Tag: vietnamese

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)

Your semi-hemi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


Bonus: two proverbs!
“Bụng làm, dạ chịu”: “the stomach makes, the heart/mind bears”. Insofar as I can tell, you reap what you sow (or maybe it should be you are what you eat”?. Bonus more usual proverb: “Gieo gió, gặp bão”: “sow the wind, meet the storm”.

In other news, I have learnt more vocabulary by translating a fairy tale (Mỵ Nương and Trương Chi). I’m pretty sure mandarin ranks of Ancient Việt Nam are of no practical use, but “hát” (to sing) could conceivably come in handy. Still torn over words like “cung” (palace, temple), ngôi (throne), and “nhan sắc tuyệt trần” (exceptional, divine beauty), but who knows, I might need them some day…

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Chở củi về rừng”: “carrying wood into the forest/jungle”. Doing useless things (like “carrying coal to Newcastle”, an English proverb I learnt at the same time as the Vietnamese one). Hahaha, that one is hilarious.

In other news, I have 3k words on the novel. One of my fave characters just showed up (great cook, good sense of humour, major temper. What’s not to love). Just one more scene, and I’ll be done with chapter 1!

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Tèo cao, té nặng”: “the higher you climb, the greater you fall” (“climb high, fall heavy”). As lapidary as usual 🙂

Not much progress those past two weeks, other than listen to tapes (parents away on holiday). I can confirm my written comprehension is fairly good as long as we’re talking basics (asking people’s names, ordering in a restaurant, managing train tickets, etc.). However, oral comprehension still sucks (mostly, people are talking too fast for me to parse). Continuing my drills with the FSI tapes, and hoping that something clicks at some point.

In other sort-of-related language news, I finished Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems, and his translation of Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều (Truyện Kiều), one of the major works of Vietnamese literature. Kiều was particularly interesting, because it’s a bilingual edition that’s heavily annotated, and it was really interesting to see the notes and compare with the text (not, you know, that I understood more than a few words here and there, but I could see some of how it was all pieced together). Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s scholarship is fairly impressive, and it’s full of fascinating tidbits (also very fascinating to see how the novel echoes the original Chinese work while clearly forging its own specific identity). Also, even though it’s a metaphor for scholars (the woman who doesn’t know who to entrust her fate to represents the scholars unsure of where their allegiances should lie), it’s really nice to have a woman main character in a tale. In many ways, it reminded me of Dream of Red Mansions;: the content is very different, but it’s also ostensibly focused on domesticity and the upheavals in daily lives in a way that the more martial novels aren’t.

Also, at some point I will post a report of the Bucharest event, once I have actually sat down and written it…

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Tiền nào của nấy”: “you get what you pay for” (lit. “such money, such merchandise”). With thanks to Grandma for that one 🙂

Two plus sides: I’m slowly starting to make myself understood by other people; and as a related issue, I’m also reading much faster (obviously, since Mom doesn’t scream every two words that I got the pronunciation wrong). Not really perfect yet, but he, I’ll take what I can get.

Funny stuff: I used to have an awful lot of trouble with the descending accent (the one in “nào”) because I confused it with the neutral; now I *still* have a lot of trouble with it, but I confuse it with the *other* descending accent (the one in “mẹ”, which has a longer duration and goes to a lower pitch). Can we take that as a sign that I know how to descend tones on a word? (rather than a sign of regression 😉 ).

Was trying to tranlate Tấm and Cam as a language learning exercise, but I think I’ll turn to Trương Chi and Mỵ Nương–they’re both fairytales I know very well, but Trương Chi is like, ten times shorter? I think I need an easy one before tackling the longest fairytale in the book…

Return of the killer Vietnamese


So, just switched my language tapes from the course Mom and I are reading from, to the older Foreign Service Institute ones–which have the huge advantage of actually having a (60ies pre-war) Southern accent. And I finally figured out why I had so much problems with terminal consonants (which always have Mom shake her head at me). I’d worked out a while ago that terminal consonants in the Southern accent were not pronounced as you’d expect, ie by analogy with the same consonants in non-terminal positions (which is the case in Northern accent, incidentally). However, every time I opened my mouth, I seemed to come up with a different version of fail.

So, the good point: there’s a logic. The bad point: most pronunciations appear to have very little to do with what I expect as a French/English speaker. And they depend on the vowel immediately preceding the consonant, which explains why I could never work out a consistent system (I naively expected that one consonant=>one pronunciation).

To give you a couple of examples:
-“-p” (like in “tập”: volume, tome, episode): mostly sensible, pronounced like a “p”
-“-ch” (like in “thích”: love, like): always pronounced “t”
-“-t” (like “tết”: New Year, “một”: one, “cắt”: cut) much less intuitive. If after “i” or “ê”, pronounced “t” (except for the very particular diphtong “iết”, which is pronounced sort of like “beerc”). If after “ô” or “u”, pronounced sort of halfway between “p” and “k”. If after any vowel not previously mentioned (or after the aforementioned “iế”), then pronounce it like a throaty “k”.

