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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / fiction

The Song of Kiều

Nguyễn Du

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To purchase The Song of Kiều

Title: The Song of Kiều
Author: Nguyễn Du
Genre: Epic poetry
Written: 1820 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 211 pages
Original in: Vietnamese
Availability: The Song of Kiều - US
The Song of Kiều - UK
The Song of Kiều - Canada
Kim-Vân-Kiêu - France
Das Mädchen Kiêu - Deutschland
  • A New Lament
  • Vietnamese title: Truyện Kiều (傳翹); originally: Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲)
  • "Reworked into English by Timothy Allen"
  • With an Introduction by Timothy Allen
  • Previously translated into English as:
    • Kim Vân Kiều by Lê Xuân Thuy (1963)
    • The Tale of Kiều by Huỳnh Sanh Thông (1973; rev. 1983)
    • Kieu by Michael Counsell (1994)
    • The Kim Vân Kieu of Nguyen Du by Vladislav Zhukov (2004)
    • Kieu by Arno Abbey (2008) - translated from the French
    • The Tale of Kiều by Ngô Bình Anh Khoa (2016)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very accessible version of fast-paced and quite gripping classic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Tablet . 20/6/2019 David Platzer
The Washington Post* . 4/9/1983 Dinhhoa Nguyen

(* review of a previous translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The language of the poem follows the purest tradition of folk songs and popular sayings with their realism and colorful imagery. (...) The tale has contributed to the enrichment of the Vietnamese language, making it more precise and concise. Whether Nguyen Du praises the beauty of a landscape, expresses the emotion that seizes a couple in love, or relates sorrow and melancholy, disappointment and joy, he is not just romantic, but also a realist: in a few words, in a couple of lines he can delineate a character" - Dinhhoa Nguyen, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Song of Kiều is (by far) the best-known Vietnamese work of literature. There are several English versions -- notably Huỳnh Sanh Thông's (1973, and then revised in a bilingual edition, 1983) -- but its appearance in the Penguin Classics series is the sort of canonization that might see it finally reach a wider English-speaking audience. Translator Timothy Allen's 'reworking' -- so the title-page description -- is certainly very accessible, and the brisk, lively (melo)dramatic story has obvious appeal.
       At first glance -- or at first description, at least -- The Song of Kiều seems a somewhat improbable national classic. It is closely based on a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, 金雲翹傳, based on actual (Chinese) events from a century earlier; Allen notes in his Introduction that: "when early European readers first became aware of Truyện Kiều, they dismissed it as a mere translation from Chinese". Ironically, while The Song of Kiều soon established itself as a classic, the novel it is based on has largely long been forgotten.
       Among much else, Allen's extensive Introduction provides an overview of the historic basis for the text(s) -- a fascinating glimpse of late-Ming China -- as well as discussing the relevance of the historic background to nineteenth-century Vietnam, when Nguyễn Du picked up the story. While little of this is absolutely necessary for a basic appreciation of the poem -- and so also shouldn't intimidate/scare off readers -- the wide-ranging Introduction is certainly of interest and provides a good foundation for the text proper; a number of endnotes then provide additional specific information about details in the poem itself, but Allen keeps these to a relatively unobtrusive minimum (there are only thirty-seven in all).
       From the very beginning, The Song of Kiều has a sorrowful air: "Tragedy is circular and infinite", the third line already promises. A talented and stunningly beautiful young woman, Kiều will eventually lament: "Genius and beauty are worthless"; for now, she is introduced as:

