Translating Chinese Verse: Theory and Practice

We start with a celebrated example of translation issues: Li Bai's Farewell to a Friend.
The bare words are: {1}

 Green hills above the northern wall,
 White water wind east city
 This place one do parting
 Lone tumbleweed ten thousand li journey
 Drift clouds traveller thought
 Set sun old friend feeling
 Wave hand from this go
 Neigh part horse call 

Ezra Pound's well known rendering is: {2}

Blue mountains to the north of the walls,  
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.
Mind like a floating white cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance.
Our horses neigh to each other
        as we are departing.

chinese poetry translations cover

That by Alice Poon is: {3}

Green hills skirt the northern border,
White waters gird the eastern town;
Here we part with each other,
And you set out like a lonesome wisp of grass,
Floating across the miles, farther and farther away.
You’ve longed to travel like roaming clouds,
But our friendship, unwilling to wane as the sun is to set,
Let it be here to stay.
As we wave each other good-bye,
Our horses neigh, as if for us they sigh.


That on Chinese Poetry is: {4}

 Green hills above the northern wall,
 White water winding east of the city.
 On this spot our single act of parting,
 The lonely tumbleweed journeys ten thousand li.
 Drifting clouds echo the traveller's thoughts,
 The setting sun reflects my old friend's feelings.
 You wave your hand and set off from this place,
 Your horse whinnies as it leaves.

That by Witter Bynner is: {5}

With a blue line of mountains north of the wall,
And east of the city a white curve of water,
Here you must leave me and drift away
Like a loosened water-plant hundreds of miles....
I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me.
...We wave our hands to say good-bye,
And my horse is neighing again and again.

That from 'Chinese Poetry' is very acceptable, but the best verse, to my mind, is Ezra Pound's, though it's a bit shapeless, a common problem with free verse. More to the point, however, the rendering has an interpretation problem. Pound mistranslated tumbleweed as dead grass, which allowed him to create the mind-numbing 'thousand miles of dead grass', to carry that bewilderment through the 'floating white cloud' image and then make the sunset like the stunned parting of old acquaintances (rather than the other way round). Sudden loss, loneliness and then the bowing to the inevitable — it's only what any decent poet would create given the chance. But it's not quite what Li Bai (701-62) wrote. We could 'amend' Pound's rendering to:

Green hills rise over the northern wall,
white water winds on east of the city.
Here we must make our final parting.
Like tumbleweed whirling ten thousand li,
and thought untethered like the clouds,
so sets the sun on this long acquaintance.
We wave our farewells, and distantly comes
of neighing of horses after us.

But it would be wise to look at the poem's structure more closely. The Chinese text is: {1}

li bai text

As Jihee Han notes, {6} Li Bai scholars see 'Seeing Off a Friend as one of his best formal five-letter Lushi verses, in which he perfectly maintains the composition rule of harmony between 景 (the outside landscape) and correspondent 情  (the inside feelings and emotions) and evokes the poetic mood with perfect imagery.

These we have now to represent:

Blue mountains, stagnant, north, the outer wall.
The river, white and inward, flowing east.
Here, at this place, we must make one final parting.
Like tumbleweed whirling and falling ten thousand li,
and thought that's drifting like the travelling clouds,
so sets the sun on old friendship's departure.
We wave hands and leave, and from this moment hear
the neigh of horses that call on after each other.

To make this proper stress verse, five accents to the line, we have to shape a little. The need here is for a pleasing but ever varying pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables that also reinforces the meaning — something the Waley approach cannot do:

Blue mountains, stagnant, and, north, the outer wall:
the river, white and inward, flowing east.
Here, at this place, we make one final parting.
Like tumbleweed whirled and falling ten thousand li,
our thoughts now bewildered and blown like the vacant clouds,
So sets the sun on long acquaintance: flare and darkness.
Our hands wave a farewell, and we hear the horses
neighing, calling through distances, after us.

