From 'Homeland'


Guest Translator Notes by Quynh Nguyen

This poem 'Homeland' was first published in 1986, written for a 1 year old baby Quynh Anh, the son of his friend, writer Nguyen Nhat Anh now. It was first published in 1986 in the children's Red scarf newspaper. Then the musician Giap Van Thach published the song from this poem in 1986, which had a few paragraphs removed. The author was also surprised that this poem has a very special fate, it is known by many people, it is spread far and wide, it can be loved but at the same time it can cause confusion. The poet gave copyright to the musician Giap Van Thach afterward but the musician died a few years after the poem was published.

Facilitator Notes by April Yee

What a workshop! Attendees ranged from age 20 months to 70 years, and many brought firsthand knowledge of the Vietnamese language and its homeland—the focus of our poem. Saigon-born poet and actor Đỗ Trung Quân wrote ‘Quê hương’ for a friend’s baby in 1986. Those lines became the basis for a popular song heard in karaoke rooms in Vietnam and wherever its diaspora can be found.

In our translation, we chose to preserve the poem’s childlike, conversational tone. The emphasis of each line lies at its start, thanks to the repetition of ‘quê hương’ (‘homeland’ in our version, although we also debated ‘motherland’ and ‘hometown’, among others). Another vocabulary sticking point was ‘mẹ’, which has many regional and personal variations in English (‘Mum’, ‘Mommy’) just as it does in Vietnamese. We chose Ma, which echoes the southern Vietnamese ‘má’.

Traditional Vietnamese verse often follows lục bát: lines that alternate between six and eight syllables, a musical tonal pattern, and a rolling, interlocked rhyme scheme that is similar to terza rima. But Đỗ’s lines only use six syllables, as if lục bát’s final two syllables had vanished, like the boat people who were escaping the country. The rhyme scheme, too, is irregular, reflecting that period’s upheaval and the imperfection of memory.