Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Notes About Vietnamese Language

Notes About Vietnamese Language

By Thuy Dinh

In Vietnamese, an aunt's position in one's extended family is clearly articulated through a specific form of address, depending whether the aunt is (a) the father's older sister (bác), (b) the father's younger sister (), (c) the mother's older sister (bác), or (d) the mother's younger sister (). Furthermore, the word "aunt" also changes when the relation is not by blood but through marriage. For example, the wife of your father's younger brother is called thím, but the wife of your mother's younger brother is called mợ. To add to the complication, the form of address also changes depending on the geographic location, whether one comes from North, Central, or South Vietnam.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, consisting of six tones: flat/ level (no diacritical mark), falling (` huyền), rising (/ sắc), falling-rising (? hỏi), sharp-glottal-rising (~ ngã), and  low-constricted-falling ( . nặng). The tones can drastically change the meanings of words that look similar.

notes on the translations

In poetry, tones are classified into two distinct groups: (1) bằng ("level, flat") for words with either a level or falling tone, and (2) "trắc ("sharp") for words with rising (/ sắc), falling-rising (? hỏi), sharp-glottal-rising (~ ngã) and low constricted falling tones (. nặng). To maintain rhyme and/or rhythm, words with tones belonging to a particular tone group must occur at certain intervals within either a line or stanza. The poets I translated here either wrote in free verse or a loose meter scheme. Whenever possible, I have tried to replicate some of their rhythms and/or rhyme schemes in English. To emphasize the importance of tones in Vietnamese, in translation I have kept intact the diacritical marks in the poets' places of birth and geographical locations mentioned in the poems.

Washington D.C., January 2015


Thuy-Dinh and Thieu-Khanh

Thuy Dinh is an editor of the Vietnamese literary e-zine Da Mau. Her essays, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Da Mau, Diacritics, Shelf Awareness, Pop Culture Nerd, Rain Taxi Review of Books, Amerasia Journal, and the anthology Twenty Years of Vietnamese American Experience, ed. Andrew Lam and De Tran (Andrews McMeel: 1995). Green Rice, her co-translations of poems by Lam Thi My Da, was published by Curbstone in 2005.

Thieu Khanh (Nguyen Huynh Diep) is a poet and freelance translator. He is the author of the Vietnamese-English Phrase Dictionary (Trẻ Publishing House, 2005). His poetry has been featured in two joint collections and appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines. His books of poetry translations include: Poems in the Rain & Flowers (poems by Vi Khuê, 2001), Version (poems by Bui Thanh Tuan, 2008), The Evening Falling on Waves (poems by Lam Quang My, 2010), The Response of Alluvium, (poems of Nguyen Ngoc Mai, 2011), A Version for Season Transition, (poems of Mai Huu Phuoc, 2012), and Notarizing Time, (poems of To Ngoc Thach, 2013).

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