Volume 9 (Spring 2015)

     That the muses have been significantly female for male poets ever since the Greeks gave them names suggests something a bit sexy about poetry. This unoriginal observation of course ignores gender and sexual orientation, but I nonetheless want to pursue it metaphorically as a way of thinking about my own experiences as a translator. This seems especially appropriate because this is a kind of anniversary year for my serious involvement in translation, and thus a good time to explore the question of how my translation love affair has itself translated into twenty years of long-distance marriage.

     Like many people, I began translating in the least inspired and most ego-driven way. Reading a bilingual translation of a Latin American poet, I thought: Hey, I can do better than that! It wasn't so much that I loved the poem as that I did not love the translation and thought that I could better it. Pure narcissism.     

     During the next few years, which I might call my translating adolescence, I continued to translate from Spanish, the language I knew best; I practiced on Neruda, whom I did indeed love, but with whom a lasting relationship was out of the question: way too much competition! I translated a number of poems by a German poet I met at an artists' colony, refreshing my college German in the process, and then some poems by Dacia Maraini, a poet whose poems helped me learn Italian. But though these translating relationships lasted long enough and went deep enough to assume the status of love affairs—and I should note that there were a number of one-night stands along the way—the love was still at least somewhat ego-driven: perhaps most of all, I was pleased with what I was learning, and what I was making.  

     But I believe that there is, in translation, true and lasting love as well. And though I'm less inclined to believe in love at first sight, that's what I experienced when I encountered a poem called “October,” by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Quang Thieu (Nguyễn Quang Thiều). I was teaching at the Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences in Boston, where, since 1989, American poets and writers, many of them veterans, have come for two weeks each summer, joined by several visiting writers from Vietnam. Thieu was one of the visitors that year, and one day he brought me his own English version of a poem and asked if I could help.  

     What he brought me wasn't yet a translation, but it's what I fell in love with, which is pretty miraculous: since I knew no Vietnamese, all I could see and hear was this rough imitation—a poem, really, in no language at all. But even in this rough version the poem took me to Vietnam as nothing I had read had done—and, as a protestor against what we call the Vietnam War, I had read a great deal.  As in the beginning of many love affairs, I was drawn partly to what was familiar: the poem was about the poet's childhood experience of tending buffalo in a rice field, and since I grew up in Iowa, I could make my own mental translation from rice field to corn field. But I was also drawn to what was different, which in this case was what I had longed for without knowing I longed for it: the country of Vietnam, which at the time I had never visited, was emerging for me in the words of the poem.

     Thinking at first that I would simply “help” the poet with a few poems, I soon found myself fully established as co-translator. This was dumb, I thought: why didn't I translate from languages I knew something about? From “I can do better than that,” I had moved to “I can't do this at all.” And so, like many in love, I did some things I never expected to do, including messing up my already crammed schedule by going to a Vietnamese class at Harvard every morning at 9:00 AM.  

     But day by day, poem by poem, the love affair deepened, as I moved from poems of Thieu's childhood to poems of mature reflection. Again, there were points of connection, in poems of family, ancestry, and love itself. But again, there was difference. Even before I went to Vietnam two years later, I experienced a landscape that included not only ricefields but also water buffalo, rivers with unfamiliar fish, the poet's native village with its oil lamps and barking dogs. I experienced Vietnamese culture and history, went to a Vietnamese funeral with horns and drums, experienced the after effects of war in an almost ghostlike procession of war widows, listened to crickets and grasshoppers, peered into a jar of snake alcohol—all through a kind of gentle surrealism that made the world of Vietnam both vividly clear and magically transporting. I also experienced emotions that were both familiar and unfamiliar, learning most deeply to respect sadness in a way that Americans, so intent on what our Declaration of Independence calls the Pursuit of Happiness, rarely do.

     I continue to love Nguyen Quang Thieu's poems, but by the time we had published our book of co-translations, other translators—friends of mine—were courting Thieu as well. So in what might seem like an act of betrayal but which now seems to me to be part of the same love affair, I turned my attention to another Vietnamese poet. This relationship, too, began as a kind of love at first sight: I met Lam Thi My Da (Lâm Thị Mỹ Dạ) on my first trip to Vietnam, and I liked her very much. But this relationship had a deeper level of attraction as well. I had spent the Vietnam War trying to imagine what the Vietnamese people we were fighting against were like; in particular, I tried to imagine a woman my age: what would she be doing? So when I met Lam Thi My Da and began to read her poems, my imagination had already created a space she was waiting to fill. My Da was not directly involved in the fighting, but her wartime life was infused with the war. “Night Harvest” depicts twelve women working in the ricefields at night, where “The golds of rice and cluster-bombs blend together” but where “Even delayed-fuse bombs bring no fear.”  As in this poem, my experience of Vietnamese landscape and life continued to grow: with the poet, and with the essential help of my co-translator Thuy Dinh, I reflected on areca and camphor trees (once I had looked them up and learned what they were); with her, I watched a village waking up, as in these lines:


