From Playing Around To A Penguin Classic: Tim Allen’s The Song of Kiều
“The Song of Kiều” has been called Vietnam’s greatest work of literature and its author, Nguyen Du, has been likened to Shakespeare. Penguin Classics are publishing a new translation of “The Song of Kieu” on 25th April by author Tim Allen who, in the process of the project, became something of an evangelist for “Truyện Kiều”—the Vietnamese name for the poem . “I would tell anyone who would listen about this fantastic Vietnamese poem which nobody seemed to have heard of,” Tim Allen tells us.
The Liverpool-born author has worked on aid projects in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Peru, Uganda, Ghana, Albania and Vietnam, but currently teaches English at the University of Liverpool. This project began in earnest with Tim translating a few lines of “Truyện Kiều” to help develop his Vietnamese. “I was simply playing about with the opening lines of the poem,” he remembers. Those lines won him the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation in 2008 and led to a Hawthornden Fellowship Award that enabled him to complete Nguyen Du’s entire poem.
“Nguyen Du was astonishingly ahead of his time in so many of his ideas and his narrative techniques,” Tim continues, “One of the great strengths of “Truyện Kiều” is the way you can open it almost at random and find yourself immediately caught up with the lyrical flow of the verses.”
With how much trepidation do you approach the translation of a piece of literature that’s so close to the hearts of Vietnamese?
The first steps I took were simple and small. For that reason, I didn’t feel any trepidation. I really had no sense whatsoever that I was doing anything so grand as “approaching a translation” of the text. As I worked on it, I was looking for a narrative voice—something that could sweep the story along. But once I’d done a few pages, even though I was pleased with the work, I laid it to one side…
What gave you the impetus to turn those early sketches into a complete translation of “The Song of Kiều”?
I came across an advert for the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation a couple of years later. Competition rules stipulated that the entry should be a maximum of 70 lines, and I’d translated maybe 300 lines by that stage, so I selected the opening section, up to the point where Kiều asks about Đạm Tiên’s grave: “On this bright day when we respect the dead, why has this grave alone been left unattended?” That seemed like a good place to stop, with the cliff-hanger of an unanswered question.
I’d probably translated less than 10% of Kiều by that point—the prize gave me the impetus to set about working on the remaining 3,000 lines.
Since winning the Stephen Spender prize in 2008, how has your perception of Nguyen Du’s work changed?
My respect and admiration for Nguyễn Du grows constantly; he’s a storytelling genius. One example of that is the way that he switches points of view. For example, when Kiều first visits the brothel at Linzi, we first see the scene through her eyes, how the melancholy feeling of leaving home gives way to the dawning realisation of what kind of place she has arrived at. She explains her confusion to the authority figure of Mrs Tu—and we then get the brothel keep’s point of view when she launches into an earthy and very funny tirade about her husband. The sudden shift in perspective is both comic and tragic at the same time.
What was your process like for completing a translation like this.
I used to get up very early and would work for a couple of hours before breakfast. I kept a Vietnamese-English dictionary beside me, and I made regular use of VDict.com, which provides online automatic translation of words and phrases.
Line by line I began to piece the story together.
The Hawthornden Fellowship Award provided a month’s board and lodging for writers who need to concentrate on a project. So, having done several months of spadework, the bulk of the actual writing of the poem was done in those four weeks of intensive work at Hawthornden Castle, south of Edinburgh, from late November to early December 2009.
And what support network did you draw upon?
I wrote to experts in Vietnamese literature, cheekily asking them for help and advice. Professor Eric Henry of the University of North Carolina was especially helpful. At his own expense, he posted me a typescript of a thesis he had written twenty years earlier on the origins of “Truyện Kiều” in the 17th century Chinese novel Jīn Yún Qiáo Zhuàn. I found it fascinating. Eric has remained very supportive over the years. He is a brilliant linguist, steeped in East Asian—and especially Vietnamese—literature and culture.
How did this translation compare to other translations you’ve worked on in other languages? What challenges does working from a Vietnamese text—and also one of this era— pose?
