Tuesday 19 May 2020

On the 2020 adaptation of Emma

The 2020 film Emma (dir. Autumn de Wilde) is one of those film adaptations that a Jane Austen fan may watch out of curiosity, only to feel afterwards that they should spend that time revisiting the book instead—the film is a fucking car crash. 
So far I have seen 4 adaptations of Emma: the 1995 modernisation Clueless, the 2 adaptations from 1996, with Emma portrayed by Kate Beckinsale (TV) and by Gwyneth Paltrow (film), and this one, with Emma played by Anya Taylor-Joy. 
As I have written before, the main thing that makes Emma a difficult book to adapt is the casting of Emma Woodhouse—there must be some charm, some innocence and naïvete about her. Emma is snobbish, wilful, and meddlesome, and her main fault is that she misreads everything, but she meddles in people’s lives out of a desire to do good—she is not a bitch. Clueless and Kate Beckinsale’s Emma get this right, whilst Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma betrays the spirit and essence of Jane Austen’s novel. Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma is downright bitchy, contemptuous, petty, catty, and even two-faced. 
In a similar way, Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma is also a bitch—at the beginning of the film, she comes across as very bitchy, harsh, cold, disdainful of everyone and everything, and utterly devoid of any innocence or compassion that would make the character likable. The bitchiness comes out the most in the scenes with Miss Bates or with Jane Fairfax, but she doesn’t look like she cares about Harriet Smith as a friend, and even, strangely, seems to dislike her own sister Isabella. 
Take the picnic scene where Emma unthinkingly upsets Miss Bates. In the novel, Emma says: 
““Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”” 
Emma in the 2020 film says: 
“”Ah! ma’am, but there is the difficulty. When have you ever stopped at three?”” 
Doesn’t she sound like a bitch? The line under Jane Austen’s pen is a slip of the tongue—clear enough, but subtle. The line in the 2020 film is stronger, harsher, and meaner. 
Afterwards, when Mr Knightley comes to scold her, at some point she stands up angrily and yells. Emma is not supposed to yell. Emma, as Jane Austen writes her, is embarrassed of herself and upset with what she’s done—she realises right after she has said it. She may at first try to make it less serious by saying that Miss Bates doesn’t know, but afterwards bears it in silence because she is capable of self-reflection and knows what she has done. This is why Mr Knightley knows she’s capable of improvement, and says “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.” 
Anya Taylor-Joy, however, yells. 
Then in the next scene, we see Emma blaming herself as unfeeling, unkind, etc. out loud, whilst Mr Woodhouse is standing there, awkwardly saying nothing and not knowing what to do. I suppose it must be hard for Mr Woodhouse to stand there, just so Emma can have a reason to say out loud her remorse and upset with herself, which she’s incapable of expressing on her face. 
But let’s say that’s a small change. The story of Emma is about a young, rich woman who does matchmaking but misinterprets all the clues and misleads her gullible friend Harriet. I have no idea what the 2020 adaptation is about, but this isn’t it. 
At the beginning, the Harriet-Elton plot is so under-developed that it doesn’t look very clear that Harriet is talked into being infatuated with Mr Elton. We see more of Harriet and Robert Martin, so when it turns out that Mr Elton is interested in Emma, Harriet doesn’t look greatly affected. 
In the latter part of the film, the Jane Fairfax plot seems to be thrown out of the window. At the scene of the ball, for example, when Mrs Weston suggests that the pianoforte may come from Mr Knightley, Jane Austen’s intention is to leave false clues, to mislead readers—in the film, however, the camera stays on Emma’s face, watching Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax, and looking jealous.
Frank Churchill becomes less important, the bit about Mr Dixon, for example, comes from Emma herself instead of being planted by him, and lots of details are removed. Autumn de Wilde throws the Jane Fairfax plot out of the window to develop the love story of Emma and Mr Knightley, which, at this point of the story, is too early. 
Nor is there anything between Emma and Frank Churchill, except that she seems to like him a lot for about 2 scenes. In Jane Austen’s novel, there is development—before Emma meets him, she convinces herself to fall in love with Frank Churchill, after a while she starts to realise that she doesn’t feel that way about him, but in front of others, including Mr Knightley, Emma and Frank Churchill seem to be a couple. In the 2020 film, as the Jane Fairfax plot is barely there, there is also little of Frank Churchill covering it up by pretending to court Emma, he has little screen time, and there’s little sign for anyone to think that there’s anything between them. 
Worst of all must be the plot regarding Harriet in this latter part of the film. For no discernible reasons, the filmmakers make a random change to the plot. In the rewritten scene, Emma is at home, Mr Knightley runs like a madman to her house, like he’s about to make a passionate love confession, but he’s interrupted by Frank Churchill carrying Harriet Smith into the house, after saving her from the gypsies. In the house, the 2 men crawl around Harriet whilst she’s yelling like she’s about to give birth. Then when the 2 men are about to run for help, Harriet says she has fallen in love again, with a man who rendered her some great service. Naturally Emma thinks she’s talking about Frank Churchill, as anyone would.  
In the novel, there are 2 moments of a man doing something kind to Harriet, but it’s on a separate occasion, afterwards, that Harriet speaks of it. That is why Harriet thinks of one thing and Emma thinks of another, and they misunderstand each other. In the changed scene, which I hope didn’t come from a desire to improve on Jane Austen, it doesn’t make sense psychologically—Harriet has just been saved after an attack from the gypsies and is still in shock, there is absolutely no reason for her, at that moment, to think about Mr Knightley’s kindness to her at the ball. 
Now one might ask, what about the love story between Emma and Mr Knightley?  
I must say, everyone in the film is terribly miscast. Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t have the right face for Emma. Kate Beckinsale and Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) both look innocent and lovable, Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t have the same qualities, even though she becomes less bitchy throughout the film. 
Johnny Flynn doesn’t have the right face for Mr Knightley either. Mr Knightley is mature, perceptive, and considerate—he is the only one who understands Emma and offers her guidance, and tells her exactly what he thinks instead of flattering her like everyone else does. Mr Knightley in my head isn’t awkward—he might find it difficult to express his feelings (“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more”), and he does kind things in a quiet, considerate way, but he isn’t awkward. Mark Strong, for example, is perfect in the role. Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley is awkward, even laughable, and in the scene where he confesses his feelings and says the famous line I’ve just quoted, he doesn’t sound like he means it, at all. 
The scene is bad enough, devoid of passion and feeling, then for no discernible reasons, the filmmakers give her a nosebleed, even though she never has a nosebleed anywhere else in the film. The 2020 film is more comedy than Jane Austen’s book, or at least it’s a more quirky, comical approach, but I didn’t really laugh at the comical scenes; I laughed at the love confession scene. 
As an adaptation and as a film, this is a disaster. 

