Chinese Poetry Translation Issues

Introduction: Popular Conceptions

Translation, as I’ve mentioned, can have many aims, and has spawned a wealth of theory, though little relates to poetry as such. {1} At its simplest such theory asks:

• Who are the readers, and how do they read?
• Why is the text being translated?
• How will the target text be used?
• What is the intended effect, and how can that effect be achieved?

Yet even before these questions, we need to understand the original audience. Tang poems often address a parting friend or remembered colleague, of course, but were also declaimed aloud at public events, so that where one was hoping for simple sincerity, the others were more looking for literary skill.  And then there are the accidental readers, those like ourselves, who will read the poem with a modern and quite different mindset. {2}

The Reading Process

Reading itself is not a straightforward affair. Cultural objects represent shared ways in which a community understands itself, and pre-modern Chinese communities were very different from ours. How do we arrive at a proper interpretation of poems exploiting a different language altogether, one monosyllabic, tonal and thick with allusions that, even if we understood them, would have little emotional impact? Paul Ricoeur {3} suggested we search the text itself for the complex relationship between explaining and understanding. Roman Ingarden stressed intention in a literary work {4}, because texts preserve the acts of consciousness on the part of their writer, which are then reanimated in various ways by the reader. One could distinguish four levels in a text {5} — word sounds, meaning units, perspectives controlling states of affair, and represented objectivities. Particularly prevalent in the last two levels were gaps or indeterminacies, which the reader fills with his own creations.

But such gaps are not filled in an uncontrolled fashion, argued Wolgang Iser {6}, but through a process of retrospection and anticipation that can overturn the text's ‘prestructure’, the coding of the reader's usual habits and expectations. Reading indeed was a variable, complex business, which accepts the disruptions and dissonances to be expected in a foreign or modernist work. Hans Robert Jauss {7} stressed change. Since we absorb a work only when we enlarge the horizon of our understanding, the accepted canons of literature that no longer shock and challenge may not be relevant. Meaning emerges in interaction between text and readers, often in societies very different from the writer's expectations, and so largely out of his control. The same idea, simpler put, can be found in the transactional theory of reception developed by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley, where a text was an unfinished series of events until encountered by a reader. {8}

Intertextuality and Stereoscopic Reading

Leo Chan {9} notes that interpretation is an inescapable part of the reading process. Internal aspects, discerned and expressed by the translator, exist side by side with external, socio-cultural parameters. '[In] determining the significance of each element, the reader relates it not just to others in the text . . .but also to extra-textual systems, which include literary, generic and semiotic systems belonging to individual cultures.' This placing of elements by the reader – what Chan calls activating intertextuality – is a key reading strategy, and will often result in differences between readers. One with no knowledge of the source language, literary history, and cultural context will become entirely dependent on the elements the translator has chosen to include and omit, for example. More knowledgeable readers, however, will read with what Chan calls 'double vision', allowing their knowledge of both the source and other translations to inform their interpretations.

Chan’s double vision is thus similar to 'stereoscopic reading', a strategy advocated by Marilyn Rose, who in turn borrowed the term from the translator-educator Joanne Englebert. Rose defines stereoscopic reading as a method whereby one or more translations are read alongside the source text. {10 } Meanings will then be discovered in the space between a source text and its many translations, each stressing different aspects of the original meaning, allusions and verse texture.

An Example: Li Bai’s Marble Stairs Grievance

The approach is sensible, Ann Kunish does indeed give illuminating examples of multiple renderings of four Tang poems, two by Li Bai and two by Du Fu. Unfortunately, as examples of verse craft, they are not too prepossessing, as this full set of examples shows:

Marble Stairs Grievance (Cooper 1973)

On Marble Stairs
still grows the white dew
That has all night
soaked her silk slippers,
But she lets down
her crystal blind now
And sees through glaze
the moon of autumn.

Jade-Staircase Grievance (Hinton 1996)

Night long on the jade staircase, white
dew appears, soaks through gauze stockings.
She lets down crystalline blinds, gazes out
through jewel lacework at the autumn moon.

