Translating Vietnamese into English is hard; translating Vietnamese folk poems into English is much harder, or nearly impossible. I applaud John Balaban for taking on the challenge, but some of his interpretations in Ca Dao Viet Nam don’t do it for me. The folkloric tradition, witty wordplays, and lyrical esthetics are lost in transformation.
He translates, “Gio dua trang” as “The wind plays with the moon.” Why plays, and not swings? When he switches the order of “Lon len co hoc, em oi” to “Study hard, little one, grow up,” he has changed the meaning of the sentence, and it sounds quite awkward. As if we’re telling the little one to hungry and grow up so that we don’t have to take care of him anymore, instead of telling him to study hard when he grows up.
“Perhaps I must leave you” is too disruptive and harsh compares to “Co hoi nay anh danh doan bo em.” And “Bad beer soon sends you home” is nowhere near the lyrical harmony of “Ruou lat uong lam cung say.” Why bad beer for ruou lat, and not plain wine? Yet, what baffles me the most is: “Uong an kham kho biet phan nan cung ai? / Phan nan cung truc, cung mai” (“The body is pain. I can’t complain. / My food is bamboo shoots and plums”). Where do the bamboo shoots and plums come from? Besides, those two aren’t classified as kham kho (poverty-stricken) food either.
I am in no way of trying to castigate Mr. Balaban for what he did. In fact, for a foreigner to come up to the people during the war and ask them to sing their favorite folk tunes takes tremendous courage, and he did it. I have respect for him; therefore, I am just simply pointing out the things that don’t work for me. So it is nothing personal.