See my 2nd review of Emma (2020) in pictures
See my review of the Emma adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Monday 18 May 2020

Truyện Kiều: some other thoughts

1/ In Truyện Kiều, Nguyễn Du focuses on the eponymous character, but there’s another female character I’m curious about—her younger sister Thúy Vân. 
When the Vương family get into trouble, and their father and brother get arrested, Kiều decides to sell herself, and asks Vân to fulfil her promise with Kim Trọng by marrying him. Vân agrees. 
Is that not a sacrifice? 
For the entire story, we never have access to her thoughts and feelings. Near the end, when Nguyễn Du goes back in time and switches to the perspective of Kim Trọng to tell the story of the family after Kiều’s departure, we can see that they get married but Kim Trọng never forgets Kiều and still wants to search for Kiều. It is Vân who has a dream about Kiều’s first location (Lâm Truy instead of Lâm Thanh as everyone believed), which offers a clue for the search. At the reunion, it is Vân who suggests that Kim Trọng and Kiều get back together. 
But how does she feel about it? 
On 2 occasions at the beginning of the text, Nguyễn Du depicts the contrast between the sisters. The first time, standing at Đạm Tiên’s grave and hearing Vương Quan's account of her life, Kiều tears up, thinks about the fate of women in society (“Đau đớn thay phận đàn bà/ Lời rằng bạc mệnh cũng là lời chung”), and thinks about her own uncertain future. Vân doesn’t react that way, and thinks it’s silly of her sister to cry for someone dead (that she never knew). 
The second time, after the family calamity, Kiều cannot sleep that night—she knows she wants to save her family but struggles to choose between her duty as a daughter and her promise with Kim Trọng. It’s because of her sobs that Vân wakes up. 
For years, critics have read these 2 scenes to mean that Kiều has a sensitive soul and more depth of feeling, whilst Vân is shallow and carefree. But does it? Or does it suggest that Kiều is more sensitive but also more sentimental, with a tendency for self-fulfilling prophecy, and Vân has a calmer nature? 
Even if it’s true that Vân’s shallow, she knows that she’s a substitute and her husband never stops thinking about Kiều, how can we say that she doesn’t feel anything about it? Nguyễn Gia Thiều writes about a royal concubine’s loneliness in Cung oán ngâm khúc. Hồ Xuân Hương writes about the life of sharing a husband in her poetry. Even Nguyễn Du writes about the feeling of sharing a husband, through Hoạn Thư. Why do some critics assume that Vân feels nothing? 
I feel sad for Kiều, but also for Vân. 

Spoiler alert: those who want to read Truyện Kiều and do not want to know the plot are warned that I shall discuss significant plot points in the rest of the blog post. 

2/ When Kiều, with Từ Hải’s help, repays people who have helped her, the people she thanks are Thúc Sinh, Giác Duyên (the Buddhist nun), and the housekeeper at Hoạn Thư’s house. She forgets Mã Kiều, her benefactor at Tú Bà’s brothel.

3/ In an earlier blog post, I wrote that it’s remarkable that Kiều has 3 loves in her life. I like that Kim Trọng, Thúc Sinh, and Từ Hải are all different—Kiều falls in love with 3 different types of men at 3 different stages in her life, and her feelings for them are also different. 
Now that I’ve finished Truyện Kiều and counted—it turns out that Kiều marries 6 times! 
Throughout the story, Kiều gets married to Mã Giám Sinh (sham marriage), Thúc Sinh, Bạc Hạnh (sham marriage), Từ Hải, viên thổ quan—a local official (forced marriage), and Kim Trọng.
She’s also forced into prostitution twice. 
I can’t help thinking, how easy was it to get married back then? Did people not need to register their marriage or something? Did people have anything like divorce or just easily have another marriage? And how common were brothels that Kiều’s sold twice into them?
It’s no wonder that for years and even now, many men think that Kiều is impure and immoral, and Truyện Kiều shouldn’t be hailed as Vietnam’s greatest literary work*. The wonder is that Nguyễn Du, in his time—in a Confucian society, could sympathise with her and love her.

*: They’re wrong.

