A collection of sexy poems in a nearly extinct ancient system of Vietnamese writing has led to the production of a scholarly dictionary that will save that system of writing.
John Balaban, professor of English and poet in residence at North Carolina State University, has helped publish the first dictionary of Nôm, the Chinese-like script that Vietnamese used for 1,000 years to record their own language and their vast heritage of poetry, history, medicine, and religion. Today, that entire literary culture is about to become extinct. Out of 80 million Vietnamese, less than 100 scholars worldwide can do in-depth work with Nôm.
The 950-page dictionary, titled Giup Doc Nôm va Han Viet, is being published by the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization started by Balaban to preserve Vietnamese literature written in Nôm.
The dictionary was unveiled at the 2004 International Nôm Conference, which was held Nov. 12-14 in Hanoi, Vietnam. The conference was sponsored by Balaban’s foundation, the Institute of Han-Nôm Studies and the Institute of Chinese & Vietnamese Old Scripts.
The impetus for the dictionary came from Balaban’s critically acclaimed book of translated poetry called Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, a collection of semi-erotic verses written in Nôm. Despite its 1,000-year use, Nôm had never been printed except by woodblock until the publication of Spring Essence in 2000, which marked the first time Nôm had been printed on a printing press. The book contained 50 poems printed in their Nôm originals and in Balaban’s translations, a feat noted in President Clinton’s State Dinner in Vietnam in 2000.
"When Spring Essence came out, Vietnamese were stunned to see the script,” Balaban says. “People were stunned again when President Clinton mentioned the book at his State Dinner Speech in Hanoi. When the book took off, I realized that we had a calling to preserve the whole literary tradition of Nôm.”
As monumental as the first printing of Nôm in Spring Essence was, the book involved only 1,000 characters. The new dictionary contains 16,000 characters.
The dictionary project involved the efforts of linguists and information technology experts from the United States, Europe and Vietnam. For two years, the Nôm Foundation’s Hanoi office worked on the digitization and electronic “font-carving” of Nôm characters in order to print the dictionary in true type fonts.
The publication of the dictionary and the Internet release of its font repertoire will change the way Vietnamese can access their cultural heritage and open that heritage to the rest of the world, Balaban says.
“The generation that used this script in a familiar way is long gone,” Balaban says. “We estimate that there are less than 100 people worldwide who can recognize and work with this script that represents centuries of culture. To think of having all the history and literature lost forever is unimaginable.”
For a full description of the dictionary project and the 2004 International Nôm Conference, visit the Web. http://www.nomfoundation.org/