Hồ Xuân Hương
Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn, bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non. Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn, mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son.
The curves of your body so white and so round, seven times roiled from depths that thrice drowned. To tender and firm the hands’ kneading redounds, but cores of vermilion keep constancy sound.
The Sausage Making
I want to write something much more expansive about Hồ Xuân Hương, because she’s such a badass, but for now that’s the only takeaway necessary: she’s a badass. In an 18th–19th century Vietnam that makes its modern descendant look like the consummate libertine, she wrote erudite, beautiful, subtly defiant poems, drenched in double entendre and quiet contrarianism. Maybe when I get up the courage, the endurance, to tackle one of her longer works (as opposed to the above, which took me at least an hour a line averaged out). “Bánh Trôi” is Hồ Xuân Hương at her tamest and most concise. It was written in chữ Nôm, not classical Chinese, so the version here is a transliteration rather than translation. She uses the Tang Dynasty form “seven word-four line” (thơ bảy chữ). Immediately ignored of course, as syllable-starved as Vietnamese-English translations already begin, but I wanted to keep as much of the steady beat and strong rhyme as I could. Ostensibly revolving around the titular traditional Vietnamese sweet bánh trôi, the 28 original chữ Nôm characters are also a celebration, lament, perhaps a condemnation, of feminine forbearance and dependability in a patriarchal society’s rigid confines.
The first line bears the blame for luring me into the delusion my language skills were good enough to face off against poetry. “Round” chose the rhyme sound. The repetition of “so…and so…” approximates the emphasis of the “vừa…lại vừa…” in Vietnamese. “Body shape” or “shape of your body” is a more accurate rendering of “thân em” but sounds too clinical for Hồ Xuân Hương’s sensibility. “Curves” is a nod to physicality and sensual resonance in some of her other poems I’ve read.
That entire second line’s a failure, really. Whoever’s responsible for the aberrant syllable in “seven” obviously never tried preserving metre. Bánh trôi are like other rice dumplings in that the sinking and floating indicates when they are ready. Hồ Xuân Hương’s extending the poem’s organising metaphor. “Bảy nổi ba chìm” is literally “seven float (or bob) three sink” and figuratively an idiom equivalent to “life’s ups and downs”, with extra helpings of instability and uncertainty. “Nước non” can be merely “water” with a lyrical flourish, or “premature” or “young” water—which in the context I chose to interpret as water just below boiling point. But it also points towards “non nước”, one of Vietnamese’s pseudo-compound words that metonymically serve as general referents. “Mountain water” becomes a poetic “nation” or “fatherland”. “Roiled” and “drowned” are my best attempt at combining the near-boiling bobbing and sinking with the vulnerability to vicissitudes, while keeping the rhyme, and “depths” is an optimistic reach for similar connotations beyond the cooking pot. “Thrice” might be violently archaic but hey, I’ll excuse it as faithfulness to late 18th-early 19th century source material.
The third line wasn’t any easier, what with Vietnamese efficiency thwarting me once more. It’s probably where I took the most interpretative liberties. “Rắn” by itself is “hard”, “able to bear up under force”, while “nát” is technically “crushed”. My teacher explained it as a literal reference to the shape of the bánh, pretty and smooth or dented and malformed, and a metaphorical encompassing of “all kinds of women”. “Tender” and “firm” seemed to cover both the bánh and human and emotional characteristics. Rhythm forced the reordering.
Prepositions always cause me grief, even in everyday conversations. Dictionary definitions give you clear translations, “although”for “mặc dầu”, but they’re never used exactly the same way. When they’re elided entirely I’m lost: should it be “tender or firm”, “tender and firm”, “both tender and firm”, “whether tender or firm”…no idea. At least the “tay kẻ nặn” is clear enough. I resorted to Vietnamese commentaries and tried to mimic the line’s meanings and effects as a whole. Consensus says something like “well-made or ugly, all depend on, are dictated to, or are controlled by kneading hands, or hands that knead”. It’s extrapolated as a reference to the traditional Chinese precepts on womanly virtue “Tam Tòng Tứ Đức”. The Tam Tòng part basically orders a virtuous woman obeys her father before marriage, her husband after it, and her eldest son if her husband dies. Hồ Xuân Hương is equating the degree to which the fate of both bánh trôi and women are out of their control, subject to the whims of others. I hope my translation is roomy enough to accommodate that. “Redounds” is another (fitting? ) archaism. Oddly, it’s near-rhyme is a little too near—in the Vietnamese “nặn” and “non” are also separated by a sharp tone or sắc and a flat tone or bằng.
The last line I’m proud of. It propelled me through the concessions of the previous two because I think I nailed it early on. Even if a missing “your” and “still” were sacrificed on the altar of rhythm, making room for the more important “but”. I guess “tấm lòng son” could be “loyalty” or “endurance”. “Constancy” covers them both though. “Son” is “lipstick” and “vermilion” or “Chinese red” in Vietnamese, and I’m pretty sure the pigment’s resistance to fade is behind both “tấm lòng son” and its symbolic significance in Sinic culture. Naturally, it’s also the shade of the best bánh trôi’s molten sugar centre.
Thanks again to Mark at Stickyrice for allowing me to use the two photos. If this sort of stuff interests you in any way at all, Hanoi Ink has a translation of a much more difficult Bùi Giáng poem that puts my efforts to shame.