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A Radio Program Puts Vietnamese Poetry in the Limelight With Bilingual Readings

"Lanterns Hanging on the Wind"features 18 poems read in Vietnamese and translated into English that span themes, styles, time periods and locations to give listeners a broad introduction to the nation's rich literary traditions.

Originally broadcast on public radio in America, the Melodically Challenged program takes its name from a poem by Tuyet Nga in which the speaker notices: "The sky is just above our thoughts, dreams as lanterns hanging on wind... I suddenly see colorless flowers."

The grace and power of these lines is heard throughout the poems by literature luminaries including Tuyet Nga, Luu Quang Vu, Xuan Quynh, Nguyen Quang Thieu, Bui Hoang Tam, Tran Quang Quy, Giang Nam, Ngo Tu Lap and Nguyen Bao Chan in part 1 of the show; Ly Hoang Ly, Le Huy Mau, Mai Van Phan, Hoang Viet Hang, Nguyen Trong Tao, Huu Viet, Le Anh Hoai, Dang Nguyet Anh and Vi Thuy Linh in part 2 of the show.

One of the many barriers to bringing Vietnamese literature to global audiences involves translation. Not only do too few translations exist, but much of the original poetry's musicality gets lost when put into English. "Lanterns Hanging on the Wind" is, therefore, refreshing in its inclusion of the original Vietnamese versions of each poem, often read by the poet him- or herself. Hearing the Vietnamese version before the elegant translations helps audiences understand and connect with the art as it was intended. For example, hearing Nguyen Bao Chan's original 'Nhung Bong Hoa Khong Mau' imparts a sonic grace that can never be fully captured in its translated: "Emptiness is filled with uncolored flowers, faded. I pick the old fragrances and hide them deep inside myself."

Further enhancing the listening experience, the programs include traditional Vietnamese folk music performed on flutes, zithers and string instruments as interludes as well as several songs that rely on famous poems for their lyrics such as 'The Boat in the Sea' written by Phan Huynh Dieu based on a poem by Xuan Quynh sung by Thu Minh.

"Lanterns Hanging on the Wind" is the passion project of poet, writer and scholar Que Mai Phan Nguyen. She explains to Saigoneer that it took two years to complete and came about after Melodically Challenged broadcast a one-hour showcase of her own poetry. She was motivated by the fact that "so little of our literature has been translated and believed the show would help stories from post-war Vietnam reach a wider audience." She worked with her friend and frequent collaborator, the award-winning American poet and translator Jennifer Fossenbell, to bring the works into English.

"Choosing what poems to include was most difficult because there are so many poets whose work I adore," Que Mai explains. "Originally I wanted to do a one hour show, but I included so many poems that we had to extend the program into two parts that represent the younger and older generations of Vietnam. Their work is about a Vietnam which isn’t a war, but a country that works hard, embraces its challenges and celebrates its diversity."

You can listen to the episodes and see the full tracklist below: 

Part 1: Tuyet Nga, Luu Quang Vu, Xuan Quynh, Nguyen Quang Thieu, Bui Hoang Tam, Tran Quang Quy, Giang Nam, Ngo Tu Lap and Nguyen Bao Chan.

Part 2: Ly Hoang Ly, Le Huy Mau, Mai Van Phan, Hoang Viet Hang, Nguyen Trong Tao, Huu Viet, Le Anh Hoai, Dang Nguyet Anh and Vi Thuy Linh.

[Photo via VnExpress

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