Sunday 17 May 2020

Fate and karma: the problem with ideas in Truyện Kiều

In writing Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu), Nguyễn Du took the plot from Kim Vân Kiều truyện (Jin Yun Qiao), a banal and insignificant Chinese novel, and elevated it into a great literary work with his great poetry, characterisation, psychological insight, and moral vision. There are lots of ideas in Nguyễn Du’s work, but there are 2 main conflicting ideas that run through Truyện Kiều: fate (Confucian) and karma (Buddhist). 
2 central ideas, related to fate, are tài mệnh tương đố (conflict between talent and fate, i.e. a talented person must have a bad fate) and hồng nhan bạc phận/ hồng nhan bạc mệnh (a beautiful woman must have a bad fate), which are in the opening lines of Truyện Kiều
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.
In 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 you make you sick at heart. 
Is it so strange that losses balance gains? 
Blue Heaven's wont to strike a rose from spite.
In Michael Counsell’s translation: 
It’s always been the same
good fortunes seldom come the way 
of those endowed, they say, 
with genius and a dainty face.
What tragedies take place
within each circling space of years!
‘Rich in good looks’ appears
to mean poor luck and tears of woe;
which may sound strange, I know,
but is not really so, I swear,
since Heaven everywhere
seems jealous of the fair of face. 
These ideas run through the story of Truyện Kiều, and the characters believe in them, especially Kiều herself. It should be added that fate (số, phận, mệnh) and karma (nghiệp) are crucial concepts in Vietnamese culture.  
For centuries Vietnamese people have been debating these ideas in Truyện Kiều: is Nguyễn Du’s work a demonstration of fate, or does Kiều will things to happen because of her belief in fate (or her superstition)? Is it fate, or is it Kiều herself? 
On the surface, it may look like the entire story demonstrates the concept of fate. At the beginning of Truyện Kiều, Kiều goes to a festival with her sister Vân and her brother Vương Quan, and notices a desolate, abandoned grave, which belongs to Đạm Tiên, who was once a courtesan. The ghost of Đạm Tiên appears to Kiều 3 times throughout her life, in her dreams.
The 1st time, Đạm Tiên warns Kiều of her unfortunate fate. The 2nd time, after a suicide attempt, Đạm Tiên says it isn’t time for Kiều to die, as she hasn’t paid her karmic debt, but they would meet again at Tiền Đường river. 
Kiều’s 15 years of adversity and suffering seem to reflect Đạm Tiên’s words, but does it necessarily prove that there is fate? Or does Kiều choose to sacrifice herself to save her family because of her firm belief that her fate would be bad anyway? Perhaps destiny is part of it—she sells herself to be a concubine, not a prostitute, but gets sold into a brothel, and many other bad things happen to her, but does her reaction to them not show a passive acceptance of fate, and a belief that she must suffer to pay karmic debt from the previous life? She and Đạm Tiên do meet again at Tiền Đường river, but is it fate, or does Kiều follow Đạm Tiên’s words and choose to drown herself, once she learns the river is called Tiền Đường?    
Kiều seems to think that everything is due to destiny and karma, but is it? Kiều doesn’t choose to become a prostitute at Tú Bà’s brothel, but later she does choose to trust Bạc Bà and Bạc Hạnh. She doesn’t choose to be abducted by Hoạn Thư’s people, but she does choose to run away later, so why doesn’t she run away earlier? She doesn’t choose what Hồ Tôn Hiến does to her, but doesn’t she choose to trust him and persuade Từ Hải? Not to mention, critics of Kiều often note the fact that she plays music for Hồ Tôn Hiến—a choice difficult to defend. 
Does Đạm Tiên tell Kiều’s future, or does Kiều choose to follow her words? 
Near the end of Truyện Kiều, Tam Hợp is correct to say that it’s up to Trời (Heaven) but also up to us. The philosophy in Truyện Kiều is a conflict between the Confucian idea of fate, meaning that everything has been decided, and the Buddhist idea of karma, meaning that everything is up to us—we must do good deeds to create good karma, and those who create bad karma would have to pay for it. But these 2 beliefs are not always in conflict—Kiều’s acceptance comes from her belief that her suffering is both because of fate, and because of karmic debt from her past life that she now has to pay, otherwise she would create more karmic debt for the next one.  
These beliefs are my problem with Truyện Kiều, or at least with Kiều. Even though Nguyễn Du might not have set out to demonstrate either fate or karma, these ideas exist in the work itself, and are repeated multiple times throughout the story by different characters. 
I don’t really believe in fate. I believe there are factors beyond human control, which could be fate, luck, or chance—we can’t choose where we’re born or which family we’re born into, for instance, and except for suicide, we can’t choose how and when we die, either. I believe that life is made up of many little decisions, and the decisions we make are because of who we are, as a person, but we still make our own choices. 
I don’t really believe in karma either. I believe in causality, in the sense that actions have consequences, but I don’t necessarily believe that those who do good deeds would get rewards and those who do bad deeds would receive punishments. I don’t think that suffering now is because of karmic debt from the previous life either—such beliefs may make it easier for some people to accept circumstances they cannot change, but do not work for me. 
This is why I’ve been wrestling with the ideas in Truyện Kiều
Even the idea of tài mệnh tương đố (talent and fate are in conflict, i.e. a talented person must have a bad fate) and hồng nhan bạc phận (a beautiful woman must have a bad fate) are problematic. From the beginning to the end, Nguyễn Du seems to use Kiều’s life to say tài mệnh tương đố and hồng nhan bạc phận, but is it really the case?  
Kiều’s life is full of misfortunes indeed, and it is understandable that a beautiful woman in a Confucian society must have an unjust, unhappy life. But is it not because of good looks and talents that Kiều is a favourite at Tú Bà’s brothel and gets special treatment? Is it not because of good looks and talents that she is saved twice from brothels, by Thúc Sinh and Từ Hải? Is it not because of talents that she escapes punishment by the judge, he approves the marriage between her and Thúc Sinh, and Thúc Sinh’s father accepts her? Is it not because of talents that Kiều gets some respect from Hoạn Thư, and Hoạn Thư makes life easier for her afterwards? 
Of course one can argue that without good looks, Kiều wouldn’t be sold into a brothel and wouldn’t make Hoạn Thư jealous, but we cannot dismiss either the fact that Kiều is saved several times because of her talents. Đạm Tiên, for example, seems to have been a courtesan her whole life.  
Ideas in Truyện Kiều are complex, Nguyễn Du sometimes seems to contradict himself. People have been debating for centuries, I’m new to the table—happy to be corrected. But of course, Truyện Kiều wouldn’t be a masterpiece if it could be reduced to something simple and everyone agreed.

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Bài thơ xuân 8 cách đọc (The Vietnamese poem that could be read 8 different ways)

Bài viết từ blog cũ.
Bài thơ này được truyền tụng khá lâu nhưng chưa biết tên tác giả và năm sáng tác. Bài thơ làm theo thể Đường luật, bảy chữ tám câu, luật trắc vần bằng (tổng cộng 56 chữ). Bài thơ đọc ngược hay đọc xuôi đều có nghĩa và đúng niêm luật thơ Đường, còn gọi là “thuận nghịch độc”. 

This post is from my old blog. 
This Vietnamese poem has been around for a while but author and year are unknown. It is a Đường luật poem, which is the Vietnamese variant of Chinese Tang poetry—the form is thất ngôn bát cú, meaning 8 lines, 7 syllables each line (in total, 56 syllables/ words). The poem can be read forward or backward, in 8 different ways, and still follows tone and rhyme rules. 
If you look below, thất ngôn bát cú (8 lines, each line 7 syllables) and ngũ ngôn bát cú (8 lines, each line 5 syllables) are 2 Đường luật forms, Vietnamese variant of Chinese Tang poetry. 3-syllable poetry, 4-syllable poetry, and 5-syllable poetry are Vietnamese verse forms. 
I cannot translate, so sorry about that. It is a poem about a scene in spring. If there is any Vietnamese-English translator around, please translate the 8 versions. Thanks. 

