SPRING ESSENCE: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương
Translated by John Balaban
Copper Canyon Press, 2000
ISBN I-55659-I48-9 (pbk. :alk. Paper)
"The translator should be able to penetrate the language barrier, that he could render in translation what is in the original." N. SAOMAI
To bridge the gap between Western literature and Vietnamese literature, 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 Hồ Xuân Hương, an English translation of Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry, which introduces a Vietnamese poetess born at the end of the second Lê Dynasty (1592-1788) "‘The Queen of Nom Poetry’" 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 Hồ Xuân Hương, 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry at all, much less it shows ‘The Queen of Nôm Poetry’ at her best.
Hồ Xuân Hương 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry committed to writing in her own time (except there’s a turn-up of late for a disputable Lưu Hương Ký). 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry was compiled by Antony Landes in 1893. The typographically printed compilation in National script existed as late as 1913. (Following Đào Thái Tôn, Thơ Hồ Xuân Hương từ cội nguồn vào thế tục - Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục, 1996)
Through a hundred years being conveyed by word of mouth Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry, of course, is now slightly different from text to text; put aside many other authors’ poems are attributed to Hồ Xuân Hương, 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: Hồ Xuân Hương is the daughter of Hồ Sĩ Danh (1706-1783) of Quỳnh Đôi village Nghệ An City, 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. Vĩnh Tường or Trần Phúc Hiển. 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, and 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.
Hồ Xuân Hương 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 right 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry, but also in folk verse and in other authors’ poems. Take Thủ Thiêm’s wedding congratulation ‘miêu bất tọa’, as example. (Following Nguyễn Văn Bổn, 1983. Văn Nghệ Dân Gian; Việt Nam: Sở văn hóa thông tin Quảng Nam-Đà Nẳng. 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 ‘Tự Tình’, ‘Lấy chồng chung’, ‘Chiếc bách’, ‘Tự tình thơ’, 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.
Hồ Xuân Hương, ‘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 Đào Thái Tôn, thơ Hồ Xuân Hương từ cội nguồn vào thế tục, Vietnam: Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục, 1996, page 97). There is a fair amount of her poems translated into English in John Balaban’s Sping Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương, which was introduced to American readers.
"Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương" 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Nguyễn-Văn-Vĩnh (1882-1936) when this writer translated Kim-Vân-Kiều by Nguyễn-Du (1765-1820) into French. Following are four lines from Nguyễn-Văn-Vĩnh’s literal translation given along the translation version of Kim Vân Kiều, taken as an example:
‘Trăm năm trong cõi người ta
‘Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau
‘Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu
‘Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng’
Trăm (cent) năm (annés) trong (dans) cõi (limite) người (humanité) ta (nôtre)
Chữ (caractère) tài (talent) chữ (caractère) mệnh (sort, destinée) khéo (habile) là (être) ghét (haĩr) nhau (ensemble, réciproquement).
Trải (traverser) qua (à travers) một (un) cuộc (spectacle, ensemble de faits qui s’enchainent) bể (mers) dâu (mủriers)
Những (les) điều (choses) trông (regarder) thấy (voir) mà (produire effet) đau đớn (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 haĩr, à s’exclure;
Ayant traversé une période que les poètes appellent le temps mis par les mers à se transformer en champs de mủriers et, réciproquement, les champs de mủriers en mers.
Les choses que j’ai vues m’on fait souffrir (ont endolori mon cœur).
(Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, [No date given]. Kim Vân Kiều, 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", ‘tới’= "go", ‘chiêu mộ’= "watch", ‘gầm’= "toll", ‘dễ’= "easy", ‘ân’= "love", ‘khơi vơi’= "all over", ‘nào’= "where". (see John Balaban’s literal translation of Đài khán xuân, "Spring-Watching Pavilion", Spring Essence, page 10). [Note: A literal translation of ‘êm ái’ would be "gentle", ‘tới’=arrive, ‘chiêu mộ’= early morning and late evening, ‘gầm’= to roar, ‘dễ’= easy, not ‘easy’ (in this poem ‘not easy’), ‘ân’= ‘grace’, ‘khơi vơi’= ‘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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s maliciousness
(3) not showing Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 lines not by any means it’s the translation of the lines ¾ in square brackets [..].
Besides, I will quote Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 lại tỉnh’(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 sứ Pagoda page 81, and many of the like in another poems.
