Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Spring Essence by Ho Xuan Huong, John Balaban (translator)

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 120 pages
# Publisher: Copper Canyon Press, 2000
# ISBN: 1556591489
# $15.00

Bilingual and a writer myself, I know painfully well the treacheries of translation. Especially poetic translations. The thought alone sends shivers of horror and dread down my writerly spine. Perhaps it is great fortune that I have absolutely no knowledge of Nom, or the Vietnamese language, from which the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong is translated. I cannot say whether Balaban has or has not succeeded in his translation of this 18th century concubine's poetry. What I can say: I attended a reading by John Balaban. He read Xuan Huong's poetry in both English and in Nom. I almost felt, listening to the music of the language alone, without comprehension of the language itself, that I loved listening to its musical quality even more than I loved listening to the English translations I understood. The blind see and the deaf hear? Sometimes it is so. It was music to my ears. When he read about the rain falling on banana leaves... Thanh thot tau tieu may hat mua... I could hear the rain plunk and patter on the leaves. Balaban had clearly approached his work with passion and pleasure, and this is exactly what he brought out of Xuan Huong's poetry - passion and pleasure, spiced with humor. I had to purchase the book after the reading, simply had to. I won't argue the authenticity of the poetry I read in this volume, but I will state that it gives me pleasure to read it. "My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems..."

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