The Poetry of Tụê Sỹ and the Process of Translation

The Poetry of Tụê Sỹ and the Process of Translation
by Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins

Born in 1943 in Pakse (Laos) as Phạm Văn Thương, Tụệ Sỹ joined the Lâm Tế (Rinzai) Buddhist order at a very early age in 1950. His parents came from Quảng Bình, Central Vietnam. He studied the dharma at the Institute of Hải Đức in Nha Trang and later at Quảng Hương Già Lam pagoda in Saigon. He graduated from the College of Buddhism in Saigon in 1964 and the Faculty of Buddhism, Van Hanh University in 1965. He began to write poetry, produce research papers, and translate Buddhist texts written in Chinese at this time. In 1970, he was officially appointed a tenured professor at Van Hanh University thanks to his superior research works and philosophical essays, such as “General Outline of Zen” and “The Philosophy of Sunyata” (An Tiem publisher, Saigon, 1970). He’s multilingual in Chinese, French, English, Pali, and Sanskrit. He’s also well versed in German and used it to carry out an in-depth study of Heidegger and Hoelderlin. 

From 1972 to 1974, Tụê Sỹ was Secretary General of Tư Tưởng (Thoughts), a crucial Buddhist journal of the period, published by Van Hanh University. He also taught Chinese, Pali, and Sanskrit at Quảng Hương Già Lam pagoda.

Tụê Sỹ is a scholar profound in his command of Theravada, Mahayana, Eastern, and Western philosophy. He dug deep into Su Dongpo’s work and wrote a book filled with poetic spirit about his life and poems, Su Dongpo, the horizons of distant dreams. Tuệ Sỹ wrote many poems and a number of salient short stories, most of which were published on Khởi Hành magazine (1969-1972) and Thời Tập (1973-1975) in Saigon when he was on their editorial staffs.

After 1975, he returned to Nha Trang. In 1977, he came back to Ho Chi Minh city, staying at Thị Ngạn Am in Quang Huong Gia Lam pagoda. In early 1978, he was sent to the re-education camp for three years.

On April 1, 1984, he was arrested, together with Venerable Thích Trí Siêu, also known as Lê Mạnh Thát. In late September, 1988, both were sentenced to death. Thanks to the intervention of many international human rights organizations and concerned nations, the verdict was changed to twenty years of hard labor. In 1998, he was released from prison. He now lives in Ho Chi Minh city.

Tuệ Sỹ occupies a unique position in Vietnamese history and literature at the present time. As a Buddhist monk, he has stood fast against the idea that Buddhism could serve as a tool for any ideology and has been willing to sacrifice his life to protect its independence and purity. More than just a poet, he is a Zen poet, not “Buddhist” in the external, doctrinaire sense, but Buddhist in its ultimate significance; he is one who has suffered to the depth of his being and risen to a height rarely seen in modern times.

He has a command not only of Eastern thoughts and disciplines, but also has a great knowledge of Western philosophy and ideas. He was the first to introduce the works of Michael Foucault to the Vietnamese audience. 

Tuệ Sỹ’s poetry has been received with great acclaim by Vietnamese intellectuals and writers. It has been reviewed by the most notable critics, poets, and writers of the country, all with the highest praises. For his poems speak directly about the spiritual poverty of the country and his own failure in changing it. There is undoubtedly a sadness in it, but it’s a heroic sadness with a deep flavor of Zen. 

Phạm Công Thiện called Tuệ Sỹ “the most eminent, most intelligent, most erudite, most stainless Zen master of Vietnam today.” (Two Zen Masters)

In a letter sent to his students among the monastics in Hue in November 2003, Tuệ Sỹ advised them: “You should be proud, proud with the innocent pride and fair-mindedness of youth, from this landmark period, that you have once and forever stood up on your own two feet, and with the eyes of wisdom and great courage look fearlessly at the inane power of the world, you will find your own path to do things for yourselves and for others.”

Tuệ Sỹ’s poems on the one hand reflect his personal view vis-a-vis one of the most turbulent periods in Vietnamese history; on the other, they also say a lot about the nature of the changes caused by these enormous transformations of the country. They raise one of the most important issues facing a people in transition: where could the country go without a firm foundation in its spiritual tradition? That question, in view of Vietnam’s many progresses today, remains as relevant as ever. 


I remember those winter days brimming with wine
In that festival season the quavering sobs of demons
Sad music spread at noon on the sunlit street
In nothingness, eyes reflected a thousand seas

The music lifts the spirit into the blood
Transmigrating steps crowded with green reeds
Jostled, the yellow wave can’t reach the pier
Floating demons, adrift, sprinkle ashes

This melody has lingered a thousand years
Pressing time into blood wine, pure and green
Strong wine, but genius amasses sand and dust
In the fragile heart, ecstatic gratitude, love

O, the rhythm of geniuses, or of demons
Shoved between high walls, my spirit staggers
In the long noon, I transmigrate without beginning
The body changed, the eyes still full of stars



Who cries in the long night of anger and grief?
Whose lullabies brim with blood, tears, and pity?
Whose soul is that, groping with thin hands?`
It’s my soul, searching for traces of the land
Whose desolate white hair, on that snowy peak?
Whose unsteady steps, remote in the misty veil?
Like a pebble lying lonely for thousands of years
Where is my soul, where, in these mythic remains?



