Excerpt for 101 Translated Ca Dao Songs by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

101 TRANSLATED CA DAO VERSES……………………………………………………….26

101 Translated Ca Dao Verses

By Khoa Ngo

Translated and published by Khoa Ngo at Smashwords

Copyright © 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.

Khoa Ngo

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.

Language and Prosody:

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 alone.

Another noteworthy 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 tone

_Mà (But): low-falling tone

_Má (Mother/Cheek): high-rising tone

_Mã (Horse): high-rising-broken tone

_Mả (Grave): low-falling-rising tone

_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.

Additionally, the 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:

Bầu ơi thương lấy bí cùng,

Tuy rằng khác giống nhưng chung một giàn.

(O calabash, take pity on melon,

Though not 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 English.

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.

Translation Approach:

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. 7).

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 certain extent.

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:

1) Family

2) Couples

3) Manners and Behavior

4) Satire

5) Anti-Feudalism

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.


I. Family

Sân Gà (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,

Hạt thông lại nở cây thông rườm ra,

Có cha sinh mới ra ta,

Làm nên thời bởi mẹ cha vun trồng.

Dragon’s egg births dragon,

Pine seed births pine verdant, lively.

From dads we come to be,

By parents’ nurture, we flourish.

2) Con ai là chẳng giống cha,

Cháu ai là chẳng giống bà giống ông.

Kids take after their pas,

Grandkids after grandmas, granddads.

3) Con người có cố có ông,

Như cây có cội, như sông có nguồn.

Humans have ancestors,

As trees have roots, rivers have source.

4) Gió mùa thu mẹ ru con ngủ,

Năm canh chầy thức đủ năm canh.

Midst fall’s winds, I sing you to sleep,

Through the long night, I keep eyes peeled.

5) Cũng thì con mẹ con cha,

Cành cao vun xới, cành là bỏ liều.

Born to same parents, though,

High branch’s cared for, branch low is spurned.

6) Con ơi con ngủ đi con,

Con khóc làm mẹ héo hon tấc lòng.

Please sleep now my dear child,

My whole heart when you cry withers.

7) Có chồng mà chẳng có con,

Khác gì hoa nở trên non một mình.

Married with no offspring

Like a lone bloom sprouting uphill.

8) Khôn ngoan đá đáp người ngoài,

Gà cùng một mẹ chớ hoài đá nhau.

Smart ones fight those outside,

Cocks from one hen don’t fight th’other.

9) Anh em như thể chân tay,

Rách lành đùm bọc, dở hay đỡ đần.

Linked like limbs are siblings,

In bliss or woe off’ring shelter.

10) Em thời canh cửi trong nhà,

Nuôi anh đi học đăng khoa bảng vàng.

Trước là vinh hiển tổ đường,

Bõ công đèn sách lưu phương đời đời.

I’m in charge of the loom,

Help you study, assume honors,

First please our ancestors,

So spent effort’s ever revered.

11) Yêu nhau gánh gạch về xây,

Chẳng đắp nên núi cũng quay nên thành.

In love, fetch bricks to build,

If not a hill, a huge castle.

12) Dẫu rằng da trắng tóc mây,

Đẹp thì đẹp vậy, dạ này không ưa.

Vợ ta dù có quê mùa,

Thì ta vẫn cứ sớm trưa vui cùng.

Skin white, hair fair appear,

Though pretty, this heart here shan’t care.

Though my wife’s not as fair,

All day with her I’ll share my joy.

13) Đói lòng ăn hạt chà là,

Để cơm nuôi mẹ, mẹ già yếu răng.

Hungry, eat date palm’s seeds,

Save rice for mom with teeth weakened.

14) Lên non mới biết non cao,

Nuôi con mới biết công lao mẹ hiền.

Climb hills to learn how high,

Raise kids to learn mom’s kindness, pains.

15) Đã thành gia thất thì thôi,

Đèo bòng gia thất tội trời ai mang.

Once one has settled down,

Who’d fool around, profound sins bear?

16) Còn cha gót đỏ như son,

Đến khi cha thác, gót con đen sì.

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