A Tale of Three Translations in Vietnamese Poetry
How is a poem transformed through translation? What is lost, and what remains true to the original? Vietnamese is a strongly idiomatic language, which makes it notoriously difficult to translate. There are expressions so unique to the Vietnamese experience that they cannot be fully translated into another language. How would one, for example, translate the expression khỉ ho cò gáy? (We’ll get back to this in a bit.)
The poems of Hồ Xuân Hương are perfect for examining this question, because they are compact and loaded with hidden meanings and double entendres. One of her poems is "Bánh Trôi Nước," a Vietnamese dessert:
Thân em vừa trắng là vừa tròn
Bảy nồi ba chìm với nước non
Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn
Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son
It should be noted that the above version is not even the original. Hương wrote her poems in the 18th century and used Chữ Nôm, a character-based writing system similar to Chinese. One can argue that the poem has already been translated from Chữ Nôm to modern Vietnamese. Sure, it’s still one language, in the sense that “Old English” and modern English are still one language.
Hương’s poetry was first introduced to American audiences in 2000 by poet John Balaban in his seminal book of translation, Essence of Spring. Since then, there has been much interest in her work by poets, scholars, and even feminists. Here are three translations of Bánh Trôi Nước:
The Floating Cake (Translated by John Balaban)
My body is white; my fate, softly rounded,
Rising and sinking like mountains in streams.
Whatever way hands may shape me,
At center my heart is red and true.
The Cake That Drifts In Water (Translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông)
My body is both white and round
In water I now swim, now sink.
The hand that kneads me may be rough—
I still shall keep my true-red heart.
Floating Sweet Dumpling (Translated by Marilyn Chin)
My body is powdery white and round
I sink and bob like a mountain in a pond
The hand that kneads me is hard and rough
You can’t destroy my true red heart
The poem describes a rice flour dumpling that the Vietnamese serve in thickened coconut milk or syrup. At first the poem seems to be about food, but the dumpling becomes a metaphor for a woman and her body. It is a lament on the social and even sexual powerlessness of women in her society, yet ends with a feminist proclamation of power—though subtle and quiet, revolutionary nonetheless. Though each translation captures this basic essence, there are marked differences.
In the first line of Balaban’s version, his translation of “thân” is not only body, but fate. This makes sense because “thân” is more profound than a mere body; it’s one’s being, presence, existence, etc. Another divergence is the translation of the expression “nước non.” Yale scholar Huỳnh Sanh Thông has translated it simply as “water”—but it’s not simply “water.” Just as Inuit people have 200 words for snow; so do the Vietnamese have 200 words for water (I am exaggerating, of course). John Balaban and Marilyn Chin, both poets, try to do justice to the expression “nước non” with added imagery to imply the movement of that water (“mountains in streams” and “mountain in a pond”), but that imagery ends up altering the meaning of the line. Note that we are only on the poem’s second line.
These three versions demonstrate the challenges of translating poetry. The translator’s dilemma is that he or she must capture the poem’s semantics (words on the page), syntax (meaning), and poetics (imagery, meter, etc) as truthfully to the original as possible. It’s a tall order, as not everything can be translated smoothly from one language to another. Let’s go back to the expression khỉ ho cò gáy. It is used to describe a remote and pristine place, like the Amazon, for example. In essence, it figuratively describes a place so far from people and unspoiled that you can hear monkeys coughing and cranes crowing. (Don’t you just love the Vietnamese language?) If one translates it by semantics alone, it is literally “monkey cough crane crow.” This would be laughingly meaningless in English: “The Amazon is monkey cough crane crow.” However, if you translate by just syntax alone (“The Amazon is remote.”), you lose a lot of linguistic value, such as the whimsical monkey/crane imagery and the implication of how pristine a place can be.
I think this expression is best kept in Vietnamese. Every translator knows that there will always be something lost in translation, but with poetry, one thing you don’t want to lose is its heart.
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Writer and dreamer, Vuong is founder of Tourane Poetry Press and editor of Perfume River Poetry Review. His work has been published in prominent literary journals, and he is a frequent reader at poetry events in the South Bay. His work is an examination of the Vietnamese-American experience, what it means to be Vietnamese so far away from quê hương (motherland). He believes that every Vietnamese is a poet at heart.