Translation of Classical Chinese Poetry: Academic Contributions

The first translations were made by British officials posted to China: John Francis Davis, James Legge, William Jennings, and Clement Francis Romilly Allen. The verse, made to the fashion of the times, no doubt left much to be desired, but renderings were often scholarly, with helpful annotations. (Legge is still studied by scholars and students, incidentally. {2}) In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came the more familiar renderings by Herbert Giles, resolutely rhymed, and Launcelot Alfred Cranmer-Byng’s 1909 A Lute of Jade: Being Selections from the Classical Poets of China, part of a popular series to improve understanding between east and west. Ezra Pound’s Cathay, based on Ernest Fenollosa’s manuscript, appeared in 1915, and was followed, in 1918, by Arthur Waley’s One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems. Both authors used an unrhymed free verse. Pound’s verse was pleasing, but the renderings could be rather free. Waley’s renderings were based on Hopkins’ ‘sprung rhythm’, included useful notes on the structure and aims of Chinese poetry, and was generally faithful to the Chinese texts: key words were stressed by the verse, and little added or left out. Also in 1918, came Gems of Chinese Verse: Translated into English Verse by W.J.B. Fletcher, a British consular official in China, who tried to represent the original versification, difficult though that was. {3}

chinese poetry translations cover

Thereafter, translations appeared more frequently: Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell’s 1921 Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems from the Chinese, Shigeyoshi Obata’s 1922 The Works of Li Po [Li Bo], Witter Bynner’s 1929 The Jade Mountain. These were reprinted over the following decades, and joined by volumes from many other translators: Burton Watson, Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo, Hans Frankel, and John Turner. The stream of translations had become a broad river by the 1960s, and is now represented by names too numerous to be mentioned here. Studies and anthologies were brought out, by both leading academic publishers and the small presses, and it is these that have built the western reputations of Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei, {3} though the Chinese themselves have wider tastes. {4}

Precept 1: Do Not Use Rhyme

Contemporary English poetry rarely uses rhyme, and a similar change has come over translation. The arguments are straightforward.

1. Unlike Chinese, English is comparatively poor in rhyme words, and a translation that employed the same rhyme throughout the poem, as Shi poetry commonly does, would be difficult to achieve and likely appear only comic and/or contrived. True, but some approximations could be made.

2. Rhyme distorts the meaning as translators manipulate words into patterns that are foreign to Chinese verse anyway. {5-6} Largely true, though the culprit may be verse-writing incompetence more than rhyme per se. I have given some examples of how it could be done, overleaf {7} and below.

3. Most translations using rhyme have been unsuccessful. Doubtless again true. Julie Sullivan gives many examples, which make painful reading. {8} But hers may not be a wholly balanced and non-partisan survey. She is arguing from the Modernist standpoint, and does not provide examples of rhymed translations that do succeed, at least to some extent. {9-11} Nor may she be a wholly reliable judge if the style she recommends is Waley’s ‘beautiful, free-verse translations’. Perhaps we should just accept that it’s difficult for non-poets to write good English verse of any description, and practically impossible when English is not their native tongue. Rhyme exposes the translator’s blundering incompetence more cruelly than does free verse, moreover, because traditional verse is built to more obvious and demanding standards.

Much may be simple fashion. We stare in disbelief at Victorian translations of Chinese poetry, but those Victorians would be even more perplexed by today’s renderings. A middle way, combining the advantages of both, seems a sensible strategy, but Modernism is a jealous god that accepts no equals. Traditional verse is no longer taught at higher education levels, nor, to judge from academic papers, much appreciated. Free verse is today’s orthodoxy, a style easy to write correctly but phenomenally difficult to write well. Even US academics of Chinese ethnicity, exceptionally gifted and entirely bilingual, may find themselves compelled to adopt contemporary styles, which are markedly demotic and unliterary, no doubt intentionally so. 