Following are just few examples
Autumn Landscape (Spring Essence, page 19)
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Cảnh thu:
Thánh thót tàu tiêu mấy giọt mưa
Khen ai khéo vẻ cảnh tiêu sơ
Xanh om cổ thụ tròn xoe tán
Trắng xóa tràng giang phẳng lặng tờ
Bầu dốc giang sơn say chấp rượu
‘Túi lưng phong nguyệt nặng vì thơ
Ơ hay, cảnh cũng ưa người nhỉ,
Ai thấy, ai mà chẳng ngẩn ngơ."
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn tài, page 93)
We see here - 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 rain 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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 likes - her leisured life-style, more moon and wind than anything else (fig.). ‘Túi lưng phong nguyệt’ means she carries the bag almost full (‘lưng’) of moon and wind. John Balaban’s "My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems" (Spring Essence, page 19), is not the translation of ‘túi lưng phong nguyệt nặng vì thơ’. 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 ‘ngẩn ngơ’ 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 ‘ngẩn ngơ’ 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’; ‘cảnh’= ‘landscape’; ‘cũng’= ‘also’; ‘ưa’= ‘to love, to be fond of’; ‘người’=‘Man’. In line 8: ‘ngẩn ngơ’=perplex, indecisive, dreamy.
Line 7 means the landscape is sensitive to Man.
Confession (III) (Spring Essence, page 31)
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Chiếc bách:
Chiếc bách buồn về phận nổi nênh
Giữa giòng ngao ngán nỗi lênh đênh.
Lưng khoan tình nghĩa dường lai láng,
Nửa mạn phong ba luống bập bềnh.
Chèo lái mặc ai lăm đổ bến,
Giong lèo thây kẻ rắp xuôi ghềnh.
Ấy ai thăm ván cam lòng vậy,
Ngán nỗi ôm đàn những tấp tênh."
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn 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). ‘Thăm ván’ in line 7 is a metaphor for ‘to take a new wife’; ‘ôm đàn’ 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 biết đâu đấy’ doesn’t mean ‘who knows’ or ‘whoever knows’; it means ‘I don’t know’. Thus, ‘ai’ in line 7 implies ‘the man who want to marry her’ (who should ‘cam lòng’ / content himself with her decision not to remarry ‘vậy’/ instead). ‘Vậy’ in this line by no means echoes ‘ở vậy’ or ‘never to remarry’ as the translator remarks in the endnote to the poem (page 119).
Not understanding ‘Thăm ván’ and ‘ôm đàn’ 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)
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Bánh trôi nước:
Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn
Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non
To nhỏ mặc dù tay kẻ nặn
Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son.
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn tài, page 84)
Note: Line 1 and 2 in Spring Essence:
Thân em thì trắng, phận em tròn
Bảy nổi ba chìm mấy nước non. (page 32).
This poem is about the "floating cake". But it also implies the woman’s fate. In the line 2, ‘mấy’ is ‘with’, ‘nước non’ is ‘rivers and mountains’, means ‘nation’. ‘Nước non’ has a double meaning: ‘nước non’=‘nation’, and ‘nước non’=‘water’ (‘non’ in the latter is only a parenthetic word which is added to ‘nước’ and is assigned no meaning). The first meaning of ‘bảy nổi ba chìm với nước 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 ‘mấy’= with (‘với’), 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)
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Quán Nước Bên Đường:
Đứng tréo trông theo cảnh hắt heo
Đường đi thiên thẹo, quán cheo leo.
Lợp lều, mái cỏ tranh xơ xác,
Xỏ kẽ, kèo tre đốt khẳng kheo
Ba trạc cây xanh hình uốn éo
Một giòng nước biếc cỏ leo teo
Thú vui quên cả niềm lo cũ
Kìa cái diều ai thả lộn lèo.
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn tài, page 108)
The poem is titled ‘Quán nước bên đường’, ‘Quán khách’, or ‘Quán khánh’ in different collections. In Spring Essence, ‘Vịnh hàng ở 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: ‘xỏ’ = insert, ‘kẽ’= ‘gap’, ‘xỏ kẽ’= to insert (something) into a gap, ‘kèo tre=‘short bamboo drafter’, ‘đốt khẳng khiu’= skeletal section).
Put aside cut and change in line 1 ‘đứng chéo’ turns into another word in the translation: ‘leaning out, and ‘cảnh hắt 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s Tranh hai tố nữ:
Đôi lứa như in tờ giấy trắng
Nghìn năm còn mãi cái xuân xanh.