Resentment Near the Jade Stairs (Kline 2011)

Dew whitens the jade stairs.
This late, it soaks her gauze stockings.
She lowers her crystal blind to watch
the breaking, glass-clear moon of autumn.

The Jeweled Stairs’ Grievance (Bradbury 2011)

The jeweled stairs glow white with dew;
The long night wets a silken shoe.
Withdrawn behind her autumn blind,
She courts the moon, the clair de lune.

The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance (Pound 1915)

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

Lament of the Jade Stairs (quoted in Cai 2008)

On jade stairs, the rising white dew
Through the long night pierces silken hose
Retreating inside, she lowers crystal shades
And stares at the glimmering autumn moon

The Sorrow of the Jade Staircase (Obata 1935)

The dew is white upon the staircase of jewels,
And wets her silken shoes. The night is far gone.
She turns within, lets fall the crystal curtain,
And gazes up at the autumn moon, shining through.

A Sigh from a Staircase of Jade (

Her jade-white staircase is cold with dew;
Her silk soles are wet, she lingered there so long....
Behind her closed casement, why is she still waiting,
Watching through its crystal pane the glow of the autumn moon?

Translation is not particularly difficult, and it seems better to expand the possibilities from the page overleaf: {11}  i.e.

One: regarding rhyme:

1. Unrhymed:

The white dew falls on the jade-cut stairs,
and the long night chills her finest hose.
Beneath the tear-jewelled curtain, out of sight,
she looks at the autumnal glittering, bright glittering! moon.

2. Rhymed:

White dew falls on the palace stairs, the night
to chill her fine silk slippers all too soon.
Beneath the jewelled curtain, out of sight,
she looks on the autumn's tear-spangled, glittering moon.

3. And if we argue that, to be rhymed at all, the rhyme scheme should echo the Chinese, we could write:

White dew covers the palace stairs, the night
has cold to penetrate her finest hose
Beneath the jewelled curtain, out of sight,
she watches the autumn moon rise glittering bright.

Two: regarding the ‘jade stairs’ in line 1:

1. If we think ‘jade’ is simply a reference to opulence, i.e. the palace:

White dew covers the palace stairs, the night/
White dew falls on the marble stairs, the night

2. If we think ‘jade’ refers to women’s beauty, a common association:

A white dew covers the women’s stairs, the night/
A white dew falls on the boudoir stairs, the night/
A white dew falls on the scented stairs, the night

Three: regarding interpretation of ‘water crystal’ in line 3 we accept that the ‘water crystal’ refers to ‘tears’ in some way:

Beneath the frosted curtain, out of sight,/
Beneath the salt-clear glass of shutters, out of sight/
Beneath the crystalline shutters, out of sight/
Beneath the salt-clear glass of curtains, out of sight/
Beneath the crystal tears of shutters, out of sight/
Beneath the frosted tears of shutters, out of sight/
Beneath the frozen tears of shutters, out of sight

Ann Kurnish gives a sensitive evaluation of the Marble Stairs Grievance translations, and we should do the same. But on a page already long for the average reader, I will simple give my preferred rendering here:

White dew falls on the scented stairs: the night
will pierce her fine silk stockings all too soon.
From crystal tears of shutters, out of sight,
she looks on the autumn’s glittering, how glittering moon.

Nature of a Chinese Poem

Essential to analysis is a proper understanding of Chinese poetry. Kunish notes the following:

1. In its spoken form, early middle Chinese, it is in effect a dead language; not only it is no longer spoken, but there is (naturally) no recording from the time it was spoken.  {12}
 2. Writing poetry may have been seen as an act of loyalty to the legitimate government, or the Chinese view of good governance. {13}
3. Grammar, and thus semantic meaning, is fluid in Chinese poetry. {14}
4. Chinese poems commonly elide particulars: the scene, the timing, the who is doing something to whom or what, and sometimes the verb itself. {15}
5. Word play and metonymy are common. {16}
6. Parallelism is important. {17}
7. Images may be restricted but serve larger purposes, notably to reinforce the Chinese world-view. These often serve as metaphors. {18}
8. Chinese poetry has a strong sense of rhythm, reinforced by tonal organisation. {19}
9. Rhyme is near universal in Tang poetry, and it’s through rhyming dictionaries that we learn how middle Chinese was pronounced. {20}
10. Image is important in Chinese poetry, but not all-important. Other aspects are equally important, and many western translators have imagined etymological subtleties that are not really present. {21}

All the above need to be borne in mind by translations, of which there are three main types. Translators can have overlapping or even muddled views of what they are attempting, but these three aims should be kept distinct.

