Author: Chieu Anh Nguyen is the pen name of Ms. Nguyễn Chiêu Anh Phượng, a young poet currently living and working in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Her poems appear consistently in Vietnamese literary magazines and websites. She is the author of two collections of poetry: C.A.N. (Writers’ Association Press, 2010) and Gió (forthcoming).
Translator notes: I chose to translate these four poems by Chieu Anh Nguyen because I believe they are a sincere exploration of a dilemma of conscience and a rare expression of political dissent through poetry. Freedom of expression does not come without paying a personal price in communist Vietnam. The first two poems express the author’s torment of shame for not daring to speak and write what feels true to her own mind and heart, for fear of being persecuted and of losing the “untroubled life” she was leading. In the two other poems, she realizes that she does not want to live “like the mud, the trees, the grass,” and she would rather honor the dignity of human beings by having the courage to express her contempt towards the hypocrisy of the regime in which she lives.
In Chieu Anh Nguyen’s poems, one sees the internal dilemma that is true for generations of Vietnamese. But not everyone can or chooses to be true to oneself through art. Chieu Anh Nguyen’s poetry and courage are to be shared and admired.
The Vietnamese language is full of metaphors whose meaning does not automatically flow with a mere translation of words into another language. Chieu Anh Nguyen’s poetry is not an exception. While I tried to stay as close as possible to the original poems’ form, for the content, sometimes I needed to take the liberty to translate my interpretation of the original poems’ metaphors when a translation of words alone was not enough to convey an intelligible meaning. In this sense, I believe a translator is the co-creator of the poem into another language. Just like a reader is always the co-creator of a poem’s meaning, as she reads it in light of her own experiences and allows the poem to take a life of its own in her imagination. To be sure, a translator does not and should not have the complete liberty of translating only her interpretation. She has the obligation to stay as loyal to the original work’s words and meaning as possible, while allowing a necessary margin for the co-creative process, such as the formulation of the rhythms in the target language, or the word choice to clarify obscure metaphors.
Read the translations and the original Vietnamese text here: Four Poems by Chieu Anh Nguyen – Exchanges Literary Journal
where we have to remember often
to shut up
when we speak of the past
while watching our backs
when we knowingly close our eyes,
shut our ears,
to all things repulsive
There, our inferior fate:
passing books underhand
– no space
that break free
Inferior fate of a man thirty-two
born long after independence day
what has made him Open Mouth *
what… what… what?
please tell me
that man was proud
to the motherland he returned
knowing well the halo’s darkness **
of the people who always live in fear
where is truth?
I, too, was born after the war
I, too, am concerned with these words
yet high and low I gloss over
truth and Open Mouth
To live an untroubled life
I chose the shame of a coward
and cut my own larynx
(*) Referring to poet Bùi Chát and his underground literary group “Mở Miệng” – Open Mouth
(**) Poet Bùi Chát received the International Publishers Association’s 2011 Freedom to Publish Prize and was temporarily arrested upon his return to Vietnam from Buenos Aires where he had been honored with the award.
Farces in Saigon
Where did the streets of Saigon lead to this morning? *
halfway, the footsteps left no prints
the shadows turned still and soundless
the cell phones no longer sent signals in response
where are they?
Saigon was busy
Saigon was an atmosphere of death
Saigon was full of police uniforms
full of heaving hands
ready to choke my brothers’ throats
The farce of justice
like the street with a bridge
splayed across a smelly canal
my laugh was a cry
(*) September 24, 2012 – Bloggers Dieu Cay & Ta Phong Tan’s trial
If I pick up a pebble, throw it in the water
Will the silent surface stay untroubled?
Will the round ripples expand limitless?
If I toss pebbles in calm water
How many circles will embody the round waves?
If I throw myself
into the middle of that pond quiet
How many swirls will the water spin?
Or, will fear make me stand still
gazing at the tranquility-disguise?
Thrown into existence
Will I live a worthwhile life?
If living means getting by,
on the sidelines,
like the mud, the grass, the trees
I would rather throw myself into the abyss
There is no greater fear than death
Even living, apprehension has changed me into a corpse
Even when I eat
When I sleep
When I bathe
And make love
When I say:
I choose for myself a fearless life
holding my head high
This is all …
Let me tell you this
I frankly hate the sight of you on my road each day.
I hate the way you loom
hide and show
when no one knows
plundering for money in the middle of the streets
I hate watching you point
drag peddlers and paupers,
fill your patrol cars with their confiscated goods
I hate how you behave
gangsters masked with law
worse than the rulers of the underworld.
I hate your haughty way
You, removed and aloft,
proclaim, lecture, indoctrinate
I hate you as I hate the weasel, the fox,
the savage that humiliates
while chanting prayers and striking wooden bells
with a bayonet.
Yes, I hate you all.
I can’t say otherwise no matter what.
A heart I still have
and a brain
I can’t just sit and silently watch.
My tongue I can’t cut
My eyes I can’t poke blind
to live like a stone, lifeless.
I can only speak
of my hatred for the barbarous
those who steal and sell the motherland
in exchange for a throne.