It’s almost axiomatic that any poetry that relies too heavily on word-play for its effect can’t be translated. I remember my brother marveling at the elaborate double-meanings in Kalidasa when he was learning Sanskrit: lengthy passages could have two, completely different meanings depending on how one reads them. According to poet and translator John Balaban’s Introduction to Spring Essence, something similar is going on in the poems of the 18th-century Vietnamese courtesan Ho Xuan Huong (sorry, I’m not doing the diacritical marks!). Since a syllable in Vietnamese can have up to six different tones, each with a different meaning, the possibilities for imperfect puns are correspondingly large. And in Ho’s work, “These second meanings, and phrase reversals, or noi lai, are usually obscene.”
I think it’s very much to Balaban’s credit that he manages to convey something of these double entendres through a combination of suggestive imagery and informative endnotes. The resulting poems often feature panoramas of erotically charged natural imagery. I also thought the mountains in traditional East Asian landscape paintings looked phallic; evidently Ho thought so too.
A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.
Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?
The author herself was a fascinating figure, one of the most skillful poets of her day, who somehow got away with tackling forbidden subjects like sex and corruption in a repressive, Confucian society. In one especially risqué poem, “Swinging,” she capitalizes on the fact that the word for “swing” and the word for “copulate” are virtually identical — and the translator in turn gets to take advantage of the double meaning of “swinging” in American English.
A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.
Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs side by side.
Spring games. Who hasn’t known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.
Not all the poems are about sex, though — or if they are, it wasn’t obvious to me. In almost all cases, Balaban makes the surface meanings appealing; what’s unusual is that he didn’t stop there. And the publisher matched his efforts with its own, getting special typefaces made to reproduce the two Vietnamese versions, one being the obsolete Nom writing system, which Balaban wanted because some of Ho’s puns are visual, relying on the similarities between the Chinese character-derived Nom graphemes.
What I’m trying to say is that the book is a treat for readers of every interest level, from the most casual to the most scholarly. Two or three of the Amazon customer reviews by people fluent in Vietnamese criticize the translations, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Even without the puns, accurately reproducing the complexities of highly formal verse in another language is a fool’s errand. None of the critics offers a specific example of a passage that they would translate differently.
In my response to Du Fu the other day, I suggested that it was no longer true that “the state goes to ruin, but mountains and rivers survive.” Writing during a similarly chaotic period of political upheavals a thousand years later, Ho Xuan Huong offers a very different estimation of what endures, and what other precious thing is fated to collapse:
A bell is tolling, tolling, fading
just like love. Only poetry remains.
(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)