by the eastern door: philosopher-poet Pham Cong Thien

The third and final post in my current brief exploration of southern poetry focuses on Phạm Công Thiện, a poet, scholar, essayist and translator who wrote and lectured extensively on philosophy and Buddhism. Today is the first anniversary of his death.

I first heard about Phạm Công Thiện after he passed away in Houston, Texas on March 8, 2011. One of the members of the Vietnam Studies Group email list posted some brief information about his passing, with a link to his Wikipedia entry in Vietnamese. Almost immediately, others on the list responded, pointing out the errors and exaggeration in the Wikipedia entry: he did not, they contended, actually become a professor at Van Hanh University in Saigon at the age of 19, or have responsibility for formulating the whole curriculum of the university. They also highlighted some of the more overweening statements attributed to him: “Socrates the most stupid” and “Goethe and Dante the ignorant buffoons”.

Pham Cong Thien

Others responded, largely accepting these corrections and related points, but also noting his prodigious talent at a young age, his seemingly extraordinary capacity for languages, and his contributions to translating European philosophers into Vietnamese together with bold and innovative critical analysis of their ideas. These contributors, including some of his former students, emphasized his profound and inspiring capacity as a writer and a speaker, and in particular his ability to provide wide-ranging analyses of Western philosophers and ultimately to connect these Western ideas with Eastern philosophy, bringing his Vietnamese audience back to their own roots. Along with Bùi Giáng he seems to have been a kind of Young Turk interpreting Western philosophy and literature at that time: the enfant terrible of the active Saigon literary scene in the late 1960s.

Phạm Công Thiện was born in Mỹ Tho in 1941. His Anh ngữ Tính âm Từ điển (Dictionary of English Linguistics and Phonetics) was published in 1957 when he was just 16 years old. His published works in the 1960s included Ý thức mới trong văn nghệ và triết học (New Thoughts in Literature and Philosophy) from 1965 and Hố thẳm của tư tưởng (The Abyss of Ideas) from 1967. He also wrote about and translated the works of authors including Henry Miller, Rainer Maria Rilke and Krishnamurti.

He was appointed Lecturer in Philosophy and later Dean of the Faculty of Literature and at Van Hanh University in Saigon during the second half of the 1960s, despite his young age and never having completed his high school diploma. He left Vietnam in the early 1970s, living thereafter in a number of different countries including the United States.

More details on his life and work are given in this condolence notice from The Writer’s Post (scroll down to around half way down the page).

The discussion on the academic list evolved to a particular focus on an excerpt from one of his poems from around 1966, entitled Ngày sanh của rắn (The snake’s day of birth). These lines seemed to have had a profound impact on some of the list members as young students in the south, staying with them ever since. In the words of one list member, they became her lullaby: “a perfect encapsulation of the inner conflict of the time – the strife between East and West, the unrelenting discord, and the gentle, hard-won denouement at the end. In poetry, there is resolution!”

Ngay Sanh Cua Ran by Pham Cong Thien

“Ngày sanh của rắn” by Phạm Công Thiện

A few people on the list spontaneously offered their own attempts at an English translation. The translation that seemed to resonate most with commentators on the email list came from current Hanoi resident Nguyễn Quí Đức. A while back, he was kind enough to consent for me to post his translation on Hanoi Ink, so here it is, together with Phạm Công Thiện’s original.

An excerpt from the poem Ngày sanh của rắn by Phạm Công Thiện:

“Bất nhị” (Not Two)

Mười năm qua gió thổi đồi tây
Tôi long đong theo bóng chim gầy
Một sớm em về ru giấc ngủ
Bông trời bay trắng cả rừng cây

Gió thổi đồi tây hay đồi đông
Hiu hắt quê hương bến cỏ hồng
Trong mơ em vẫn còn bên cửa
Tôi đứng trên đồi mây trổ bông

Gió thổi đồi thu qua đồi thông
Mưa hạ ly hương nước ngược dòng
Tôi đau trong tiếng gà xơ xác
Một sớm bông hồng nở cửa đông.


And Nguyen Qui Duc’s translation:

For ten years, a wind has stayed on the western hill,
I’ve stayed unsteady as a scrawny bird’s shadow.
You appeared early one morning, a lullaby,
The entire forest turning white with the clouds.

Wind on western hill, on eastern,
The homeland a fragile gathering of rose-colored grass.
You stand, in dream, still by the door
Me, atop the hill, under clouds in bloom.

A wind takes autumn across to the pine hill–
That summer’s separation, rain fell against the stream,
A rooster crowed while I held my pain,
And a winter rose bloomed by the eastern door.


Pham Cong Thien publications

Various editions of original works and translations by Pham Cong Thien


~ by hanoi ink on March 8, 2012.

4 Responses to “by the eastern door: philosopher-poet Pham Cong Thien”

  1. Reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

  2. Good tribute. I somehow missed the news that Phạm Công Thiện had died. Nguyễn Quí Đức has done a great job with his translation of “Bất nhị”.

  3. Hey Dave,

    Finally I have a Starbucks hour to catch up on your blog. Here is my go at the first four lines of Bất Nhị. I went for the rhyme. It took an entire latte. I can’t imagine how much caffeine you’ve been through.

    Five and ten years, wind on the hill west
    Shaking I went at bird shadow’s behest
    One morning you came with a lullaby song
    And clouds lent their white to the trees down at rest

    Can’t get all the imagery like anh Duc did. And cheated a bit. Or more. But I feel okay with the rhyming pattern. Translating poetry. Shrug. Anyway nice tribute, I’m learning lots.

  4. I am an old friend of Pham Cong Thien. He lived with us during his days in Paris. I just wanted to suggest that the title of the poem should be “non-duality”, the Buddhist term. He was a Buddhist monk for many years, and Buddhism was a central theme of his writings even after he left the orders and founded a family. This fits the meaning of the poem, and it fits him too. Also, I have just discovered your fascinating blog, and I truly admire what you are doing. I always feel so disappointed by my attempts at translations, as if Vietnamese held some secret that just cannot be conveyed. But you are making it happen, and it is a great encouragement.

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