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  • Rachel Egoian

True Translation of Poetry is Not Possible; There’s Only a Kind of Imitation - Lê Phạm Lê's From

As someone who is coming from a mixed ethnic background, my aspiration for diversity through culture and community shapes my appreciation for Asian literature. When given the opportunity to analyze and study Vietnamese literature, I became fully aware that this is an avenue for Asian literature that will provide a diverse lens as a way of looking closely at an immigrant’s journey.

My Armenian and Filipino ancestors that also migrated to America to Hawaii, Ellis Island, and Port San Francisco as laborers and farmers, in which I can reflect on Lê Pham Lê's collection of translated poems, Gio Thoi Phuong Nao: From Where the Wind Blows. Themes of culture and self identity are examined from the experiences of assimilation, including the role of translation that questions the issue of what is lost in translation.

I recall my grandmother once telling me that she was forced to reject her mother tongue to assimilate into a new culture. The anxieties of assimilation and translation resonate with how we preserve authenticity, making decisions that question whether accuracy plays an active role in acquiring an author’s originality. On the other hand, it is often stated that translations are a source to enlighten a reader’s perspective by providing new and different lenses that challenge the reader’s perception.

Open-mindedness is key in making translated versions more accessible to allow the reader to conduct close analysis. Originally, my search for Vietnamese literature found itself drifting towards the public library as one of the many easily accessible sources; however, when searching for texts relative to the topic on Vietnamese poetry and narrative, I realized that there were limited sources and could only find a couple texts, which included Lê Pham Lê's Gio Thoi Phuong Nao, From Where the Wind Blows.

“True translation of poetry is not possible; there’s only a kind of ‘imitation’” (Arbuthnot).

Translation as a form of imitation challenges the poet’s authenticity, which questions the issues of what is lost in translation. Through examining Vietnamese to English translations, we can explore the anxieties of an immigrant’s journey. In Gio Thoi Phuong Nao and its English translation, From Where the Wind Blows, Lê Pham Lê's collection of poems preserve the folk and oral Vietnamese traditional poetic style called “sung ca dao,” which reinforces Lê Pham Lê's theme of a “life journey.” Even with its simplicity, it calls attention to a small part of Lê's narrative, giving voice to the oppressed and transforming the immigrant’s journey into an emotionally driven piece that stresses the anxieties of her culture, family, and the self.

In introducing Lê Pham Lê's poetry, Nancy Arbuthnot expresses anxiety in maintaining the poet’s authenticity. She addresses that “creating a whole out of what seemed disparate fragments” (Arbuthnot). The concept of fragmented images represent the decay or the process of collecting memories as part of Lê's inspiration. The “disparate fragments” examines the idea of what is lost in translation. Translated literature encounters the strain in accuracy in terms of language. At first glance of the translation, we would be a little disappointed with this particular translation due to its simplicity; however, it is important to keep in mind that as readers we need to be receptive and understand that there is a difference between accuracy and authenticity. These two concepts need to allow the reader to be open-minded, especially when it comes to authenticity.

Having access to multiple translations encourages and redefines authenticity in a whole new way that inspires individuals to promote cultural awareness and diversity. Consequently, both Arbuthnot and Lê worked on the translations together in order to preserve the author’s originality.

Lê draws her inspiration through the reflection of her “life journey” in which it brings a sense of the nature’s elements that convey motion and movement in her poems, emulating the traditional Vietnamese poetic style, “sung ca dao.”The natural elements throughout the poems reinforce the authority over movement in which it is often questioned throughout the collections of poems.

Through using the language of nature’s elements and questioning the idea of direction and destination, From Where the Wind Blows, the title shapes Lê's theme of “life journey” in which reflects on an individual’s experiences and life decisions through the construct of the poems as a representation of fragmented memories. So the organization of the collection of poems is separated into parts I-VI, with the titles in order of the following: “Malaysian Sojourn,” “Nostalgia,” “Second Homeland,” “Homeland Revisited,” “For my Family,” and “For my Friends.”

Looking at a closer analysis of the poems, “Who Creates the Wind” and “Perception” as part of Lê Pham Lê's consistent theme, both are analyzed together to unravel the theme of perspective. The first poem, “Who Creates the Wind” establishes the setting and conflicts that arise, as well as the anxieties of an immigrant’s experiences; while, the second poem, “Perception”, draws on the idea of providing an explanation that resurfaces the struggles of an immigrant’s journey and life decisions.

In the first poem, the speaker’s point of view is the center of how they “perceive” and digest their reflection on the experiences and trauma.The speaker perceives their memories through first person point of view; however, their reflection upon their memories presents a distant outer view that conveys ghost imagery and allegorical symbolism when the speaker addresses that “the boat landing/ without me aboard./ In Songla Refugee Camp, Thailand,/ my youngest brother mourns my death” (105, ln. 3-6). The passage suggests that the speaker creates a lens of the outer view in which they occupy an in-between space through the embodiment of a ghost in coping with death and moving on. The lens shift through ghost imagery as the process of the speaker perceiving and understanding the self. While looking closely at the form of the poem, the stanzas and lines suggest fragmentation alluding to the speaker’s disconnect with the self-conscious and the world embodying symbolic references of vulnerability, isolation, alienation, or the unknown. Fragmentation in poetry establishes the speaker as an allegorical figure, thus reinforcing ghost imagery as a connection to the decay of memory and trauma. If we think about both poems representing Lê's life journey as the anxieties of the immigrant journey, we are able to connect this to the perception of time and movement as the change or shift by nature or the self, working through the traditional Vietnamese poetic style of ca dao.

Both poems question the authority and direction of the immigrant’s journey. In addition, “Perceptions” reassures the audience that “one day when I close my eyes/ all this will pass/ as wind blows over long grasses/ as clouds drift past.” The homophone of “pass” and “past” demonstrate repetition to stress the overwhelming theme of decay of memory as part of the immigrant’s trauma. In addition, “pass” and “past” reimagine the perception of time and movement through the comparison of “clouds drift.” Having the lens to question how things are and how they perceive, reflects on the ways of “actually” seeing, especially through a new different lens as a process of gaining perspective.

As a reader, I had similar anxieties as to how the collection of translated poems would challenge the author’s authenticity. I contemplated on how I could shift my mindset in examining this piece, especially with its translation where there were major distinctions from the original and the English translated version. Arbuthnot and Lê emphasized their own challenges with the text, referring to “True translation of poetry is not possible; there’s only a kind of ‘imitation’” (Arbuthnot). Instead of constantly thinking that translations must be accurate in the way that “imitates” the original, we must change our perceptions that challenges both the original and the new translation. In doing so, we create a space that opens a discourse and dialogue of diverse literature.

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About Rachel Egoian


Originally from the Bay Area, Rachel is a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.

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