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Martha Collins

Martha Collins

Martha Collins is the author of White Papers (Pittsburgh, 2012) and the book-length poem Blue Front(Graywolf, 2006), as well as four earlier collections of poems and two collections of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Collections of co-translations and poems are forthcoming (Milkweed, 2013, 2014), as is a book of multiple translations, co-edited with Kevin Prufer (Graywolf, 2015).

Translating Emotion

By the time I began protesting what Americans call the Vietnam War, I thought of myself as reasonably well informed about the country where we were fighting. But the longer the war went on, the more I realized how little I knew about Vietnamese people and culture. What I didn't know, in fact, led me to write some of my first poems, which were full of questions.

Many years later, Kevin Bowen asked me to teach a translation workshop for the Writers Workshop at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. On the third day of the workshop, Nguyen Quang Thieu, a visiting poet from Vietnam, gave me English versions of three of his own poems. Reading the first of these, "October," I was immediately taken to the country I had vainly tried to imagine in my own poems in the early 1970s. Thieu's poem, in our later co-translation, begins:

      Smoke from rice stubble burnt by boys
      Tending water buffalo after harvest
      Carries the taste of October into my heart.

Beneath the approximate English I first read, I glimpsed not only my first Vietnamese poem, but also a countryside that was both familiar and unfamiliar. I had grown up in Iowa, which allowed me to replace the rice stubble with corn stubble and to experience, on an emotional and physical level, something that all my historical and political reading had not allowed me to do. I've had very few moments when the power of poetry has been so clear to me.

In the next few months, I found myself learning the process of literary translation as an emotional and political necessity: Thieu's poems were filling a gap I'd been aware of for over twenty years. When I finally went to Vietnam with Fred Marchant in 1995, I was not altogether amazed to see the country itself: the poems had made the landscape real to me, even before I actually saw it.

While it was introducing me to a country and a culture, co-translating Vietnamese was also teaching me about a language. Just looking at that first poem in Vietnamese led me to buy a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and the next year I attended a Vietnamese class at Harvard for almost a year. I should add that I am still thoroughly dependent on a co-translator, who in Thieu's case was of course the poet himself.

How badly I needed even a basic knowledge of the language became clear almost at once. The poems and the language they were written in permitted nuances that English does not, including the many different pronouns for both I and you. On the other hand, English makes some distinctions that Vietnamese doesn't, a fact that continues to both challenge and instruct me: the lack of verb tenses in Vietnamese can create a timeless quality that is almost impossible to duplicate in English, for instance, and the lack of distinction between "a" and "the" has a similar effect. Although I can't always take advantage of these opportunities on the page, one of the most important things I've learned from translating Vietnamese is that no single language contains all the things that can be thought, or all the ways of thinking them.

This brings me to a deeper level of translation, which I first encountered in attempting to find an English equivalent for the ending of Thieu's poem "A Song of My Native Village." Some lines in the final two stanzas refer to birth and burial customs that are common in Vietnam but unfamiliar to Americans; again, I was learning about the culture from a poem. But it was the last lines of the poem, which seem relatively simple, that I in fact found most difficult:

      In this life I am human;
      In the next I will be an animal.
      I will ask to be a little dog
      To defend the sadness,
      The jewel of my native village.

In America, we acknowledge sadness, or sorrow, but we don't value it a great deal. Perhaps this goes back to our Declaration of Independence, where we are told that our basic rights include "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Though the Declaration mentions only a "pursuit," I think that Americans sometimes feel we deserve happiness as a constant right. There are a number of best-selling books in the United States right now about happiness, and college courses as well.

That Americans can continue to think of happiness without also acknowledging sadness is related, I think, to the fact that we experienced no war on our own soil for many, many years. Like most of the poems I've co-translated, Thieu's poem doesn't mention war directly, but its effects are surely present in the depiction of his native village. It took me a very long time to come up with what may look like a very simple solution for the last words of the poem, "sadness, / The jewel of my native village." But in the course of solving the translation problem, I gained a greater understanding of what it is like to live with war, even as I was learning to give sorrow a place of greater respect in my own life and thought.

My learning continued as I worked with Thieu on a book of co-translations of his poems, The Women Carry River Water (1997), and later as I worked on Green Rice, a collection by Lam Thi My Da (2005); it goes on even now, as I work with Ngo Tu Lap on his poems.

One of my favorite poems by Lam Thi My Da, a woman poet who lives in Hue, Vietnam, is "Row of Camphor Trees." In order to translate this poem, my co-translator Thuy Dinh and I had to find out what camphor trees look like, which gave me another mental image of Vietnam. But again, the biggest challenge lay in what I have come to think of as "translating emotion," which, as in Thieu's poem, is most apparent in the last lines. What is remarkable about these lines, to me, is that the "sadness" word is not static: something happens to it, a fact so remarkable that in order to convey it I found myself using the active verb "greens":

      There's a row of camphor trees
      That holds me here in Hue
      A row of camphor trees
      That greens my sadness

Other examples of actively dealing with sadness or sorrow kept occurring in the poems, and in the process made me think differently about how I perceived and dealt with these feelings myself. Lam Thi My Da ends her poem "Skipping Stones" by saying "If only I could gather my loneliness / Into this stone and turn my sorrow to joy"; Ngo Tu Lap makes the sadness word itself active: "sorrow will give me wings."

I don't mean to suggest that Vietnamese poets, or Vietnamese people in general, are more interested in sadness than happiness; on the contrary, I delight in the moments of joy that appear throughout Vietnamese literature. But I'm impressed by how frequently words expressing happiness or joy co-exist with their opposites, the combination sometimes appearing in constructions that can't be translated into English without using "and." Lam Thi My Da, in a delightfully joyful poem about her women friends, says (without using the "and" required in translation), "I hope our sharing of sweetness / And sorrow never ends"; Ngo Tu Lap notes that some windows he observes "Protect the families inside, their sorrow, joy" (without using the comma).

Here is a translation of a complete poem by Ngo Tu Lap, which will appear in a bilingual collection of our co-translations to be published later this year by Milkweed Press. The poem is called "Darkness," and it echoes, in its last lines, the words by Nguyen Quang Thieu I quoted earlier ("sadness, / The jewel of my native village"):

      Darkness spreads
      In my urban memories
      Like the shadow of village areca trees

      Though ravens flock and thieves prowl
      Though wicked intrigues hover above me
      Though droning insects sadden my heart
      I still choose you, darkness, as my companion

      With you, the snails of childhood crawl out again
      Eyes, both strange and familiar, close togetheró
      Like heat suffused with the odor of sweat
      Darkness quietly honors my faithful smile

      Darkness is mine, darkness is everyone's
      In darkness there are no borders
      In darkness I throw open the door
      And head toward the end of the delta
      The end of silence, where sorrow reigns

      Darkness, treasure
      Of all the earth, my companion
      With you I reach the breathing sea

"In darkness there are no borders": one of the most important things that has happened to me as I've worked on translations of Vietnamese poems is that emotional borders have broken down, and as a result the emotional territory I inhabit has broadened. Vietnamese poetry allows us to cross other, more obvious boundaries, and there's no denying the importance of this. But the deepest lessons, for me, are emotional, and I think they're lessons that American readers can continue to learn: that sadness is deserving of respect, as is darknessó—and that there are active ways of not avoiding but rather transforming these emotions, and seeing them as part of an emotional continuum. As the epigraph to Lam Thi My Da's poem "Speaking to the Heart" says,

      All the languages in the world
      Are not enough for the words of the heart.


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