101 TRANSLATED CA DAO
and published by Khoa Ngo at Smashwords
© 2017 by Khoa Ngo
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It could be said that
my interest in translation, particularly the translation of
Vietnamese poetry, is the direct result of my love for languages,
namely my mothertongue and, of course, English. I have read many
works translated from Vietnamese to English such as the various
translations of the timeless Truyện Kiều (lit. The Tale of
Kiều) by Nguyễn Du, Hồ Xuân Hương’s poems translated by
John Balaban and The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh translated by
Aileen Palmer. As a result, I, as a language enthusiast and a student
majoring in linguistics, want to be able to produce something
similar, something which I can proudly call my own.
However, I want to
select works which could not only show the beauty of the Vietnamese
poetry but also the beauty of Vietnamese itself, both linguistically
and culturally. After thinking hard about what I really want to write
about, I have at last decided to follow the footsteps of John
Balaban, an American poet whose translated works from Vietnamese have
made a great impact on me. I really admire his book titled Ca Dao
Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry in which he endeavored to
translate one of the purest, most rustic and charming forms of poetry
unique to Vietnam alone: Ca dao (歌謠).
Ca dao can be
said to be the very soul of Vietnamese folk poetry, and it is tightly
tied to the working and spiritual life of the Vietnamese people.
Therefore, it can be said that the musical recitations of ca dao
in Vietnam are as natural to the Vietnamese as breathing is to all
living beings. However, except for John Balaban’s book, I do not
know of any other books whose contents focus on the translation of ca
dao into English. It is through ca dao that the souls and
beauty of the ordinary people are expressed in multiple colors and
facets, ever so simple yet utterly and endearingly honest and
natural. Therefore, I have chosen ca dao to be the main focus
of this book, and have consequently selected a total of 101 ca dao
verses covering various topics such as family, couples, manners and
behavior, satire and anti-feudalism.
I shall admit that it
is extremely difficult (and at times virtually impossible in multiple
cases) to perfectly translate ca dao into English and at the
same time retain most of the prosodic as well as the poetic features
which make them so beautiful in the original language. Such
difficulties are chiefly due to the drastic differences between
English and Vietnamese, the specifics of which shall be further
elaborated later on. As a consequence, despite my best efforts to
bring my translations as close as possible to the originals, these
translations are not flawless and are, of course, still subject to
mistakes. However, I sincerely hope that this book may still prove
helpful as a reference material to people who wish to learn more
about Vietnam and its poetry, culture and language as well as those
who are interested in the art of poetry translation.
About Ca Dao in Vietnam
Considered to be among
the most enduring monuments of the Vietnamese culture and
civilization, ca dao, a form of folk poetry which is normally
sung like songs and passed down orally from one generation to the
next, has long been considered an almost indispensible part of the
working and spiritual lives of the Vietnamese people.
Ca means song
while Dao means a short poem. Ca dao, unlike other
formal forms of regulated poetry, is composed and sung chiefly by
farmers and the common people in society. As a result of its humble
origin, ca dao usually carries with it the simplistic, rustic
charms associated with the images commonly found in the Vietnamese
villages and agricultural tradition. The topics covered by ca dao
are extremely diverse, ranging from children’s songs, verses of
courting, lullabies, work songs, riddles, teachings, reveries of
natural beauty, satirical remarks and even comments on society and
social injustice. The lengths of ca dao vary; typically, they
are very short, with many verses consisting solely of two lines
linked by internal rhymes while some can be much longer. For example,
two of the most popular manifestations of ca dao in Vietnamese
literature are those of Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều with
3,254 lines and Nguyễn Đình Chiểu’s Lục Vân Tiên
with 2,082 lines, both of which I have already attempted to translate
into English while trying my very best to keep the Lục bát
(six-eight) poetic form to a certain extent.
The beauty of ca dao
comes from the language itself, including the unique prosodic
features of Vietnamese. There are certain dissimilarties between
Vietnamese and English which need to be addressed before we move on
to the translations.