1. Bài thơ gốc (bài 1)—the original poem, in thất ngôn bát cú verse form (8 lines, each line 7 syllables): 

Ta mến cảnh xuân ánh sáng ngời
Thú vui thơ rượu chén đầy vơi
Hoa cài giậu trúc cành xanh biếc
Lá quyện hương xuân sắc thắm tươi
Qua lại khách chờ sông lặng sóng
Ngược xuôi thuyền đợi bến đông người
Xa ngân tiếng hát đàn trầm bổng
Tha thướt bóng ai mắt mỉm cười.

2. Đọc ngược bài gốc từ dưới lên, ta được bài 2—read backward, from right to left, bottom to top: 

Cười mỉm mắt ai bóng thướt tha
Bổng trầm đàn hát tiếng ngân xa
Người đông bến đợi thuyền xuôi ngược
Sóng lặng sông chờ khách lại qua
Tươi thắm sắc xuân hương quyện lá
Biếc xanh cành trúc giậu cài hoa
Vơi đầy chén rượu thơ vui thú
Ngời sáng ánh xuân cảnh mến ta.

3. Bỏ hai chữ đầu mỗi câu trong bài gốc, ta được bài 3—remove the first 2 syllables in each line, read forward, we get a poem in ngũ ngôn bát cú verse form (8 lines, each line 5 syllables), luật bằng vần bằng (flat rhyme):  

Cảnh xuân ánh sáng ngời
Thơ rượu chén đầy vơi
Giậu trúc cành xanh biếc
Hương xuân sắc thắm tươi
Khách chờ sông lặng sóng
Thuyền đợi bến đông người
Tiếng hát đàn trầm bổng
Bóng ai mắt mỉm cười.

4. Bỏ hai chữ cuối mỗi câu trong bài gốc, đọc ngược từ dưới lên, ta được bài 4—remove the last 2 syllables in each line, read backward, from right to left, bottom to top, we get a poem in ngũ ngôn bát cú verse form (8 lines, each line 5 syllables), luật bằng vần bằng (flat rhyme): 

Mắt ai bóng thướt tha
Đàn hát tiếng ngân xa
Bến đợi thuyền xuôi ngược
Sông chờ khách lại qua
Sắc xuân hương quyện lá
Cành trúc giậu cài hoa
Chén rượu thơ vui thú
Ánh xuân cảnh mến ta.

5. Bỏ ba chữ cuối mỗi câu trong bài gốc, ta được bài 5—remove the last 3 syllables in each line, read forward, we get a poem in 4-syllable form: 

Ta mến cảnh xuân
Thú vui thơ rượu
Hoa cài giậu trúc
Lá quyện hương xuân
Qua lại khách chờ
Ngược xuôi thuyền đợi
Xa ngân tiếng hát
Tha thướt bóng ai.

6. Bỏ ba chữ đầu mỗi câu trong bài gốc, đọc ngược từ dưới lên, ta được bài 6—remove the first 3 syllables in each line, read backward, from right to left, bottom to top, we get a poem in 4-syllable form: 

Cười mỉm mắt ai
Bổng trầm đàn hát
Người đông bến đợi
Sóng lặng sông chờ
Tươi thắm sắc xuân
Biếc xanh cành trúc
Vơi đầy chén rượu
Ngời sáng ánh xuân.

7. Bỏ bốn chữ đầu mỗi câu trong bài gốc, ta được bài 7—remove the first 4 syllables in each line, read forward, we get a poem in 3-syllable form: 

Ánh sáng ngời
Chén đầy vơi
Cành xanh biếc
Sắc thắm tươi
Sông lặng sóng
Bến đông người
Đàn trầm bổng
Mắt mỉm cười.

8. Bỏ bốn chữ cuối mỗi câu trong bài gốc, đọc ngược từ dưới lên, ta được bài 8—remove the last 4 syllables in each line, read backward, from right to left, bottom to top, we get a poem in 3-syllable form: 

Bóng thướt tha
Tiếng ngân xa
Thuyền xuôi ngược
Khách lại qua
Hương quyện lá
Giậu cài hoa
Thơ vui thú
Cảnh mến ta.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Truyện Kiều: underneath the Confucianism

1/ In my brief blog post about Confucianism, I wrote that Truyện Kiều must be understood in light of Confucianism. Indeed, Truyện Kiều is a 19th literary work, based on a 17-century Chinese novel, which depicts a society shaped by Confucianism. 
For example, it’s because of filial piety that Kiều sells herself to save her father and brother, and because of loyalty that she asks Vân to fulfil her promise with Kim Trọng by marrying him instead; similarly, it’s because of respect for her sister that Vân agrees. From the modern perspective, these actions are difficult to understand, and one might say it’s one thing for Kiều to ask Vân and Vân to accept, but why does Kim Trọng go along with it? Readers must keep in mind that this was a different time, a different society. After all, my great grandfather never meant to marry my great grandmother—he was in love with her sister, but she passed away.  
However, it’s precisely because Truyện Kiều depicts a Confucian society, in which everyone must know their own place and perform well their own part, that it’s interesting to see a character cross boundaries and do something unconventional, or to see the hierarchy disrupted. 
Kiều, for instance, has 3 loves in her life: Kim Trọng, Thúc Sinh, Từ Hải. This is remarkable. It’s no wonder that for a while in Vietnam, many critics of Truyện Kiều called it pornographic and immoral. 
Kiều takes the initiative in her relationship with Kim Trọng. They meet at the festival and fall in love at first sight, and for 2 months, Kim Trọng is sick with infatuation but doesn’t know how to start a conversation with her even though they’re now neighbours and he’s schoolmate with her brother Vương Quan. It’s only when he finds her hairpin in a tree that he gets an excuse to start talking to her, and afterwards it’s always Kiều who comes to him—she goes to his house several times. The only time Kim Trọng comes to her is when he gets the news of a relative’s death and must go away for a while. 