As surveys on this site of the leading figures of Modernism should document, contemporary poetry has become a coterie anti-art, posing as democratic but in fact acutely conscious of its inheritance and intellectual affiliations. It is iconoclastic and forward-looking, impatient of the old forms, of anything that inhibits and straight-jackets us in the passé and inauthentic. It is also a coterie movement, not widely popular, and heavily dependent on critical theory. Contemporary poetry thus its strengths, but traditional verse craft is not one of them. Or, to be more exact, good poetry today is exceptionally subtle, and concerned with matters only tangentially relevant to classical Chinese poetry. I will touch on this important point throughout the article, simply noting for the present that some Chinese authors do still look for beauty in its various guises. {12}

4. A good translation should read as a good contemporary poem. True, to some extent. We don’t want a rendering in antique language, or one filled with imagery from the European pastoral tradition. But good contemporary poems are anti-traditional, generally, whereas pre-modern Chinese poetry is profoundly traditional, steadily building on earlier schools of poets and poetry. We may need the techniques of contemporary poetry in translation, therefore, but not necessarily its outlook.

5. The most popular translations ― as literature ― are those of Pound, Rexroth and Waley, and they did not use rhyme.

No rhyme, certainly, but what they wrote was also rather limited. I very much enjoy these renderings, as do most readers, but those of Pound and Rexroth can be lacking in depth and accuracy, and Waley devised an unlovely stress verse.

Pound could not read Chinese and misinterpreted the identities of  “友” and “故人,” and of  “友” and “故人” in some of his best-known translations, for example, ignoring their multiple meanings and tending to view Li Bai’s poems in the light of his own experiences. But the misunderstandings were not wholly a loss, his supporters have argued. ‘Pound, polishing Fenollosa’s draft translation, might have made an editorial decision to de-historicize Li Bai from Chinese grammar, poetic principles and even Chinese space and time’ . . . but the ‘result transcended the level of translation; indeed, his translation deserves to be designated as “another original.”’ . . . He ‘both Eastern and Western readers to . . . take possession of the practical wisdom of using a Taoist’s laughter in the long, hard voyage of life.’ {13}

Pound used only a few poems of the many examples in Fenellosa’s notes, generally those with themes that would be familiar and meaningful to an English audience. {14} The great bulk of poems in Fenellosa’s notes operate in ways quite foreign to the European tradition ― different themes, imagery and outlooks. Pound’s particular interest was in the vivid presentation of the image, in the phanopoeia, as he termed it. Pound dropped the imagery of Herbert Giles, rejected the iambic meter and the rhyming couplets, allowing each of the lines to operate as self-contained, independent and detached images of rhythmic autonomy, uncoupled from any subjective ‘I’, the speaker, who remained only implicit in the scene. In the light of what we understand today of Shi poetry rules, Pound was correct to do so, and he also understood that this curtailed, image-based form allowed only loose combinations into larger units. {15} But this reduction in connecting sense (Pound’s logopoeia, or dance of the intellect) was something he was prepared to live with, indeed became axiomatic in many Modernist poets that followed.

Translation also, if rather slowly, became what Modernists were expected to do, whatever their linguistic skills. Perhaps as John Hollander remarked, 'A very, very good poet can do a version of something from another language, even if he doesn’t know the language. That is, he can write a poem based on somebody else’s prose paraphrases of the thing. But this is purely and simply a matter of the translator’s having a certain kind of poetic skill, a very rare thing to find.'  Chinese scholars have naturally stressed the pitfalls in such an approach, their interest in Pound and his followers growing rather slowly, perhaps reluctantly, somewhat in line with Chinese influence on the world scene. {16}

Rexroth not so much missed textural subtleties as disregarded them altogether. {17} His goal was to be ‘true to the spirit of the originals, and valid English poems.’ Many sources consulted were not the original Chinese, but translations of Tu Fu into English, French, or German. The power and the beauty of his translations often lay in the passages he rendered most freely, which can bear little resemblance to the Chinese texts. {18}

