flowers and grass: poet Bui Giang

My previous post ended with a prediction that the next stop on my little tour of southern poetry would be the “brilliantly mad” Bùi Giáng. So here I am, weeks later, having spend quite some time grappling with a small translation project on one of his poems: eight short lines, challenging to tease out but also quite entrancing.

First, a bit about this prolific poet, scholar, philosopher, literary critic, translator and essayist; a goat herder who would neither sell nor kill his goats, and a beatnik wanderer.

Poet Bui Giang

Bui Giang was born in Duy Xuyen district of Quang Nam province in central Vietnam in late 1926. His father was of the 16th generation of the Bùi lineage in Quang Nam, with the only two-story house in Thanh Chau village. In 1939 he entered the Thuan Hoa School in Hue, where his teachers included renowned scholars such as Cao Xuan Huy, Hoai Thanh and Dao Duy Anh. Despite the turmoil of war and the Japanese occupation, he managed to graduate in 1945. He returned home, married, and became famous locally as the young man who grazed his beloved herd of goats in the mountains with a thick French book in his hand.

In 1949 he joined the war against France, serving with a unit of army engineers. Having completed a special course organized by Military Region V, in around 1950 he was selected to undertake further study and set out on foot from Quang Nam to Ha Tinh. The journey took more than one and a half months, but after reaching his destination Bui Giang decided to abandon his studies and return home. He undertook further studies on literature in Hue in around 1952. In 1956, after the death of his wife due to illness, he finally left the central region and moved to Saigon. Apparently, he again abandoned university studies and worked independently as a poet, scholar, writer, translator and private teacher. In addition to French he taught himself German, and translated Heidegger, Camus and other Western authors. His first major poetry collection, Mưa nguồn, was published in Saigon in 1962.

In 1965, the poet’s house burnt down, destroying many of his manuscripts. In 1969 he entered what he described as his period of “brilliant madness”, leaving home to wander through southern provinces such as Long Xuyen. In 1971 he returned to live in Saigon. His translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince was first published in Saigon in 1973.

He continued to live rough at times, and became a legendary figure in Saigon’s literary circles. Linh Dinh’s 2010 novel, Love Like Hate, provides further information on Bui Giang’s upbringing in Quang Nam and paints a vivid picture of the poet towards the end of his life. He died of a stroke in HCM City in 1998, a couple of months short of his 72nd birthday.

Bui Giang has been getting quite a bit of attention lately in Vietnam. His poems are again being read and discussed. Various artworks inspired by his life and writing have been exhibited in the south, and a seminar on his poetry was recently held at the French Cultural Centre in Hanoi.

Bui Giang writes from an existentialist perspective, and his poems are abstract, non-linear and even illogical. His language is very evocative, but also obscure and maybe archaic in some cases, with borrowings from Nguyen Du’s Truyện Kiều and probably some phrases of his own creation. I had been warned that his poems are difficult to understand even in their original language, ambiguous and open to different interpretation by each reader, and hence basically untranslatable. So of course I thought I’d take a look for myself.

The mountains of Duy Xuyen district, Quang Nam

  Looking across the river from Hoi An to the mountains of Quang Nam where Bui Giang herded goats

Some poets make their name with, or are particularly known for, just one or a few of their poems. Bui Giang wrote a large number of poems, and seems to be more famous for his collections overall than for individual poems. It was hard to pin down which were considered the most significant. His poem Nỗi lòng Tô Vũ, based on his experiences herding goats in the mountains of his homeland, is often mentioned. But it runs to 60 lines, and after the warnings I had received it seemed a bit ambitious to take on a poem of this length first up. In the end, I chose another poem from his first major collection, Mưa nguồn. At only eight lines long, and with an intriguing title that seemed to preempt his later wanderings, Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục (Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass) felt like as good a place as any to make a start.

In Vietnamese the poem has no punctuation marks at all, enhancing the ambiguity of lines that basically put a series of sometimes-obscure individual and compound words together. Time takes footsteps, softly falling water echoes to the mountain tops, and we are told to listen to the sky.

The biggest challenge came at the end of the first line, with the compound nguyên khê. I was quite stumped by this, and the Vietnamese friends I initially queried were also at a loss. Google just pointed me to the name of a location near Hanoi and a bunch of real estate advertisements. For a long time I had to put it aside while working on the rest of the poem. Finally, a couple of well-read friends came up with suggestions that were confirmed through a friend by a teacher of literature: together the two words imply something like a spring welling up from the foot of the mountains. The simple ‘mountain spring’ felt too straightforward compared to the original. I considered something like ‘tor burn’, somewhat obscure words in English with a similar meaning. But I wasn’t completely comfortable with the implication of a Scottish or English setting. Considering karst limestone a more appropriate landscape for Vietnam, I came across the topographical term karst fenster, meaning “a place where an underground stream emerges onto the surface between layers of rock, cascades some feet, then disappears back down, often into a sinkhole”, which seemed quite suitable given the following line.