2/ To save her family, Kiều sells herself to become Mã Giám Sinh’s concubine (in English: Scholar Ma). Then she follows him back to his province, and meets his main wife, Tú Bà (in English: Madame Tu). 
Imagine Kiều’s shock when Tú Bà changes their pronouns and roles, forcing her to address her as mother and Mã Giám Sinh as father. This is a society in which there is a hierarchy and each person has a clear role—Kiều and Mã Giám Sinh have had a wedding, and their wedding night, why does she now have to address him as father and his main wife as mother? As it turns out, Tú Bà runs a brothel and Mã Giám Sinh recruits prostitutes for her by pretending to look for concubines, and it is custom that the woman running a brothel to call her prostitutes her daughters. 
I had a brief look at Timothy Allen’s translation—he removes an important line, misrepresents the relationship between Mã Giám Sinh and Tú Bà (Mã Giám Sinh is not only a pimp working for her), mistranslates the kinship terms (he translates “mẹ” and “cậu” into “auntie” and “uncle”), and therefore downplays the significance of the scene, in which the roles are suddenly changed and Kiều doesn’t understand the change. It is a great deception, and the first step in Kiều’s 15 years of adversity. She sells herself only to be concubine, but ends up becoming a prostitute. 

3/ Confucianism dictates that women are inferior to men—a wife is inferior to her husband (see my blog post about Confucianism and the 3 Obediences and 4 Virtues for women). 
It is therefore interesting to look at 2 marriages in Truyện Kiều
In Mã Giám Sinh- Tú Bà marriage, Tú Bà is the one running the brothel. Once his job is done, he’s more or less dropped from the narrative. It is Tú Bà who hires Sở Khanh and creates a scheme to deceive Kiều, give her a painful lesson, and force her to yield. 
If we go back, it is clear that Mã Giám Sinh is quite afraid of her—at the beginning, he can’t resist sleeping with Kiều, because of her beauty, and thinks that if his wife finds out, it can’t be worse than being forced to kneel. That line clearly shows who’s dominant in the marriage. 
In the brothel, Kiều meets and falls in love with Thúc Sinh (in English: Student Thuc). He decides to buy her out of the brothel and marry her, but he already has a wife, Hoạn Thư (in English: Lady Hoan). They live together and have the happiest time of their life, but after a while, Kiều has to ask him to return home, inform his wife, and seek her approval. 
Hoạn Thư is an intelligent, artful, and cunning woman. Thúc Sinh returns home but doesn’t dare to mention his new concubine, thinking why he has to confess if she doesn’t ask. He doesn’t realise his wife is manipulative and calculating, and she plans to take a revenge on Kiều and teach him a lesson. Without spoiling the story, I will only say that so far Hoạn Thư is the most fascinating and vivid character in Truyện Kiều (followed by Tú Bà as 2nd), and in Vietnamese her name becomes a noun to refer to insanely jealous women. 
Thúc Sinh, for whatever reasons, doesn’t become a noun, but he is vividly drawn as a pathetic, feeble man, scared of his wife (“sợ vợ” is the Vietnamese term for “scared of one’s wife”). Before Hoạn Thư, he is weak and helpless, even when she humiliates Kiều in front of him. 
There can be many reasons—after all Thúc Sinh is (forever) a student, whereas Hoạn Thư comes from a rich, powerful family, and he is probably dependent on her. But I think he’s also weak by nature, and in some ways, deplorable. 

If you’re interested in other classics beyond the Western canon, especially East Asian classics, you should read Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều.

Monday 11 May 2020

Truyện Kiều and the 2 laments of the 18th century

This blog post is written for my non-Vietnamese friends who are interested in Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu) and intend to read it in translation.

