Hồ Xuân Hương (1772-1822), considered one Vietnam’s greatest classical poets, grew up in Northern Vietnam during an era of political and social turmoil prior to the Nguyen Dynasty. She lived much of her life as a single woman in Confucian society and filled her poems with the folk wisdom as well as frank eroticism. Hương’s work passed on through oral tradition, and it was not until 70 years after her death that they were published and circulated.
Much of Hương's personal life remains contested among scholars: some claim that she was a concubine, others state that she simply had many lovers; even her appearance, whether as a plain, broad woman or a thin voluptuous one, is debated. This ambiguity carries onto her work. In 1964, a new batch of her poems were found in a collection called Lưu Hương Ký. These were written in Chinese and Nôm, suggesting that these poems were illegitimate, either as false attributions or bastardizations by the masses. However, these faux poems further testify to the legend of this poetess, who holds, not only a unique voice in Vietnamese literature, but also stands as a pillar in Vietnamese folk poetry. Hồ Xuân Hương was not just a woman, but a tradition.
I have chosen here to translate two of her most famous poems, one which shows more of her folk wisdom and the second her bold eroticism. Spring Pagoda was originally written in the Đường luật model, which consists of eight seven-syllable lines, and Jackfruit in the Tú Tuyệt form, made of four seven-syllable lines. I found it impossible to convey the same meaning with just seven syllables in English, so I instead wrote seven words per line to pay tribute to this very popular style, making up for sacrifices in end rhyme by maintaining sound and sense within each line. I share them in celebration of International Women's Day and of the coming of Spring. I hope you enjoy!
Gentle evening, Spring comes to the pagoda,
Lucid and light, unclouded by worldly sin.
Temple bells ring three times, echoing waves.
A puddle trembles, weaving water and heaven.
Love’s vast ocean could never grow shallow.
Its graceful source reaches all distant shores.
Now now, where can Bliss be found?
Bliss is here, nine times in ten.
Chơi Khán Đài
Êm ái chiều xuân tới Khán đài,
Lâng lâng chẳng bợn chút trần ai.
Ba hồi chiêu mộ chuông gầm sóng,
Một vũng tang thương nước lộn trời,
Bể ái nghìn trùng khôn tát cạn,
Nguồn ân muôn trượng dễ khơi vơi.
Nào nào cực lạc là đâu tá?
Cực ạc là đây chín rõ mười.
My body like jackfruit on its branch
Though the skin bristly and flesh thick
If you desire then drive the stake
Just don’t fondle, the sap may stain
Thân em như quả mít trên cây, Da nó sù sì, múi nó dày. Quân tử có thương thì đóng cọc, Xin đừng mân mó nhựa ra tay.