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

Inferior fate

 

Inferior fate

where we have to remember often

to shut up

Inferior fate

when we speak of the past

while watching our backs

when we knowingly close our eyes,

shut our ears,

feign indifference

to all things repulsive

There, our inferior fate:

passing books underhand

like thieves

– no space

for expressions

that break free

 

Inferior fate of a man thirty-two

born long after independence day

and peace

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 **

 

Inferior fate

of the people who always live in fear

truth

then

where is truth?

 

I, too, was born after the war

I, too, am concerned with these words

inferior fate

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

my friends

where are they?

 

This morning

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

had died

like the street with a bridge

splayed across a smelly canal

roads

human rights

courts

freedom

democracy

 

This morning

my laugh was a cry

 

shame

coward

 

(*) September 24, 2012 – Bloggers Dieu Cay & Ta Phong Tan’s trial

Simple

 

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

so immense

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 …

Power

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

intimidate

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.

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