In contrast, Waley’s renderings were accurate, but they have to be ‘speed read’ with the ear closed to verse craft, just as one skims through a mass-market thriller on a beach holiday, not attending to the actual words too much.  Traditional English poetry had to be read carefully and intelligently, however, with one’s full attention. It was frankly a time-consuming, elitist art, one which employed highly complicated devices to refine, shape and emphasize the thoughts and emotions put across: rhetoric, imagery, allusion, rhyme, subtle patterning by metre, even different language, which was far from the everyday. It had license and responsibility: the two went together: poetry was given great license because it carried great responsibilities, to press language to its limit, to give depth, sensuousness and beauty to everyday experience, expressing as fully and movingly as possible what was important to human beings. Indeed it is that larger world of depth, transcendence and sensibility, with sustained flights of imagination, that is so fatally missing from Modernist translations of the Chinese classics. The poetry surely cannot be so fragmentary, jejune and thin as appears in today’s translations, not if it has held the allegiance, indeed profound reverence, of the Chinese people for almost three millennia.

Precept 2: Do Not Paraphrase

Translators owe it to their readers to be faithful to the text, using the original words wherever possible, and not superseding them with ‘inspired’ substitutes of their own. The maxim derives from Waley, who demonstrated the injunction by writing an unrhymed stress verse, where each stress fell on a key word, and where that keyword was a Chinese character in the original text. That key word was also to be reproduced in its plain prose meaning and not in any paraphrase. Original words were not to be added to translation, moreover, or removed from it. With a little ingenuity and occasional bending of the rules, those aims were largely achieved by Waley, {19} and in a generally pleasing manner, though the verse itself was thin and brittle, lacking most of the overtones of meaning and rich sonic properties expected of English verse. Nonetheless, since so much was captured of the plain prose sense, why not make these aims into rules for all poetry translation from the Chinese?

Many translators have, of course. But what seems so sensible and straightforward often hides a host of problems, which range from the obvious to matters involving arcane literary theory.

1. Chinese words may not have an exact word-for-word English equivalent, the usage, connotations and overtones being very different. For us the heart is the seat of the emotions: the Chinese more sensibly see the stomach as such. The Chinese have many phrases ― indeed are continually making them {20} ― whose apt and evocative nature does not carry over into English, any more than our ‘stitch in time’, keep a dog and bark yourself’, ‘tip of the iceberg’, etc. carry over into Chinese. Conversely, how literally we should render the likes of ‘purple spring  river’, so pleasing in Chinese but so odd in English, is a moot point.

2. As in any poetry, the Chinese words are chosen for reasons larger than any prose sense, particularly:

Syntax of Chinese:  Poetry exploits features of the language in which it is written, in an individual manner and at a deep level. Those features are quite different in the two languages, Chinese and English, and the language user mentally shapes and structures the semantic content of an expression, which at the same time imposes a frame upon the described scene or situation, which in turn affects translation. {21}

Allusion: Pound is often charged with overlooking the key allusions in his The River-Merchant’s Wife, {22} but that was only to be expected at the time, and is still a problem for translation from so allusive a poetry as Chinese. Notes are helpful, perhaps essential, but cannot substitute for an intimate knowledge of the literary canon, any more that a foreigner would clue into the Wordsworth allusion in phrases like ‘flare into the light of common day’ ― supposing an English poet were unwise enough to employ them.

Tradition: word usages change. Augustan verse diction looks out of place in a modern English poem, for example, and the Chinese are similarly sensitive to social and historical registers, as indeed to the calligraphy of their many scripts.

Fit with formal requirements of the verse form: It is form, and its many associated features, that make traditional poetry more than the meaning of its constituent words. {23} Extracting the Chinese words, converting the words to English, and arranging them in a meaningful way, therefore makes a very pared-down poetry, because those vital additional features cannot be duplicated in English. Reading such a translation, however skilful, is like trying to appreciate an opera from the libretto only.

