John Balaban and the Queen of Nom Poetry

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VietnamNet English - 30 month(s) ago 2 readings

John Balaban and the Queen of Nom Poetry

John Balaban has long held a fervent love for Vietnamese folk culture.

A poet, a pro- fessor of english at north carolina state university, and the former president of the american literary translators association, he has also authored many books about Viet Nam.

He translated Spring Essence, a book of one hundred year old poems by Ho Xuan Huong. The book was published in america in English, Vietnamese and in the original Nom script. This is the first time this has occurred for an original Vietnamese work. From October 2000 to June 2001, 20,000 copies of spring essence were sold.

Cua so VH 109 page7 image2 John Balaban and the Queen of Nom Poetry

John Balaban at Ngoc Son Temple, Hanoi, 1998.


From 1971 to 1972, Balaban traveled 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 (Han Chinese has four tones).

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 were given American poetry awards. Some other books he has written about Viet Nam include After Our War, Viet Nam: The Land We Never Knew, Viet Nam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion, and Remembering Heaven’s Face.

After years living in Viet Nam 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 united the country from Gia Dinh, Phu Xuan to Thang Long, and defeated 20,000 Qing invaders. However, the Tay Son Dynasty only lasted 14 years (1788-1802). Nguyen Anh established the Nguyen Dynasty with Western help.

Balaban wrote:

“This period of social collapse and ruin was, perhaps not surprisingly, also a high point in the long tradition of Vietnamese poetry. 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 translate 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. With the cooperation of scholar Ngo Thanh Nhan, a computer expert and linguist at Courant Institute of Mathematics Sciences, New York University, Balaban was able to have his translation published with Ho Xuan Huong’s Nom poems.

In 1999, Balaban came to Ha Noi to consult with some researchers at the Institute of Han -Nom Studies. He also studied the Ho Xuan Huong’s poems in Nom script in the L’Oeuvre de la poétesse Vietnamienne Ho Xuan Huong by the French author, Maurice Durand.

Balaban says that the work was extremely challenging and cumbersome:

“For ten years I have pecked at these translations, often just giving up, but always returning. 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 humor, 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.”

The 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 Lie, 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. She 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.”

John Balaban is now in the process of reprinting Spring Essence and trying to bring the book to Europe with the help of French and Russian translations. He is also thinking of translating Tale of Kieu into English.

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