Translating as Social Activism

Martha Collins' book-length poem Blue Front was published by Graywolf in June 2006. She is also the author of four collections of poems and a chapbook, Gone So Far (Barnwood, 2005), and has co-translated two collections of poetry from the Vietnamese, The Women Carry River Water by Nguyen Quang Thieu (1997, with the author) and Green Rice by Lam Thi My Da (Curbstone 2005, with Thuy Dinh). She is Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin College.

As a war protester during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I thought of myself as reasonably well informed about the history, politics, and geography of Vietnam, and I knew it was important to try to imagine who the Vietnamese people actually were. What I didn't know in fact drove me to attempt some of my first serious poems. In one, I tried to envision my Vietnamese counterpart, a young woman who—well, I couldn't say just what. In fact, the entire poem was a series of questions: Does she walk in a field? Does she carry a gun? The refrain of the poem was “I don't know.”

I was beginning to read as well as write poems, and looked to poets like Denise Levertov for help. But I know I didn't pick up the depth of irony in her 1967 poem “What Were They Like?” in which a futuristic post-war interviewer asks “Had they an epic poem?” and is answered: “It is not remembered. Remember,/ most were peasants; their life / was in rice and bamboo.”

In the years after the war, I continued to function as a poet and social activist; I even began to do some literary translation from languages I'd studied. But these three activities didn't come together for me until 1993, when I taught for the first time for the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. The Joiner Center was founded as a veterans group in 1982, and a few years later began a summer writers' workshop that for some years catered mostly to veterans. From the beginning, the Joiner was able to bring veteran writers from Vietnam to the workshop, along with veteran American writer-teachers like Bruce Weigl, Tim O'Brien, and W.D. Ehrhart; from the beginning, former “enemies” functioned as colleagues who met and quite literally embraced as they shared their writing.

I had been teaching at the University of Massachusetts in Boston for many years, but 1993 was the first time I participated in the workshop, and for some reason I was recruited to teach translation, about which I claimed to know almost nothing. That lack of knowledge began to end on the third day of the workshop, when Nguyen Quang Thieu, one of the writers in attendance from Vietnam, brought in his own English versions of three of his poems. Reading a single poem, I was taken to the country I had vainly tried to imagine in my own poem in the early 1970s. Here is the beginning of that poem, “October,” in its later translation:

Smoke from rice stubble burnt by boys
Tending water buffalo after harvest
Carries the taste of October into my heart.
Once, wind rose up through stubble
And made a magic song.
I thought someone hid behind it,
Calling me to come, and I went, I went.

The version I saw was still rough: there were “cowboys” in the first line, and the “stooks” in the third reflected a recurrent problem with most Vietnamese-English (i.e. British) dictionaries. But beneath the approximate English I glimpsed not only my first Vietnamese poem, but also a countryside that was both familiar and unfamiliar. I had grown up in Iowa, but it was easy enough to replace the rice stubble with corn stubble and to experience, on an emotional and visceral level, something that all the historical and political reading I'd done had not given me. I've had very few moments in which the power of poetry has been so clear to me.

As I came to know and work with Thieu, I realized the deeper resonance of “October,” and other poems as well. Born in 1957, Thieu was graduating from high school when the war ended in Vietnam in 1975; when he was tending water buffalo, the war was still going on. Another poem, “The Habit of Hunger,” describes the attempted killing of a duck when the speaker was fourteen: 1971, that would have been—just about the same time that I was trying to write about the woman in Vietnam.

In the next few months, I found myself learning the process of literary translation—not as an academic discipline, but as an emotional and political necessity: Thieu's poems were filling in a gap I'd been experiencing for over twenty years. At first I intended merely to help him smooth out his own English versions. But when I began finding discrepancies in line and stanza length between the originals and the translations, I bought a Vietnamese-English dictionary and began looking up words. And when Kevin Bowen, the director of the Joiner Center, told me a Vietnamese course was being offered at Harvard, just a few minutes from where I lived, I began attending.

