Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Michael Wiegers
Dear Editor,

I was looking forward to reading your translation issue, but Marilyn Chin's suspect Ho Xuan Huong translations and subsequent letter make me call into question the reliability of your other choices. Apart from the translations themselves, what is troublesome about Chin's project is her contention that in translating Ho Xuan Huong she is translating from Chinese. She writes about encountering a "vocabulary that was very 'un-Chinese.'" Well, perhaps that's because, after one thousand years of domination by the Chinese, Vietnamese literati created Nôm to represent Vietnamese speech, not Chinese. Before leveling her charges of cultural imperialism, perhaps Chin might acknowledge that Ho Xuan Huong wrote in Nôm, not Chinese. Her letter, in which she avoids answering any questions regarding her sources, only exacerbates my doubts about her translations.

When I traveled to Vietnam in 1998 to consider the prospects of publishing John Balaban's extensively-researched translations of Ho Xuan Huong, I met a number of Nôm scholars who explained to me how Nôm is nearly extinct. Scholars estimate that fewer than one hundred people can read Nôm with any fluency (including the complex poetry of Ho Xuan Huong). When we published Spring Essence in 2000, Copper Canyon Press, working with computational linguist Ngo Than Nhan, developed a True Type Nôm font—the first time in human history that moveable type was used in printing Nôm. We did so in part to contribute to a greater understanding of Ho Xuan Huong's poetry, but also to highlight the distinct cultural and historical differences between China and Vietnam—not to blur them, as Chin seems intent on doing.

So my first question is: Does Marilyn Chin read either Nôm or modern Quoc-ngu Vietnamese? What are her sources for these "translations"?

During my visit to Vietnam in 1998, I was granted access to the Vien Han-Nôm, the country's main institute for old script studies. Beyond the doors of the institute is a huge, anomalous hill in the alluvial plain where a Chinese army was defeated and buried in 1789. (During our own lifetime, the Chinese again tried to assimilate northern Vietnam, with a similar result.) At the site of this burial mound stands a large black marble relief inscribed in gold letters with a poem by Nguyen Hue, the general who defeated the Chinese. The first line of the poem was translated for me as "We beat you because we like to wear our hair long." In 1991, when a delegation of Chinese linguists traveling with the ISO/Ideographic Rapporteur Group tried to read the poem, they could not. It is in Nôm. It is Vietnamese.

So my final question: how on earth does Marilyn Chin have the nerve to raise any issue of cultural insensitivity?

Editor, Copper Canyon Press
Port Townsend, Washington

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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