3. Words in poetry do not generally have a simple prose sense, but tissues of meaning deriving from their present context and previous uses. Bakhtin, for example, stressed the multi-layered nature of language, which he called heteroglossia. Not only are there social dialects, jargons, turns of phrase characteristic of the various professions, industries, commerce, of passing fashions, etc., but also socio-ideological contradictions carried forward from various periods and levels in the past. Language is not a neutral medium that can be simply appropriated by a speaker, but something that comes to us populated with the intentions of others. Every word tastes of the contexts in which it has lived its socially-charged life. Chinese poetry also has to be read in its larger context. There are several words for faintness, obscurity and the like (míng míng, etc.) and each has its specific overtones.  Shuĭ means means not just water, but any body of water, and the actions done by and with water. And because China's great rivers flow west to east, rivers also hold connotations of the perils and hardships that faced officials travelling south to take up their duties. Similarly, Chinese readers don't have to be told that clouds symbolise the wanderer, or wild geese speak of homesickness, because these and a host of other characters are stock images.

4. The requirement overlooks how poets actually compose. Very rarely (W.B. Yeats being a notable exception) do poets proceed from prose meaning to poetic phrase, converting an idea or thought into something conforming to the poem’s sonic and semantic matrix. The words are generally given in the process of the poem’s creation in that matrix, which of course is language-dependent. The delight a Chinese reader draws from a phrase will likely disappear when those word equivalents are assembled in English, naturally so, because their sonic properties, allusions, histories of use, and triumphant exemplification of the rules will be then all quite different, if they exist at all in the second language.

5. Words, phrases and lines in poetry have a life independent of their meaning. This is not an argument for traditional verse, but a finding from the Formalists and other schools of close poetry analysis. The Russian Formalists, for example, looked objectively at many authors, and came to accept that poetic speech should be an end in itself, not a simply medium for conveying ideas and emotions. {24} The Formalists made countless studies of rhyme, metre, consonantal clusters, etc. of the Russian classics and of poems by contemporaries. Claiming, contrary to Symbolist assertions, that words and their connotations are not the most important ingredient of poetry, they replaced loose talk about inspiration and verbal magic by ‘study of the laws of literary production’.

6. Paraphrase and workaround are essential to literary translation, which, in poetry at least, and especially from non-European langages, would be otherwise rendered impotent to convey anything but the plainest prose sense. German places verbs at the end of the clause or sentence, but we don't translate 'Wenn ich gewusst hätte, dass ich anders gehandelt hätte' as 'If I known had, then I different acted had'. Russian also lacks the definite and indefinite article but we don't translate 'Я добавил примечание к рисунку' as 'I added note to figure.'

Conversely something like the English 'The article he wrote on this occasion — calculated in its timing, calculated in its laboured phrasing and honest perplexity, calculated in its very deployment of terms that the government had removed from the political agenda — had a success that even his own supporters could scarcely have hoped for', a style that derives from Roman oratory, and which is beautiful when done properly, would be broken into short, pithy sentences in Chinese, which has more limited means at its disposal, namely certain introductory words and preferred word orders. Yandex Translate in fact comes up with 他在这次会议上写的这篇文章取得了成功,即使是他自己的支持者也难以期待 for the above sentence, where the subordinate clauses are simply omitted. That machine code rendering in fact reads 'The article he wrote at the conference was a success that even his own supporters could not expect.' — perfectly sensible, but with none of the original's appeal.

The point, I think, is this. We clearly want a translation that preserves some the 'Chineseness' of the original, but that 'Chineseness' will also have to follow some of the expectations of English poetry if it is to read as poetry. Unfortunately, as we look back today, with only a few exceptions, the history of Chinese poetry translation seems to have run from bad poetry (Victorian renderings) to no poetry at all (today's renderings). On grounds of practical similarity, a solution is likely be something echoing the shorter and more economical Chinese, but also achieving what in the English tradition the Chinese achieves in the Chinese tradition. That requires some knowledge of both traditions. The equivalent will have to be consonant with the Chinese outlook and sensibility, but also draw on English approaches to similar problems. As I suggest below,  the most fruitful approach may be to expand the Chinese phrases into self-supporting English lines and couplets, remembering that the basic unit of Chinese verse is not the image, the character or the line, but the couplet, {25} sometimes written on parallel themes, and sometime more loosely, but always aiming for a sense of overall balance.