A literary work doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is part of a tradition, and must be seen in context.   
Earlier on, I paused my reading of Truyện Kiều to read 2 important literary works in 18th century: Chinh phụ ngâm (Lament of a Warrior’s Wife) in chữ nôm by Đoàn Thị Điểm or Phan Huy Ích (still a debate), translated from chữ hán by Đặng Trần Côn (412 lines) and Cung oán ngâm khúc (Lament of a Royal Concubine) by Nguyễn Gia Thiều (356 lines). It should be added that Chinh phụ ngâm in chữ nôm isn’t seen as a translation, but as a literary work in its own right, and these 3 form the 3 most important classics in Vietnamese literature. 
As part of the Vietnamese literary tradition, which was itself influenced by the Chinese tradition, the poems are full of Chinese classical allusions, and conventions—for example, certain flowers are used to describe a woman’s beauty and delicacy (similar to conventions in Petrarchan sonnets). The allusions make the poems richer, as each line has layers of meaning, but sometimes Nguyễn Gia Thiều in Cung oán ngâm khúc or Nguyễn Du in Truyện Kiều packs lots of meaning, now obscure, into just a few words. The disadvantage is that I cannot read them, especially Truyện Kiều, without notes (see my tweet to have a general idea of how I’ve been reading Nguyễn Du’s work), and the translator sometimes chooses to weave the explanations into the translation itself, which is inelegant, and sometimes sacrifices the extra layer of meaning (see my tweets about the 4 acclaimed translations of Truyện Kiều—2 of them have no notes.). 
Reading Chinh phụ ngâm and Cung oán ngâm khúc, I can see their influence on Truyện Kiều, but it’s more interesting to see Nguyễn Du’s departure, and innovations. All 3 works were written in chữ nôm (the 1st writing system for Vietnamese), which was an important step for Vietnamese literature, but the 18th century poems were written in song thất lục bát form (7-7-6-8) whereas Truyện Kiều was in lục bát (6-8). As written before, the 6-8 is a Vietnamese verse form which is not strictly academic/ high class—it’s enjoyed by everyone in society, and most folk poems were in this form.
All 3 works place a woman in the centre—the authors write about the loneliness and suffering of a woman, but at the same time also say something more about women and Vietnamese society in general. For example, Chinh phụ ngâm is about the feelings of a warrior’s wife, and reflects the turbulent society in 18th century Vietnam. 
In Cung oán ngâm khúc, Nguyễn Gia Thiều must have been influenced by Chinh phụ ngâm in chữ nôm—like Đoàn Thị Điểm/ Phan Huy Ích, he writes a lament, chooses the song thất lục bát form, focuses on a woman’s perspective and feelings, etc. but he goes further. Cung oán ngâm khúc is more critical of the patriarchal society—Nguyễn Gia Thiều tells the story of an imperial concubine who enjoys the monarch’s favour at the beginning but is soon forgotten and left to live out her life in isolation. Even bolder, he doesn’t only write about the concubine’s loneliness—we can tell that she also misses sex, to put it crudely, but as one among many beautiful women, she’s just discarded. Nguyễn Gia Thiều’s poem is a critique of the patriarchal society as well as the vanity of worldly aspirations. 
Look at these lines from Chinh phụ ngâm
Cảnh buồn người thiết tha lòng 
Cành cây sương đượm, tiếng trùng mưa phun. 
In Phan Huy’s translation
The mournful scenes enhance my heart’s dejection,
Branches dewed with frost and insect’s buzz in rain.
The mournful scene reflects, and adds to, the woman’s sadness. 
Now see these lines from Cung oán ngâm khúc
Tình buồn cảnh lại vô duyên,
Tình trong cảnh ấy, cảnh bên tình này.
I cannot find a good translation of these lines and do not dare to translate them myself, but these lines find an echo in Truyện Kiều
Cảnh nào cảnh chẳng gieo sầu
Người buồn cảnh có vui đâu bao giờ? 
In Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation: 
But her own gloom would tinge each sight or scene, 
when you feel grief, can what you see give joy?
Different from Đặng Trần Côn (Chinh phụ ngâm), who writes gloomy scenes to reflect the character’s emotional states (think of the use of rain and storms in literature and cinema—rain conveys sadness, storms and thunder can mean rage or violent temperament, or create a sense of foreboding), Nguyễn Du learns from Nguyễn Gia Thiều to describe nature as appears to a character—to a gloomy person, a scenery, otherwise cheerful, now appears joyless and melancholic.  
There’s more influence. Another example is these lines from Cung oán ngâm khúc
Thôi thôi ngoảnh mặt làm thinh,
Thử xem con tạo gieo mình nơi nao.
In Phan Huy’s translation
I can do nothing but silently wait and see,
Whereto in the world destiny will bring me.
There’s an echo in Truyện Kiều
Cũng liều nhắm mắt đưa chân 
Mà xem con tạo xoay vần đến đâu? 
In Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation: 
She shut her eyes and headlong flung herself 
to see how far the Maker would roll her.
The word “destiny” and “the Maker” are translations of the same Vietnamese word in the 2 poems: “con tạo”, which means “tạo hóa”—the Creator, but the meaning in context is destiny/ fate. 
In short, there is influence of Chinh phụ ngâm and Cung oán ngâm khúc on Truyện Kiều, but compared to these poems, Truyện Kiều is on an entirely different level.
First of all, it is much longer. Chinh phụ ngâm in chữ nôm has 412 lines, Cung oán ngâm khúc has 356 lines, whereas Truyện Kiều is based on a novel and has 3254 lines. The story of Truyện Kiều has a span of 15 years. 
The 2 poems of the 18th century focus on the perspective of a single character—each lament is an internal monologue. Truyện Kiều switches between perspectives—Kiều’s is the main one, but sometimes Nguyễn Du switches to the perspective of someone else, such as Kim Trọng (her first love), Mã Giám Sinh (known as Scholar Ma in English translation), Hoạn Thư (Lady Hoan in English translation), etc. 
Nguyễn Du also gives each character a distinct voice. So far, I’ve found Tú Bà (Madame Tu) and Hoạn Thư (Lady Hoan) the 2 most fascinating and vivid characters, but I’m not sure how much of their voices is retained in translation. Truyện Kiều has great poetry, and also has a multiplicity of voices, all distinct and recognisable. 
This is a masterpiece. More should be said about the characters in Truyện Kiều, but I’m going to stop, for now. 

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Thursday 7 May 2020

Truyện Kiều: Confucianism; reading as a Vietnamese

This blog post is written for my non-Vietnamese friends who are interested in Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu) and intend to read it in translation.

It is strange to read Truyện Kiều for the first time, as a Vietnamese. I am familiar with the general plot and all the main characters—there is no surprise in this regard, I also recognise many lines. The reading feels both new and familiar—I’m returning to my roots, and in some ways, it feels like home. 

