Born in 1943, the Vietnamese poet Tuệ Sỹ joined a Zen order at the age of ten and later become an eminent Buddhist scholar, professor, translator, and poet. He actively resisted the idea that Buddhism can serve as a tool for any ideology, and is well known in the United States for his dissidence, as well as in Vietnam, where he was imprisoned for many years. In 2013, we began translating a large selection of his poems, which will be published in a bilingual edition by Milkweed in 2023.
Following study at the Institute of Buddhism in Nha Trang, Tuệ Sỹ moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where he graduated from the College of Buddhism and Van Hanh University. In 1970, he became a tenured professor at the university, based on his research and philosophical essays. While there, he also edited a journal that led to a revival of Buddhism in South Vietnam, and published poems and stories.
In 1973, Tuệ Sỹ left Saigon to return to a solitary hill in Nha Trang. Knowing that Buddhism in the North had been stifled, he sensed that his freedom as a monk was threatened. In 1975, when the war ended, he began dreaming of a desolate peak in the Truong Son mountain range, which became for him a representation of his country uprooted from its long history. “Slender Moon” was written during this period.
In 1978, Tuệ Sỹ was sent to reeducation camp, where he continued to write poems. “Descending the Mountain,” written following his release in 1981, reflects his reaction to the post-war situation in his country and anticipates his arrest in 1984, after which he was sent to prison. In 1988 he was given a death sentence, later reduced to twenty years at hard labor. Tuệ Sỹ wrote no poems in prison, but he has written several poetic sequences since his release in 1998.
The process of translating these poems has been both a challenge and a delight. Tuệ Sỹ often uses multiple images in a quatrain or even a single line, often without transition. Many of the images are of the natural world, but the shifts keep the poems from being merely descriptive and force the reader to make connections.
Inseparable from imagistic richness and layering are musical effects. The primary unit of Vietnamese prosody is the syllable; most common are lines of seven, eight, or five syllables — or, in a more intricate form, alternating lines and six and eight syllables (the lục bát). Because stress is heard more easily than syllable in English, we’ve used loose trimeter lines for the five-syllable “Descending the Mountain” (except for the repeated line), and loose pentameter and slant rhyme to convey a hint of the complex lục bát form in “Slender Moon.”
These “translations” of form are of course arbitrary, and bear little resemblance to the music of Tuệ Sỹ’s Vietnamese. All translation, especially of formal poetry, involves negotiation between form and content, and as the first translators of many of these poems, we wanted to be especially careful to find equivalents for the imagery, diction, and nuances of the original.
about the author