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  • Tuning In to the Poetry of U Sam Oeur
  • Ken McCullough

This essay is not about translating the Khmer language in general but about translating the poetry of U Sam Oeur in particular. I am neither a Khmer scholar nor a linguist; however, I am a poet myself and have been good friends with U Sam Oeur since 1966. For fourteen of those years, from 1970 to 1984, U Sam Oeur and I were not in contact; he was placed in, and managed to survive, six concentration camps run by the Pol Pot regime. Much of his poetry reflects that experience.

I first met U Sam Oeur when we were graduate students in the Iowa Writers Workshop, from 1966 to 1968. I liked the poetry that Sam wrote in English, finding it straightforward and often pastoral, but we never discussed his primary language. At the time, I was taking courses in Chinese painting, calligraphy, and poetry, all of which were taught by the noted Chinese scholar and artist Ch'eng Hsi. I took readily to the formulae of Chinese brush painting, eventually illustrating a chapbook, Gary Snyder's Three Worlds. Three Realms. Six Roads. I studied Frodsham and Ch'eng's translations, comparing them with the plethora of other translations. Nevertheless, I kept returning to Rexroth's versions as my touchstone. I was also reading a great deal of Japanese poetry in translation, was studying Buddhism and Hinduism intensively, and had begun practicing zazen. But I had no interest in studying Chinese, Japanese, or Khmer.

Sam told me that if I were to write a poem while traveling through almost any Cambodian village, the people there would build a small shrine and put my poem in it. He told me that they worshipped beauty. I looked through the magazines Sam received from home and was stunned by how physically attractive his people were. We made tentative and naive plans for me to go to Cambodia and work with him on translating his country's folk literature into English. I imagined, I guess, some kind of Lord Jim existence for myself.

Sam returned to Cambodia in 1968, and we corresponded until 1970, when civil war broke out in his country. We lost contact until the English department of the University of Iowa received a letter from him, fourteen years later, requesting a copy of his thesis, which he'd burned in 1975 because it was evidence of his literacy and therefore a potential threat to his life. The letter came through the Catholic Relief Services office in Bangkok. Through these circuitous channels, Sam and I resumed corresponding, and I began working with Clark Blaise, then director of the International Writing Program at Iowa, to find sponsorship for Sam as a fellow in the program. Because the sponsoring organizations only wanted big-name dissident writers, the process lasted eight years. It took them that long to appreciate the Catch-22 of Sam's situation: if he had been a well-known dissident writer, he would have been one of the first executed by the [End Page 113] Khmer Rouge; and if he had somehow avoided execution, as a well-known writer he would have been harassed—as he eventually was—by the succeeding Vietnamese regime.

The Lillian Hellman-Dashiell Hammett Fund for Free Expression finally agreed to sponsor Sam, recognizing that he had the potential to produce writing of consequence. In September 1992, Sam arrived in Iowa, and we immediately began transcribing and translating his poetry—most of which was in his head rather than on paper.

The little knowledge of Khmer I have has all been learned from Sam over the years we've worked together on his poems. I have read other Cambodian poets in translation (translated primarily by George Chigas); most of these are significantly younger than Sam, having been children during the Pol Pot regime. I have also read Sam-Ang Sam's thesis on the pin peat ensemble, which contains a section on the forms of traditional Cambodian poetry. Through these readings and by listening to Cambodian music, I have some sense of Cambodian poetry's sounds and rhythms.

Since the 1960s, when Sam and I were...


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