Lê Pham Lê, translated by Lê Pham Lê and Nancy Arbuthnot

Introduction by Nancy Arbuthnot

Since my earliest intersections with languages other than English (when I was in kindergarten and first heard the song “Alouette”), I have engaged with other languages, other cultures, through poetry. In high school Spanish class, I translated Garcia Lorca; in college, in Russian class, I translated a Pushkin poem. In graduate school, for my thesis in creative writing, I composed English versions of pre-Conquest Nahuatl poems based on 16th century Spanish translations by Spanish friars and 19th century translations by American anthropologists. And so I began (in the laudable tradition of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams), my career of translating from languages I don’t know!

In the case of Lê Phạm Lê’s poems, I worked from Lê’s  literal translations and an intense study of the Vietnamese originals to look for form and rhyme. (At one point I even audited an introductory Vietnamese class–but as all the other students had grown up with at least one parent who spoke Vietnamese and the instructor spoke in Vietnamese almost entirely, I was way behind from the beginning. But I did learn something of what the language sounds like!). Then, sending my first versions back to Lê, she would review them and suggest revisions. This way, back and forth over the months, we would finally have a version in English we were both happy with—or at least ready to release to the world. And now that Lê has become so fluent in English, she has begun to write poems in her second language.

Waves Beyond Waves/Trùng Dương Sóng Vỗ/ 荒波を越えて chronicles in poetry the physical, literary and spiritual life journey of poet Lê Phạm Lê. The four poems from the book featured here reflect on her early years in Viet Nam while “Annapolis Revisited” was written more recently when she revisited Annapolis for a poetry reading at the U.S. Naval Academy. We offer them as a way to bridge two cultures, Vietnamese and American.


Crickets’ Complaints

Have you heard the amphibian orchestra
Playing by the edge of the pond?
I can’t ignore the crickets’ back yard complaint.
Who can say why I toss & turn all night?

Tiếng Dế Đêm

Ai về bên nớ
Còn nhớ nhạc hòa tấu của con ễnh ương?
Dế kêu rả rích sau vườn.
Đêm nằm trăn trở, đoạn trường ai hay?


* * * *

Shallow Rivers

The Mekong River winds like a chain of nine dragons.
Thất sơn’s spirit hides five hills, seven mountains.
Rocks wear down, rivers run shallow,
But my heart beats a steady rhythm for you!

Sông Cạn, Đá Mòn

Dòng sông Cửu lững lơ chín con rồng uốn khúc.
Dãy Thất sơn chập chùng “bảy núi, năm non.”
Dẫu cho sông cạn, đá mòn,
Nào ai đổi dạ, thay lòng với ai!


* * * *

Đà Lạt Persimmon

Trại Hầm plums: sour but sweet.
Cầu Đất tea: from the best leaf-tips.
Đà Lạt persimmons aren’t crisp, you say?
Then why walk back and forth, wearing out your shoes?

Hồng Đà Lạt

Mận Trại Hầm vừa chua, vừa ngọt.
Trà Cầu Đất tinh đọt trà non.
i bảo hồng Đà Lạt không giòn
Để anh lên xuống cho mòn gót chân?

* * * *

Grapefruit Flowers

A sparrow, perched on a spear of bamboo.
A chameleon, clicking its tongue.
In the neighbor’s front yard, someone appears, disappears
Behind the grapefruit tree with snow-white flowers
That could flavor green tea instead of bitter melon brew.

Hoa Bưởi

Chim sẻ đậu cành tre.
Con cắc kè tắc lưỡi.
Ai trồng cây bưởi để cho người lấp ló ngoài sân.
Tiếc thay hoa bưởi trắng ngần.
Trà xanh không ướp, ướp lầm khổ qua!

* * * *

Annapolis Revisited

Snowflakes whirl in the wind.
Washington’s changed, a mysterious scene.
I arrive to a breeze caressing the Tidal Basin,
A streetlight whispering to the Potomac.
A full moon shines on snow-white petals,
Fragile as the shadow of time.
Near me a cherry tree bends her head,
Hair falling toward the fresh earth.

Next morning I return heart-broken,
Wondering what’s become of the weeping cherry blossoms.

Về Thăm Lại Annapolis

Tuyết đùa với ngọn gió hoang,
Chiều Hoa-Thịnh-Đốn ai còn ngẩn ngơ.
Gió đêm mơn trớn mặt hồ.
Đèn đường thủ thỉ chuyện trò với song.
Trăng soi trắng nụ hoa lòng–
Mỏng manh như áng bụi hồng thời gian.
Nghiêng đầu bên cạnh thở than,
Một bờ tóc đổ trên làn đất tươi.
Thì thôi tôi giã biệt người.
Rưng rưng, ai đó gượng cười với mơ.

Phút giây trở lại sững sờ,
Hoa đào đêm trước bây giờ chốn nao?

 © Original Vietnamese poems by Lê Phạm Lê, translations by Lê Phạm Lê and Nancy Arbuthnot

Lê Phạm Lê is the author of two volumes of poetry, From Where the Wind Blows (a bilingual Vietnamese-English edition published in California in 2003 by the Vietnamese International Poetry Society) and Waves Beyond Waves, published as a trilingual Vietnamese-English-Japanese volume by Chikurinkan in 2013 in Japan). Lê was born in Da Lat, Viet Nam, and completed her B.A. in Vietnamese Language and Literature at the University of Pedagogy in Saigon. She taught literature and language in high school for five years before leaving the country in 1978 with her husband and young son. After a year in a refugee camp in Malaysia, Lê and her family resettled in their second homeland in America.  Two daughters were born in California, where all the children were raised. After serving as lab coordinator for the English Departments at Contra Costa College and Los Medanos College, Lê has recently retired.

Nancy Arbuthnot is Professor Emerita of English at the United States Naval Academy, where she taught for almost thirty years. Working with Lê’s literal translations, she provided the English versions of poems in From Where the Wind Blows and Waves Beyond Waves. Her own book of poems, Spirit Hovering, is just out from Tate Publishing. She is currently working on a collection of poems about growing up in the navy and teaching at the Naval Academy.

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