UK literary mag finds 'measureless melodies' in Vietnamese poetry

June 11, 2023 - 10:41
A collection of Vietnamese poetry translated into English to honour the beauty of the Vietnamese language has been published including translations spanning centuries of Vietnamese poems.
PURE POETRY: The cover of 'Measureless Melodies: Focus on Vietnam' published by 'Modern Poetry in Translation', No 1, 2023 print edition.Photo Modern Poetry in Translation

Trần Khánh An

Measureless Melodies: Focus on Vietnam, a collection of Vietnamese poetry translated into English to honour the beauty of the Vietnamese language, has been published in Modern in Poetry Translation (MPT), a UK literary magazine.

The special issue about Việt Nam includes translations spanning centuries of Vietnamese poems.

MPT, based in Oxford, is a tri-annual poetry magazine that publishes poetry from all over the world in English translation.

Founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, it has consistently published the very best of world poetry in the very best translations and has introduced a number of renowned poets and iconic translations to the English-speaking world. It brings together the best new poetry, essays and reviews from around the world.

The oldest name of poets appearing in the magazine is Hồ Xuân Hương, who is considered ‘the Queen of Nôm poetry’ in Vietnamese classical literature in the 18th-19th century.

The collection includes well-known poems from the twentieth-century movements of the Thơ Mới (New Poetry Movement) and revolution poetry, including Hàn Mặc Tử, Xuân Diệu, Chế Lan Viên, and Lưu Quang Vũ.

There are also contemporary poems to portray the inner self of modern Vietnamese in the 21st century, such as Hiền Trang, Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng, Nguyệt Phạm, Dương Quỳnh Anh, Dinh Thao, and Linh San.

'Measureless melodies’

Khairani Barokka, MPT editor in chief, shared why the magazine chose ‘measureless melodies’ as the title for the issue focusing on Vietnamese poetry.

“In Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng’s translation of Hàn Mặc Tử, there is mention of ‘measureless melodies’, which seems apt for Vietnamese as a tonal language of richness and complexity,” she said.

LITERARY LEGEND: Playwright, poet, and essayist Lưu Quang Vũ and his wife, Xuân Quỳnh. Photo courtesy of the poet's family

In her editorial for the print edition Barokka wrote: “Reading poetry translated from Vietnamese languages is a thrill. There is an experimentation and fluidity that resembles ‘weaving water and heaven’, as Hồ Xuân Hương writes in Mỹ Ngọc Tô’s translation, in a series of poems not to be missed in this issue. Đỗ Quyên and Camellia Pham’s translation in this edition, of Lưu Quang Vũ’s ode to the Vietnamese language, rouses a reverence for its continuance.”

Vũ (1948-1988) was a celebrated playwright, poet, and essayist. His literary repertoire includes nearly fifty theatrical plays, three short stories, one collection of essays, and several books of poetry.

He received many posthumous awards, including Việt Nam’s most prestigious honour for cultural achievements, the Hồ Chí Minh Prize in Literature and Arts in 2000.

In this MPT issue, his poem Tiếng Việt (The Vietnamese Tongue), anthologised in Gió và tình yêu thổi trên đất nước tôi (The Breeze of Love in My Country, 2010), was chosen by the editor. Đỗ Quyên and Camellia Pham translated it.

In Vietnamese Tongue, Vũ praised the richness and beauty of the Vietnamese language as well as expressing the language imbued with the beauty of the national soul.

'Like mud and like silk'

With sincere poetry and richness, Vũ expressed his love, pride and respect for the Vietnamese language. For him, the Vietnamese language is born in the working life of the people, and the language itself is one of the important factors creating the identity and cultural essence of the nation.

Two of the finest lines in the work go thus: “O’ the Vietnamese tongue is like mud and like silk / Shining as bamboo and soft as silkworms’ threads.”

With the analogy between the Vietnamese language and ‘mud’ and ‘silk’, Vũ discovered and generalised a profound combination of the Vietnamese language and even the Việt people’s characteristics and identity. For him, the Vietnamese tongue is not only simple and strong, but it is also soft, exquisite, and elegant. The poet used full simple and familiar features, strongly linked with Việt Nam’s image.

WOMAN OF LETTERS: Novelist, poet and translator Hiền Trang. Photo courtesy of the poet.

​​​​​​​A contemporary name appearing as poet and translator in the magazine is Hiền Trang.

Born in 1993 in Hà Nội, Trang is a Vietnamese novelist and essayist with six published books.

Editor Barokka describes her as “a melomaniac and a cinephile at heart”, and her works explore the relationship between humans and the arts in a world where beauty is decaying.

“Vietnamese language is like water. Not structural and strict like English, Vietnamese grammar is loose and has flexibility and femininity,” Trang said in the online launching of Measureless Melodies: Focus on Vietnam.

“The rich histories and affective modes of the Vietnamese literary consciousness, from the 20th century to our present moment, deepens readers’ understanding of Việt Nam as its own locus of meaning-making, instead of a peripheral margin perpetually shaped by Western assumptions and expectations of certain Vietnamese tropes,” Quyên Nguyễn-Hoàng, a writer and art curator, wrote in the magazine. VNS