Hàn Mặc Tử: a Tet translation
In December, I posted my first translation of a Vietnamese poem, Going to Perfume Pagoda by Nguyễn Nhược Pháp. I was looking for another poem to translate—ideally something suitable to the lunar new year period—when I happened to visit Quy Nhơn in Bình Định province, the final home of the poet Hàn Mặc Tử.
By coincidence, both Nguyễn Nhược Pháp and Hàn Mặc Tử were young men writing in the 1930s, and both died of illnesses within a couple of years of each other at the end of that decade while they were still in their 20s.
One of the greatest and most unusual talents in modern Vietnamese poetry, Hàn Mặc Tử created the “disorderly” (loạn) and “crazy” (điên) schools of poetry. A Christian and a passionate lover of women, his poems draw on nature, romantic love and mystical religion.
The life and work of Hàn Mặc Tử loom large in Quy Nhơn, and also in Quy Hòa, the small bay around the southern headland from Quy Nhơn where the Catholic church established a hospital and community for people with leprosy. It was in this small community of neatly tended houses and the statues of famous Western and Eastern physicians of past centuries that the poet lived out his last days after contracting leprosy.
Two different sites lay particular claim to his memory. The small cemetery in Quy Hòa commemorates his ‘final resting place’ with a cenotaph sponsored by lovers of his poetry from Ho Chi Minh City. Apparently in accordance with his final wishes, since 1969 his tomb has been located at the southern end of Quy Nhơn town in Ghềnh Ráng above the famous private bathing beach of the last Empress of Vietnam.
On the suggestion of a friend I decided to translate one of his most famous poems, Mùa xuân chín. The poem conveys a sense of the lunar New Year, both in nature and in people’s typical actions and emotions. It is a nostalgic poem, playing on the juxtaposition of Spring as a metaphor for youth and the fresh innocence of a young girl singing (xuân xanh), with Ripe Spring (xuân chín) which reflects the passing of time and the reality of a woman’s life in marriage and hard work.
The poem is composed of four stanzas of four lines each. It follows a mixed rhyming scheme: in the first two stanzas, the first, second and fourth lines rhyme, whereas in the final two stanzas only the second and fourth lines rhyme. I have (very!) lightly followed a similar rhyming approach in translation.
There is of course a lot more that is going on here in terms of Vietnamese poetry, much of which I can only slightly grasp at, for example the repetition of sounds in “trắng nắng chang chang” in the final line. I could have tried to approximate a similar repetition in English (“bright white light”), although probably only at the cost of conveying the sense of the sun beating down on the woman with her heavy burden, and moving even further from the rhyme with “home” in the second line of this stanza.
Hàn Mặc Tử
In pure sunlight: dreams dissolve,
A pair of thatched roofs speckled gold.
The teasing wind rustles emerald clothes,
On fragrant arbor. See spring unfold.
Verdant grass waves ripple to the sky.
Around the village, girls singing on high.
– Perhaps tomorrow from that youthful throng,
One will follow a husband, bid her game goodbye…
Sound of singing on the mountain,
Soft as words of water and clouds…
Murmuring with those sitting under bamboo,
Such delicate and innocent sounds…
Guests from afar meet at ripe spring,
Hearts and minds suddenly long for home:
– This year, does she still carry rice,
Along the riverbank under the bright blazing sun?
Mùa xuân chín
Hàn Mặc Tử
Trong làn nắng ửng: khói mơ tan,
Đôi mái nhà tranh lấm tấm vàng.
Sột soạt gió trêu tà áo biếc,
Trên giàn thiên lí. Bóng xuân sang.
Sóng cỏ xanh tươi gợn tới trời.
Bao cô thôn nữ hát trên đồi.
– Ngày mai trong đám xuân xanh ấy,
Có kẻ theo chồng, bỏ cuộc chơi…
Tiếng ca vắt vẻo lưng chừng núi,
Hổn hển như lời của nước mây…
Thầm thĩ với ai ngồi dưới trúc,
Nghe ra ý vị và thơ ngây…
Khách xa gặp lúc mùa xuân chín,
Lòng trí bâng khuâng sực nhớ làng:
– Chị ấy, năm nay còn gánh thóc,
Dọc bờ sông trắng nắng chang chang?