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Herbalist, book collector mends historic poem

Update: May, 17/2015 - 03:36
Voluminous volumes: Nguyen Khac Bao takes a look at his extensive collection of The Tale of Kieu books.

Herbalist Nguyen Khac Bao in Bac Ninh Province is well-known as the man who corrected 918 mistakes in the translation of the famous Vietnamese verse-novel The Tale of Kieu. Hoang Trung Hieu traces his passion.

After decades of collecting Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) editions from North to South Viet Nam, herbalist Nguyen Khac Bao owns 60 ancient copies printed in Nom (Vietnamese demotic ancient script).

Bao lives in Bac Ninh City in the northern province of the same name.

The Tale of Kieu is a verse-novel in Nom written by great poet Nguyen Du (1766 -1820) and is widely regarded as the most significant work in Vietnamese classical literature.

Its original title is Doan Truong Tan Thanh (A New Cry from a Broken Heart), but it is commonly known as Truyen Kieu.

In 3,254 verses, written in luc bat (six-eight metres), the story recounts the trials and tribulations of Thuy Kieu, a beautiful and talented young woman who sacrifices herself to save her family.

To save her father and younger brother from a prison sentence, she agrees to marry a middle-aged man without knowing he is a pimp. She is eventually pushed into prostitution.

Bao's collection consists of 54 editions printed by sophisticated woodblocks (sometimes it takes several years to finish printing an edition), and six manuscripts and photocopies.

There are 25 "unique" copies that only Bao owns.

One of the oldest of his collection is an 1866 edition that was printed by Lieu Van Duong Publishing House. This is the oldest one ever found so far.

Tale as old as time: Bao shows off one of the oldest Kieu editions he owns. — VNS Photos Thai Ha

His collection also has a very old manuscript believed to be the sample that was used to make the woodblock to print Lieu Van Duong's edition.

Bao recalls taking this ancient book to consult Professor Phan Van Cac, then head of the Institute of Han Nom, an organisation specialised in Han (Chinese) and Nom studies. According to the professor, it was one of the oldest - perhaps the oldest - Kieu editions in terms of both content and paper material.

Another of Bao's noteworthy collection is the edition that he collected from the descendants of poet Nguyen Du's elder brother - Nguyen Tru.

The descendants of Nguyen Tru, who live in Tu Son District, Bac Ninh Province, had owned this edition, but they did not understand much about Nom script. Also, after seeing Bao's passion for Truyen Kieu, they gave their copy to him.

This edition was printed from woodblocks. However, age got the better of it, and it is not clear when and by whom the book was printed.

"After a lot of research, I found that the first half of the printout had the birth name of King Tu Duc, but the second half avoids it. So, I have reasoned that the book was printed during the reign of the previous King Thieu Tri, but, during the printing process, Thieu Tri died (1847) and Tu Duc succeeded the throne. I assume that the edition was printed in 1848. Other researchers have also agreed with this remark," Bao said.

As he loves Truyen Kieu and the old Nom scripts, Bao takes great of his books as they are unique treasures.

Among the collection, there are a variety of Truyen Kieu editions printed by the famous publishers of earlier times: Lieu Van Duong in 1866 and 1871; Thinh My Duong and Quan Van Duong in 1879; Van Nguyen Duong in 1879; Bao Hoa Cac and Chu Manh Trinh in 1906; and Phuc An Hieu in 1933.

"If we want to find valuable editions, we should look for the elders. I had to rummage around in many villages, meeting the elderly to ask if they still kept any Truyen Kieu editions printed in Nom script. Every time I heard of an edition, I would ride my bicycle to that place."

From early 1990s until now, he has been travelling in search of these editions, not only in Bac Ninh Province but also to Ha Tinh (the home village of Nguyen Du), Nghe An, Hue, and HCM City to collect the Truyen Kieu editions, both original and variant.

There had been instances when he would run out of money during such trips. Bao still devoted himself to his target even when he had no money to buy himself even a drink. He would carry out his job and would practise herbal treatment along the way to look for new copies.

As Bao collected many different Truyen Kieu editions, he began studying each word. Not only him but other experts in Kieu studies were also shocked to see that translations from Nom script to Vietnamese had too many mistakes. This meant that the different editions had many different words. This left Bao, as well as many other researchers, wondering what could be the original words written by author Nguyen Du.

"I have concluded that there are three kinds of Truyen Kieu editions: One is the editions printed in Ha Noi, the second is the editions in the South, and the third in Hue. After I collected all three kinds, I compared them to find similarity in words to find the original of author Nguyen Du."

"For example, the translated sentence '[her spirit] seems to appear on the roof and the veranda' is not correct. It should be read '[her spirit] seems to appear by the lean-to and the veranda.'

"This sentence means after Kieu died, if her spirit comes back and climbs on the roof of her husband's house, it will mean that she was a bad daughter-in-law. A good woman like Kieu couldn't do that, so her spirit was just around the lean-to only. But, translators didn't understand the Nom script deeply, so they made many mistakes," Bao remarked.

He said the words "len thac xuong ghenh" (means hardship) should be correctly read as "tren cac duoi duyenh". Because initially, when translators found the original letters of this verse, they did not understand "tren cac duoi duyenh" so they edited it to "len thac xuong ghenh" - much easier for readers to understand.

Bao is the first person to "decode" this historical reference and clarify the meaning of this cryptic verses.

"The words ‘tren cac' (on a tower) originated from the ancient story of a Chinese mandarin, Yang Xiong (Duong Hung), who jumped down from a tower to commit suicide. ‘Duoi duyenh' means under water, which originated from a story that poet Qu Yuan (Khuat Nguyen) jumped into a river to commit suicide as he couldn't dissuade his king from doing a wrong thing. That is the actual meaning of the verses and not ‘len thac xuong ghenh', which expresses normal hardship."

Several scholars admire Bao who has spent more than 20 years collecting and editing Truyen Kieu translations and presenting his studies at hundreds of seminars.

Bao not only argues but also supports his points with evidences: his unique Truyen Kieu editions.

His explanations and evidences have helped correct a series of mistaken sentences.

Bao has so far corrected 918 words in the story - this is a record.

He has published five books to interpret Truyen Kieu as well as the secret life of poet Nguyen Du.

Professor Nguyen Khac Phi, former editor-in-chief of Education Publishing House, said some of the main libraries in Viet Nam now have only 18 Truyen Kieu editions in Nom script.

"Researcher Bao is the leading collector of Truyen Kieu editions in Nom script," he added.

Professor Cac noted that while researchers have not been able to find an ancient edition with the autograph of poet Nguyen Du to identify the original, we can only go by the oldest versions to try and understand what was closest to the original work.

"This has been the base for Bao's efforts in correcting 918 words in the Vietnamese edition that is popularly read today.

"We can't negate Bao's great contribution to finding the original edition for readers to read and meditate on the immortal poem in a near-perfect way." — VNS

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