     The rooster fills his lungs with daylight

     The grandmother's broom sweeps layers of night away

     The mother rolls up her pants

     And lifts her shoulder pole to carry seed


I also watched, in another poem, while the girl-child winnowed rice with her own mother; I listened as she told her daughter that a girl “Must bury sadness in her eyes / While a smile opens on her lips.”  This last surprised me, since Vietnamese culture is still quite traditional in its treatment of women, and it was echoed as I continued working on the poems and discovered these lines: “A woman must be small / small as a doll / to find happiness.” But then I discovered compensations: as Lam Thi My Da celebrated the joys of friendship with other women, “like pineapple, rich and sweet,” I felt included. My love affair had expanded to both genders.

     Lam Thi My Da is now ill, and there have been few new poems since our co-translations of her poems were published in 2006.  But my literary love affair continues. In 2004, again at the Joiner Institute in Boston, I met and began to translate another poet, Ngo Tu Lap (Ngô Tự Lập), who was born in 1962. Two of the first poems I saw were called “Women of the 1960s,” written about his wartime childhood, when he and his mother and siblings were evacuated from Hanoi to the countryside. I realized almost at once that I could, by age, have been one of those young women of the 1960s who cared for him while he “played with a snail / In a bomb shelter flooded with rain”; I could have been an older sister or cousin, perhaps, and that is what I seem, poetically, to have become. In Lap's poems, which are usually quite short, I found an affinity with the sequences of tiny poems I began writing the same year I met him—poems with jump cuts between images and bits of language, which are, for both of us, meditations on time, as in these first lines of a poem of his titled “Calling the Season”:


     Days fall onto the river

     Trembling like fragile dragonfly wings

     Drifting away on a current of deep sorrow


Were these poetic connections coincidental, or had my own small poems already absorbed something from Vietnamese poetry? I don't know—as one doesn't know, in many a good love relationship, which and how one partner has influenced the other.

     I realize that what I've described in my translating relationships with these three poets sounds more like serial monogamy than the long-term marriage I mentioned earlier. And it's also true that each time I've finished co-translating one of these books, I've thought I was through translating Vietnamese poetry altogether. But what I've more deeply realized, partly in the process or writing this, is that what I really fell in love with was not a poem or a poet or three poets but rather the poetry of a whole country. In my translating mind, I married that poetry.

     I continue to work with Ngo Tu Lap's poems—and he with mine, I might add, not to mention the fact that we devised at least two other projects on my most recent trip to Vietnam. But as in a long marriage, I'm also finding myself pulled more deeply into the relationship with Vietnamese poetry, sometimes in surprising and not always immediately comfortable ways. My current co-translator, Nguyen Ba Chung, who has worked at the Joiner Institute for many years and been more instrumental in translating Vietnamese poetry into English than anyone, asked me awhile back to help him with three poems, and when we had completed these informed me that “we”—he and I—were working on a book. The poems are by a Buddhist monk; and while my involvement with Vietnamese poetry and culture has made Buddhism very meaningful to me, it continues to be a challenge to get myself into the mind of this poet. But I'm getting there. “You can't understand the Vietnamese people unless you understand Buddhism,” I was told by a Communist party official on my first trip to Vietnam. And so I am still learning, going where love will take me, counting anniversaries.




Martha Collins' eighth book of poems, Admit One: An American Scrapbook, will be published by Pittsburgh in early 2016. Her earlier books include Day Unto Day, White Papers, and Blue Front, and she has also published four collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. She is editor-at-large for FIELD magazine and an editor for the Oberlin College Press.

On Libations: Morning coffee essential, evening wine with dinner desirable. In Vietnam, Hanoi Beer (Bia Hà Nội).


Translation: Love and a Kind of Marriage

by Martha Collins

...since I knew no Vietnamese, all I could see and hear was this rough imitation—a poem, really, in no language at all.

This was dumb, I thought: why didn't I translate from languages I knew something about?

Were these poetic connections coincidental, or had my own small poems already absorbed something from Vietnamese poetry?  I don't know—as one doesn't know, in many a good love relationship, which and how one partner has influenced the other.