As I said in the last entry, of all languages of the world I will love Vietnamese best as I always do. I do not attribute this love to any form of “nationalist spirit”; rather, I think the only reason is that I was born and will die a Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese language is an inseperable part of the Vietnamese culture in which I am embedded.
Language is one area where the culture of a society is most evidently seen. In this sense, as there is a profound difference between cultures the gap among diffirent cultures can never be bridged. I can hardly imagine a Westerner, no matter how excellent his Vietnamese is, can feel the same way as we do when he listens to such lyrics as follows:
Cất bước ra đi chiều năm xưa
Dặm dài kháng chiến quên ngày về
Bụi đường trường chinh pha mái tóc
Thốt nhớ khi đi ghi lời thề:
Ngày mai, sẽ về thủ đô đắp xây chốn xưa.
When small I used to love this song, We Will Be Back, (very bad English translation for "Sẽ về thủ đô"), very much. It was sung almost every fall to celebrate the resistance day of Hanoi. A song written by a witness of the beginning of the 1946 savage war, it evoked emotions in every Hanoian’s heart, even called tears from eyes sometimes. The song was attached to my mother’s childhood, when she was a little Hanoi child living seething days of a city on the threshold of war. As she now recalls of those days, allthough the specter of war was then looming over Hanoi, almost nobody was frightened; instead people were seething with patriotism and in the mood for a life-and-death fight to defend the country. A child as my mother was, she also tried to do everything possible “to make contribution, however slight, to the cause of national defense”. Presently, everytime she listens to this song, it brings back to her memories of such bygone days. It too reminds me of a war-torn Hanoi in those flaming days, although they have nothing to do with me now. I believe that no Westerner can feel what we feel when listening to this song, even with the best translation into their native language. Even the best translation cannot convey implicit emotions behind the melody and lyrics I am sure. Each piece of music is a storyteller of the time it was written, and Westerners, sharing none of our past and seeing none of the song's context, cannot understand the meaning of the story told.
It’s like when all of our efforts to translate Norwegian Wood into Vietnamese failed because words cannot cover the stark difference between cultures.
And when I awoke, I was alone,
this bird had flown.
So I lit a fire,
Isn’t it good,
Westerners are characterized by their communicativeness and outspokenness, correspondingly the lyrics in their love songs are often outspoken words. Unlike them, the Vietnamese tend to be quite secretive and reserved, and this national character has much influence upon our songs. Songwriters are always asked to avoid writing straightforward and truth-based lyrics if they want their works not to be considered “commercial music”. As I said once in the entry “Viet Lyrics” there is actually an obvious difference between Vietnamese and a western language like English, and this difference has turned into an obstacle that our songwriters have to overcome before they can make any innovation.
Next post: More on this subject