Vanishing ink: Vietnam’s Nom script by mattsteinglass
July 30, 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Literature, Vietnam

I’m gradually putting together a little feature on the Nom Preservation Foundation, a group set up by American poet John Balaban that supports the digital archiving and preservation of literacy in Vietnamese Nom script. (Nom is the Chinese-style script that was used to write Vietnamese from the 10th century until the French promoted the modern Romanized Vietnamese alphabet, which took over by the 1930s.) Anyway, Balaban sent me a recording of a poem by the great woman poet Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822), and it reads like it was written yesterday:

Spring-Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

You know this is for real when you hit the heaven upside down in the puddles; that’s one of those lines that leaps across the centuries, for me. And partly the modernity of the poem is the effect of Balaban’s lovely translation, but that last line, “nine times out of ten”, is perfectly faithful to the Vietnamese: “chin ro muoi”. I can’t think of a Western poet who would have written such a slangy, demotic expression of probabilistic attitude in 1800. Anyone?


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