Or something like that. Stress verse is exceptionally difficult to make a fully finished version of — unlike traditional verse where the right word 'clicks' into place. So, with rhyme to pull the lines into shape, and give them a little more emotive force:

Blue mountains, stagnant, and, north, the outer wall:
the river, winding eastward, inward, a blaze of white.
Here, at this place, we make one final parting.
Like tumbleweed whirling ten thousand li, a fall
that is as the clouds are: bewildered, drifting on.
So sets the sun on long acquaintance: light
and then darkness. We wave our farewells, horses starting
to neigh to each other, distantly, till all is gone.

Or perhaps not: the rhyme has not added much.

In this connection it's difficult to know what Lucas Klein means by 'it would be hard for Chinese poetry to sound so singsongy again'. {7} That Pound has conclusively outlawed metred verse? Many do believe, of course, that Pound's free verse renderings are the best model, but that's a partisan view, I submit, bred of reading only modern poetry. Or is Dr. Klein saying the 1898 Herbert Giles translation was particularly insensitive, in its sonic structure and its diction? That probably has to be conceded:

Where blue hills cross the northern sky,
Beyond the moat which girds the town,
’Twas there we stopped to say Goodbye!
And one white sail alone dropped down.
Your heart was full of wandering thought;
For me, —my sun had set indeed;
To wave a last adieu we sought,
Voiced for us by each whinnying steed!

The translation is not 'singsongy', I think, but simply a not-too-good rendering in the idiom of its time. Lines 4 and 5 have a pleasing movement, but 'girds' and 'steed' are now very dated, understandably, given the time passed. 'Goodbye' seems heartlessly trivial. But to make Herbert Giles the butt of all that was wrong in pre-Pound translation, and so argue for a rhymeless, and often shapeless 'free verse', is to simply exchange one problem for another. Translations in traditional verse are often emphatic, and so can be clearly felt to blunder, but the unadventurous post-Pound styles are not always suited to pre-modern Chinese poetry translation. They generally set the bar so low that each rendering is pretty much like any other rendering, a boon to academics unconcerned with literary aspects, but a disappointment to readers wanting translations that hint at the splendour of the original.

By way of contrast in our rendering above, instead of transferring the meaning wholesale into our native tradition, we have understood how the poem operates in Chinese, and represented that operation in contemporary verse. A different type of poem has resulted, which avoids the shortcomings of the Giles version, and  — dare I say it, Han's appreciation {6} notwithstanding —  that of Pound. We have moved on a bit.

Possibilities: Ignore the Form

One approach always open to literary translations is to ignore the forms of Chinese poetry and simply write something that conveys the meaning as effectively as possible. That was Sin-wai Chan's view, who remarked “It is imperative to realize that as far as poetry translation is concerned, form cannot be
reproduced.” {7-8} The distinguished translator Stephen Owen stated “There is also no way to
echo the forms of Chinese poetry and still produce translations that are accurate and readable.” {9}
That is the approach of Frederick Turner, who has produced very pleasing translations in simple English verse forms: the concluding section of his Li Bai's Song of Chang Gan {10}

I still can see your tracks beside the doorway.
But now they’re almost covered up with moss
So deep, it is forbidden now to sweep them,
And early autumn winds blow leaves across.
In August two bright butterflies together
Fluttered above the western garden grass;
It hurts me that my heart is full of worry,
My pretty face grows old within the glass.
When you reach Chongqin, write to me and tell me
How soon you’re coming home, and how you are,
And I’ll come out and meet you on your journey,
Even if it’s as far as Chang Feng Sha.

It was also my approach in translating Du Fu's Ballad of Beautiful Ladies: {11}

It is the third month festival at Chang'an
and the beauties by the river in the warm spring air
walk virtuous, walk regally, and in gestures share
what their tight-knit bodies breathe aloud.
Woven unicorns and peacocks strut on proud
as gauze beneath will flaunt the courtesan.
On their heads? Ringlets, glittering shapes:
as a kingfisher flares each feathered cloud.
And on their backs? Waistbands with pearls
more thickly embroidered than slim backs bear:
and prouder than these, than the preening swan,
are the kith of the favourite all wait upon.