For the second line, I was at least able to work out a basic literal meaning: golden words/sounds (Tiếng vàng) | falling (from the beautifully expressive construction rụng rớt gieo) | and then động xanh, two words that I seem to encounter quite often in Vietnamese poems: the noun động meaning cave/grotto/void, however with its adjective here xanh posing a bit more of a question. Xanh as a colour covers both blue and green, with the precise shade determined either by context alone or by a further qualifier (grass-green, ocean-blue, etc.). When the particular shade is unclear, blue-green or teal are the cop-out options. But xanh can also mean young or fresh, particularly in poetry. In this case I went back and forth between different options, finally aiming for both meanings with ‘verdant’.

Another challenge was bóng cành in the third line, however I happened to come across the same compound in Truyện Kiều, in the line Tường đông lay động bóng cành, rendered as “Then on the eastern wall the shadows of the branches danced”.

The fifth line was also difficult, and once again I relied in the end on guidance from a friend, who suggested that references to sông (river) and bến (wharf, jetty) were linked to the tears (khóc) of a nomad at the pain of departure and forever traveling in unfamiliar places far from home.

The poem is written in the lục bát (6-8) form, and the first six lines at least follow the standard rhyming pattern: i.e. the 6th syllable of the first line (khê) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the second line (về), while the 8th syllable of the second line (xanh) rhymes with the 6th syllable of the third line (cành) and hence with the 6th syllable of the following line as well (thành), and so on. He also follows the standard rules for tones that apply to lục bát forms, based on the designation of the six Vietnamese tones as either flat (bằng) or sharp (trắc).

While the final two lines have the expected number of syllables and tonal concordance, they do not seem to follow the rhyming scheme so closely. I am not sure whether the poet is deliberately breaking rhyme here, or whether xuân, đồng and em are considered to be acceptable ‘poor rhymes’ (vần nghèo).

Aside from the lục bát form, similar sounds are also repeated in slightly modified forms in these compact rhymes, with different meanings: bên and bến, as well as động and đồng (and also rộng, sông, ruộng…).

In my translation I did consider adopting some kind of fixed metre and rhyming scheme, but ultimately decided against it, as it was pretty much beyond me, and was forcing both the meaning and tone of the poem in English in undesirable directions.

So here is the poem, and my translation. I’m hoping that if you can imagine this written in a formal (and quite complex) rhyming and tonal format, using evocative, impressionistic and sometimes obscure and confusing language that is open to different interpretations and prompts varied responses, then just maybe it is the beginning of an opening into Bui Giang’s poetry.

Cỏ Hoa Hồn Du Mục

Bùi Giáng

Nghe trời đổ lộn nguyên khê
Tiếng vàng rụng rớt gieo về động xanh
Gót chân khơi rộng bóng cành
Nhịp vang đầu núi vọng thành lũy siêu
Thời gian chắc bước bên chiều
Khóc sông bến lạ mưa chiều sớm xuân
Cỏ hoa từ bỏ ruộng đồng
Hồn du mục cũ xa gần hử em


Nomadic Soul of Flowers and Grass

Bui Giang

Hear the sky and gushing fenster blend
Golden sounds fall into a verdant void
Heel-dug hollow in the shadow of branches
Reverberating to the peaks, echoing to the ramparts
Time treads firmly in the gloom of ending day
Tears flow at an unfamiliar pier; late rain in early spring
Flowers and grass forsake their meadows
The ancient nomadic spirit is everywhere my love


I’m posting here with some trepidation, as I really struggled with this translation. And I’m expecting some push back from more capable users than I of one or both languages. I hope you will let me know what you think in the comments. But please be gentle!


~ by hanoi ink on February 7, 2012.

13 Responses to “flowers and grass: poet Bui Giang”

  1. ‘fenster’……some kind of window? ( at this point I read your introduction – problem solved!)

    • Hey David – thanks for the comment. I’m guessing you speak German, right? As I understand, the background to the term karst fenster is that this particular topological feature gives a kind of window into the karst landscape within the mountain. Hence the use of the word fenster, from the German for window.

  2. I have no idea whether the translation is correct or not, but it sounds good anyway, and you certainly did your homework on it.

  3. Just started going through your blog – really excited by what you’re doing here.

    When you’re translating Vietnamese poetry, do you think about the Vietnamese versus Chinese roots of the words? I’ve always thought that Vietnamese vocabulary probably sounds earthier, like old English words do for us, and that Chinese borrowings sound more book-smart, like Latin words in English.

