Translating Vietnamese Folk Poetry: John Balaban's Ca Dao

By Van, Quang Phu | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Translating Vietnamese Folk Poetry: John Balaban's Ca Dao


Van, Quang Phu, Michigan Quarterly Review


TRANSLATING VIETNAMESE FOLK POETRY: JOHN BALABAN'S CA DAO Ca Dao Viet Nam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry. Translated and with an introduction by John Balaban. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2003. Pp. 88. $15.00 paper.

Long, long ago, a young American fresh out of college roamed the narrow roads and rivers of the Mekong Delta with a tape recorder in hand asking people, "Would you sing your favorite poems?" As John Balaban recounts his first experience, "I walked up to farmers, housewives, boatbuilders, fishermen, seamstresses, herbalists, and older sisters minding their siblings."1 Who would have predicted that two years later, in 1974, a beautiful and superbly translated bilingual collection of Vietnamese folk poems, Ca Dao, would emerge from Unicorn Press. And now, almost thirty years later, Copper Canyon Press has published a revised edition of the translation.

A recognized name in literary circles, John Balaban is North Carolina's poet-in-residence, a professor of English in Creative Writing, and well known for his award-winning translation of ca dao, Spring Essence-The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, and his acclaimed memoir, Remembering Heaven's Face. In the spring of 2003, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship to re-translate the classic novel-in-verse The Tale of Kieu by the early eighteenth-century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du, which was previously translated by Yale scholar Huynh Sanh Thong.

Balaban's work started during the Vietnam War, when he volunteered as a social worker for a children's relief organization in the Mekong Delta. Fascinated with ca dao, Balaban traveled, from September 1971 to May 1972, from village to village recording live performances of ca dao. Before Balaban's Ca Dao appeared, most of the existing translations of Vietnamese folk poetry were either difficult for English readers to appreciate or were found piecemeal in journal articles and photocopied translations circulated among scholars of Vietnamese literature.

Within this context, Balaban pondered, "If ca dao still existed, they would be an amazing index to the continuum of Vietnamese humanism. . . . But if they still existed. . . . where would I find them now?"2 To his amazement he discovered that "ca dao was very much alive outside the city. . . . To Vietnamese farmers who all knew this poetry-I never found one who did not-my poetical interests were perfectly reasonable, and so they sang to me what they knew."3 Balaban proceeded to collect ca dao and translate his modest, yet representative, sampling of Vietnam's vast folk poetry tradition.

Balaban's ca dao collection presents forty-nine beautifully and meticulously translated poems chosen from approximately 500 original poems that he taped and transcribed. Although not an anthology of Vietnamese folk poetry, this collection provides "a small sampling of a vaster, ever-changing body of poetry that spans the centuries and the length of Vietnam."4

Balaban defines ca dao as "always lyrical, sung to melodies without instrumental accompaniment by an individual singing in the first person, not the narrative third person of traditional oral, epic poetry in the West."5 Ca dao as loosely defined (ca in Vietnamese means "song"; dao means "short unfixed melody") are anonymous poem-songs without fixed melodies (bài hát không có chu'o'ng khúc) transmitted orally long before they were transcribed onto paper. Balaban, however, speaks exclusively of ca dao as being composed by "ordinary peasants who passed on the poems orally."6

Ca dao was not limited to the common people or sung only by "peasants" as Balaban suggests but, at one time, permeated Vietnamese culture and was practiced and treasured by the educated and the illiterate, by city folks and peasants alike. It is nevertheless very difficult to grasp the complexity and dynamism of the process of ca dao making, and equally challenging to determine its place in the Vietnamese society and psyche. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Translating Vietnamese Folk Poetry: John Balaban's Ca Dao
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.