From jade-green ewers the juice escapes:
purple hump of camel, white fish from the pan.
From crystal plates have the horn chopsticks dropped:
ornaments lie scattered, stomachs bowed.
But still from kitchens comes the same rich fare
despatched by horses and an elaborate care
extends to the panpipes: their hauntings bear
an urgency here as only hunger can.

A minister, unnoticed in the jostling crowd,
steps from horse to carpet to silk sedan.
The catkins of the willow are white on the ground
as a bluebird with a letter links clan to clan.
Power is restless, but the hot words vowed
burn deeper than the minister's unbridled stare.

A highly formalized Chinese style is being represented by a highly formalized English style.

Part Three: Older Forms: Tetrasyllabic Shi Poetry

Shi poetry of the high Tang period is exceptionally formal, if not wholly artificial. To consider something very different we could look at the first millennium BC poems collected in the Book of Poetry (Shijing). It was put together in the Han Dynasty, and contains many pieces that were clearly written to be sung.

One is Cai pin (Gathering Duckweed, Mao 15). Zong-Qi Cai gives a prose rendering: {12}

Where can I gather the duckweed?
On the banks of the southern dale.
Where can I gather the watergrasses?
in those rainwater pools along the paths.

Where can I deposit them?
In baskets square and round,
In cauldrons and pans
and sing in a chorus of warbling.

Where can I offer them?
Beneath the windows of the ancestral shrine?
Who will represent the spirits?
There is a reverent, unmarried maid.

Though early, these poems are still sophisticated, employing rhyme and a wide variety of tropes. There are not the strict rules on tone arrangements, however, though some form of parallelism is common. Remembering that this is a lyrical piece, rhymed aabb cdcd cece, we may catch some of the melody and form with rhymes and slant rhymes:

Tell me, where is duckweed got?
In southern valleys, is it not?
And water-grass, where's that obtained?
From flooded path-sides when it's rained.

Where to put out what I've gained?
Place in baskets round or square,
in pans or cauldrons so contained?
So I sing this artless air.

Tell me where a good girl leaves them.
At the shrine of ancestors?
Who's the spirit that receives them?
This ingenue would offer hers.

I wouldn't say this was intoxicating verse, but we have made something of the piece.

Part Four Recent-Style Shi Poetry: Du Mu's Dispelling Sorrow

Some translations write themselves, with little alteration to the bare words. {13} The following poem by Du Mu (803-52) is written in recent style Shi manner (Jueju), i.e. with strict rules concerning tone, theme and rhyme arrangements, but with the seven characters arranged in quatrains. The bare words are: {13}

sink soul river south carry wine travel
Chu waist intestine break hand/palm within light
ten year one wake Yang -zhou dream
win obtain green/blue tower heartless - name.

Zong-Qi Cai gives a prose version that is well on the way to being poetry: {13}

I sunk my soul in the river lands, wandered with wine,
Broke the hearts of Chu girls dancing lightly in my hands.
Ten years on, I wake from a Yangzhou dream —
All I've won: a callous name in the green mansions.

Since the original is tightly rhymed, we can write the following:

In wine I sunk my soul: went south through river lands.
Broke hearts of Chu girls dancing careless on my hands.
Now, ten years on, I wake from Yangzhou dream: it stands
not well to be a heartless name with courtesans.

We  have not captured the tonal pattern (which Cai calls tonal pattern IIa {14}), but the rendering has that easy evocation that poetry lends to words properly placed. ‘Careless on my hands’ is a reference to the great Han beauty Zhao Feiyan, incidentally, so light it was said she could dance on the emperor’s hand. Yangzhou, literally ‘green mansions’ is a euphemism for courtesan quarters. 

Part Four: Reference and Allusion: Li Bai's Lament of the Jade Stairs

Li Bai's Lament of the Jade Stairs is also in quatrains, and appears easy to translate. The bare words are: {15}

jade stair bears white dew
night long encroach silk stocking
withdraw lower water crystal blind
glittering, glittering gaze autumn moon

Which we could render as:

The white dew falls on the jade-cut stairs,
and the long night pierces the stocking hose.
Behind the crystal curtain, retired, the hours are hers
as the moon denotes autumn in its glimmering haze.