    But every word in Vietnamese – no matter how homey or pretentious – is one syllable long, or a two-syllable compound. Completely unlike English, with our folksy short words and abstract multisyllabic monsters. So, how could a translation reflect the original Vietnamese rhythms, while staying true to the level of language?

    This is the line that got me thinking about this:

    Nhịp vang đầu núi vọng thành lũy siêu
    Reverberating to the peaks, echoing to the ramparts

    “Reverberate” is a conspicuous choice, given how long and formal it is – whereas most of the original, except for “thành lũy” (ramparts), looks like it finds its power in a denser play of simpler, more homegrown language. Is this something you look at when you’re approaching a poem? Or have you made a practical choice about which elements are important and which elements are just to hard to approximate, given how different the languages are?

    The blog is the kind of thing I’ve been looking for ever since I moved to Hanoi a year and a half ago – thanks for making it happen.

    • Hey Nathan – thanks so much for your comments, it’s great to have you reading!

      Definitely I have been thinking a lot those questions, and about the exact words and phrases you refer to. I think reflecting Vietnamese rhythms in English is very, very difficult. As you say, Vietnamese words are usually a lot shorter, not to mention the issue of tones. Even in my already long rendering of the line Nhịp vang đầu núi vọng thành lũy siêu, I’m basically leaving out the word siêu: thành lũy siêu probably translates more accurately as “great ramparts”. I did think of other approaches to this line, for example replacing “reverberating” with “reaching”. But as an amateur translator I’m always cautious about moving too far from the actual meaning.

      For this poem, I would have liked an end result that hung together better overall. I feel like each individual line works okay, but the overall flow is not there in terms of rhythm and balance.

      Probably the best examples of translation of Vietnamese poems into English that I know of, basically by folk who are established poets in their own right, would be John Balaban’s translations of Ho Xuan Huong, Timothy Allen on the opening lines of Nguyen Du’s Truyen Kieu, and of course current Hanoi resident Nguyen Qui Duc’s translations (some examples here). If I remember correctly, they all use blank verse in English (to be fair, the very modern originals that Duc is working on are probably also in blank verse). I think part of their art is also in choosing which liberties they are prepared to take.

      I just had a look at what I guess is your old blog – I hope I can read some of your Hanoi writing soon!

      • Thanks for the links. I like how Balaban runs the range from this sort of high-flown pastoral lyricism to slang like “screw” – it feels like he’s pointing toward something that must have made the originals tick too.

        I see you’ve written on the tension between beauty and faithfulness in translation before. My own take is that translation is pretty much always doomed to failure – but in the rare line when it doesn’t, it’s impossibly beautiful, and that connection is worth all the effort. In your June 2011 post you also link to a really interesting Balaban essay where he describes how hopeless it is to reflect the rhythms of ca dao folk poetry in his translations. I like Timothy Allen’s little comment on his Tale of Kieu translation, where he explains what he’s stripped his focus down to, and why: “I have tried to recreate those features of Kiều that I think best account for its popularity and longevity: the sharpness and wit of couplets that both drive the narrative and frequently succeed as mini-poems in their own right.”

        Your blog goes into a whole other level of background and analysis, though – we can really learn from what you’re doing here. Hopefully I’ll have a new Hanoi blog up and running soon…

  4. “tieng vang” could be “sound of the autumn”

  5. […] for the sheer joy of showing off. A very, very distant goal. I’m at a level where I can process Hanoi Ink’s great commentary on translating a poem by Bùi Giáng and begin to comprehend how difficult this whole Vietnamese to English thing really is. It’s a […]

  6. […] for allowing me to use the two photos. If this sort of stuff interests you in any way at all, Hanoi Ink has a translation of a much more difficult Bùi Giáng poem that puts my efforts to […]

  7. Firstly, thank you for the brave attempt. This certainly is no easy task. I think your translation is working. As literary translation goes, perhaps you likely also feel it to be a living translation forever in progress and not final.
    Bùi Giáng’s paradigm of word choices get into an eclectic literary borrowings both deep and wide, but almost always surface in a more vernacular voice, like the man himself. He appears in rags, feasts on offerings and speaks to you like any person on the street.
    Perhaps as you continue to refine the translation, move it closer to this spoken, quotident voice and word choice. It will surely resonate more and more like Bùi Giáng.
    Thank you for doing this!

  8. Bui Giang was really keen on the idea of Being as elaborated by Heidegger , By ‘Nguyen Khe’ , I’m kind of feeling that he was pointing to that meaning of BEING. He wrote a lot about this and seemed to be in complete agreement with this in his philosophic book named roughly translated ‘Modern Philosophies’ -‘Tư Tưởng Hiện Đại’, no idea whether the English version is available. For me, ‘Nguyên Khê’ is something like pure essence! I’m Vietnamese and just a fan of Bùi Giáng! Big Thanks to your great job on Bùi Giang’s work.

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