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn tài, page 121)
Line 3 in Spring Essence:
Trăm vẻ như in tờ giấy trắng. (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.]
‘Trăm vẻ’ = Hundred looks (of beauty)
Mistake is made in line 3. The translator fails to understand the meaning of ‘trăm vẻ’, 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s Chửa Hoang:
Duyên thiên chưa thấy nhô đầu dọc
Phận liễu sao đà nẩy nét ngang
Cái tội trăm năm chàng chịu gánh
Chữ tình một khối thiếp xin mang.
(Quỳnh Cư Văn Lang Nguyễn Anh, 1998. Danh Nhân Đất Việt, Volume 3, pages 337,338).
volume 3, page 337-338)
Line 5 in Spring Essence:
Cái tội trăm năm chàng chịu cả. (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. ‘Trăm năm’ in ‘cái tội trăm năm chàng chịu cả’, standing after the noun ‘cái tội’, is used as a metaphor to mean ‘suốt cả đời người (nói về tình nghĩa vợ chồng)’--‘the whole of a lifetime (of relationship between husband and wife). [Tự điển tiếng Việt/ Vietnamese dictionary by Hoàng Phê, 8th edition, VN: Đà Nẵng Publisher 2000, page 1026]. Besides, the meaninglessness of the translation of line 5 obstructs the reader, and ‘chữ 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s Vịnh nữ vô âm:
Mười hai bà mụ ghét chi nhau
Đem cái xuân tình vứt bỏ đâu
Rúc rích thây cha con chuột nhắt
Vo ve mặc mẹ cái ong bầu.
(Đào Thái Tôn 1996, 209. Thơ Hồ Xuân hương từ cộI nguồn vào thế tục. Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục,)
‘Thây cha’ or ‘mặc mẹ’ means ‘not caring about / who care/ doesn’t care’. Thus, ‘rúc rích thây cha con chuột nhắc’ and ‘vo ve mặc mẹ cái ong bầu’ 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 chuột nhắc’ and ‘mặc mẹ cái ong bầu’ 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s Vịnh ni sư:
Xuất thế hồng nhan kể cũng nhiều
Lộn vòng phu phụ mấy 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)
‘Lộn vòng phu phụ’ 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 life refusing to marry and have sex. Thus, ‘lộn vòng phu phụ mấy là kiêu’ means ‘But living without conjugal relationship they are unusually able women’. ‘Lộn vòng phu phụ’ once appeared in CUNG OÁN NGâM KHÚC by Ôn-Như Hầu Nguyễn Gia Thiều (1741-1798).
Ý cũng rắp ra ngoài đào chú
Quyết lộn vòng phu phụ cho cam
Ai ngờ trời chẳng cho làm
Quyết đem giây thắm mà giam bông đào.
(Vân Bình Tôn Thất Lương [No date given]. Ôn Như 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 (chỉ thắm or chỉ hồng, a metaphor for marriage) to lock me (bông đào, 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)
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Chùa xưa:
Thày tớ thung dung dạo cảnh chùa
Thơ thì lưng túi, rượu lưng hồ.
Cá khe lắng kệ, mang nghi ngóp;
Chim núi nghe kinh, cổ gật gù.
Then cửa từ bi chen chật cánh,
Nén hương tế độ cắm đầy lô.
Nam mô khẻ hỏi nhà sư tí
Phúc đức như ông được mấy bồ.
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn 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’, ‘bồ’, 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 Phật’ = ‘Homage to Buddha’, or ‘Nam mô A Di Đà Phật’ = ‘Homage to Amida Buddha’. ‘Nam mô Phật’ or ‘Nam mô A Di Đà Phật’ is often practiced in the Buddhists circle as greetings with deep respect shown for a master, a monk, or a co-religionist. ‘Phúc đức’ is ‘virtue’. ‘Bồ’ is "bamboo basket". ‘Bồ’ 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. ‘Bồ’ with double meaning is obviously not for this poem, as Hồ Xuân Hương was born in Nghệ 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)].