Precept 3: Use a Linear Poetry Rather than a Conventional Verse Form

Traditional verse is too limiting, Modernism argued. Chinese verse is written in lines, certainly, and does not allow enjambment, but the Chinese language itself is syntactically more fluid. There are no tenses, the verbs can be impersonal, etc. {25} and individual lines can often be read forward and backwards. Wai-lim Yip’s {26} most useful anthology of Chinese verse opens with this snippet, for example, a line from a seven character regulated poem of Su Tung p’o (1036-1101):

tide    follow    dark   waves   snow   mountains  fall

and notes that the words can be read equally well as:

fall    mountains    snow   waves    dark    follow    tides

True, but traditional verse craft is not helpless at this challenge. We can write various permutations of:

Tides and mountains, snow and dark
                       follow on but also fall

And can even get an internal rhyme (I’m not suggesting we should):

The snow on tides and mountains, all
    the darkness following can also fall

The second line is even more semantically complex. In short, many things can be written, depending on what we think the poet is saying or suggesting. As I indicated in the analysis of Du Fu’s Spring Prospect {27}, the ambiguities of Chinese verse are most easily addressed by turning verbs into nouns (which also echoes Chinese usage, of course, where verbs have wider purposes.)

We don’t then have to argue that the Chinese world-view is so different from ours that modern Anglo-American poetry is the only way forward, the one style in which these subtle complexities can find expression. Influences have often been based on misunderstandings. {28}

Wai-lim Yip {29} speaks of the arbitrary western concepts of time based on causal linearity imposed by human conceptualisation. In his view,  ‘the western concept of being conceals being rather than exposing it; it turns us away from the concreteness of objects and events in Phenomenon rather than bringing us into immediate contact with them. . . the Phenomenon can be illustrated by the way film handles temporality, for film is a medium most felicitous in approximating the immediacy of experience. . . Much of the art of Chinese poetry lies in the way the poet captures the visual events as they emerge and act themselves out, releasing them from the restrictive concept of time and space, letting them leap out directly from the undifferentiated mode of existence instead of standing between the reader and the events explaining them, analysing them.’ Several points come to mind:

1. If vibrant immediacy were the whole or even primary purpose of Chinese poetry there would be little point in reading it. Human beings continually try to make larger sense of their surroundings, and indeed have to. They do not stare in mindless wonder at the over-brimming fullness of life, but look for significance, underlying purpose, what those thoughts are saying to them. Even in films that evoke a particularly sharp sense of time or place, moreover, where the camera lingers over telling details, those details are generally telling us something we need to know about the atmosphere and background to the narrative, the plot, the clash of characters, etc.

2. Many contemporary translations do indeed try to bring this aspect of Chinese poetry over into English, but fail as poetry if that is all they do. Immediacy, in itself, is not particularly interesting. The Chinese originals had the aesthetic resources to go further and make them poetry, namely:

Allusion, continually picking up and modifying snippets of other Chinese poems.
Compact nature, a fixed and limited number of words to the line.
Multiple ambiguities of meaning, which flexible Chinese grammar allows.
Strict rules concerning structure, how themes are introduced, developed, inverted, etc.
Tones, and strict rules concerning their use. purpose. 

Beyond that, in any poetry worth its name, we also need a. some inter-penetration of larger purpose and b. an aesthetic shaping. Art has to make events, scenes and thoughts both beautiful and significant to us.

3. We should avoid arguing too much from one style of Chinese poetry. Tang regulated verse is impersonal, certainly, but it is also somewhat artificial. The personal nature, the speaker or onlooker, is not missing from the earlier Sao, Fu and Shi schools of poetry, or from the later Ci and Qu schools. Ontology develops as a rich and fascinating branch of philosophy in Chinese thought as much it does in European, though on different principles. To touch on matters readers can find for themselves, {30} we note:

‘Chinese philosophers inheriting the ontology of the Yijing and Great Commentary still use the concept of the “nature” (xing) of something, but “nature” does not refer to some underlying essence or immaterial substance that makes something what it is in distinction from other things. “Nature” is a way of talking about the manner of qi correlation that actualizes a thing as it is and sets it apart from the correlations of other things.'

