Journey of an Opera (7) – The Translation and The Reconstruction

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

The libretto of Quan Âm Thị Kính is a valuable Vietnamese folk work. There is no surprise that its translation and reconstruction into the libretto of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính may raise doubt among many Vietnamese about whether the new libretto will remain a literary work they can recognize. Those people can rest assure that they will like the new libretto by PQ Phan as well, just in a new way. Because it is usually not practical to set music to a literary work this size, what Phan did was not to translate to have a literary work but to create a workable libretto for a Vietnamese opera.

Given the passage of time between the original libretto that is about a thousand years old and the current practice in opera appreciation, there are several literary devices that Phan needs to take heed of.

Phonetic games

In old literary Vietnamese works, the use of phonetic pun to create humor is a very common practice. For example when Mãng Ông first appears, he sings about his wealth and uses the phrase “Giàu giảu giàu giau” which simply means “rich.” The repetition of both the consonant and the vowel to create the rippling effect of sounds is a poetic device that is used not only in literature but also very popular in everyday conversation. All Vietnamese find it funny. Unfortunately, this is one linguistic flavor that cannot be tasted by the Americans in an English translation. Think of it as an equivalent to a combined use of both alliteration and assonance – impossible to translate. To simplify, “rich” is used.

Epic implications

As terms or phrases used to refer to an understood literary situation, epic implications are used in almost every page of the Vietnamese script. Phan decided to get rid of most of them because they do not add to clarifying the story in any way to western audience, thus there is no point in talking about them. When he kept one, such as when Thiện Sĩ sings about his love life in relation to the tale of Từ Thức, it is one love story most Vietnamese people know and that is appropriate to be preserved in the English version.

Poetic form

Fifty percent of the original script is in poetic form: very symmetrical, and rhythmic at times. These features are not suitable in a libretto for an opera, not to mention that when you have a fixed number of words per phrase, the music has to be curved along these lines with its free movement restricted. Needless to say, Phan liberated the words in free form poems so that it is still poetic enough for the ears, but still modern and practical for the music setting. No rhymes are tolerated, however, because they are not a welcoming presence in a libretto. After all, Phan reminded that this is a musical work, not a literary translation and they are completely different. If a musical work has a certain degree of literary value then it is all the more incredible, but one cannot translate a work into a literary one then set music to it.

Enhanced cultural richness

The script of “Quan Âm Thị Kính” is one with very clever language that Vietnamese people love. So far, with all the adjustments, a lot of this cultural flavor is lost in translation. Rest assure audience, PQ Phan already had a plan to make up for this with what he considers lacking in the Vietnamese script so that in the end he has a new libretto brimming with colors and images American audience can appreciate.

Take, for example, the passage of singing by Thị Kính about her happy married life with Thiện Sĩ and dreams about their even more prosperous future.

Ông tơ nguyệt ngồi xe chỉ đỏ
Xe thiếp vào bạn với lang quân.
Đôi lứa ta duyên đẹp Tấn Tần.
Dây tơ đỏ càng xe càng thắm.

In this Vietnamese version, the verb [xe] – weave, the color [đỏ] – red, and the image of [] – the thread, are used repeatedly to paint the picture of two happy people. Phan realized that repetition is not an attractive element in the English translation. He also questioned the use of only red color as probably the Chinese influence – for red is not such a popular color in traditional Vietnamese culture. He decided to revamp the whole passage to have this:

 Sitting here I concentrate on stitching,
Weaving threads of gold and red.
Threads of life I weave and knit,
Dream of the glorious time to come.

Three verbs: weave, knit, stitch and the colors of red – for wedding, passion, affection, and gold – for glory and wealth, definitely create a more lively and vivid picture for the audience. In this one example Phan believes his translation is doing great service to this Vietnamese much loved folk work by showing the level of flexibility and universality of the work in the modern time.

Nam mô a di đà Phật

In the Vietnamese script, this phrase, “Nam mô a di đà Phật,” has only one meaning throughout which is “blessing.” Phan took it, put on different musical interpretations, and infused it with a variety of meanings. The final product is one that is very much closer to the western usage of “Hallelujah.” The translation of the term, though looks the same on paper, takes on new meanings when music is applied. Be it sung to indicate blessing, personal/sexual interest, or interpreted as sometimes sacred, sometimes sinful, or sometimes mocking, Nam mô a di đà Phật’s various interpretations are considered a significant contribution on Phan’s side that has swept the Thị Kính story out of the Vietnamese borders into the sea of universalization.

The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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