The Tales of Kiều
by Nguyễn Du

The Poem

Kieu is the most popular poem in the Vietnamese language.  Nguyen Du (1765-1820), the author, heard the story when he was on an embassy to China, but, because the poem is written in Vietnamese, it is the proof to the Vietnamese people that they have an independent literature and culture of their own.  Many a Vietnamese peasant can quote long passages of Kieu.

Translated by Michael Counsell

I read the poem in an English prose translation in Saigon in 1968. I have to say it was not a very good translation; I am sure it was accurate, but the translator was far from fluent in English, and it was a tortuous effort to read it. I thought, this deserves a better translation, so that more people can enjoy the story and form some idea of the poetry.

So in my spare time I set about putting it into English verse. The edition I was working from had the Vietnamese and English on facing pages, and I could recognise some of the Vietnamese words and look up others in the dictionary, but I make no claim to having produced a new translation, only to turning the prose into verse.

My hobby occupied me, on and off, for twenty five years. During that time another Vietnamese published a translation in blank verse in America, but it is stilted, and I went on with mine because I am a native English speaker, and because I have kept the metre and the rhyme scheme of the original: alternate lines of six and eight syllables, the last syllable of the eight-line rhyming with the last syllable of the following six-line, and also though I only managed to reproduce this in the prologue and epilogue with the sixth syllable of the next eight line.
Kieu and Kim are betrothed
It’s always been the same: “good fortune seldom came the way
of those endowed”, they say. “What tragedies take place
Within each circling space of years!”

Recently I revisited Vietnam and took my version of Kieu with me.

I showed it to the language teacher I was lodging with in Hanoi, who was excited.

“I didn’t know I had a scholar staying in my house”, he said.

“Not a scholar but an amateur poet”, I replied.

But then in Vietnamese culture anyone, who has had any education, is an amateur poet anyway: they are a nation of poets, and poetry occupies a far more important place in their lives than it does in Western culture:

Kieu entertaining
Where bamboo covers case old manuscripts of countless price
preserved in fragrant spice, sit by a lamp and study well
the story that they tell . . .
He introduced me to the Director of the Government foreign language publishing house, called ‘The Gioi’, pronounced Tay Yoy. When he saw what I had brought he was overjoyed.

“This is just what we want,” he said. “We published a French translation of Kieu some years ago, but there is no version in English available in Vietnam. We must give you a contract, what terms would you like? No, you had better write the contract yourself, we don’t know how to phrase it.”

Never has an author had such a reception from the normally cautious tribe of publishers! We agreed that to begin with I should take my royalties in the form of copies of the book shipped to England, and they would like me to find agents to sell it, and their other publications, in the UK and elsewhere, but in this I have totally failed!

The poem tells the story of a beautiful and talented girl, Kieu, who falls in love with and is secretly engaged to the young scholar Kim, contrary to the oriental tradition of arranged marriages:
Kieu bathes
He introduced me to the Please give some token of my fate, and then I’ll designate
some old matchmaker to arrange our marriage. If some strange
ill-chance prevent it, I confess I’ll die in loneliness.
But when Kim has had to depart for a family funeral, Kieu’s father is arrested and tortured by lying creditors. In order to pay the non-existent debt that they are claiming, Kieu sells herself to be married to the highest bidder.

She makes her sister Van promise to marry Kim on his return. In this way she fulfils the Confucian obligation of putting her duty to her parents before her love.

But Kieu soon discovers that her new husband is a ne’er-do-well who sells her to a brothel as a prostitute.

After an aborted attempt at escape she marries a young merchant as his secret second wife. The first wife finds out and is jealous, has Kieu kidnapped and brings her home as a slave:
Kieu tries to escape
. . . from the bushes there a band of ugly thugs sprang out
with yells and dreadful shout, enough to scare the fiends of hell;
the dark court filled pell-mell with gleaming blades of unsheathed swords.
Aghast, Kieu watched the hordes,not knowing what the uproar meant;
she smelled a drowsy scent and dropped down drugged in deep-dreamed
Kieu is forced to wait on her new husband, who dare not admit that she is his mistress.

After a brief interlude as a Buddhist nun, she becomes a prostitute again, and then marries Tu Hai, a great warrior and a just and kind man, who eventually becomes Emperor of South China.

She is then able to reward her helpers and punish her tormentors, but Tu Hai is killed in battle:
Kieu and Tu Hai
. . . where the battle grew most fierce, he boldly faced his foes;
till, when his spirit rose to heaven to dwell among the great,
his body still stood straight, as though his feet had roots concealed
below the battlefield; as steady as a block of stone
and standing all alone immobile as a monument.
Kieu is forced to marry one of the victors and throws herself into a river. But her friend the Buddhist Abbess, who has foretold this, hires fishermen to drag her out and revive her.

Meanwhile Kim has married Van, passed his exams and been appointed mandarin of a town not far from where Kieu is staying.

He manages to trace her and they are reunited, but because she is sullied she denies him conjugal rights and they agree to live together as brother and sister:
Kieu and Kim are re-united
Nor Kim did not share with Kieu one sheet and pillow through the night,
but found his chief delight playing the lute, reciting verse.
Nor were the two averse to drink some wine, converse for hours,
watch blossoming of flowers, to test each other’s powers at chess,
or with a fond caress to watch the rising crescent moon.
The comic scenes of low life are easily appreciated by Western readers, as are the lyrical descriptions of scenery and love:
Immediately Kieu saw a woman step out from behind
a hanging bamboo blind, a pasty faced old courtesan.
But what a harridan! Whatever could she gormandise
to make her such a size? The aged crone made her approach;
she waddled to the coach, welcomed the new arrival, Kieu,
asked, how did she do? And would she care to step inside? . . .

The russet and the brown of distant woods of maple trees
seemed like a background frieze, new-painted by the autumn sun
in colours drab and dun to symbolise their parting woe,
towards which, sad and slow, the horseman rode in robes of rust,
wreathed in red clouds of dust, and slowly disappeared from sight…
The Confucian ethic of filial piety, obedience and justice, and the ending, are harder to sympathise with for people to whom the demands of sex and love are paramount. Yet even if we cannot bring ourselves to agree with them, maybe it is good to make the effort to understand that this is the way many people in Asia think.

My host remarked, “Your translation, as you say in English, has hit the nail with the hammer!”