While food tends to act as a gateway to my childhood, music also summons the past into the present. I remember listening to Savage Garden’s “Truly, Madly, Deeply” as it played from our radio in the kitchen. I’d wondered how the singer planned to stand on a mountain (of all places!). During long car rides to Virginia, where my older cousins still reside, my siblings and I fell asleep to Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” And Nsync’s “Bye Bye Bye” will always bring me back to the moment I made a complete fool of myself as I mimicked the choreography from the music video.
In old family videos, if I concentrate, I can hear my parents’ music playing in the background. A ballad or a saxophone here and there. This is the sound of nhạc tình yêu, or love songs filled with yearning. The genre is popular here with the overseas community since it recalls life in pre-war Vietnam.
I told my parents that I would try and translate the song, “Thành Phố Buồn,” but I committed an immediate faux pas when I chose the version by Đàm Vĩnh Hưng. Sympathetic toward the Communist government, he’s so despised here in the states that the Vietnamese community in California protested one of his concerts. They view him as a symbol of the government that drove them away years ago. An activist even pepper-sprayed him in 2010!
Instead, my mom referred me to Trường Vũ, whom she claims is one of the best singers still alive. As a child, I’ve seen him multiple times on “Paris by Night” (I thought of him as the weird-looking man. I’m sorry; I was just a kid). According to her, he sings sincerely and masterfully while Dam Vinh Huong sings “dở ẹt!”
I worked through the song with my mom’s help. The song’s set in a northern city called Đà Lạt. Đà Lạt back then felt like a Western city (thành phố tây phương), where people wore jackets and shoes mimicking Paris life and fashion–something that my mother envied. She had hoped to live there one day.
She told me about her visit to the city after high school. She stayed somewhere at a high altitude, so high that fog was suspended in the air. And she’d wake to the cold, refreshing air with a cup of coffee. A willow tree stood outside her friend’s house, red flowers in bloom.
With a landscape that inspires romance, it makes sense for writers to find refuge in Đà Lạt. Hence this song that I’m going to translate.
In general, this narrator is missing his lover. He’s drawing up their memories together in Đà Lạt, imploring her, from wherever she is, to do the same. The reason for their separation? Read on, but based on history only: the song was released in 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War, during a time when carefree moments were punctuated with despair and casualty. Perhaps that’s what the songwriter was thinking about. In a way, I imagine it’s not just the woman the narrator missed, but the happier memories in general.
The words in bold are meant to signal words that go together in phrases. To translate the verses, I first looked up the typical definition or consulted my mom. It was difficult since I wanted to translate the song word-for-word, but as you’ll see below, the straight-forward translation doesn’t always make sense, so I needed to think about the artist’s intention.
Vietnamese: Thành phố nào nhớ không em?
Direct translation: City which remember/miss don’t you (younger woman, his lover)
Artistic translation: Which city do you remember, Love?
I thought the singer was personifying the city, that the city was doing the “remembering,” remembering his lover, who he refers to as em. The Vietnamese language emphasizes pronouns and age differences. Usually, em is someone younger than yourself. Here, it’s the pronoun for his lover.
My mom tells me that he’s asking his lover if he remembers their city.
Nhớ in Vietnamese also means to miss (someone).
Nơi chúng mình tìm phút êm đềm
Place we seek minutes tranquil/serene
The place where we found tranquil times
The tense switch isn’t obvious, but here the narrator refers to their time in the past. êm đềm was a new word for me, because I’ve heard of êm, which means comfortable or soft, but đềm apparently acts as an adverb that softens êm even more. So: tranquil, serene, fond.
Thành phố nào vừa đi đã mỏi
City which is enough to walk until tired
The city where we walked and walked
Okay, so: My mom laughed at how literal I was with the translation. “He’s just saying the city is small. Small enough to walk and be just a bit tired, not completely tired.” The city has hills, requiring steep climbs, which is how he remembers their walks. So, it’s not the distance this couple walked that the narrator remembers; it’s the route that they had taken. It’s a beautiful memory, a further indication of how action affects memory, how the smallest of gestures linger in our mind afterward.