Translations Structural, Scholarly and Poetic

Structural Translation

A structural translation {22} gives both semantic and prosodic information. Based on Eugene Nida’s system, included are:

Word-for-character information in such a way that the boundaries between characters are indicated, and word-for-word information is provided where applicable. In addition:

• Rhyme is indicated (preferably in color)
• Words that represent characters with tones that fall outside the formal requirements are underscored
• Boundaries between words are indicated by “•” when no special relationship exists between the characters the words represent, by “+” when the characters act together in an expression, and by “-” when the characters comprise a place name or other unit without relevant semantic interest;
• In cases where character + character is indicated, the combined meaning is enclosed in brackets “[]”;
• Multiple possible definitions are separated by “/”;
• Rhythm is indicated with a caesura indication “|” in each line;
• Supplementary information, concerning such things as word-play, metonymy, imagery, the pictorial aspect of characters where this can have bearing on the meaning or experience of reading etc., is given as annotation.

This translation does not aim to transmit the text as a functioning poem.

Scholarly Translation

Words and their meaning is the focus here. {23} The translation will in most cases move the reader to the text, and only occasionally move the text to the reader. Translations may be elegant, but the language is pragmatic and aesthetic aims are secondary.

Poetic Translation

The term is subjective and difficult to define. {24} Steven Owen describes poetry as an 'event”, as . . . an art which may occur when we are reading or hearing language, reading and listening in a special way to language which we take to be of a special sort. This language aspires to transparency, to disappear as "merely words"; …we understand the arabesques of the word to be important for something beyond language'. Based on this, Kumish defines a poetic translation as one in which the intended effect is something more than and greater than the words themselves. The poetic translation moves the text resolutely to the reader, who is  given the best posible chance of experiencing the whole poem in its particular linguistic, rhythmic, aural, and associative context.


Most of this material is drawn from Kunish, A. (2011) Readings From Between the Lines: A Functionalist Approach to the Translation of Classical Chinese Poetry. MA Thesis. Oslo Univ.  The paper has extensive references, which I will not list here.

For a more philosophic and detailed account of reading theories see: Holcombe, C.J. (2016) Background to Critical Theory, Chapter 18: Hermeneutics.

1. Kunish, p. 3.

2. Kunish, p. 14.

3. Charles Reagan and David Steward's The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of his Work. (1978). Also Eric Hirsch's The Aims of Interpretation. (1978).

4. Roman Ingarten's The Literary Work of Art. 1931. Trans. George G. Grabowicz. (1973).

5. Armstrong P.,(1996) Philosophical Backgrounds and Literary Theories.

6. Wolgang Iser, W. (1978) The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response.

7. Hans Robert Jauss, H.R. (1982) Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. Trans. Timothy Bahti.

8. Dreon, R. (2014) Dewey on Language: Elements for a Non-Dualistic Approach.

9. Chan, L. T-H. (2010). Readers, Reading and Reception of Translated Fiction in Chinese. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

10. Rose, M. G. (1997) Translation and Literary Criticism: Translation as Analysis. Edited by Pym, Anthony. Translation Theories Explained. Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.

11. Part Four.

12. Kunish, p.57.

13. Kunish, p.7.

14. Kunish, pp. 33-6.

15. Kunish, pp. 38-47.

16. Kunish pp. 47-8.

17. Kunish pp. 48-50 and 60-2.

18. Kunish, pp. 50-55.

19. Kunish, pp. 55-7.

20. Kunish, pp. 57-9.

21. Kunish, pp. 63-6.

22. Kunish,  pp. 67-8.

23. Kunish, p. 68.

24. Kunish, p. 68-9.