It’s probably better work from such philosophy sites, and that at Stanford, {31} to grasp such fundamentals as:

‘While there was no word corresponding precisely to the term “metaphysics,” China has a long tradition of philosophical inquiry concerned with the ultimate nature of reality—its being, origins, components, ways of changing, and so on. In this sense, we can speak of metaphysics in Chinese Philosophy, even if the particular questions and positions that arose differed from those dominant in Europe. Explicit metaphysical discussions appeared in China with a turn toward questions of cosmogony in the mid-fourth century BCE. These cosmogonies express views that became fundamental for almost all later metaphysics in China. In these texts, all things are interconnected and constantly changing. They arise spontaneously from an ultimate source (most often called dao 道, the way or guide) that resists objectification but is immanent in the world and accessible to cultivated people. Vitality and growth is the very nature of existence, and the natural world exhibits consistent patterns that can be observed and followed, in particular, cyclical patterns based on interaction between polar forces (such as yin 陰 and yang 陽).’

4. Much of Modernist poetry stems from Ezra Pound, who certainly widened what was possible, {32} leaving us very much in his debt, {33} but the poetry of the man himself and his disciples ― Williams, Olson, Creely, Snyder and countless others, ― is not without its problems, as I have endeavoured to show. {34} What we might query is the unquestioned insistence on ‘free verse’ today, which is largely a prose, and is read as such, i.e. in its surface and immediately-given sense. Traditional verse, in contrast, abstracts the words to a medium where different rules and tacit understandings apply. What I am arguing for is not a return to traditional verse, and certainly not the Victorian verse of Herbert Giles, but for Modernist approaches to be added to traditional verse techniques.

5.  Too much can be made of language differences. In truth, most major poets have a slightly different world-view, which translators must indicate, both in their renderings, and in added glosses and introductions. That requirement applies as much to nineteenth-century French poets as it does to medieval Sanskrit or Chinese authors. To some extent, all readings are personal interpretations, moreover, as our experiences will never exactly match those of the poet’s. Furthermore, to add to the difficulties, there are the literary traditions through which we must read the poem, sometimes enlightening, sometimes less so, but which have to be respected nonetheless. They are all part of the translator’s everyday duties, taxing but not insurmountable requirements.

6. That does not mean that we can forget the fundamental differences to ours in the Chinese-world views (or views, to be more exact: Wang Wei was more Buddhist, Li Bai more Daoist, etc.). We have to understand the philosophical echoes in a poem {35} and see it in social setting {22} Indeed there would be few reasons to read Chinese poetry if the world it disclosed was not radically different from ours, vividly alive and aesthetically enhanced.

Precept 4: Ignore the Chinese Poem Structure.

‘In translation, it is impossible to reproduce the five-, seven-character lines, the original perfect symmetrical phrases or couplets. But it is possible reproduce the images, which is noteworthy component in Western poetry. In the Chinese poems the image concept consists of the noun or noun phrase, and the action verbs, i.e. hills, rivers, grass, trees, sky, the moon; ascend/descend, cross, see, watch, smell, touch, observe. The image concept becomes the center of the poem, while the action maker “I”, “we” are either implied or seem marginalized.’ {36}

Nonetheless, some key features can be brought across, and indeed should be brought across. {37} Ray Brownrigg {38} sensibly points out, moreover, that, firstly, English is rich in words of the same or similar meaning, allowing good approximations to rhyme and metre, and that, secondly, any poetry form constrains word choice, which simply applies again in translation. His analysis of eleven translations of Du Fu poems looked closely at the rules of regulated verse, including tone patterns  ― as stipulated by various authorities, and as followed by the various translations. The analysis was objective in the nature of the hard sciences, simply accrediting the translations as each fulfilled or did not fulfil the prescribed rules. Translations were also checked against the ‘Yan Fu criteria’ of fidelity, comprehensibility and elegance.  Most translations at least achieved a modest competence, sometimes more, suggesting that the translation process is not so difficult as supposed.