Only that's too glib. We are missing the emphasis on glittering (tears) and the reference to the poem by Xie Tiao (464-99) that Li Bai so admired. Through the moon, which is also a symbol for family reunion,  there is even a reference to Ban Jieyu's poem noted on the previous web page. It is abandonment in a palace of opulence that the poem is evoking.

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

If we want rhyme we could write the following:

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.

And so on: there are many possibilities. See the fourth web page for a further discussion.

Part Five. Less Regular Ci Verse

The point I am arguing is that there is no one style suitable for translation of premodern Chinese  poetry. We have to experiment, when what we find will probably depend on the nature of the original, and what we are trying to make of it. Ci poetry, for example, is very different from the Shi regulated new style. Strictly determined rhyme and tone schemes still apply, but the line lengths vary and poems can employ more than one rhyme in wider tonal categories.  The poems are also more fluid, displaying less parallelism and shifting between  objective images and inner speech. In fact they were lyrics, carefully set to tunes that we have largely lost.

This by Li Yu (937-78) was set to the tune of 'Crows Call at Night', and the plain words are: {16}

without word alone ascend west pavilion
moon like hook
lonely lonely wu- tong deep courtyard lock deep  autumn
cut not break
tidy still mess
this separation grief
another is a kind taste flower in heart.

Lines 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7 end rhyme on a level tone. Lines 4 and 5 end rhyme on an oblique tone. Line 3 has 9 characters, and line 7 has ten. These lines are far too long for any English measure. I suggest we break them, and employ subtle end rhyme, here mostly slant rhyme: a a a b b c d d e c e. It's not Li Yu's rhyme scheme but one suggested by the simple words.

I climb up, quiet and alone;
             to linger in the west pavilion.
A thin white hook is now the moon,
and in the courtyard round I see,
            the ever lonely wutang trees
                      fasten autumn in the air.
Hurt, the heart, it does not break,
nor, smothered over, does it take
           on the happiness it wore.
Parting, grief: new flavours where
           the heart won't flower as before.

If we want to be more adventuresome, we could write

nor, reassembled, does it take
           on the semblance of evasion.
Parting, grief: new flavours there
           in the heart's equivocation.

Here we are not using the bare Chinese words, but deepening the meaning with reflective abstractions, i.e. making explicit what the original only hints at.

Part Six: Fidelity: Li Bai's River Merchant's Wife

Pound's River Merchant's Wife may be his most beautiful Chinese translation: {17}

The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
   As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

        By Rihaku

But it wasn't wholly accurate.  Arthur Waley's version was: {18}

Soon after I wore my hair covering my forehead
 I was plucking flowers and playing in front of the gate,
 When you came by, walking on bamboo-stilts
 Along the trellis, playing with the green plums.
 We both lived in the village of Ch'ang-kan,
 Two children, without hate or suspicion.
 At fourteen I became your wife;
 I was shame-faced and never dared smile.
 I sank my head against the dark wall;
 Called to a thousand times, I did not turn.
 At fifteen I stopped wrinkling my brow
 And desired my ashes to be mingled with your dust.
 I thought you were like the man who clung to the bridge:
 Not guessing I should climb the Look-for-Husband Terrace,
 But next year you went far away,
 To Ch'ü-t'ang and the Whirling Water Rocks.
 In the fifth month "one should not venture there"
Where wailing monkeys cluster in the cliffs above.
 In front of the door, the tracks you once made
 One by one have been covered by green moss—
Moss so thick that I cannot sweep it away,
 And leaves are falling in the early autumn wind.
 Yellow with August the pairing butterflies
 In the western garden flit from grass to grass.
 The sight of these wounds my heart with pain;
 As I sit and sorrow, my red cheeks fade.
 Send me a letter and let me know in time
 When your boat will be going through the three gorges of Pa.
 I will come to meet you as far as ever you please,
 Even to the dangerous sands of Ch'ang-fēng.

Jun Tang gives a modern rendering.



A Song of Changgan


When I first wore bangs, I played


before the front gate, picking flowers.


You came straddling a bamboo stick in imitation of horse-riding,


and lounged around the bench, fiddling with green plums.