Truyện Kiều is guided by 2 main philosophies: Confucianism and Buddhism. For now, let’s talk about the former. 
Confucianism is a system of thought and behaviour that originated in ancient China, formed by Confucius (known in Vietnam as Khổng Tử). “Although transformed over time, it is still the substance of learning, the source of values, and the social code of the Chinese.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Confucianism not only influenced but shaped Chinese and many other East Asian societies, and today China, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea are still Confucian at the roots.   
As Truyện Kiều is a Vietnamese literary work, published in the 19th century, and based on a 17-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao by Qingxin Cairen, it helps to have some understanding of Confucianism. 
As it is impossible to write about Confucianism in depth in a blog post (nor am I learned enough), I will only write some main points. 
Confucianism places great emphasis on social morality, social harmony, family, and hierarchy. Social harmony results from people knowing their place in the natural order and in society, and performing their part well. 
The ethical codes are defined by the 5 Constants
Rén (仁, benevolence, humaneness);
Yì (义; 義, righteousness or justice);
Lǐ (礼; 禮, proper rite);
Zhì (智, knowledge);
Xìn (信, integrity).
And the 4 Virtues
Zhōng (忠, loyalty);
Xiào (孝, filial piety);
Jié (节; 節, contingency);
Yì (义; 義, righteousness). 
In Vietnam, these concepts are known as: Nhân, lễ, nghĩa, trí, tín and Trung, hiếu, tiết, nghĩa.  
2 very important values in Confucianism (and Confucian societies) are loyalty and filial piety. Related to the concept of loyalty is the Mandate of Heaven (天命, thiên mệnh), which is used to justify the Emperor of China (read more on Wikipedia). 
Filial piety is a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. 
Confucianism also has the 3 Obediences and 4 Virtues, which is a set of moral principles and social code for women. From Wikipedia
The three obediences for born females are to obey, give obéisances and follow the spiritual, ethical and moral wisdom of:
1. her father as a maiden daughter (Chinese: 未嫁从父; pinyin: Wèijià cóngfù)
2. her husband as a chaste wife (Chinese: 既嫁从夫; pinyin: Jìjià cóngfū)
3. her sons, and upon conflicts, in prioritized order according to the seniority of each, as a widow in perpetuity dedicated to clan and family (Chinese: 夫死从子; pinyin: Fūsǐ cóngzǐ)” 
The Four Feminine Virtues for women are: 
1. Feminine Virtue in Ethics in matrimony (Chinese: 婦德; pinyin: Fùdé)
2. Feminine Virtue in Speech in matrimony (Chinese: 婦言; pinyin: Fùyán)
3. Feminine Virtue in Visage i.e. 'comportement' / manners / facial appearance, in matrimony (Chinese: 婦容; pinyin: Fùróng)
4. Feminine Virtue in "Kungfu" / "Works" / 'oeuvres' i.e. active and ongoing feminine participation in chaste, monogamous, matrimonially-restricted sexual intercourse as a Virgin preserved for a lifelong monogamous marriage arranged for the first and foremost interest and benefit of the Empire/State (in the case of Imperialty, extant Imperialty and/or any extant Royalty, Aristocracy), clan and family bridewealth and the name and moral fame of the patrilineal clans of birth, especially of the husband and in-laws but also of self and the mother's patrilineal clan of origin, and with Virginity preserved until spiritually presented on wedding day upon clan-officiated and family-arranged marriage; lifetime monogamous maximal reproduction especially of son heirs and chaste daughters normally about ten offsprings at least five of which are healthy sons; loyal child-birth for the only one spouse in a lifelong marriage; and enlightened, dedicated and responsible child-rearing in lifelong maternity; spiritual, religious, moral, ethical and philosophical education of children; etc. (Chinese: 婦功; pinyin: Fùgōng)” 
In Vietnam, they are known as Tam tòng tứ đức. Tam tòng: tại gia tòng phụ, xuất giá tòng phu, phu tử tòng tử. Tứ đức: công, dung, ngôn, hạnh. 
Needless to say, it is a sexist, patriarchal ideology—women are considered inferior to men. The key thing about Confucianism is hierarchy, order, and social harmony. If you watch Farewell My Concubine, for example (which I revisited recently), you can see the hierarchy very clearly in the relationships between master and pupil, husband and wife. 
Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều must be understood partly in light of Confucianism. For example, it is because of loyalty and filial piety that Thúy Kiều sells herself into marriage (to be a middle-aged man’s concubine) to save her family—she has to choose between her duty to family and promise with Kim Trọng (not between family and herself). It is because of loyalty that she blames herself for breaking the promise with Kim Trọng, and asks her sister Thúy Vân to fulfil it instead by marrying him; and because of filial piety, Vân accepts it. 

People who complain about clashing with views and values in 19th century Russian or British literature should try reading 19th century Chinese or Vietnamese literature. Confucianism and other traditional values, embodied in the characters and expressed in the Chinese classical allusions, are far harder to take. 
I imagine, to a Westerner today, the mindset and values in Truyện Kiều must feel alien, even incomprehensible sometimes. It must be difficult to understand, but at the same time you have some kind of distance. As a Vietnamese who grew up in Vietnam and know Confucianism, I don’t have that distance. Truyện Kiều is a masterpiece, I’m enjoying the poetry, but struggling quite a bit with Confucianism and Buddhism in it.

Sunday 3 May 2020

Truyện Kiều: verse form, context, language, translation

This blog post is written for my non-Vietnamese friends who are interested in Truyện Kiều and intend to read it in translation. 

Truyện Kiều (in English: The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyễn Du is the most important work in Vietnamese literature, and is recognised as Vietnam’s national treasure. The original title of Truyện Kiều is Đoạn trường tân thanh, which has been translated as A New Cry from a Broken Heart
In Vietnamese literature Nguyễn Du has the same place as Shakespeare in England and Pushkin in Russia, with a similar impact on the Vietnamese language and culture. A few characters from Truyện Kiều have come to be used as nouns to refer to types of people (Sở Khanh= philandering douchebag, Tú Bà= procuress, Hoạn Thư= a very jealous woman, etc.) and every Vietnamese person knows at least a few lines from it. 
As Truyện Kiều is an epic poem, I should write about its form. It is written in lục bát, meaning 6-8, a Vietnamese verse form: a 6-syllable line is followed by an 8-syllable line. 
The rhyme rule in lục bát is the 6th syllable of the 8 line rhymes with the final syllable of the previous 6 line, and the final syllable of the 8 line rhymes with the 6th syllable of the following 6 line. Look at the opening 6 lines of Truyện Kiều
Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo 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.
You see the point.  
In addition, Vietnamese is a tonal language, and has 6 tones: ngang (flat/ mid level), huyền (deep/ low falling), sắc (sharp/ high rising), nặng (heavy/ low falling), hỏi (asking/ mid falling-rising), ngã (tumbling/ mid rising). 
These tones are denoted by diacritics—for example, note the diacritics on the letter a: a, à, á, ạ, ả, ã.  
(For those of you who have seen ă and â, those are different letters). 
The 6 tones are grouped into bằng (even) and trắc (not-even): bằng are ngang and huyền, trắc are the rest. 
The lục bát verse form also has general rules for bằng trắc, i.e. rules for tones. However, I will not go into details. 
Lục bát is Vietnam’s own verse form, and it is significant that Truyện Kiều was written in lục bát, because whilst some other verse forms, such as thơ Đường luật (Vietnamese variant of Chinese Tang poetry), were traditionally enjoyed by high class people, lục bát was written and enjoyed by everyone. Most of Vietnamese folk poems (ca dao) were written in lục bát form.  

