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. …