We lived at Changgan in the downtown area


as two little children without misgivings or suspicions.


At fourteen I became your wife.


Shyness prevented me from smiling.


Facing the dark wall with drooping head, I would not turn around


even if you called my name for a thousand times.


At fifteen I began to relax my eyebrows and smile.


I was willing to be with you until we turned into dust and ashes.


I used to believe that you would be as dependable as Weisheng, but


how could I foresee my mounting the high terrace for wives expecting their husbands’ return?


At sixteen you went away, somewhere


far beyond the Yanyu Reef of the Qutang Gorge.


The Reef was unapproachable in June,


and the sky resounded with monkeys’ whining.


Your former footprints on the doorstep


were covered by green mosses


too thick to be swept away.


This autumn, leaves fall early in wind.

八月蝴蝶来 (or: 黄),

August butterflies came in twos,


dancing above the grass in the west garden.


At the sight my heart was broken


And the color of my face faded as I sat brooding.


Sooner or later, if you will come down the Yangtze River,


Please send me a letter in advance.


Regardless of the distance, I will go


all the way to Changfengsha to meet you.

I wouldn't doubt that Professor Tang's is the most accurate of the three, but I still prefer Pound's version, which has a poetry missing from the others. And even that translation, deservedly famous, can be made stronger and more evocative by using traditional verse: {20}

How simple it was, and my hair too,
picking at flowers as the spring comes;
and you riding about on a bamboo
horse; playing together, eating plums.

Two small people: nothing to contend
with, in quiet Chang Gan to day's end.
All this at fourteen made one with you.
Married to my lord: it was not the same.
Who was your concubine answering to
the thousand times you called her name?

I turned to the wall, and a whole year passed
before my being would be wholly yours —
dust of your dust while all things last,
hope of your happiness, with never cause

To seek for another. Then one short year:
at sixteen I sat in the marriage bed
alone as the water. I could hear
the sorrowing of gibbons overhead.

How long your prints on the path stayed bare!
I looked out forever from the lookout tower,
far to the gorge and the swirling lair
of reefs exposed to the summer's power,
but could not imagine the distances there
held you still travelling, hour by hour.

Now thick are the mosses; the gate stays shut.
I sit in the sunshine as the wind grieves.
In their dallying couples the butterflies cut
the deeper in me than yellowing leaves.

Send word of your coming and I will meet
you at Chang-feng Sha by the mountain walls.
Endless the water and your looks entreat
and hurt me still as each evening falls.

Concluding Thoughts

The above are simply suggestions, ways of improving the literary quality of Chinese poetry translations. I hope they will not be seen as an attack on Ezra Pound. With the vers libre of Cathay, T. S. Eliot observed, Pound had become 'the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time', and to be still so admired a hundred years later is surely a great achievement. My concern is to find a middle path in changing academic fashion, between the earlier contempt of Pound and today's reverence, an approach that is open to translators with more modest talents.

We are still largely at James Liu's distinction between the “poet-translator” and “critic-translator,” I suspect, where he remarks that whereas the latter’s “primary aim is to show what the original poem is like, as a part of his interpretation,” the former “is a poet or poet manqué whose native Muse is temporarily or permanently absent and who uses translation as a way to recharge his own creative battery [and] write a good poem in English based on his understanding or misunderstanding of a Chinese poem, however he may have arrived at this.” {21}

The troubles, as always with literary translation but here acutely so, is that Chinese and verse writing both take an inordinate length of time to master. We thus have skilled poets unable to appreciate the subtleties of Chinese verse on one side, and sinologists with no ear whatever for the graces of English verse on the other. Rhyme is a particularly vexing matter. Only 'amateur poets' and a few translators generally employ rhyme today, and then not always well. Contemporary poets do not use rhyme because they aim for a contemporary language that deals with contemporary subject matter. Indeed they avoid it like the plague, most emphatically not wanting the musicality, shaping powers, and the 'aesthetic distancing' (i.e. continual signaling that 'this is not everyday speech') that rhyme provides. As a consequence, neither they nor academics now have much of an ear for rhyme, or even general verse craft, which is only to be expected when these aesthetic aspects have been outlawed from serious consideration for sixty years. My own view is that rhyme can still be a useful tool, but one that requires considerable skill, taste and practice. Beginners should therefore stay away, as a poem without rhyme is generally a good deal better than a poem or translation with bad rhyme.