To foreigners, Truyện Kiều stands out as the greatest Vietnamese literary work, but it wasn’t a sudden work that came out of nowhere—it was part of a development. But before I clarify that point, I need to talk about the Vietnamese language. 
Throughout history, Vietnam has had 3 writing systems. As Vietnam was under Chinese rule for a thousand years, the first one was chữ Hán—Chinese script, which was over time pronounced differently by Vietnamese people. Nguyễn Du himself wrote 3 poetry collections in chữ Hán: Thanh Hiên thi tập, Nam trung tạp ngâm, and Bắc hành tập lục
The first Vietnamese writing system was chữ nôm, based on chữ Hán—Chinese characters were usually combined to write Vietnamese words. Truyện Kiều was written in chữ nôm. 
Chữ quốc ngữ is the Vietnamese language written in Latin script, specifically based on the Portuguese alphabet. The writing system used in Vietnam today is chữ quốc ngữ. Truyện Kiều was written in chữ nôm, but I’m reading it in chữ quốc ngữ. For the most part, texts in chữ nôm can be directly transliterated and understood by Vietnamese modern speakers, but because chữ nôm was not fully standardised, there are sometimes ambiguities about which word is being used. In short, even though I say I’m reading Truyện Kiều in the original—it is not actually the original. 
Hán words written in chữ quốc ngữ are called Hán Việt, meaning Sino-Vietnamese. A large part of Vietnamese vocabulary is Sino-Vietnamese. 
To go back to my point earlier, Truyện Kiều didn’t come out of nowhere. In the 18th century, there were many works written in chữ nôm. The 2 most important works in chữ nôm that came before Truyện Kiều were Chinh phụ ngâm (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife), which was a translation into chữ nôm by Đoàn Thị Điểm and Phan Huy Ích from the original in chữ hán by Đặng Trần Côn, and is more highly regarded than the original; and Cung oán ngâm khúc (Lament of a Royal Concubine) by Nguyễn Gia Thiều. Interestingly, you may note that the 3 most important Vietnamese classics in chữ nôm were about women.  
Also in the 18th century, Vietnamese literature had Hồ Xuân Hương, a great female poet. She has been translated (would you be interested in her poems if I mention that they’re full of sexual innuendos?). 

If you place Truyện Kiều and an English translation side by side, you might notice that the translation looks longer. Apart from borrowed words (from French and English), Vietnamese words are monosyllabic, and compared to English, Vietnamese has looser and more flexible grammar. In addition, Nguyễn Du packs his poetry with metaphors and literary allusions, so translators have to use more words to convey what Nguyễn Du’s saying. The translation is generally also crude and inelegant, compared to the original, partly because, in order to help the reader understand, the translator has to turn something into a simile in places Nguyễn Du was using a direct metaphor. 
For example, here is how Nguyễn Du writes about Thúy Vân’s beauty: 
Vân xem trang trọng khác vời, 
Khuôn trăng đầy đặn nét ngài nở nang. 
Hoa cười ngọc thốt đoan trang, 
Mây thua nước tóc tuyết nhường màu da.
Here is a translation by Huỳnh Sanh Thông: 
In quiet grace Van was beyond compare: 
her face a moon, her eyebrows two full curves;
her smile a flower, her voice the song of jade;
her hair the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow.
Nguyễn Du doesn’t say Vân’s face is like the moon—he directly says “khuôn trăng”, “trăng” means moon, the word “khuôn” alone means mould but “khuôn mặt” means face. 
The next bit “nét ngài nở nang” has been debated for a long time and never been settled. Some people think it refers to her eyebrows, whilst others think it refers to her curvy body. To quote from an article I read yesterday, “Every translator is first a reader; and our reading is the product of their reading. Or rather: of their reading, followed by their writing.” 
Nguyễn Du doesn’t write explicitly that Vân’s smile is a flower and her voice is the song of jade either—he writes “hoa cười ngọc thốt”, “hoa” is flower, “cười” is smile, “ngọc” is gem/ jewel (here translated as jade), “thốt” is speak. 
Note that I’m not faulting Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation—he has to translate it that way so English readers understand the point, I’m only explaining the change and what effect is lost in translation. 
The next line is translated as “her hair the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow”. In Nguyễn Du, the comparison is to say that Vân’s beauty is superior. He writes “Mây thua nước tóc tuyết nhường màu da”—the word “thua” means lose/ inferior to; “nhường” means give way/ cede. 
Now, if you look at Timothy Allen’s “translation”: 
The gentle glow of a full moon
might remind you of the round face of Vân.
Her words sparkle, precious as jewels,
and her smile is as soft as rose petals.
He moves even further away from Nguyễn Du’s poem. He turns Nguyễn Du’s 4 words (comparing Vân’s face to the moon) into 2 lines and throws away the next 4 words, which, as I wrote, could refer to her eyebrows or her body. Then he expands 2 words “hoa cười” into a line, “ngọc thốt” into another line, and comfortably ignores the line about Vân’s hair and skin. Then he moves onto describing Kiều: 
But Kiều is still more beautiful. Her eyes
are dark and troubled as November seas.
I have no idea where that comes from. Here is Nguyễn Du: 
Kiều càng sắc sảo mặn mà,
So bề tài sắc lại là phần hơn.
This is Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation: 
Yet Kieu possessed a keener, deeper charm,
surpassing Van in talents and in looks.
Without comment on Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s translation, you can see that there is nothing in Nguyễn Du about Kiều’s eyes and November seas. 
I have briefly looked at some other passages. There is lots of liberty, and there are errors. As Timothy Allen said it himself, he reworked it into English rather than translate it properly. However, this is not stated clearly on the cover of the book (a Penguin), his “translation” got some translation award (probably by people who never read Truyện Kiều in Vietnamese), and a few of my friends have bought this version, thinking they got an acceptable translation. 
Translation is difficult, especially in poetry, and especially when the Vietnamese language and culture are very different from English. In a language, a word is not just a word, it isn’t alone—it’s part of a culture, a tradition. Much is lost in translation—translators do the best they can. It’s hard to truly appreciate Nguyễn Du without reading him in Vietnamese (the same way it’s hard to appreciate Shakespeare not in English, or Pushkin not in Russian), but if you’re curious about Vietnam’s most important classic, you might want to get a decent translation, a translation that is as close as possible. Timothy Allen’s version, from what I saw, is far from it. 

I’m reading an annotated version, by Trần Trọng Kim. I’m also looking at Lê Văn Hòe’s notes.