân ca Bình TrÎ Thiên. Hu‰: Nhà xuÃt bän ThuÆn Hóa
- ñinh Gia Khánh - Chu Xuân Diên, 1997. Væn H†c Dân Gian, tÆp 2, Hà N¶i: Nhà xuÃt bän ñåi h†c và Trung h†c chuyên nghiŒp.
The article, published in this page in Winter 2003, and simultaneously in the printed Wordbridge Double Issue 3&4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004, contained typing errors. Websites republishing the article and readers obtaining a hard copy of the text please have the errors corrected. The Writers Post apologises for any inconvenience caused.
· page 1: translators and established writers…/ a number of translators and established writers…
· page 8: ‘the man who want to marry her’/ ‘the man who wants to marry her’.
· page 16: phrase reversals / “phrase reversals” (in quotation marks)
· page 17: by others words / by other words.
· page 22: the words “Spring Essence”/ the word “Spring Essence”
· Page 13: Buddihsm / Buddhism; page 19: obsviously / obviously;
· A missing sentence on page 7: ‘Túi lÜng’ is “the bag’s almost full (of something)”, not the “backpack” (a pack carried on one’s back). [The above sentence, appeared in Wordbridge Magazine, was missing in this page].
Clarifications: On page 2 “City” was incorrectly applied to Nghe An Province; on page 127, a note to “The unwed mother” was incorrectly typed twice: Volume 3, page 337, 338.
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © N. Saomai / Nguyen Sao Mai 1999, 2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.