When the first French translations of the Divine Comedy appeared, the Italians said a translator is a traitor—once you switch to a different language, you betray the original intention of the text. The Russian poet Yevtushenko similarly said that a translation can either be faithful or beautiful…but never both.
I’m afraid that in that sense, I am quite a treacherous translator. I have both added to and subtracted from Nguyen Du’s marvellous text to give the reader something that I hope reads smoothly in 21st century English. Translators do not keep the original chained up in the basement. An interested reader can always go back to the source. For me, the only way for a translator to betray the original text is by making it seem boring.## And how do you feel your work compares to previous English-language translations of the poem? Did you use previous translations as reference points or avoid them?
I hope that my version will be the most fun to read—that’s certainly what I was aiming for. I wanted to bring out the free-flowing story, and the vibrant characters, in a way that I felt hadn’t been done before.
And maybe if readers like my version and want to learn more, they might pick up one of the others.
The introduction promises that the poem will unlock Vietnam for visitors new to the country. How do you think it achieves that?
I’m hardly the first to see how “Kiều” provides an inroad into Vietnamese society and Vietnamese ways of thinking. Vietnam is lucky to have a single text—and such a beautiful one—that carries such resonance for the whole nation.
What I’ve also done with the introduction and notes is to provide a potted history of China and Vietnam, with special focus on the Tây Sơn era, aiming to show how Vietnam stands in relation to its northern neighbour. China’s classical tradition is so rich in story and song, and I’ve included some examples of how that influences “Kiều.” People sometimes ask me why “Kiều” is so rooted in Chinese classical culture. I answer that it’s no different from the way that most of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies are set abroad—usually in Italy—or the way that anglophone literature has such strong roots in Ancient Greek and Roman traditions.
Which modern actors could you imagine playing the key roles in the poem?
I think it’s a bit premature to start casting for it! I’d agree that “The Song of Kiều” reads like a very cinematic work, which is surprising given that it predates the invention of cinema by several decades.
However, it throws up some technical challenges too. For example, one of Nguyễn Du’s most effective techniques is his adaptation of the “show, don’t tell” adage when it comes to Kiều’s poetry. He never tells us the content of Kiều’s poems, nor tells us what her songs sound like—we have to deduce how brilliant they are from the reaction of other characters in the story. Anybody wanting to bring “Kiều” to the stage or screen will have to think about how to dramatize that evocative sleight-of-hand.
The dreamlike quality of Kiều’s world might work better as a radio play, or perhaps as an animation. There are several points in the poem where Kiều slips in or out of consciousness, where the division between the waking world and the world of dreams seems deliberately blurred—it’s that land “where peach trees always bloom beside a fairy stream”—and perhaps that dreamlike quality might more effectively be conjured up within the listener’s imagination…
Which are your current favorite verses of the poem?
In one of the opening scenes of the poem, Kiều carves a poem on a tree, triggering a tornado. She then says: “See the fierce power of a poem. Learn how words can leap across the years.” Those words have a special meaning for all of us who are discovering this 200-year-old masterpiece for the first time.
How do you feel returning to creative writing projects after major translation projects?
I’m always working on different projects. I’m a great believer that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned, and I always have that sense that I want to add something or tweak something, even after it’s headed off to publication. But conversely, there’s a sense of relief once you have finally abandoned it, and you can return to the other works that are on your mind.
And what are current perceptions of Vietnam like where you are? How are they changing?
I’ve noticed a big change in the last ten years about how Vietnam is perceived in Britain and Ireland. Foodie culture is really big at the moment on this western fringe of the Eurasian landmass, and Vietnamese cuisine has recently become a very cool and fashionable part of that.
Who should we speak to next?
Anyone interested in “Kiều” should speak with Charles Benoit, who for years has been working on a monumental version of the poem. He’s not only a brilliant linguist, but he’s also an expert programmer. He is hoping to complete his work for the 200th anniversary of “Truyện Kiều’s” publication—which should be September 2020. I’m really looking forward to seeing how that turns out.