The second part of the paper was more adventurous, demonstrating how Ray Brownrigg himself, with no credentials in the world of Chinese and/or poetry (he is a lecturer in electrical engineering) could nonetheless turn out adequate translations that obeyed regulated verse rules. Of his Spring Prospect, given as:

Nation fallen, yet nature’s alive,
The city; spring trees and grasses thrive.
For these sad times the flowers they weep,
Being apart, birds stir me deep.
The war flames they’ll span three months soon;
Home news is worth a small fortune.
My white hair it’s torn out in vain,
Soon not to hold even a pin.

he says 'This first translation was an early attempt to provide a translation with rhyme in order to be ‘more accessible’ to a non-critical audience.  This would score four out of a possible seven points, since the rhyme is not fixed on even lines, there is no regularly located caesura in each line and couplets two and three do not adequately reflect the parallelism of the original.’

I wouldn’t myself think this was an acceptable poem (‘birds stir me deep’, etc.) but I can think of worse by respected authorities. Ten other translations were also presented, some rather better:

Meeting Li Guinian in the South

At Prince Qi's palace    I often saw you;
Before Cui Jiu's hall      I sometimes heard you.
Southern scenery -       is truly special;
As we meet again        here in life's autumn

His conclusion seems a fair one: ‘translations have shown that on average a translation which does exhibit some of the characteristics of the form of the original poem can do this without great loss of other qualities.’

But it's also unfortunately the case ― ‘if it is acceptable for a translation to compromise some of the non-formal characteristics in order to preserve more of the physical beauty of regulated poetry then there is the potential for this to be developed much further’ ― that such efforts will need the poet’s skill and acute sensitivity to words.   Simple word for word transpositions do not work, either in these no-nonsense  examples, or the more literary versions issuing from the academic presses.

The Larger Picture

I should perhaps say what I have in mind, after these all-too theoretical considerations. It seems to me that translation today is much too focused on Li Bai, Wang Wei and Du Fu, who are peaks in only one of the vast mountain ranges that make up Chinese poetry. Indeed, they may be special cases, where our attempts to convey the rules of Shi poetry have distorted a proper understanding of issues. As a stop-gap measure, working only from the prose or literal word renderings in Zong-Qi Cai's popular anthology, {4} I add these first stabs (very rough, but with rhyme schemes echoing the original where possible) at a wider conception of Chinese poetry:

C1.4. I Beg of You Zhong Zhi (Book of Poetry: 1027-256 BC)

1. No, Zhong Zi, don’t you dare
2. trespass in my village there.
3. Leave alone my willow lair:
4. it is my first and foremost care,
5. and I've two parents I must fear.
6. Truly, you’re embraceable,
7. but when my parents talk, Zhong Zi,
8. that’s truly reprehensible.

9. I truly beg of you, Zhong Zi,
10. at my house-wall you will stop,
11. and leave apart my mulberry crop.
12. They are my first and foremost care.
13. Think of brother I have got.
14. Truly, you’re embraceable,
15. but when my brothers talk, Zhong Zi,
16. that’s truly reprehensible.

17. Enough, enough, I beg of you.
18. Leave the garden that you see
19. and the hardwood grove, Zhong Zi.
20. I care for them, and please don’t do
21. what brings me notoriety.
22. Truly you’re embraceable,
23. but, when the others talk, Zhong Zi,
24. that’s truly reprehensible.

       *   *   *    *

Hymn to Fallen (c.250 BC - 50AD)

1. Now warriors move as one great tide
      of battering shield and toughened hide.
2. The chariot axles crash and grate
      as stabbing short-swords strike their mate.
3. Over us unfurling banner run,
      like clouds now blotting out the sun.
4. And thick the air with arrows still:
      all press, regardless, to the kill.

