English Words for Vietnamese Songs

I am currently enjoying Patrick Gallagher’s Some English Words For Some Vietnamese Popular Songs booklet. Gallagher is an American who has a fine taste in Vietnamese music. Upon reading my reviews of Hong Nhung’s Doan Khuc Thu Ha Noi and Bai Hat Ru Cho Anh, Gallagher contacted me and would like to share some Vietnamese songs he has translated. What a coincident! I was wondering who is Patrick Gallagher since the English versions of “Bai Hat Ru Cho Anh” and “Van Hat Loi Tinh Yeu,” performed by Hong Nhung, were credited under his name. So when I received his email, I replied immediately with “Please! Send me your work.”

In order to translate these songs, one must know Vietnamese, but Gallagher translates with his passion. “I don’t actually know Vietnamese,” he says “but my dictionary does, if given all the decorations of the vowels.” Then he goes on explain his method of translation, which I find intriguing. He looks up every word in Nguyen Van Khoi’s Viet-Anh dictionary and tries to understand the meaning of the song. Once he understands the lyrics, he rewrites the song in English that would best fit the musical compositions. Isn’t that a challenging task? Of course, some of contexts are lost in translation, but Gallagher manages to stay as close to the content as possible, and his translation of Trinh Cong Son’s “Hat Tren Nhung Xac Nguoi,” peformed by Khanh Ly in 1969, is a good example.

Now I Sing The Dead

Noon, I walk the hills
Now I sing the dead
On the roads, I have seen, I have seen
Each one has one, this one screams

Noon, I walk the hills
Now I sing the dead
I have seen, I have seen, garden here:
Dead tired ma holds her dead girl

This ma claps above her child
This ma claps for peace, for peace
Here some clap for life, for life
Here some clap for end of life

Noon, by berry groves
Now I sing the dead
By a road, I have seen, I have seen
Old man hugs his stone cold son

Noon, by berry groves
Now I sing the dead
I have seen, I have seen, ditches, shelters
Filled with bodies, his and hers

This ma claps, lets have more war
This ma clap, no more, no more
Here some clap for hate, for blame
Here some clap to shake off shame

Gallagher’s love for Vietnamese music is inspiring, and making the translations available would extend Vietnamese music beyond the Vietnamese community. Like Gallagher says, “for me, the idea that English words for VN songs might someday make them an export product, maybe not as big as rice or coffee, but better than plaster elephants.” I hope that that will come soon. Thanks Gallagher for sharing your work.