Just one step on the road but the mountain’s high
Oh heaven, where do they gather, the white clouds?
At the pier, ferries are filled with morning dew
Kindness has dried up; is the water cold?

One step on the far road, far from the sea
Layers of mist tint the silken sky
The boat’s not yet at the pier; it’s early morning
For thousands of years, people have said goodbye

At the end of summer nights you can see ghosts
In autumn, dream-smoke whitens the Milky Way
The sky doesn’t stop the wind to wait for dew
But thousands of years later, the color’s faded

At the end of autumn, farewell, the journey starts
In the forest, blood is raining on thatched huts
We compare: stamens are like that faded color
Like ivory piano keys, or blue blood

On Our Translation

The two of us have translated poems together before, but the poetry of Tụệ Sỹ is our first book-length project, and it’s still in process. These poems are a particular challenge and a particular delight, both for much the same reason. Infused with Tụệ Sỹ’s Buddhism, they can seem, superficially, like poems about nature or love poems. But when you delve a little more deeply—as translation forces you to do—you find yourself with both an unexpectedly spiritual experience and a fierce translation challenge. This process of immersion has been both more challenging and more difficult for Martha than for Chung—though it is also true that Chung confessed to Martha at some point that he hadn’t been sure these poems could be translated. 

One difficulty for the translator is Tụệ Sỹ’s adept use of several characteristics of the Vietnamese language. For example, Vietnamese uses nouns without articles, rarely indicates verb tenses, and often leaves out the subjects—features that are especially poignant in the poems of Tụệ Sỹ, whose fluid and sometimes ambiguous sense of time is made more striking by the lack of verb tenses and who can all but disappear from a poem (is he the speaker?) when no subject is specified. More unusual is Tụệ Sỹ’s use of multiple images in a quatrain or even in one line. This imagistic richness, coupled with sonic effects that give a particular beauty and coherence to each line, creates an indescribable quality that is impossible to transfer into English.

But we try! Our process works something like this. Chung drafts a more or less “literal” version of the poem, as well as a first version of it. When his work arrives, Martha (who has some knowledge of Vietnamese) makes her own word-for-word “trot” of the poem, and then works simultaneously with that and Chung’s versions to produce a second version. Chung checks that to see if the sense and power reflect the original. If not, he proposes revisions. This process of revision and re-revision goes on until we reach a satisfying conclusion.

Aware of the dictum that “all translation is mistranslation,” we try to avoid the pitfalls of linguistic and stylistic differences between the two languages. Chung especially pays attention to the syntax, allusions, connotations, and other peculiarities of the Vietnamese language, including those mentioned above. 

More generally, Vietnamese syntax is fluid, non-determinate in terms of subject, object, and predicate. A line can therefore often be read in many ways, each giving the poem a different shade of meaning, some of which can be contrary or contradictory. This gives the poem a habitually multivalent ambience, which is prized in Eastern culture—and especially in poems like Tụệ Sỹ’s. The fact that a poem could contain within itself contradictory meanings is not perceived as a defect but treasured as a philosophical attitude: the truth never finds itself embalmed within one pole of the dichotomy but always reaches for a ground deeper and beyond. 

English is more limited in its syntactical structures, more clear and unforgiving in its insistence on the proper positions of subject, object, and predicate. It allows less room for leaving things open, indeterminate. Translating a multivalent line therefore becomes a mapping of many into one: we often have to make a choice among the many possible meanings and give up the rest—though we try to leave important lines as open as possible. It’s also true that English allows for some ambiguities that Vietnamese does not. Since English has only one form of“you” instead of many, for instance, and only one form of the imperative, it’s sometimes difficult to decide how to indicate the specificity of a Vietnamese pronoun or the nuanced tone of an imperative.

The process of going back and forth between us is not only essential for us but also educational. Martha makes sure that it’s an English poem, while Chung insures that it reflects, though not necessarily duplicates, the sense and power of the piece in the original language.  §


I live in a narrow cage but I am content
Light-hearted, free, I walk back and forth
I laugh and talk, listening to myself
A long prison day passes, as if it were nothing



You let down your hair and the dried tree dreams
The dried tree and the spring cry for each other
I bow down, a full smile on my lips
And dream, like the city missing the deep forest



Tea smoke swirls away morning dew
Cold wind strokes the floral paper
The hand gently lifts the pen
The heart floods with music



Worn stones reflect the setting sun
Crying waters rise over life’s games
A thousand years echo a single act
Winds speak of a journey to distant lands
In the cinnabar pot uncommon dreams crumble
On the road the fairy’s peach tree is stripped bare
The shepherd in the field is still faithful
On the temple roof: obsessed by a stone crane



Nguyen Ba Chung is a writer, poet, and translator. He is the author of four poetry collections Mua Ngan (Distant Rain) in 1996, Ngo Hanh (Gate of Kindness) in 1997, Tuoi Ngan Nam Den Tu Buoi So Sinh (A Thousand Years Old at Birth) in 1999, and Nguon (Source) in 2009.  He is also the co-editor or co-translator of numerous anthologies and collections. Currently, he works for the William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequences at UMass-Boston. 

Martha Collins’ latest book of poetry, Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016), joins her seven earlier collections and four volumes of co-translated Vietnamese poetry. Martha has won an Anisfield-Wolf Award, two Ohioana awards, the Laurence Goldstein poetry prize, and numerous prestigious fellowships. She is the founder of the creative writing program at UMass-Boston and is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine.