Poet loves Vietnamese poems

Published: 14/03/2009 05:00



John Balaban has been known among American poets as one whose many works are best-sellers. These books are not about America, but of his English translations of wellknown Vietnamese poems.

John Balaban has been known among American poets as one whose many works are best-sellers. These books are not about America, but of his English translations of wellknown Vietnamese poems, including a collection of poems in Nom scripts by famous poetess Ho Xuan Huong (in the 18th century) and “The Tale of Kieu” by the great poet Nguyen Du (in the 18th century).

Sitting on a bench near Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi , John Balaban told me why he chose poems by Ho Xuan Huong and Nguyen Du to translate into English. “I am a professor of English, and an American poet to be present in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. That might be the reason why I am encouraged to translate Vietnamese poems,” he said.

Balaban said 20,000 copies of his translation of Ho Xuan Huong’s poems published in 2000 were sold. It was such a “phenomenon” that the American press spent much time and effort studying it. President Bill Clinton, during his visit to Hanoi in 2000, also mentioned John’s translation as a cultural phenomenon of great concern in the United States at that time.

Actually, Balaban’s translation of Ho Xuan Huong´s poems helped many American readers understand the fate and strong response full of femininity of the Vietnamese women of the past. They were known for not only having virtues due to close ties to family education and principles, but also having strong characters.

They dared to spell out the taboos of society such as sex and an intimate sexual life, etc., through poems which are pure, sensitive and graphic. Their response surprised many American readers because deep in their mind the American audience thought that those sensitive matters could only be spoken by them.

Balaban said he also wanted to bring American readers another story about life of the Vietnamese women in the feudal period. It was the poetic work “The Tale of Kieu” by great Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du (1766-1820), telling about the talented, but unhappy fate of a young woman - Kieu.

According to Balaban, “The Tale of Kieu” is not only a literary masterpiece of the Vietnamese people, but it also concealed a lot of strange details.

The strangest one is about the word “fate” defined by Buddhists, which seems to go along with, and was closely attached to Kieu’s talented, but misfortune life. For those reasons, Balaban decided to translate this poetic work into English with the whole-hearted feeling of an American poet full of passion and aspiration. (At the time John and I were talking, his translation of this work is being processed).

Saying farewell, Balaban asked me to reserve one copy of Vietnam Pictorial with the article about him and send it to him as a souvenir. I agreed. In addition I promised that when his English translation of “The Tale of Kieu” is made public, I will invite him to sit by Hoan Kiem Lake again, and I’ll listen to his story about the “fate” that tied him to the story of her life.

Professor John Balaban was born in 1943 in Philadelphia (USA). He is the Poet in Residence and Professor of English at North Carolina University in Raleigh, North Carolina ( USA ).

He has many works about Vietnam, including “Ca Dao Vietnam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry”, “ Vietnam – The Land We Never Knew” and “ Vietnam – A Traveler’s Literary Companion”. Of particular popularity is his translation of Ho Xuan Huong’s poems entitled “Spring Essence – The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong”.

John Balaban is now President of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation – an American non-governmental organization.


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