"Trấn Quốc Temple" (Spring Essence, page 93)
Line 3,4, 5, and 6 in Hồ Xuân Hương’s Đền Trấn Quốc:
Một tòa sen lạt hơi hương ngự
Năm thức mây phong điểm áo chấu
Lớp sóng phế hưng coi vẫn rộn
Chuông hồi kim cổ lắng càng mau
(Nguyễn Văn Hanh [No date given]. Hồ Xuân Hương - tác phẩm, thân thế và văn tài, page 99, lines: 3, 4, 5, 6)
Line 3, 4, 5, and 6 in Spring Essence:
Một tòa sen tỏa hơi hương ngự
Năm thức mây phong nếp áo chầu
Lớp sóng phế hưng coi vẫn rộn
Chuông hồi kim cổ lắng 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 chầu’= mandarins’ robe, not the king’s robe as the translator understands, ‘Phế hưng’= decadence and prosperity, ‘Lớp sóng phế hưng’= waves of decadence and prosperity, ‘Hồi chuông kim cổ’= 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. Trấn Quốc Temple).
2) NOT SHOWING Hồ Xuân Hương’S MALICIOUSNESS
Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương to his audience. Yet while John Balaban is well aware of that, Hồ Xuân Hương’s style seems only appeared in few lines through out his whole book of translation. Without Hồ Xuân Hương’s maliciousness and witticism, the translation version will turn out to be shallow a kind of poetry. Take the following poem as example. ‘Mời trầu’ has only four lines. But there is a clever game being played here, in the second line.
Hồ Xuân Hương’s Mời trầu: (lines 1,2)
Quả cau nho nhỏ miếng trầu ôi
Này của Xuân Hương mới quyệt rồi.
(Đào Thái Tôn 1996, 168. Thơ Hồ Xuân Hương từ cộI nguồn vào thế tục. Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục).
The cunning ‘Này của Xuân Hương’ in line 2 ‘Này của Xuân Hương mới quyệt rồi’ is lost in the translation:
"Here, Xuân Hương has smeared it."
(Spring Essence, page 23, line 2.)
‘Này của Xuân Hương mới quyệt rồi’ has a double meaning: Here, the betel leaf Xuân Hương has just smeared (with lime paste), and words are here playing game. English, of course, is able to cope with it: [This here Xuân Hương’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 Hương’s cleverness:
This here Xuân Hương has smeared. (the betel leaf here)
This here Xuân Hương has smeared. (‘here’ understood vulgarly).
This here Xuân Hương’s 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 Hương is smeared. (not applied to the original, this is only showing how the words in the line are playing.)
3) NOT SHOWING hồ xuân hương’S SHARP TONGUE
Hồ Xuân Hương 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 Cợt ông Chiêu Hổ, Vịnh ốc nhồi, Quả mít, Vịnh dương vật, Vịnh đền Sầm Nghi Đống. In ‘Vịnh dương vật’ Hồ Xuân Hương compares the male member with a French gendarme. In ‘Cợt ông Chiêu Hổ’, she attacks man with her sharp tongue:
Này này chị bảo cho mà biết
Chốn ấy hang hùm chớ mó tay .
(Đào Thái Tôn 1996, 168. Thơ Hồ Xuân Hương từ cộI nguồn vào thế tục. Hà Nội: Nhà xuất bản Giáo Dục).
[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 UNNECESSARILY
Somewhere, John Balaban shows his skill when he adds words to where needs be, without cut or change, like in the poem Quả 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 ‘Vịnh quạt giấy’, 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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 ‘đeo’(to carry) sounds a tonal echo of different word to him. Similarly, ‘xuất thế’ sounds ‘xuất 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry. The art ‘nói lái’in Hồ Xuân Hương’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 đâu mà anh ngồi câu đó
Biết có không mà công khó anh ơi.
(following Tôn Thất Bình, Dân ca Bình Trị Thiên, Huế: Nhà xuất bản Thuận Hóa, 1997, page 95)
‘câu đó’ is a spoonerised version of ‘có đâu’
‘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 others 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 ‘đeo’(to carry or to bear) sounds ‘to copulate’. The statement makes me wonder - since an actual landscape in the original always suggested a sexual landscape to the translator, and every sexual like-sounding word suggested a sexual meaning - if the word ‘đèo’ in the following famous folksong, which also appeared in ‘Đèo Ba Dội’, possibly has a tonal echo implying a different meaning.
Chiều chiều dắt mẹ qua đèo
Chim kêu bên nớ, vượn 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 - inoperable in English - comes to play" (Spring Essence, page 11).
