Sometimes books really do change the world. In October, Copper Canyon Press will publish Spring Essence, American poet John Balaban’s translation of 48 poems by Vietnamese writer Ho Xuan Huong. This will set in motion a project that may transform Vietnamese culture.
Ho Xuan Huong was, simply, one of the most remarkable poets who ever lived. The “second wife” (concubine) of an early-19th-century provincial governor near Hanoi, she not only wrote poetry–an almost exclusively male occupation under Vietnam’s Confucian patriarchy–but wrote it dazzlingly, mastering several highly complex classical poetic forms. She was a moralist who derided the decay of Vietnamese Buddhism into empty ritual and venality. And she was a trickster who imbedded in her poems punning erotic subtexts that play with love, lust, and the geography of the female body.
But Balaban’s efforts go far beyond adding a fresh Asian voice to the canon of protofeminist poetry. In cooperation with Vietnamese colleagues, he’s using Spring Essence to spearhead the recovery of traditional Vietnam’s lost cultural legacy.
Ho Xuan Huong used a complex writing system called chu nom (nom for short), in which Chinese characters, and Vietnamese adaptations of Chinese characters, are employed for both meaning and sound. All Vietnamese writing used this intricate, rebus-puzzle-like system between about 1000 C.E. and the early 17th century, after which French missionaries and colonialists imposed the Roman alphabet and nom fell into obscurity. “I understood that not very many people knew how to read nom,” says Balaban. “I thought maybe a few hundred at most. On my last trip to Hanoi, scholars told me that 30 people in the whole world know nom.”
What this means is that only those texts that were transliterated into Roman letters before the decline of nom (including Ho Xuan Huong’s work) can still be read by modern Vietnamese–and it’s a small fraction of nearly 700 years of literary, historical, legal, medical, and philosophical writing. To spread nom literacy is literally to rescue a massive amount of culture from near-total obscurity, and Spring Essence aims to begin that process: The original poems are printed in nom as well as in quoc-ngu, the Roman-letter system. In fact, Spring Essence represents the first time nom has ever been printed in movable type. Ngo Thanh Nhan, a Vietnam-born computational linguist at New York University and a nom reader, developed the computerized type font–and thus can claim to be the Gutenberg of traditional Vietnam. He and Balaban, along with graphic designer James Do, have set up the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation.
It’s all a labor of love for Balaban, 56, who first experienced Vietnam as a conscientious objector who evacuated war-injured children during the war. After returning to the States, he encountered some translations of Vietnamese folk poetry and was smitten. Returning to Vietnam in 1971, he traversed the still-war-torn country collecting traditional verses on his tape recorder. Balaban transcribed these verses, called ca dao, into the Roman-letter script–he was the first scholar ever to do so–and translated them. The result was Ca Dao Vietnam (Unicorn Press, 1974). Balaban’s growing Vietnamese cultural literacy soon made him aware of Ho Xuan Huong, and he found himself translating her amazing verses in between work on his own poetry, nonfiction, and novels.
As for Copper Canyon, a well-established literary press with a strong bent for poetry and translations of Asian writers, its involvement in the Spring Essence project is intimate even by the hands-on standards of the independent press. Copper Canyon managing editor Michael Wiegers accompanied Balaban to Vietnam in 1999 to help him fine-tune the manuscript and check facts. “It sounded exciting,” he says, “and I also wanted to reassure myself that Ho Xuan Huong was as major a poet as John said.” Wiegers found that ordinary Vietnamese of all walks of life knew her works, and many blushed at her racy reputation.
If all of this seems more painstaking than the average author-publisher relationship, well, that’s how Wiegers likes it. He sums up Copper Canyon’s commitment in words that the dedicated cultural ecologists of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation would second: “For us, a book is a mission.”