The following contribution is from Kelly Morse, a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. From 2009 to 2011 she lived in Hanoi, Vietnam, and returned in 2012 on a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship after receiving her MFA in poetry from Boston University. Most recently, her work has been nominated for Best of the Net 2014, and she will be a resident at the Vermont Studio Center in 2015. More about her work can be found at http://www.kelly-morse.com.
Vietnamese poetry has a rich history of dual identity, where seemingly innocuous subject matter is laced with an underlying ribald poke at cultural mores. Being a tonal language, structurally Vietnamese operates by “every syllable [having] a linguistic pitch that creates the semantic meaning”. While not every syllable is assigned all six tones to create six different words, there is an incredible amount of overlap.
The most famous example of the tonal system trotted out to impress Western people at parties is the Chinese ‘ma’ chain. Here is the Vietnamese version:
ma – ghost
má – mother
mà – but (formal register)
mả – tomb
mã – horse
mạ – rice seedling
This system generates a perfect atmosphere for word play, important in a culture where many topics are referred to only obliquely. For example, Vietnamese joke about sex constantly—just not directly. Instead, there are references to suggestive foods, natural scenery, or words that echo another meaning entirely. The most well-known poet who perfected the art of the extended sexual metaphor was Hồ Xuân Hương, whose seventeenth century poems ‘The Paper Fan’ and ‘Three Mountain Pass’ echo with images of young concubines.
Lý Đợi is a contemporary Vietnamese poet who satirizes basically every social, political, and moral pillar of Vietnamese society—which is why his work is censored. One of his poems, titled “Steamed,” takes the form of a Buddhist cemetery meditation that lists thirty-two ways of dying. In keeping with this classic form, at the end of each description of a way to die is the word “death,” modified with an emotion or action in its “most extreme” state.
Some of these most extreme states of death cross over easily into English, but others become awkward when translated literally. Below is a line that can stay more or less identical in both languages:
Lâu ngày không được xuất binh, BUỒN chết
Lâu ngày (for) a long time
không được not okay/acceptable
xuất binh to go to battle (tonal pun with xuất tinh – to ejaculate)
BUỒN signifies negative emotion, usually sadness or boredom
Not allowed for weeks to go into battle: Bored to Death
And here is a line where I chose a less literal translation:
Bị bắn xuống đất, TÉ chết
Bị prefix that signals negative connotation towards the action
bắn to fire/shoot
xuống go down, onto
TÉ to fall
This line could be translated as “Was shot onto the ground: Falling Death,” but I instead chose:
Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier
Why? In translating this line, I played up an aspect of the poem that non-Vietnamese wouldn’t know, but that is integral to understanding the underlying joke: as the reader goes along, she realizes this oh-so-serious meditation is narrated from the point of view of sperm. This revelation comes via innuendos, creating tension between the form’s original intention and its misuse. Colloquially, sperm are referred to as soldiers while the man is either the general or boss. By the fourth or fifth “death” a native speaker would be in on the joke, so I strove for the same in the translation.
According to this Vietnamese metaphor for conception, these soldiers are on a mission to meet a princess who will either give them an egg or not, depending on their worthiness—a reference to the Vietnamese origin myth. While the egg backstory can’t be explained without seriously adapting the text, the image of soldiers contemplating their questionable deaths is more directly situated in the poem, through words like “battle,” “post,” and “general.” By applying English clichés that double as puns for the deaths, I hope to signal the elasticity of the language inherent in the piece, and to re-insert humor sometimes lost in the (mostly) literal translation.
- Not allowed to go into battle for a long time: Bored to Death
- Refrain all day long until at last given the okay to leave one’s post: Happy Ending
- A hundred million poor brothers rushing up together: Death of a 1,000 Elbows
- After charging ahead, find out the general only planned to liberate himself: Wrongful Death
- Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier
- Shot against a wall: Rough and Ready Death
- Wiped with toilet paper: Left Out to Dry Death
- After a good polishing, to yet again be tossed aside like garbage: Death Stinks
. . .
- Given one egg: Proud Papa Death
- Given two eggs: Majestic Swan Dive Death
- Refused an egg: Walk of Shame Death
I couldn’t have done this translation, full stop, without my co-translator Nga Ly Hiền Nguyen. Without her, the underlying meaning of the poem would have been lost in English.
Below is another example that demonstrates the duality of the language. How would you translate it?
Chủ nhân suốt ngày bôn ba lách luật, CẠN KIỆT chết
Chủ nhân boss/general
suốt ngày all day long
bôn ba to run after wealth/honors
lách to make one’s way (pun – to slip through a slit)
luật the law
CẠN KIỆT deplete
 Balaban, John. “Translating Vietnamese Poetry.” The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 2004. Print.
“The Untranslatables” is a series on M-Blog about those words or phrases that give us pause as translators, that stump us and then, sometimes, enlighten us. In other words, those fragments of a text that can be so hard to translate but also so utterly satisfying when and if we finally find a way to say in our language close to what they mean in another one. If you would like to contribute an “Untranslatable” story to M-Blog, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.