Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by John Balaban
Dear Editor,

I was hoping to stay out of this fracas, but Marilyn Chin's response to Joseph Bednarik's comment got me going [Letters, June 2008]. I know Marilyn a bit; we read together once and I have liked her poems. Furthermore, as a past president of the American Literary Translator's Association, I believe poems can be profitably retranslated again and again.

What I find awful, besides the quality of the Chin translations that appeared in Poetry, is her contention that she can translate Ho Xuan Huong because she can read Chinese. It is curious that she does not cite any sources for her coming across Ho Xuan Huong's poetry in the original Nôm. Nôm is the old ideographic script for spoken Vietnamese; it is not Chinese. As far as I know, the only book-length work of Ho Xuan Huong's poetry in any Western language (except Russian) is my Spring Essence, published by Copper Canyon Press. We took great effort to print it in English, in modern roman-style Vietnamese, and in ancient-style ideographic Nôm. Nôm had never been printed before except by woodblock or by Xerox.

That printing resulted in my creating the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation with the two Vietnamese colleagues who created the new fonts for the book and who were among the many scholars who advised me. Your readers may be interested in learning more about this literary culture now near extinction: http://nomfoundation.org

The other issue that troubles me is one raised by Chin in her response to Bednarik: cultural imperialism. As an American translating Vietnamese poetry after our war, I was always keenly aware that the very idea of an American translator might be offensive to Vietnamese who treasure Ho Xuan Huong as the "Queen of Nôm." I was careful to research the book in Nôm scholarship in Vietnamese and in French and through hundreds of conversations with Vietnamese about the poetry and its long heritage. It took me ten years.

Given Vietnam's troubled ancient and recent history with China, I can't figure out why Marilyn Chin thought she had some entitlement to this poetry. Perhaps because Ho Xuan Huong is so compelling, so contemporary, or as Francis Fitzgerald dubbed her in a blurb for Spring Essence, so much the "the brilliant bad girl of eighteenth century Vietnam."

Raleigh, North Carolina

Originally Published: July 1, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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