translating Nguyễn Nhược Pháp

I recently encountered the work of this young northern poet from the 1930s.

Born in Hà Tây in 1914, Nguyễn Nhược Pháp was the son of Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, a renowned Hanoian writer, journalist, translator and essayist, and his second wife Phan Thị Lựu. He is mostly remembered for his poem Going to the Perfume Pagoda (Đi Chùa Hương), which was set to music by singer Trung Đức and professor Trần Văn Khê.

Written in the voice of a 15-year old girl, the poem is her account in diary form of traveling with her parents to the Perfume Pagoda complex in the Huong Tich mountains west of Hanoi, meeting a handsome young poet and falling in love.

The journalist Xuân Ba records a story from critic Hoài Thanh that in 1934 or 1935 Nguyễn Nhược Pháp traveled to Perfume Pagoda together with poet Nguyễn Vỹ and two young women. While on the way, they happened to meet a couple traveling with a young girl, murmuring prayers to Buddha as they went. When Nguyễn Nhược Pháp came alongside the young girl she ceased praying. He asked her why she stopped, as it sounded so charming. She blushed and lowered her head. As the story has it, this encounter–captured in a now lost photograph by one of the young women traveling with the poets–was the inspiration for the poem.

The poem was published in 1935. Three years later on 19 November 1938 Nguyễn Nhược Pháp died of typhoid. He was 24 years old.

To get a better feel for Nguyễn Nhược Pháp and his work, I decided to translate his most famous work. The poem follows a basic pattern of four-line stanzas (quatrains), with five syllables per line. The first, second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme. In translation, I have opted for blank verse.


Going to Perfume Pagoda

Nguyễn Nhược Pháp

Today I go to the Perfume Pagoda.
Flowers blurry with mist
Father, mother and I rise together
I wind my hair in front of the mirror.

A small turban, a high tail;
My undershirt has peach-coloured straps;
Satin pants, a new blouse;
A flat palm hat in dangles in my hand.

Mother smiles: “Father, look!
Curved sandals on her feet
My daughter is beautiful, so beautiful!
When will she marry?”

— Though I am just fifteen
Already many suitors
Request someone to speak for them,
Praising my freshness like the full moon.

But I have not yet chosen anyone,
Because father tells the matchmaker
That I am still too young,
I will wait for a talented man.

I go with mother,
Seated on a bamboo chair.
Father follows on horseback,
With a long red belt

Father and mother reach the wharf,
Boats unevenly line the shore,
I see the running water,
The heaving sails.

Distant dreams meet near thoughts.
In life how many true friends?
A coracle speeds by,
I see a gentleman…

A person of unusual grace!
An extraordinary countenance.
Wide shoulders, broad forehead.
Who could see him without loving him?

He sits by my mother
To get acquainted she asks:
“You are going to the pagoda, dear sir?
This crowded boat, heavens what a crush!”

Yes the boat is crowded,
Then gaze at the vastness of the universe,
Dim distant misty mountains,
The clouds are tinged with pink.

The muddy river flows.
In a chanting voice he is reading poetry!
Father says it is wonderful, so wonderful!
I sit listening haunted by beauty.

The boat goes on, past Duc bank,
Every time we meet someone coming out,
I am too shy to say:
“Buddha Amitābha!”

The stream sounds like a melody,
Beside the stream, a green mountain.
In the distance a little bridge.
Lovely as a picture.

After Oản, Gà and Xôi mountains,
So many monkeys sitting.
We come to Kneeling Elephant mountain,
Both the head and tail are there.

The pagoda stands in the jungle,
(Our boat travels for one day)
At the gate of the temple I see
More than a hundred beggars.

I go in, he follows after,
I do not dare to rush,
Worried he will reproach my hastiness,
Those who rush will never be rich.

Father and mother come to the shrine,
Obscured by frankincense smoke
The fragrance of an errant star
Heaving waves of people.

So hard to push through the crowd.
Father and mother finish praying
Returning to the side wing they say:
“Tomorrow we will enter the inner pagoda”

With red cheeks he
Calls his young servant
To carry the bag of poems and the wine-gourd:
“Tomorrow we will enter the inner pagoda”

How I rejoiced in that night!
The pervasive smell of frankincense.
Lying down I heard the sound of gongs,
Then a bird calling in the forest.

I dream, I love life
I dream so much… I will write no more
Lest anyone see it,
And laugh at me.

While I am still sleeping,
The clouds over the mountains turn pink.
Father and mother are preparing
Incense and joss-paper for the inner pagoda.

The ascending road is sheer rock,
Flowers of red, purple, yellow climb the mountain
Because he sees dear mother tiring,
He follows solicitiously.

Mother says: “The way is still long
As we go we pray
Goddess of Mercy
To help us go quickly.”

Me? I do not pray,
The road still passes quickly
He also thinks so.
(We share one soul)

Passing the Temple of Vindication
We see a jutting wall,
He quickly takes up his pen
And writes a poem without pausing.

Father clicks his tongue admiringly
Characters as fine as a flying dragon.
(I remember that poem
I ought not write it here)

Oh! Here is the inner pagoda!
The deep dark cave a luminous green.
The ceiling embroidered with stalactites,
Hanging gems imbued with frankincense.

Mother cheerfully gloats:
“My! Such a terrible road!”
Father says we should go up quickly,
This afternoon we will go back.

Suddenly I feel terrified!
Seeing him I cannot speak!
A happy hour in life is like this,
So quickly the happy day is gone!

The wind blows gently.
I hear the clothes rustle,
I seek the air he breathes!
My dear, do you know it?

This road goes up to heaven
Leaning on each other and laughing we climb,
Love each other, love each other forever!
Come on, let us go, my dear!

Vast curling smoke of golden incense,
Lost in a waking dream,
I pray to Buddha
To let me have him.


Boat trip to Perfume Pagoda

On the way to the Perfume Pagoda. Photo: letsgoeverywhere

~ by hanoi ink on December 15, 2010.

3 Responses to “translating Nguyễn Nhược Pháp”

  1. great job. its an ambitious project, and well chosen. I just met with a professor yesterday to review my latest translations and I’ve got to fix a bunch of stuff, so bummed out! but that’s how it goes. Looking forward to reading more in the future,

  2. thanks zac. i suppose translating poems is probably not the best way to develop speaking skills, but for sure it is one way to dig deeper into vietnamese language and culture – the lines i get wrong often end up being the most interesting. i would like to take on something more contemporary…but suspect that may be even more ambitious!

  3. Thanks for the translation; there’s a Viet test tomorrow and my friends and I needed a quick refresher.

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