A fine painter, singer and poet,
she makes mournful melodies on her lute:
the saddest and the sweetest is 'Cruel Fate'.
       Keeping with setting the ominous-gloomy stage, among the first scenes is a visit to a graveyard -- with Kiều drawn to a neglected grave, with, of course, a tragic story to it; naturally, Kiều's reaction is:
I look on Đàm Tiên's mossy tomb,
and see my own, in days to come.
       But for all this melancholy hanging heavily in the air ("Kiều gazes at the shadowy moon, / thinking of what has been and what is yet to come: / 'Each of us must lie in an unkempt grave."), the story starts out happily enough. The father may be a "poor mandarin", but the Vươngs seem to be a happy family; Kiều has two siblings, and while they kid her it's hardly unkindly. She soon has a courter, too -- Trọng Kim, so smitten by her that he rents a place next door to her family. Eventually, they come together, and fall passionately in love -- and while Kiều insists on some restraint when Kim gets a bit carried away ("Let me pound your magic mortar with my jade pestle" he is soon suggesting) they become completely devoted to each other.
       But, of course, as Kiều knows: "Our bright and sparkling life is a fragile bubble". The bursting follows soon, as a devastating one-two punch leads to catastrophe. First Kim is called away by the death of an uncle, and family duty necessitates that he undertake the long journey to retrieve the body, separating the young lovers. Then the bailiffs come calling: Kiều's father owes a fortune to a merchant, threatening to plunge the family into ruin. Kiều does the only thing she can to save the day: offer herself in marriage, to raise enough cash to iron out the situation.
       Marrying her off is easy enough but of course she falls into the clutches of the worst kind of man. The fact that he's educated might seem to make for a redeeming if not saving grace, but then as now a diploma is only one very narrow kind of qualification and brings with it no guarantees of any sort of integrity or probity -- or respectable-career advancement. Certainly not in this guy's case:
What kind of man is Mã, the college graduate ?
A drinker, a frequenter of brothels,
a waster who squandered his money on loose living.
And now he earns it back through the only trade he knows --
he runs a brothel with a woman called Mrs Tú
whose charms have declined slightly with the passing years.
       Indeed, the idea isn't for Mã to take her as his wife, but rather to put Kiều to work in that establishment. Her fall isn't immediate -- indeed, briefly escape from that place seems possible -- but she is tricked and gives in to her hopeless situation. She accepts her fate and goes along with what she must -- mired, always, still in morosity ("Anything cheerful makes her sadder").
       Eventually, a new customer, young Thúc, is very taken by her; they fall in love and eventually he even buys her freedom. His father is dead set against the union, and even has her arrested -- and it is once again her great talent that, when recognized, helps her situation:
'She may be only a woman,' adds Thúc,
'but she writes the finest poetry.'
       The presiding judge can't believe it and asks for a sample -- and is then so moved by the beauty of her poetry that he frees her: as he notes, in one of the work's most memorable lines: "Our purpose should be love, not litigation".
       Kiều and Thúc are married, but there's still an issue: Thúc already has a wife -- and he fails to be upfront with her about taking a second wife (made all the worse by her figuring it out anyway, and thus feeling doubly betrayed). She has a clever plot in mind, and gets her cruel vengeance -- with Kiều yet again subjugated (complete with catchy new name: 'Slave Flower'), and kept from the man she loves. Escape from this situation leads to only a brief respite, as she again winds up in a brothel.
       Kiều does again find a white knight -- Từ Hải -- who buys her freedom, and they find happiness together: "their love burns brighter than the sun". But duty calls in these troubled times, and Từ Hải sets off on conquest -- very successfully, eventually consolidating power as: "the new Lord of the southern people". His new-found power even allows Kiều to get justice for what has befallen her, as Từ Hải sees to it that those that wronged her are rounded up and punished however she wishes; of course, Kiều shows herself to be a forgiving soul -- though ultimately only so far: as far as the worst of the lot go:
The executioner is ordered to go about his work.
Even the spectators are terrified. He swings his blade.
Gobbets of flesh swish through the air
       When word comes from the emperor that he wants to come to an arrangement with Từ Hải it is Kiều that too trustingly suggests it might be a nice idea; only because of her advice does the suspicious Từ Hải go along with it -- quickly meeting his death. Kiều falls again, back into the abyss -- and when she then decides she can finally no longer take it, she flings herself into a gorge and river.
       Kiều is presumed dead -- but here the story comes full circle, a vision of Đàm Tiên, the dead woman whose grave she had been so drawn to when the story opened, comes to her and promises that, after all she's been through:
Your future now is different.
You will meet again your first love.
You will know happiness.
       Here the story finally turns to what became of that first love, Kim, and what he went through after returning from burying his uncle, so many years ago. He was quite distraught, of course, on learning the news:
       his high hopes wilt and droop
like boiled cabbage. Now he begins to weep.
His face is drenched with tears.
He goes mad from the sadness.
He falls to the ground and faints,
revives and weeps some more.
       As was Kiều's wish, he married her sister -- but, somewhat creepily: "Making love to Vân / he thinks of Kiều". Still, he looks after the whole family, and things go fairly well for them over the years, both he and Kiều's brother advancing in the civil service. He does continue to pine for Kiều however -- and finally the two not-quite-lovers are reunited, and they all live happily ever after as one big family. Kiều and Kim marry, too -- but Kiều insists on their relationship remaining chaste (which presumably helps keep the larger domestic peace).
       The Song of Kiều is a whirlwind-spiral of tragic events and brief respites, glimpses of normality and happiness followed, over and over, by horrifying defilement. Kiều's mind-set would seem to have her prepared for it -- "To understand life is to know despair" -- but it's still quite a lot Nguyễn Du has her go through. One suspects Kiều rather wallows in her misery, but the brisk story gives little space to her longer periods of resignation: fast-moving, her circumstances change often -- and Nguyễn Du focuses on those (admittedly more exciting) periods when everything is upended; indeed, there's little lingering to any part of this story-telling, as it covers so much action (and time) in a fairly short space. There's no question, however, that this is a gripping and engaging story. Its popular and lasting appeal are easy to understand, and even modern-day readers unfamiliar with context or culture can enjoy this.
       In addition, Allen present a very accessible English rendering in his reworking: the language and expression is straightforward, without awkwardly elaborate phrasings (as is often the case with translations of classical works). Yes, some of this sounds a bit hackneyed -- see quotes above -- but overall it works quite well. Simple and to the point, the formulations don't get in the way of the fast-moving action -- and many of the moments are done (sufficient if generally brief) poetic justice, the atmosphere (often heavily) suggested (especially Kiều's darker melancholy side).
       The opening is in some ways not representative -- Allen specifically noting: "The famous opening lines of the poem are also the part where this translation has strayed furthest from the original text" -- but would still seem to offer a good point of comparison with Huỳnh Sanh Thông's approach:
Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu,
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.
Lạ gì bỉ sắc tư phong,
Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen.

       Huỳnh Sanh Thông's translation:

     A hundred years -- in this life span on earth
talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through a play of ebb and flow
and watch such things as make you sick at heart
Is it so strange that losses balance gains ?
Blue Heaven's wont to strike a rose from spite.

       Timothy Allen's translation:

Itís an old story: good luck and good looks
don't always mix.
Tragedy is circular and infinite.
The plain never believe it,
but good-looking people meet with hard times too.

It's true.
Our ending is inevitable:
long years betray the beautiful.
       The Song of Kiều is a fine version of this classic tale, with the helpful Introduction providing a useful overview of context, history, and the significance of the work (specifically in Viet Nam).

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 July 2019

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The Song of Kiều: Reviews (* review of a previous translation): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vietnamese author Nguyễn Du (阮攸) lived 1766 to 1820.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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