Vietnamese poetry 101


Aka, why make it simple when I can make it complicated…

One of the things I really love about a language is listening to the music of its poetry/folk songs/etc. (I spent a lot of my formative years in English reading the Norton Anthology of Poetry); and it’s always fascinating to see how different languages approach poetry, even though it means that poetry has to be the most untranslatable form of text. Vietnamese poetry doesn’t put quite so much emphasis on rhyme as French poetry (mostly, I suspect, because it’s really easy to make words rhyme in Vietnamese). The major feature is how it uses the tonal system to create its patterns, and it takes great advantage of the language’s conciseness to deliver its punch. I can’t really pretend I understand much of how it works, being only a novice, but here’s my attempt at dissecting a poem.

The source is John Balaban’s Ca Dao Viet Nam, basically folk songs from the villages; the poem itself is interesting in that any attempt at faithful translation is bound to be much, much longer than the original, not only because of the language issue, but also because the text itself is filled with Buddhist imagery that doesn’t translate all that well in English.

“Thức tỉnh hồn mê tiếng chuông Linh Mụ
Dặn dò nợ trần duyên rửa sạch
Qua đò đã tây phương.”

“Thức tỉnh hồn mê tiếng chuông Linh Mụ”
“Thức tỉnh” is “to be enlightened, to see reason”; “hồn” is “soul”, mê” is “unaware, unconscious”, I think in the sense that said soul hasn’t been enlightened yet. “tiếng chuông” is “the peal of a bell” (but in this context, it’s interesting to see that “tiếng” also means language). Linh Mụ is a famous pagoda in Huế.
So the sentence would translate something like “The sound of Linh Mu’s bell awakens the unmindful soul”

“Dặn dò nợ trần duyên rửa sạch”
Dặn dò is “advise, recommend”, “nợ” is a debt (a karmic debt, in this context), “trần” I’m not too sure of (the dictionary suggests “ceiling”, “maximum”). “duyên” is a completely untranslatable Vietnamese word that means “bound to meet as lovers or friends [in a future life]”. “rửa sạch” is “wash”. So probably something like “Reminds it to incur no debt, washes it clean of worldly bounds”

“Qua đò đã tây phương”
“Qua đò” is “cross over/board a ferry”, “đã” is the past indicator, and “tây phương” is the Western Place, a Buddhist paradise. So “[has] already crossed over to the Western Place”. What’s missing is the subject of the actual sentence–from context I’m assuming it’s “the soul” of the first sentence, but I could be wrong…

So, putting it all together, should be
“The sound of Linh Mu’s bell awakens the unmindful soul
Reminds it to incur no debt, washes it clean of worldly bounds
Helps it to reach the Western Place”

And you pretty much see why this is hard-as-nails to translate properly, as I had to leave half the meanings out of the translation; not to mention that this is a really ugly translation, word-wise…

(Of course, I never pretended to be a very good translator, and poetry is as hard as nails to get–there’s a couple words I’m not sure I understand properly, and while I understand every word in the last sentence I’m not entirely too sure my interpretation is the one that’d most likely occur to a native speaker. But I figured it’d be fun to share my struggles)


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