All that said, sinologists and poets could nonetheless learn from each other, it seems to me, though the distinctions are still important. For academic renderings, translators should surely:

1. Be literate in Chinese and familar with the scholarly literature, in English, Chinese and, if possible, other languages in which academic papers appear.
2. Retain the customary 'free verse' styles in academic publications where sinologists are writing for fellow specialists. Semantic accuracy is the chief need here, though more attention to the aesthetic dimension would be welcome.

For literary renderings, the translator should:

1. Have the poet's sensibilities, gifts and wide reading. Literary translations will be non-starters otherwise.
2. Appreciate what each poem is saying in its fullest aesthetic dimensions. That means mastering the critical literature, at least in English.
3. Understand how the poem works in Chinese, and its allusions to other celebrated poems.
4. Create a translation that works in the English verse tradition in ways similar to the original's operation in the Chinese verse tradition. Again, verse skills are important: if translators can't write decent English poetry, and in many styles, then they won't achieve literary excellence.
5. Deploy a verse form appropriate to the task in hand. Chinese verse styles are as varied as English, and we cannot hope to convey two and a half millennia of Chinese verse in one English style.  Very formal styles could be eactly rhymed, for example, and the more fluid styles represented by looser, twentieth century English verse styles. I give some examples above. Today's free verse is rarely a strong enough form.
6. Supplement all translations with the bare Chinese words and notes on matters not self evident in the translation. Renderings of the more celebrated poems should also have a bibliography of previous studies and translations. Notes and references could take the form of a separate pdf ebook, which is cheap to produce.
7. Accept that change will come slowly. It took fifty years for Pound's views to become mainstream, and it will no doubt take a similar period of time for more sensible approaches to prevail. Until that happens, translators may have to resign themselves to following their forebears, those Chinese poets who retired from court life to produce pieces for their own delight and instruction.

Postscript: A Simple Exercise

But perhaps we should respect translation traditions more. Current translations are not quite the poetry of the past, of course, but free verse was the choice of Ezra Pound, our most lauded translator of Chinese poetry, and free verse is the choice of most distinguished poets today. True enough, but is that poetry regarded as the real McCoy by anyone but a small huddle of poets and academics sheltering in collage campuses? For reasons detailed elsewhere on this site, I think we should entertain some doubts on this.

I suggest an experiment. Let’s reverse-engineer a well-known English poem into its key words, and then convert those key words into what could be taken as a word-for-word ‘translation’ of a Chinese poem. We can then construct an English ‘translation’ from these words, and compare results with the original.

So:  the Shakespeare sonnet 64, (which would be comparatively modern, indeed late Ming, in Chinese eyes):

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced
 The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
 When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
 And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
 When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
 Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
 And the firm soil win of the watery main,
 Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
 When I have seen such interchange of state,
 Or state itself confounded to decay;
 Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate
 That Time will come and take my love away.
 This thought is as a death which cannot choose
 But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

So that I’m not thought to be cheating, I will use verbatim the paraphrase given as the number one listing by Google of of the search phrase  ‘analysis When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced ‘ {22} It runs:

'When I see time destroy those monuments and buildings which I thought would stand forever, when I watch the tide come in and swallow up the shore, when I observe whole kingdoms change in the way they are governed, all of this destruction has taught me to reflect that time will also take the one I love. Such a thought is like suffering a death, and I cannot help weeping to possess someone whom I know I must, in the end, lose.’

Clearly the poetry has been much diluted. A traditional poet could perhaps ‘recover’ the original from this summary, but it would take verse skills not given to everyone, plus a Tudor mind-set. But let’s press on. We next break the summary into meaningful lines, though losing the sonnet's fourteen line form:

1. When I see time destroy those monuments and buildings
2. which I thought would stand forever,
3. when I watch the tide come in and swallow up the shore,
4. when I observe whole kingdoms change
5. in the way they are governed,
6. all of this destruction has taught me

7. to reflect that time will also take the one I love.
8. Such a thought is like suffering a death,
9. and I cannot help weeping to possess someone
10. whom I know I must, in the end, lose.’