Đường quanh co quyện gốc thông già
Road winding/zig-zagging tangled roots of old pine trees
The winding road with tangled roots of old pine trees
Here the author continues to describe the scenery. When I first translated this line, I thought: “Pine?” The Vietnam I’m most familiar with has coconut trees and palm trees, but pine seems so . . . Northeastern! However, Đà Lạt is in the north and is known for its pine trees. The soil can handle it better, as well as other vegetables like cabbage, carrot, and cauliflower (did I mean to use alliteration, you’ll never know).
When I looked up gốc, the word origin came up, which made me think of roots. Here I imagined the kind of roots that live above ground, all tangled up so that you’d need to step over it. My mother made a face at this: if the songwriter wanted to use roots, why didn’t he use rể?
We’ll agree to disagree here.
Chiều đan tay nghe nắng chan hòa
Afternoon knit hand hear sunny pour dissolve (?)
In the afternoon, we held hands, letting the light pour into us, bringing us a feeling of peace.
I know. You’re thinking: That’s too many words, Loan!
I was confused as hell translating this since I took it literally. My mom’s eyes lit up at this verse. To describe holding hands, I’ve heard mostly nắm tay, but dan tay, or knitting hands, feels rather specific, more artfully done.
Hòa bình is the word for peace; hòa alone isn’t often used alone, according to my mom. I figured the songwriter omitted the second word because the sound isn’t as pleasant as the word alone.
So, nghe means hear. I adore the songwriter’s synesthesiac take here. The narrator doesn’t just feel the light. He hears it. Isn’t that more powerful? It’s not about feeling light, which seems fleeting, but an emotion deep inside him: peace.
Instead of understanding this line word-for-word, I think I felt it more.
Nắng hôn nhẹ làm hồng môi em
Sunny kiss lightly makes pink lips yours
The sun kisses your lips, turning it pink
I imagine they’re close now, so close that the narrator sees his lover clearly.
Mắt em buồn trong sương chiều..
Eyes yours sad inside dew afternoon
Now, in the foggy/dewy afternoon, your sad eyes . .
Anh thấy đẹp hơn ..
I see, beautiful more
. . . Makes you more beautiful
My mom thought sương meant fog, but I would think the artist meant dew, which feels more romantic, right? Then again, it depends! In some horror movies, fog = serial killer stalking me, get away, please. In other usages, especially Pride and Prejudice, fog = a hunk emerges. Plus, THAT MUSIC YO!
Một sáng nào nhớ không em?
One morning which remember don’t you?
Which morning do you remember?
Ngày Chúa Nhật ngày của riêng mình
Sunday day of private/especially us
Sundays which were ours alone
I had to wonder again what drew them apart, what took them away from their Sundays.
Thành phố buồn nằm nghe khói tỏa
City sad laying hearing smoke spread
In the sad city where we would lay and listen to the spreading smoke
Perhaps the singer compares the fog to smoke or refers to both of them in one. My mom thought he was describing the mornings where people would cook for themselves, the smoke of their rising fires.
Again, I really appreciate his use of nghe (hearing a sensation instead of feeling it).
Người lưa thưa chìm dưới sương mù
People thin/sparse sink deeply fog
Thin spread of people lost inside the fog
What a beautiful image. Imagine, people wandering into thick fog, sinking into the fog. GAH.
Quỳ bên nhau trong góc giáo đường
Kneel beside each other inside
We kneel beside each other inside the corner church
I’m the last person to talk about anything related to religion. But the act of kneeling calls to mind marriage, a partnership, a Hallmark movie in which a young blonde is crowned princess besides her prince . . .
In a way, I’m imagining this is their unofficial version of marrying one another, showing their love before their god.
Tiếng kinh cầu đệp mộng yêu đương
The sound prayers beautiful dream/wish love path
The beautiful sound of prayers of dreams and love
Can you see it in your head?
Chúa thương tình, sẽ cho mình mãi mãi gần nhau
God loves, will let us forever and forever near each other
God willing, He’ll let us be near each other forever and ever
Love the reverence here.
Since Vietnamese classes at the Center have started up again–and we’re required to speak and write entirely in Vietnamese–I’m trying my best to read and write Vietnamese every day in some form. I’m aiming to start a segment called “Lost in Translation.”
Translating even a portion of this took a bit out of me. I haven’t been able to tackle the second part of the song, which takes us on another emotional journey.
Stay tuned for the second part in the near future!