the edges of things

A cursory glance (mine) at the work of Vietnamese poet Bùi Giáng suggests that he had something of an obsession with littoral spaces. I mean with the edges of things. Coastlines and riverbanks. Changes of the seasons. Thresholds. Points of crossing over. Places on the border between two like or unlike things. Zones that divide, and join. Where things bleed into each other, and may be neither one thing nor the other. Or may be strongly demarcated. Ambiguity and ambivalence. Certainty and precision. Metamorphic spaces. Ruled lines.

The word bờ (coast, bank, shore, edge, rim, hedge, fence…) occurs repeatedly in the titles and contents of his poems: Bờ lúa, Bờ mây, Bờ nước cũ, Bờ xuân, Bờ trần gian… Lines in another poem of his also play with edges and transitions, the early beginnings and late almost endings of the phases of the day (bên chiều) and of the seasons (sớm xuân).

In around June last year I made some rough sketches over a 2-day period towards a translation of one of these poems for a Nối Hà nội spoken word night held at the second incarnation of Nguyễn Quí Đức’s bar Tadioto. The poem, Bờ lúa, was included in Bùi Giáng’s first big collection, Mưa nguồn, published in Saigon in 1962.

The intent of my section of the event was to illustrate one personal translation process as well as to highlight some of the recurring issues and ambiguities in translating poetry from Vietnamese into English. Another kind of bờ perhaps. Participants read different working versions of my translation, moving from a more literal and wordy first or second take to a (hopefully) more polished and compact version that I would like to believe perhaps began in some ways to move back closer to the feel of the original version.

Since then, I’ve been sporadically returning to the poem every few months. Trying different line lengths and arrangements of words. Going back and forward between the different versions. Translations of course are rarely really finished, but I’m ready to rule a line under this one for the moment.


Em chết bên bờ lúa
Để lại trên đường mòn
Một dấu chân bước của
Một bàn chân bé con

Anh qua miền cao nguyên
Nhìn mây trời bữa nọ
Đêm cuồng mưa khóc điên
Trăng cuồng khuya trốn gió

Mười năm sau xuống ruộng
Đếm lại lúa bờ liền
Máu trong mình mòn ruỗng
Xương trong mình rã riêng

Anh đi về đô hội
Ngó phố thị mơ màng
Anh vùi thân trong tội lỗi
Chợt đêm nào gió bờ nọ bay sang


Bùi Giáng, Mưa nguồn, 1962


You died by the rice field
All that was left behind
The single impression
Of a young girl’s foot

I passed through high places
Watching the clouds that day
Wild night crazy rain wept
Midnight moon fled the wind

Ten years on I went back
Counting off fields and banks
My blood was draining out
My bones were all crumbling

I came back to the city
Dreaming, eyeing the streets
I buried my body in sin
At night by that field a sudden wind blew


Bùi Giáng Mưa nguồn, Saigon, 1962

~ by hanoi ink on March 24, 2013.

5 Responses to “the edges of things”

  1. I can see you have an obsession with this poem 😉

    Anyway, just kidding. I’m interested to know why you choose the word “bund” and use it in the translation of both the title and the first sentence. Personally I’d go with just “rice” (to preserve the metaphorical meaning), or replace it with either “field” or “edge”. Another technical equivalent could be “causeway” but I don’t like it.

    • Hey – thanks! Using rice, bank or field in the title and first line has been a big question for me with this poem. I absolutely prefer “rice field”, but have been going back and forward on this due to the three words “bên bờ lúa”, on the basis that “bên” already gives us “beside”, leaving “bờ lúa” rather than just “lúa”. But you give me confidence to go with my preferred option, I’ll change it now 🙂

  2. beautiful translation Mr Ink…

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