Finally we convert these lines into a Chinese poem ‘translation’, and in two stages. We suppose, firstly, that this is recent-style Shi poetry, in fact heptasyllabic regulated verse. Tone patterning is practically impossible in English, but we could expect the Chinese poem to show ambiguity, the proper syntactical structure, parallelism, progression and semantic rhythm. So, the first step might be something like this:

1. when see time destroy many old monuments buildings
2. would should think stand stay here forever
3. when watch tide come in swallow shore
4. when observe how whole kingdoms can change
5. in way and then who will govern them
6. all destruction like this affords me lesson
7. reflect time takes away close to me
8. think long suffering is like death comes
9. weeping then no help keep someone close
10. everyone I know must finally be lost.

And then, secondly, we should employ concrete images typical of the form, {23} remembering also that friendship had a higher value in imperial China than love between the sexes:

1. many years fall on purple spring palace
2. think proud walls jade monument forever last
3. tide turn shore heron must leave home
4. high mandate of heaven that too changes
5. latter lord Chen bow to emperor Yang
6. dust falls and sets in its destruction
7. know years take what near far away
8. think death sickness must be forever suffering
9. weeping tears no bring back scattered friends
10. Lord Qin’s panpipes play to empty courts.

I think it should be clear that the original is now beyond recapture. Nothing we can write rekindles the splendour of the English original, or even its contours, because the poetry, as always, is in
its exposition, not in any universal truisms of meaning.

Now to the point of the exercise. What we have written at least contains the germ of a poem ― indeed far more so, I’d argue, than the average Tang poem to western eyes. But if we ‘remain ‘faithful to the words as they are’, and simply replicate them in the manner of translation today, then a proper poem remains elusive. Something lurks behind to evoke feelings, but those feelings stay generalized and indistinct:

1. Many years have fallen on purple spring palace,
2. and neither walls or jade itself will last forever.
3. The tide returns and nesting herons leave their home.
4. Even the Mandate of Heaven, that too changes,
5. and Emperor Chen must bow to Emperor Yang.
6. The dust writes homilies in such destruction,
7. and all that’s close to us is one day lost.
8. Death is forever with us, an endless suffering.
9. The tears we weep bring back no scattered friends:
10. Lord Qin panpipes play to emptied courts.

And so on: readers can make their own preferred translations, but the result will be much the same, I suspect: separate statements not cohering properly. The better approach, it seems to me, is to understand what the poem is saying, and convey that meaning in one of the many approaches English verse has fashioned for the purpose. One way, harking back to the original sonnet, is:

1. So fall to dust the Purple River palace walls,
2. and lost is jade in jewel or monument;
3. the tide returns: from sterile fields the heron calls,
4. and Heaven's high mandate is revoked or lent.

5. In time great Emperor Chen will bow to Emperor Yang,
6. and wealth in great processions tell what truths it can.
7. Youth passes, both the sweetest voice and what it sang,
8. and death’s last reckoning must come to every man.

9. No wealth of tears brings back to us our vanished friends,
10. nor plaint, however ancient, an Immortal sends.

The slant we put on this ‘translation’ ― our choice of words, allusions, imagery, viewpoints ― is what would enable us to make the translation faithful to the original poet in question, to give him an individual voice distinguishing him from others of the period. This is something that the basic, 'Jack and Jill language' of contemporary translation cannot do, clearly so, because it will not renounce fidelity to a small set of origining words, and will not use an emotive shaping stronger than free verse.

I wouldn’t claim too much for this exercise, but I hope it illustrates my earlier generalities, and clarifies them a little. The larger point, of course, is that the approach opens up Chinese poetry translation to more expansive English traditions.


The updated article, properly referenced, can be found in the free pdf ebook Background to the Chinese Translations.

For the Chinese poetry translations only click here.

For Notes on Poems 1 to 36 click here.

and for Notes on Poems 37-93 click here.