Tát Nước Đầu Đình

hoa sen

Tát Nước Đầu Đình  is an ancient Vietnamese folk poem whose author has disappeared into the smoky haze of the ages. We know only that it came out of the area around the Gulf of Tonkin (Vịnh Bắc Bộ 北部湾 ) due to the language used.  

It is ageless, timeless, and exquisite in its portrayal of life in the days of gold and glory.  The words are beautiful when read, the sounds are beautiful when uttered, the imagery is beautiful when visualized.  I wanted to share it with everyone.

Tát Nước Đầu Đình

Hôm qua tát nước đầu đình
Bỏ quên cái áo trên cành hoa sen
Em được thì cho anh xin
Hay là em để làm tin trong nhà?
Áo anh sứt chỉ đường tà
Vợ anh chưa có, mẹ già chưa khâu.
Áo anh sứt chỉ đã lâu
Mai mượn cô ấy về khâu cho cùng
Khâu rồi anh sẽ trả công
Ít nữa lấy chồng anh lại giúp cho
Giúp em một thúng xôi vò
Một con lợn béo một vò rượu tăm
Giúp em đôi chiếu em nằm
Đôi chăn em đắp, đôi trằm em đeo
Giúp em quan tám tiền cheo
Quan năm tiền cưới lại đèo buồng cau. ~ anon

Now, I know I do have non-Vietnamese readers out there.  In fact, I am quite certain that 99% of my fair readers are not able to read the Vietnamese language, so I sought to translate the poem as literally as I could because I always feel that the best translations should be the most straightforward and literal translation.  This allows for as little misunderstanding as possible.

Unfortunately, when I poured the entire poem into the Google Translate masher, this is the goey result that came out the other end.

Referred to the First Water

Yesterday referred to the first water
Left a coat on a lotus flower
You are for me please
Or are they to believe in?
Shirt cleft wrong directions
Mother and his wife not yet sewn.
Shirt cleft only long
Mai borrowed her on stage for the same
Stage then he will pay
At least marry him to help
Help me a basket of sticky rice you
A fat pig a martial alcohol
Help you compare me lie
Raising them up, sometimes hundreds of children wearing
Help me cross currency interest
Year wedding money cau chamber Pass.

It was impressive, how awkward and intelligible the translation was.  No choice, I was going to have to try and translate it somehow.  It could not be a literal translation because that is what Google Translate does best, and its best is by no means acceptable when it comes to a poem.  So here goes, a test to how well I can translate context and depth of brevity without sacrificing too much of the literal meaning behind the work of art.

anime girl 78


Water Fetching

Last night when fetching water
I left my shirt on a lotus flower                               (1)
If you should find it, please return
Unless you make it your concern                             (2)
My shirt, it has a tear
For lack of wife, or mother to repair                        (3)
My shirt, still torn, and still I wear
Would that I find someone who cares                      (4) 
Repay the debt, on this I swear
That when she marries I will send
To help her with a ton of sweet rice
With suckling pig, and jugs of wine                     (5)
To help her get to bed and then
with coverlets for her body,
and jewels for her hair
I’ll Help her with her dowry fare
With wedding costs, areca nuts and betel ware         (6) 


laughing girl


What a horrid translation!!!

I do understand, believe me, the oddness of the wording.  Given today’s standards of courtship and how the modern world utilizes the tools at hand to convey romance, it would seem then, that the most romantic thing a modern girl can get is a text message in the early morning that she is beautiful.

Well, they didn’t have cell phones back then.  In fact, as this poem indicates, they didn’t even have running water.

1)  Back in the old days, folks to to a well or a spring to fetch water for the next day’s use.  This is why we know this poem is really ancient because by mid-twentieth century, pretty much everyone had running water and a sewage system.

That’s not what’s interesting about this line however, but rather that the guy in question has left his shirt on a lotus flower.  This means he’s either the village idiot or he’s telling the girl a whopping tale, because who in the world puts a shirt on a lotus flower?  The flower head is fragile, easily bent, which would dump the shirt into the water pronto, and moreover, lotus pads are often free-floating, which means you would lose your shirt to any old random current.  It obviously had to be a fictitious shirt.

2)  So, this fictitious shirt now has a fictitious tear, which, if she should find it, to please return it to him.  But if she wishes (and only if she wishes) she could keep it for a price.

3)  Here is where he spells out the price he is willing to pay for a seamstress (and he stresses that it does not necessarily mean her if she chooses not to do so) to mend the darn thing.  This gives her an out, just in case she truly does not want to have anything to do with the fellow.  In fact, it gives each of them a gracious out.  He also lets her know without any doubt that he is footloose and fancy free, single as a lark.

4)  And here is where he alludes to the fact that nobody cares about him enough to help him mend his poor fictitious shirt, the poor fob.

5)  But then the ‘poor’ fob all of a sudden reveals that he is actually quite well off.  The poorer guys back in those days could not afford the kinds of things he is promising this girl.  Suckling pigs, barrels of wine, bags of sweet rice, even  jewelry for her hair, not to mention a hefty dowry for her hand.  Of course, this means she is stuck, not just with the fictitious shirt but also the guy who purportedly wore it to rags, as this is a roundabout way of asking the girl to marry him.

I have to admit, it is rather plucky of the both of them.  Back in those days, folks believed in love at first sight.  Not even twenty-four hours have passed and he’s convinced she’s wifely material, never mind the fact that they hadn’t really met and talked about much of anything of substance.

6)  And last but not least, it may seem as if I just threw in the areca nuts on a whim, but I swear, it’s part of the wedding ceremony (and it’s in the original poem too).  I have to admit, the areca nuts and quid of betel leaves don’t sound all that enticing, but trust me, it was all the rage back then and made for a very socially accepted chewing tobacco for women.  If a guy wanted to get married, he basically had to gift the mother of the bride a whole bushel of this stuff.

So there we go.  My very poor translation of the meaning behind this poem.  In my defense, it is quite difficult to translate a piece of writing that is ancient and still allow a decent flow to the words.  Try as I might, I just can’t get areca and betel to flow at all.  If anyone would like to help, either in part or the entirety of this poem, I would love to pass this challenge on.

As for this post…ah well—I’ll just chalk this post up to one of those that kinda didn’t make the grade, but because it’s fun, I didn’t delete it immediately but rather left it up for laughs.  😀

2 thoughts on “Tát Nước Đầu Đình

  1. Hi Taoist Babe
    Thank you for a good blog. I love your English version – very poetic and very smart.
    Only a few things I don’t really agree with you:
    1. Tát nước doesn’t really mean “fetching water”. To my knowledge, this is actually an activity to remove the water out of a pond or something. I don’t really know the purpose of the task, you can ask some Vietnamese elderly to find out. I just know it was very common in the countryside in north of Vietnam and definitely not fetching water.
    2. The guy in the poem didn’t mean to show off his wealth with his gifts offer. All them are actually traditional wedding gifts, so it means he was proposing to the girl in a romantic way.
    3. I don’t think this is love at first sight, this is just flirtation. It’s most likely that the pair has had some affection for each other before the words were exchanged but it’s still a very romantic and smart way to propose as you already analysed.
    I found this site: http://tamhoc.com/2012/12/dem-qua-tat-nuoc-dau-dinh/, it’s in vietnamese and very similar to what you wrote. Hope you enjoy it.


  2. Thank you for that very insightful comment! It certainly makes sense in some aspects of the poem where I was wondering what the real intent behind the poem was all about. It certainly helps if one has some context to the content. Living in the modern western world leaves us with little in the way of understanding how ancient Vietnam used to be.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s