And then you wonder why I could never work out terminal consonants… (and I have a suspicion this is an simplification to help language learners get it more or less right…)


Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Có công mài sắt, có ngày nên kim”: “If you work hard enough at sharpening iron, one day you’ll have a needle” (literally “Put effort [into] sharpen[ing] iron, have one day in the end [a] needle”). Basically, insofar as I can tell, the closest equivalent would be that nothing is obtained without hard work. Again, I’m pretty sure of my translation, a lot less sure about my reading of the proverb.

Progress continues apace; I’m turning to vocabulary words that might actually be useful out there, namely: “nhà băng” (bank), “thông hành” (passport), and “khách sạn” (hotel). My vocabulary continues to be overwhelmingly focused on food, though: at the very least, menu-reading isn’t going to be a problem (nor is ordering, at least if they don’t answer back…).

Had last lesson before leaving; if nothing else, it confirmed that boy, I need to work on my neutral and short-descending accent (and my diphtongs and my “th”, and so on, and so forth). Should be fun…

That’s it from me. Don’t know how much internet I’m going to have over there (it’s not that there isn’t any, but rather that we might be busy). See you in two weeks?

Your hemi-semi-weekly Vietnamese proverb


“Cái nết đánh chết cái dẹp.”: “Good behaviour trumps [lit. “beat to death”; I’m assuming it means “utterly triumphs over” rather than “bludgeon to death”] beauty”. Again, could be wrong; this was me with a dictionary and the vocab I learnt so far (actually, literally, I think it means something like “the good behaviour thing beats to death the beautiful thing”, but obviously it’s a little awkward that way).

Meaning pretty much self-evident.

Also, I managed to say the equivalent of “I speak a little Vietnamese, here are the words I know” over twitter and not get laughed at! (it did pose a funny set of problems, because the pronoun “I” depends on the perceived age of your interlocutor, and the pronoun “you” depends on their age and gender. Now guess what you do when you have neither? Flounder, quite obviously… [1]) It’s amusing how the internet generates new sorts of language problems that you never really think about…

Words learnt: 150 (plus stuff I don’t consciously learn, such as food and funky pronouns. See “mình”, the pronoun used between husband and wife, which also has the meaning of “body”). It has occurred to me that part of the problem with this %%% language is that it’s the first language I learnt that is so distant from French: English and Spanish both have a striking number of similarities with French, especially for newspaper speak. For instance, I can understand a sentence like “The Prime Minister of Great Britain declared that the crisis in the eurozone…” even if I didn’t know all the words, because so many of them are similar to French. Now, in Vietnamese, “prime minister” is “thủ thống”, “declare” is “tuyên bố”–and let’s not even get into “eurozone”… You do have surprise words: “súp” is “soup”, “phó mát” is “cheese” (aka “fromage”), “nhà ga” is “station” (aka “gare”. “nhà” is just “house, building”); but far fewer you’d have in Spanish (where I can fake understanding of a lot of words, because hey, Romance languages!). I have to reach for the dictionary every two words on a good day (and even more than that, because the grammar is so different from French and the whole act of translating really requires firing neurons in the right mindset. Kind of reminds me of Ancient Greek, actually. In worse…

[1]Not totally true. There is a neutral and uncomfy pronoun “I”, “tôi”, which I can use for those cases. And, if the speaker is around my age bracket, “bạn” (friend), has the advantage of being genderless (but it’ll piss off someone much older than me really fast). Bit awkward, but hey.

Your hemi-semi weekly Vietnamese proverb


“báo chết để da, người ta chết để tiếng”
A panther when dead leaves behind a skin; a man [lit. people] when dead leaves behind a name/reputation/words.

Pretty. Also, I learnt lots of new words 🙂

I’d like to think my vocabulary is improving, but 3 words a day isn’t very efficient to build up vocab (mind you, with me putting in about 15-30 min per day, I don’t reckon I can get more efficient than this). I got myself an Oxford picture dictionary English/Vietnamese; the unfortunate bit being that it’s for Vietnamese immigrants to Western countries, and therefore it uses English concepts: it’s OK for most everyday words, but it lacks Vietnamese syntax, and the concepts that are different just aren’t explained: the various kinds of uncles just get lumped under the same English word (yes, there are four words to describe uncles in Vietnamese: cậu, bác, chú, dượng respectively brother of mother, elder brother of father, younger brother of father, and any uncles that have married into the family rather than being linked to it by blood). So not quite what I want to be studying intensively…

In other news, work has started again on the novella that wouldn’t die (complete redraft), so I’m going to be scarce this week. And, hum, the week after (which is Christmas anyway).