Translation from Vietnamese by Jack J. Huynh
The works translated [here and in forthcoming postings on Poems and Poetics] represent a new trend in contemporary Vietnamese poetry - a push by many young writers towards freedom of expression in art. Without the required permission of the Ministry of Culture and Information, these writers have chosen to test the limits by publishing their work independently. These ‘samizdats’ are distributed by hand only and are not permitted to be sold in bookstores. Giấy Vụn publishing house, founded by Bùi Chát in 2002, was the first of its kind. Following its success and international recognition, various other independent publishing houses have begun to appear. Giấy Vụn began by publishing the work of the Open Mouth group, work they dubbed ‘pavement poetry', ‘garbage poetry'. In post-1975 Vietnam, obscenity is not permitted in printed works, so it was quite significant for these writers to publish works containing obscene language, sexual references and ‘corrupt sentiments’. They endeavored to write poetry which reflected everyday spoken Vietnamese, to reject conventions of formal written language and Quốc ngữ (the ‘National script’). Their work contains slang, misspellings and language play which cannot meet approval by the censorship boards, it is not ‘proper’ poetry. They are among the very first Vietnamese writers to experiment with poetic form and to deviate entirely from poetry as a ‘fine art’. Rejecting traditional writing styles, they have opened up the doors to experimentation, irreverence and freedom of expression in Vietnamese literature.
Context & Challenges:
The translation of Vietnamese into English provides a number of significant challenges. The structure of the Vietnamese language, and in particular the semantic constructions of compound works, are essentially inimitable in English for a number of reasons. Numerous words in Vietnamese can have as many as fifteen to twenty independent meanings determined solely by context. With the use of word play in poetry, it is practically impossible to translate a fraction of the implied meanings and connotations from Vietnamese into English. As with all translation work, one must make decisions and accept some loss of richness in meaning due to the nature of language. In addition, these selections contain a multitude of cultural and historical references which require a fore-knowledge of Vietnam in order to understand. For example, Lý Đợi's poem “First Dish: Boiled” would be understood much more richly if one were accustomed to the eating habits of the northern Vietnamese as well as their penchant for witty sayings concerning boiling. And, without saying, it is impossible to translate the Vietnamese system of pronoun address, in which the titles of both speaker and listener are dependent on age and interpersonal relationships. Whereas English uses “You" and “I", the Vietnamese language requires all conversants to identify themselves in relation to their listener(s) with a naming system based upon family relationships. This aspect colors the Vietnamese language in a way that is inexpressible to the same extent in English.
Four poems by Bùi Chát follow.
Four poems by Bùi Chát follow.
exercise to unify the grammifying lexicon/a silence which merits
[not afraid of rejection: following khuc duy & le on]
oedipe: almost hidden [hermetic] enclosure [forge, hammer]
ondines: snake of uraeus
orphée: sieve, sift
ouroboros: hatchet mouth of weasel
oh![outskirts/parasol]: a box to keep valuables
umbrella: a rolling gait
beech, holly: tortoise
bellows, blowgun: wash, shampoo
genie bottle, spirit bong: jungle
ventilator: trunk [chest]
leaky pipe: honey liquor
deception/negligence & a sleeping mat of woven reeds [royal proclamation]*references for scrutiny*
 shimmy up a guava tree [impartial, disinterested] pick flower blossoms [merry, radiant]
 stroll down into the lily garden [Hue]
 pluck the bud of adolescence [purple squid/newly attained adulthood]
 bud of adolescence [blue squid/age just begun ailing]
 poke one’s tongue out slightly [gently]
 you’ve sold your self already [to who, to who]
 me... [?]
 ashen face! [easily frightened]
 [well well] !!!!
 cover the money for an airplane [though a boat would also work]
 why don’t you splurge [safe-deposit box]
 moment/time when things were intact [longingly recall]
 now you’ve had wholeness [money]
 like a bird flies [hard to lay]
 like a fish beneath the river water [hard to swim]
 fish in the river still to be caught [speak truly]
 so how to catch the fish in a tank [speak the truth]
 which returns to scale the top of the tree [radiant once again]
 sit and await the flowers’ bloom [a dream life]
 extend the hand to touch the branch/& leaves [pity, condolence, grief]
Source: [from the index of entries: o & r]. global dictionary of cultural symbolism (appendix) – da nang publishing house, literary school of nguyen du – october.1997
Bùi Chát, “bài tập liên kết ngữ vựng/sự im lặng đáng sợ”, from Tháng tư gãy súng (April Breaks Guns)
“How can oneCrave dog meat but
We yearn for human meat”
From water (country) The many compositions
Land of scorpions on Thermos bottles As
The foot stamps on the ground
We begin The world
A set of protruding buck-teeth
A pair of ass cheeks covered in furuncles
Eat gruel in order to
Fight the seed sowers
- Bùi Chát, “Mở miệng”, from Xáo chộn chong ngày (Disturbance in the day)
Can’t consume me like brand name MSG
the day when one could rest
they put me in a jar hidden away
smoke wafts scents & clotted curds
i chat with my asshole
- Bùi Chát, “Jải fáp”, from Xáo chộn chong ngày (Disturbance in the day)
every time I trip and fall / I
stand on my cock and push myself up
- Bùi Chát, “bí kíp”, from Cái lồn bở đi (Tossed away cunt)
Bùi Chát is the founder and publishing head of Giấy Vụn (Scrap Paper), an independent publishing house in Sài Gòn which publishes poetry and other literature without approval from the government censorship authorities. In 2011, Chát was awarded the IPA Freedom to Publish Prize ‘for his exemplary courage in upholding the freedom to publish’. Chát is also a major figure in the Mở Miệng (Open Mouth) poetry group, along with his university classmate Lý Đợi, a freelance journalist and poet whose work is included in future selections.
Jack J. Huynh is a literary scholar and researcher currently living and working in Sài Gòn. He arrived in Vietnam in 2006 and, through his interest in contemporary Vietnamese literature, became close friends with many members of the Sài Gòn underground art scene. He has worked on several performance art pieces at the Khoan Cắt Bê Tông group space in Thủ Đức district, HCMC. Currently, Huynh divides his time between playing music, directing short films, fixing his motorbike and translating poetry.
note. The translator of these works (Jack James Huynh) has the explicit permission of the authors and publishers of these poems to publish these translations, as well as the original work.
The first of the poems posted above apeared previously in Asymptote, a new international journal dedicated to literary translation.
[to be continued]