First of all,
Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, meaning each utterance in
Vietnamese can indeed stand alone as a separate word as opposed to
English polysyllabic nature, in which a word may consist of multiple
syllables. Additionally, Vietnamese does not contain inflections, and
thus, its verbs do not change form to indicate time as English verbs
do (e.g. work – present, worked – past, will work – future,
etc.). Time in Vietnamese, on the other hand, is expressed through
separate words indicating time such as ngày mai (tomorrow),
hôm qua (yesterday), vừa (just) and many more.
However, in Vietnamese poetry, due to the brevity of expression,
these time markers are usually omitted, consequently giving
Vietnamese poems a sense of timelessness to the readers. English
poetry, on the contrary, shows the exact time through the tenses of
the verbs, and thus exists only in and for that particular moment
linguistic feature which sets Vietnamese apart from English is the
presence of tones. In Vietnamese, there exist six distinct tones
which are used to convey meanings. They include the following:
_Ma (Ghost): mid-level
_Mà (But): low-falling
_Mạ (To coat metal
with a thin film): low-falling-broken tone
The previously mentioned tones are further divided into two classes
in Vietnamese poetry, with the mid-level and low-falling tones
considered as flat (bằng) and the rest as sharp (trắc). These
features are extremely complex and, at the same time, inextricably
important to the traditional regulated verses. However, when
translated into English, these features must be omitted.
As a result of those
prosodic features, the rhymes of Vietnamese are equally
sophisticated. In principle, rhymes in Vietnamese are somewhat
similar to those in English. In both languages, the words are formed
by a cluster of consonants and vowels. However, there are differences
which must be considered.
In English, a rhyming
pair must, due to the polysyllabic nature of the language, each
contain a different consonantal sound preceding the accented vowel
sound (Wood et. al., 1998, p. 1). For example, prepare and
ensnare are a rhyming pair.
Rhymes in Vietnamese
are somewhat similar in the way that a rhyming pair must be formed by
two syllables sharing the same vowel but containing different
consonants (e.g. la: “to shout” and ca: “to
sing”). In Vietnamese, however, rhymes are additionally influenced
by the tones, particularly the tone classes. While rhyming syllables
do not need to possess the same tone, they must belong to the same
tone class, either flat of sharp. For instance, nâu (brown,
mid-level tone, flat) rhymes with cầu (bridge, low-falling
tone, flat). However, nâu does not rhyme with xấu
(ugly), which has a sharp high-rising tone. Flat rhymes generally
establish a sense of tenderness and smoothness while sharp tones
convey a feeling of roughness and restlessness in the verses, and are
thus utilized as a poetic device to convey the feelings and thoughts
of the poets.
Vietnamese rhymes are further divided into rich rhyme (vần
giàu) and poor rhyme (vần nghèo). The ones seen as rich
are those which have both the same tone class and the same vowel
(e.g. cầu and rầu, sâu and đâu,
cau and sau, cây and đầy, sai
and dài, tạo and sáo, cảnh and
rảnh, etc.). One famous example can be found in the
following ca dao:
thương lấy bí cùng,
khác giống nhưng chung một giàn.
calabash, take pity on melon,
of the same variety, we share the same pergola.)
Cùng and chung
above both have a flat tone and the same vowel, consequently making
them a pair of rich rhyme. The example above also shows the
difficulty of translating ca dao while attempting to retain the
popular six-eight poetic form due to the polysyllabic nature of
On the other hand, poor
rhymes are the pairs which share the same tone class but do not
completely share the vowels. For example, xanh (green) and
hoành (horizon) have the same flat tone, but their vowels are
slightly different in pronunciation.
In ca dao and
regulated verses, the rules of rhyming are filled with even more
conditions and constraints. As demonstrated by the example given
above, the second, sixth and eighth syllables of each line must be of
the flat tone (with the sixth syllable of the first line rhyming with
the eighth syllable of the second line in accordance with the rhyming
rules previously elaborated), whereas the fourth syllables of each
line must have a sharp tone. In the example above, these sharp
syllables are lấy and giống, both of which have a
high-rising tone. When translated into English, however, these
restrictions are no longer present.
The beauty of ca dao
lies first and foremost in their poetic forms, especially the most
commonly used six-eight form. Therefore, to leave those poetic forms
unattended when translating ca dao would, in my personal
opinion, leave out one of the most important features which make them
so musically charming to listen to and to recite. Ca dao
verses are like folksongs, and songs must have accompanying melodies.
