(Poetic) Cultural Capital

So Paul Hoover sails off to Vietnam for two weeks, meets with a few writers, makes connections, comes home & publishes an anthology, Black Dog, Black Night, of 20th century Vietnamese poetry. I shopped around a similar book in 2001 when I returned from a year in Vietnam -- my fifth trip to the country -- without success. Hoover's is not a bad book, though his Vietnamese co-translator Nguyen Do tends to choose the abstract or explanatory phrase over the concrete one remarkably often. The translations in Six Vietnamese Poets are much more beautifully translated, perhaps because the American poets who worked on the translations troubled themselves to learn at least some Vietnamese -- quite a lot of Vietnamese in a couple of cases. Poetry International did publish a selection of my translations in its 5th issue in 2001, though they are not available online. I spent whole days walking around Hanoi, talking to people, mostly children -- who were patient with my broken Vietnamese -- & worked closely with many of the poets. As far as I can tell, Hoover cleaned up literal versions given to him by Nguyen Do. Here are two translations of a poem by Hoang Hung, with whom I worked closely on his own and others' poems:
The Smell of Rain or a Poem Belonging to M
The tears of humankind surround our house. Lying down beside me, you tell a sad story from deep in your heart, only now disclosed like a suggestion from this amazing rain no one has seen before. For thousands of nights, rain makes the darkness white. You miss my scent passionately, as a cow misses excrement and garbage, but I lost my scent from lying on strange floors. All that remains is the smell of the rain, like the smell of fear at night. Do you still love me, and how long will it last? If you get angry and hate me, how long will it last? For fifteen years, we haven't fully understood our own hearts. Rain floods the first floor. We climb to the top floor to listen to the rain. Pouring ironacally on the roof and wish, while listening, that we may die. [Nguyen Do / Paul Hoover] === Smell of Rain or Poem of M All the tears of the world surround our house tonight. You lie against me and the rain is falling Like nothing we have ever seen -- you begin to tell me the sad stories You have buried in your heart for years: It rained for thousands of nights turning the darkness white. Like the cow remembering dung, I went crazy remembering your smell, Which you lost lying on anonymous floors leaving me only nights of rain and the smell of tears. Do you still love me? How far does your love go? How far resentment and anger? Fifteen years are hardly enough to understand our hearts. The constant rain has flooded the ground floor. Upstairs we lie under the eaves listening to rain beating on the metal roof. May death come while we lie here together listening to this rain. [Hoang Hung / Joseph Duemer]
The poem is autobiographical, narrating the poet's return from jail. (Hung was imprisoned for possessing a banned manuscript in the 1980s.) The second stanza is spoken by the wife who has been waiting at home for the speaker to return, a turn completely missed by Hoover's translation, which also implies that the speaker has been absent fifteen year, an impossibility clear to anyone familiar with this text's cultural location. The fifteen years, in fact, refers to the period of time Kieu, the heroine of Nguyen Du's 19th century epic The Tale of Kieu, is separated from her true love. Any Vietnamese reader would have seen this instantly -- one wonders why Nguyen Do didn't clue Hoover in. There are quite a few poems in the Hoover volume that I have also translated, but I haven't had a chance to look at them closely. Perhaps I'll post a couple more sets for comparison over the next few days. Later: Here is another example by the same poet, the first version translated by Nguyen Do & Paul Hoover, the second by Hoang Hung & myself. Again, the speaker has returned home after being held in prison on political charges:
A Man Returning Home He is home from That His wife cries all night, his kids are confused all day Home from That when he walks through the door his friends' faces are ashen Home from That he feels an itch on the back of his head in the midst of a crowd as if someone is watching One year later, he suddenly chokes during a party Two years later, he sweats from his nightmares Three years later, he feels pity for a lizard Years later, he has the habit of sitting alone in darkness Some days, he feels a stranger's penetrating stare Some nights, an aimless voice asks questions He jumps at a touch to his shoulder [Nguyen Do / Paul Hoover} === The Man Who Came Back He came back from that far country to find his wife in tears all night and his children bewildered all day He came back from that far country to see his friends turn pale at his apparition He came back from that far country and in the crowded street he has shivers at the back of his neck After a year he will still choke in the midst of a party After two years he still wakes in a sweat from nightmares After three years a white lizard remains in his memory After ten years he continues the habit of sitting alone in darkness A day comes when he is tired of their staring A night comes when a soft voice questions him A tap on the shoulder startles him [Hoang Hung / Joseph Duemer]
I am not claiming that my choices are always superior to the Do / Hoover versions, but I would say that my versions are generally more idiomatic and often more syntactically graceful & clear. Because Hoover doesn't really know the culture, the literary politics, nor any of the language (I presume), he has relied too heavily on his co-translator's "literal" versions. (Except that there is no such thing as a literal version.) The result is that he sometimes imports the awkwardness of a non-native speaker into his diction, to the detriment of the poems.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

5 thoughts on “(Poetic) Cultural Capital”

  1. maybe you’ll find this poem of mine (incl in my new collection MINDWALKING) of interest. edward mycue

    1. Gloaming
    Leaves drift
    where after fall
    a steady breeze
    preludes eternity.
    Green hills lie naked.
    Here left alone
    at autumn’s end,
    pacific on its surface,
    trees are singing with a broken mouth.
    The ocean’s cut in stone.
    Some rain had come and softened sunset.
    Above, the hills are peopled
    and below, the foam ebbs.
    Night brings a sensual chorus, chaos.
    Haze upon the sea, the brain
    weaves moments into daze.
    Drenched in longing, a single rose appears.
    Here in the tower I wait
    swelling earlier than late.

    I wait for you.
    I watch the dawn.
    On what road
    are you traveling here?
    I came to San Francisco
    as did you. We met
    and started life again.
    You have been away
    and here I wait for your return.


  2. . . . hardly surprising that yours are superior to his tourist versions . . .

    but you’d have to admit that his *Po-Biz* skills are greater than yours, which is why his book of “translations” is published and yours isn’t . . .

    a careerist is not that different from a tourist . . . we have to give him credit for his “agent entrepreneur” swath . . .

  3. Bill, thanks for the vote of confidence. Nice to have you stop by. One of the issues in Vietnamese cultural politics right now is how to be an artist outside the Soviet-Confucian bureaucracy–it’s possible, but those artist have to make a real effort. Our American arts career ladder is somewhat more open. Somewhat.

    By the way, for what it’s worth, I have a distinct memory of my first encounter with your work: I was managing an x-rated movie theater in Seattle in the mid seventies & had picked up The Naomi Poems, I think, because I’d read an interview with James Wright where he recommended them. Can that be right? Anyway, I remember sitting in the greasy office that opened on the box office, opening the book and thinking, “I didn’t know you could do this!”

  4. I’d love to see more of your translations, whether they are poems also appearing in Hoover’s volume or not!

    Incidentally to your incidentally, that was how I discovered Bill’s work too… not the X-rated theater part. He has many, many more great poems that he is publishing himself.

Comments are closed.