From the translator’s purposefulness - his explication of tonal echo, his reading vertically the lines, and his posturing (as seen below), the reader is under the mistaken impression that Hồ Xuân Hương’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, "Dạ qui" [Coming home at midnight] of Chinese poet Đổ Phủ (712-770):
Dạ bán qui lai xung hổ quá
Sơn hắc gia trung dĩ miên ngọa
Bàng kiến bắc đẩu hướng giang đê
Ngưỡng khan minh tinh đương không đại
Đình tiền bả chúc sân lưỡng cự
Giáp khẩu kinh viên văn nhất cá
Bạch đầu lão bãi vũ phục ca
Trượng lê bất trụy, thùy năng nả?
(Phạm Doanh 1999, page 310. Thơ Đổ Phủ, thơ Đường tuyển dịch, Tập 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 (hồng, 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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 ‘trơ’= ‘lonely, motionless, still’ at the very beginning of the second line. And it comes as a surprise to me when the translator assumes that Hồ Xuân Hương plays on her family name and her name in line 4 and line 7. ‘Vầng trăng bóng xế’, ‘trăng bóng xế’, ‘xuân đi xuân lại’ 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 ‘Hồ’ she must play with the words ‘cổ’(old) and ‘nguyệt’(moon). The word ‘xế’ in the line 4 is not ‘cổ’(old), it’s ‘inclining’; ‘trăng xế’ is ‘setting moon’. The posturing is seen in many more endnotes. Take, as examples, John Balaban gives endnote to The Unwed Mother: [Quote: "Additionally, ‘đầu dọc’ 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 Hồ Xuân Hương seems to support: Không chồng mà chửa mới ngoan/ có chồng mà chửa thế gian sự thường" (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 ‘thiếp’, 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 ‘đầu dọc’ 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: ‘Mẹ đừng mần đĩ chửa hoang/ Cho làng bắt vạ/ Cho xã nộp cheo’ (following Đinh Gia Khánh-Chu Xuân Diên, Văn Học Dân Gian, tập 2, Nhà xuất bản Đại học và Trung học chuyên nghiệp, Hà Nội 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 ‘chơi xuân’ a hint: ‘to make Xuân or to have sex with Xuân’ (‘chơi’ has a double meaning: ‘to play" and ‘to make, to have sex with’). In fact, ‘chơi xuân’, a cliché, could be found in folkverse: ‘tháng bảy tôi đi chơi xuân/ ở đây lập hội trống quân tôi vào’ (following Đinh Gia Khánh - Chu Xuân Diên, Văn Học Dân Gian, Tập 2, Hà-Nội: Nhà xuất bản Đại học và Trung học Chuyên nghiệp, 1977).‘Chơi xuân’ also appeared in Nguyễn Khuyến’s poetry: ‘Chơi xuân kẻo hết xuân đi, cái già xồng xộc nó thì theo sau’. (Nguyễn Khuyến -1835-1910). In "The Pharmacist’s Widow Mourns His Death" ‘thiếp’ 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 ‘mấy bồ’ 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 ‘Lấy chồng chung’, John Balaban has been tempted to seize every single opportunity to intimate the sense of sexuality. Despite being aware of Ềmany dangers for a translator of Hồ Xuân Hương (Spring Essence, page 11), he is driving the original "too far toward one pole of meaning" (Spring Essence, page 11).
Đưa tay với thử trời cao thấp
Xoạc cẳng đo xem đất vắn dài!
[I raised my hand trying for the height of Heaven
Spread wide my legs measuring the Earth’s length.]
The young lady Hồ Xuân Hương, daughter of Hồ Sĩ Danh of Quỳnh Đôi 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:
Một đàn thằng ngọng đứng xem chuông
Chúng bảo nhau rằng: ấy 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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 Hồ Xuân Hương 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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry, and destabilises the other self of her poems which is for other purposes. Does not the woman in ‘Phận đàn 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 nước’ mock man monitoring and controlling woman? Do we know the author intention? If the poem ‘Lấy chồng chung’, and the likes are the complaints about Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s sexual revolt. [Quote: "Lacking this, Hồ Xuân Hương had to settle for shelter and sex" (Spring Essence, page 8)]. Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry. In Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương’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 Hồ Xuân Hương a right place in the literary world. In fact, we have only a "Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương" 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 Hồ Xuân Hương. But 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.
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Nhà Văn N.SaoMai hiện chủ biên một tạp chí Anh Ngữ The Writers Post http://www.thewriterspost.net, chuyên dịch và giới thiệu những sáng tác của các tác giả Việt Nam (đặc biệt tại hải ngoại) đến với các độc giả Anh Ngữ.