Ca dao are frequently sung to ditonic, tritonic, tetratonic and
pentatonic scales (Trần Văn Khê, as cited in Balaban, 2003, p.
Based on that personal
belief, I have therefore decided to try my best to translate the
selected verses into English in a manner which could almost replicate
the poetic form of the originals. However, as noted by Padgett
(1987), English has a rather small number of rhymes; additionally, a
few English words are believed to have no perfect rhyme (pp.
163-164). Furthermore, the majority of rhyming groups in English have
a limited number of rhyming members. According to Levý (2011), sixty
percent of the groups gave two to fifteen members and only
twenty-five groups have more than fifty items, thus making them the
only ones which could sufficiently offer a wide selection of rhymes
(p. 235). As a consequence, the task of choosing the most appropriate
rhymes to use in translation is one of tremendous difficulty. Hence,
I have, from the outset, deceided that the rhymes I would use would
be slant rhymes instead of pure rhymes, a conscious decision which
would, in my opinion, elevate the difficulty of the process to a
Last but not least, I
have read and ultimately selected a total of 101 ca dao verses
for this book. These verses are chosen based on their potential
translatability and on my own skills to translate them as well. That
being said, the chosen ca dao verses include some of the more
well-known and commonly recited ones today. For ease of reference, I
have categorized the verses into five different topics, which are:
3) Manners and Behavior
I sincerely believe
that this book, imperfect as it is, may prove useful and interesting
as a reference material for those who harbor a desire to learn more
about the culture of Vietnam, as well as for those who take an
interest in poetry and in the art of translation.
(A Field of Chickens) – A Đông Hồ Painting which shows the joy
and bliss of having lots of offspring
1) Trứng rồng lại nở ra rồng,
thông lại nở cây thông rườm ra,
sinh mới ra ta,
nên thời bởi mẹ cha vun trồng.
egg births dragon,
seed births pine verdant, lively.
dads we come to be,
parents’ nurture, we flourish.
2) Con ai
là chẳng giống cha,
là chẳng giống bà giống ông.
after their pas,
after grandmas, granddads.
người có cố có ông,
có cội, như sông có nguồn.
have roots, rivers have source.
mùa thu mẹ ru con ngủ,
canh chầy thức đủ năm canh.
fall’s winds, I sing you to sleep,
the long night, I keep eyes peeled.
thì con mẹ con cha,
vun xới, cành là bỏ liều.
same parents, though,
branch’s cared for, branch low is spurned.
ơi con ngủ đi con,
làm mẹ héo hon tấc lòng.
sleep now my dear child,
heart when you cry withers.
chồng mà chẳng có con,
gì hoa nở trên non một mình.
with no offspring
lone bloom sprouting uphill.
8) Khôn ngoan đá đáp người ngoài,
một mẹ chớ hoài đá nhau.
ones fight those outside,
from one hen don’t fight th’other.
em như thể chân tay,
lành đùm bọc, dở hay đỡ đần.
like limbs are siblings,
or woe off’ring shelter.
thời canh cửi trong nhà,
anh đi học đăng khoa bảng vàng.
là vinh hiển tổ đường,
công đèn sách lưu phương đời đời.
in charge of the loom,
you study, assume honors,
please our ancestors,
spent effort’s ever revered.
nhau gánh gạch về xây,
đắp nên núi cũng quay nên thành.
fetch bricks to build,
If not a
hill, a huge castle.
rằng da trắng tóc mây,
thì đẹp vậy, dạ này không ưa.
dù có quê mùa,
vẫn cứ sớm trưa vui cùng.
white, hair fair appear,
pretty, this heart here shan’t care.
my wife’s not as fair,
with her I’ll share my joy.
lòng ăn hạt chà là,
cơm nuôi mẹ, mẹ già yếu răng.
eat date palm’s seeds,
rice for mom with teeth weakened.
non mới biết non cao,
mới biết công lao mẹ hiền.
hills to learn how high,
kids to learn mom’s kindness, pains.
15) Đã thành gia thất thì thôi,
bòng gia thất tội trời ai mang.
has settled down,
fool around, profound sins bear?
cha gót đỏ như son,
khi cha thác, gót con đen sì.