John Balaban has long held a fervent love for Vietnamese folk culture. A poet, a professor of English at North Carolina State University, and the former President of the American Literary Translators Association, he also authors many books about Vietnam.
Balaban translated into English Spring Essence, a book of poems by Vietnam’s female poet Ho Xuan Huong. The book was published in America in English, Vietnamese and in the original Nom script. 20,000 copies of Spring Essence were sold between October 2000 and June 2001.
Passion for Vietnamese folk songs
From 1971 to 1972, Balaban travelled throughout many places in the Mekong Delta with his recording equipment, despite the bombing at that time. He recorded more than 500 Vietnamese folk songs. He was surprised to learn that Vietnamese had six tones as compared with four tones in Mandarin Chinese.
In 1974, his book Ca dao Vietnam: A bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry was published by Unicorn Press in America. By 2000, Balaban had published 11 collections of poems and prose, two of which won American poetry awards. Some of his other books about Vietnam include After Our War, Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, Vietnam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, and Remembering Heaven’s Face.
Exploring Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry
After years living in Vietnam and writing about the land, he began translating the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. This difficult task lasted 10 years although he selected to translate only 49 short poems. For his work he sought all possible documents about Ho Xuan Huong including handwritten copies in Nom scripts, copies carved in wood at the end of the century, printed copies in Vietnamese from the early 1900s, and research conducted by other scholars. He met and received advice from many scholars including Huu Ngoc, Nguyen Quang Hong, Dao Thai Ton, and Nguyen Hue Chi. However, he first had to intensely study Ho Xuan Huong’s life and career.
Ho Xuan Huong lived in a time when the Le Dynasty was in decline and the Nguyen Dynasty was in its infancy. She was a descendant of the first doctoral candidate, Ho Hung Dat. Although she apparently possessed extraordinary beauty, she eventually passed the marriageable age and reluctantly agreed to become a concubine. During her life, the ruling families Trinh and Nguyen were at war with each other. Tay Son later unified the country from Gia Dinh, Phu Xuan, to Thang Long, and defeated 20,000 Qing invaders. However, the Tay Son Dynasty lasted only 14 years (1788-1802). Nguyen Anh established the Nguyen Dynasty with Western assistance.
“This period of social collapse and ruin was, perhaps not surprisingly, also a high point in the long tradition of Vietnamese poetry,” Balaban wrote. “As Dante says in his De Vulgari Eloquentia, ‘the proper subjects of poetry are love, virtue, and war’. The great poems from this period – like Nguyen Du’s famous Tale of Kieu – are filled with individual longing, with sense of ‘cruel fate’, and with a searching for something of permanence. Warfare, starvation, and corruption did not vanquish poets like Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong, but deepened their work.”
Most of Ho Xuan Huong’s poems followed Tang’s law of poetry, having seven words and either eight or four lines. As a westerner, Balaban had to spend a lot of time studying the foreign poetic form. He read The Art of Chinese Poetry by James J. Y. Liu thoroughly as well as Tang poetry, prose, sharp tones and syntactic parallel structures. He had to understand the talent of Ho Xuan Huong to be able to render her poems into English. It is said that some of Ho Xuan Huong’s poems have double meanings and use phrase reversals. He had to study diligently for good and accurate translations. Of course, in some cases, he had to use footnotes.
Ho Xuan Huong used Nom script and Han Chinese to write poems. Nom script, despite a thousand year history was unfortunately almost lost by the 20th century. Balaban wants to place that ancient script in a position of respect so that young Vietnamese will know their own language and motherland.
Cooperation from scholar Ngo Thanh Nhan, a computer expert and linguist at Courant Institute of Mathematics Sciences, New York University, enabled Balaban to have his translation published. In 1999, Balaban came to Hanoi to consult with some researchers at the Institute of Han-Nom Studies. He also studied her poems in Nomscript in L’Oeuvre de la poetesse vietnamienne Ho Xuan Huong by the French author, Maurice Durand.
Extremely challenging and cumbersome
“For ten years I have pecked at these translations, often just giving up, but always returning,” Balaban said. “My persistence was sustained by admiration and awe, which I hope the reader will experience: for Ho Xuan Huong’s lonely, intelligent life, for her exquisite poetry, her stubbornness, her sarcasm, her bravery, her irreverent humour, and her bodhisattva’s compassion. She is a world-class poet who can move us today as she has moved Vietnamese for two hundred years.
John Balaban at Ngoc Son temple in central Hanoi (1998)
Spring Essence has received positive reviews from professionals. Frances Fitzgerald, the author of Fire in the Lake, wrote, “In John Balaban’s translation, the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong – witty, caustic, and profound – should find its place in world literature.”
Neil Sheehan, author of A Bright Shining Life, a book about the Vietnam war, said “John Balaban, an accomplished poet in his own right, has presented us with a gift of art and scholarship – a splendid translation of the work of the beloved Vietnamese poet. Ho Xuan Huong was a woman that possessed, along with her literary talent, that great Vietnamese virtue of courage, and dared to defy the conventions of her time.”
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