With one semester of the language behind me, I went to Vietnam to work with Thieu on his poems, accompanied by poet-translator Fred Marchant. By this time I knew that there was indeed a Vietnamese epic, and that many Vietnamese people had memorized all 3,254 lines of it—a fact that Denise Levertov had also of course known; I also knew that one of the writers who had visited the Joiner Center with Thieu, Pham Tien Duat, had the job, during the War, of going up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail reciting poems to the troops: Vietnam's Bob Hope was a poet. But I wasn't prepared for the ubiquity of poetry in the country: it appears in newspapers, and in airline magazine; poets recite their poems from memory, and people who aren't poets know and honor those who are. We were honored guests, because we were poets—and, of course, because we were translators of Vietnamese poets.

But more than that, I was amazed and not so amazed to see the country itself: it was as if I had learned it inside out, from working on the poems. There was a buffalo cart! And the rice fields looked just like they did in the poems. And the trees, and the rivers: the poems had made the country real to me, even before I actually saw it.

Shortly after my visit to Vietnam, I had a fantasy. What, I wondered, would it have been like if one the poems I had come to love had appeared on the front page of the New York Times during the American War in Vietnam, in the place usually reserved for a war photograph? I doubt that it would have made a serious difference in the outcome of the war, but it would have made an enormous difference to me, and perhaps to other people who were unable to see the Vietnamese people as more than the enemy, or the Vietnamese landscape as more than a battlefield.

In the four years that I worked with Nguyen Quang Thieu on translations of his poems, I had the enormous pleasure of feeling that what I was doing was politically and socially important: the book, published in 1997 as The Women Carry River Water, was the first English translation of a collection of poems by a Vietnamese writer of the post-1975 generation, and for many readers the very first book of Vietnamese poetry they had encountered. The war was over, but the importance of knowing the history of those we once had fought was (and is) still with us.

A few years later, I began my second book of translations from the Vietnamese—poems by Lam Thi My Da, a woman I had met in Vietnam in 1994. Born in 1947 in central Vietnam, an area of heavy fighting, Lam Thi My Da was the person I had tried to imagine in my early attempts at poetry in the 1970s: a young woman experiencing first-hand the war that I was only reading about in the newspapers. Here is a poem written during the war, translated by my co-translator Thuy Dinh and me; it's the first poem in Green Rice, published in 2005, and it's called “Garden Fragrance”:

Last night a bomb exploded on the verandah
But sounds of birds sweeten the air this morning
I sense the fragrant trees, look in the garden
Find two silent clusters of ripe guavas

Behind the clusters of fruit, I can't help but think, are the “cluster bombs” that explode in other poems of the book. There is my Vietnamese woman, hearing bombs and finding fruit.

In our current war, we are not so impoverished as we were during the Vietnam War: whatever its politics, America has come a long way in recognizing the importance of poetic translation. Shortly after the current war in Iraq began, an issue of Modern Poetry in Translation was subtitled Iraqi Poetry Today, and books of individual Iraqi poets are appearing while the war continues; Khaled Mattawa's translations of Saadi Youssef's Without a Country, Without a Face (2003) and Elizabeth Winslow's translations of Dunya Mikhail's The War Works Hard (2005) are two examples. In the former, a short poem made me think again of my fantasy of poems appearing on the front page of the newspaper. Instead of images of war, imagine the following, “In Their Hands”:

    And when you're thrown from your room
startled, and your ribs bruised
blue like the dead
on a black night

think of Basra,
think of what we love
and what we sing of from the heart:
sun, bread, and love.


Think with Basra.

I'm not about to try to learn Arabic to keep up with the current political situation. But besides continuing to translate the poems of our former “enemies,” I feel that a part of my own social commitment is to continue to try to think not “of,” but “with” whatever country or city is at the center of the daily war news. Since I read my first Vietnamese poem and began to work on it, it's not been a question of translation and social activism for me, but rather one of translation as social activism.