on a species of bird that doesn’t fly away
First Workshop Session
We only had time to attempt the first quarter of this rich new prose poem by Linh San, stopping just as the speaker begins to recount a memory they, like the bird in the title, can only circle around but never leave. By the poem’s close, they will reveal the death of a father, but in our hour-long workshop, we could only look at the opening scene: the previous night spent with an intimate ‘you’.
The second sentence (beginning ‘last night’) is nearly four hundred words long. This is easier to follow in Vietnamese than it might be in English, our lead translator Phương Anh Nguyen told us. The poet’s list of clauses creates lots of nice ambiguities with time: does ‘when a lost bird drifted…’ occur at the same time as the previous phrase, or the following one? The original doesn’t make this clear, and so neither does our working translation.
If we’d had enough time to work through the whole poem, we would have returned to polish the beginning and represent better the monosyllabic musicality of the original – but, for now, this is our entry point into Linh San’s latest prose poem.
Second Workshop Session
It was a pleasure to return to ‘on a species of bird that doesn’t fly away’ by Linh San, with translator Phương Anh Nguyen. We dove straight into the middle of the poem, at a moment of transition: having begun with memories of the previous night, the speaker now recalls moments from deeper in their past. This poem continued to be slippery in its syntax, and the group decided to balance keeping that ambiguity in our translation with making the poem comprehensible. As before, we questioned whether to translate ‘ta’ as ‘you’, ‘we’, or ‘I’; and is it the fingers which are the ‘they’ or some other entity?
At other moments, we had to lean into specificity. This section is full of river and water imagery, provoking discussions around the right terms for what you’d find in a dried-up river: mud or silt? The poem then moves back to last night and the bird flapping around the house; we also reached the first reference to the father who, by the poem’s end, we will discover has died. Again we wrestled with specificity – would we translate him under a curtain, a veil, a drape, or the more prosaic (but accurate) mosquito net?
We hope to be able to finish this poem in a future session, but for now, here’s as far as we got with this incantatory, immersive poem.
Third Workshop Session
Picking up from the bird ‘flapping its wings around the summit of the mosquito net that covers my father’, we were pleased to finish translating this rich prose poem in our third workshop. Here at the end of the poem, the speaker addresses the death of their father more directly, paralleling their grief with the baby bird flying around the room. The ideas of geography and loss/getting lost from earlier in the poem come back again too, as we reach the end of this 400 word sentence – which itself ends on a question mark, giving us (as grief does) little resolution.
One of our first challenges as translators in this final section was how to render South East Asian ornithology in English. The speaker isn’t sure what the baby bird is, but thinks they know the two species that it isn’t. According to Phương Anh, both the birds mentioned are kinds of passerine birds. We decided to give one a more specific name within the passerine order (‘goldfinch’, which exists in both Vietnam and the UK, and which has those ‘golden belly feathers’) and the other another evocative family name, ‘flowerpecker’ (which exists in Vietnam and not in the UK, but can be understood to be a bird from the context). Ornithologists, please forgive us for any mistakes, and submit your own translations!
On the other hand, one of our greatest successes in this section involved one participant’s suggestion of ‘heartwards’ as the name for ‘the fingers hiding in your hair’. Phương Anh’s first translation rendered this phrase: ‘I’ll name the fingers hiding in your hair the side of my heart’, and we felt ‘heartwards’ reflected the strangeness of this phrase succinctly and creatively in English. Other great points included naming the chest from ‘loss’ instead of ‘lost’, emphasising the speaker’s grief; and the use of ‘alluvium’ where previously we’d had ‘silt’ because, as one participant pointed out, alluvium is a specific and important material to Vietnam and its artists (see Thao Nguyen Phan’s Becoming Alluvium as an example). This led to the iconic, declamatory phrase ‘I am the alluvium’, which we’d like to see printed on t-shirts.
Once again, it was a joy to translate this poem with Phương Anh and the PTC workshop group! We hope you enjoy reading our collaborative translation
Helen Bowell, Poet Facilitator