5. Our battle order breaks, is lost
     and troops, disordered: mounting cost.
6. Our right horse whinnies and is dead
      the left one flounders on instead.
7. The shattered chariot mass now reels,
      each locked and tangled in the wheels,
8. And all about us, slowly comes
      the harsh, reverberating battle drums.
9. The War God has an angry eye,
       all combatants are here to die.

10. Blood and horror is the yield
      on this smoking battle field.
11. So went young hearts that hope and yearn
      but never are to now return,.
12. Beneath a quiet, unfriendly sky
      in distant, scattered fields they lie.

13. And so the tide of battle flows
      across discarded swords and bows,
14. so are their severed bodies still
       with heads and limbs to feel night’s chill.
15. And each a brother, kinsman, friend
      who bravely went to meet their end,
16. each by the God of War so paired
        that horror unto horror stared.

17. Their bodies to the ground have gone:
      we feel the spirit flooding on:
18. captains by their valour led,
      now heroes of the hallowed dead.

       *   *   *    *

C2.1. Lord of the Xiang River (403-227 BC)
1. My lord, who does not come, is hesitant,
2.   and loath to leave — but  why? — this island haunt.
3. The lady’s beautiful but delicate,
4.   immediately I launch my cassia boat.

5. It’s calm the Yuan and the Xiang should know:
6. I order the Yangtse ease its flow.
7. I look for him, my lord: he is not there.
8.    Why do I play — for whom — this panpipe air?
9. I ride my flying dragons northwards; on
10.   to Dong-ti Lake my quest has gone.

11. My sail has melilot and fig-tree leaves,
12.  the flagpole, orchids and these irises,
13. I scan the prospect northward to the Cen
14.  I cross the mighty river once again.

15. He, for all my magic, does not meet my eyes:
16.   my women, saddened, breathe their courtly sighs.
17. For me, my tears stream down, there's no relief
18.   when thinking of you brings me undue grief.

19. With cassia oars, and orchid, still I go
20.   towards the hard, cold knock of ice and snow.
21. I scour the waters where the fig leaves float
22.    and pluck from treetops there the lotus growth.

23. If hearts are different-made, they cannot meet,
24.   and loves quick broken must be incomplete.
25. If like a bouldery stream is shallow love,
26.   the wise, benificent dragon hangs above.

27. Unfaithfulness in love brings bitterness —
28.   he says, no time for meeting, nonetheless —
29. I race all morning through the riverside,
30.   but chariot's at rest by eventide.

31. In branches homing birds must make their nest,
32.   but waters round the palace have no rest.
33. Into their depths I toss my ring of jade,
34.   in Li's wide river mouth is pendant laid.

35. Lavender I'll pick. The fragrant isle
36.   will have my women scented for some while.
37. If what is given once is not regained,
38.   we'll have the time to walk here, unconstrained.

       *   *   *   *  

C 6.2 On Drinking Wine No. 5 (Tao Qian: AD 365-427)

1. I made my home here, in this human place
2. that has no noise of any cart and horse.
3. Of me you ask, good sir, how can that be?
4. I say the heart will find its natural course.
5. There's chrysanthemums to pick, and I have sight,
6. at leisure, of the far-famed Southern Hills.
7. The mountain air brings beauty, day and night.
8. Birds flown together nest as each one wills
9. with something deeper that I would explain
10. if words had not so lately lost their force.

       *   *   *   *  

C 10.13 Sending Off Meng Haoran to Guangling at Yellow Crane Tower (Li Bai: AD 701-762)

1. Old friend:  from Yellow Crane Pagoda you have gone ―
2. by way of three-month’s mists and flowers ― to far Yang-zhou.
3. Against the heavens, the lone sail dwindles to a speck of blue,
4. then, to the horizon, only the river, flowing on.

       *   *   *   *  

C 9.4  Dreaming Heaven (Li He: AD 791-817)

1. The hare is old, the toad is cold:
     the sky is by its colour told.
2. The cloud-encumbered tower falls
     half-open: whiteness slants the walls.
3. The jade-wheel moon is as the dew,
     in rolling incandescent hue.
4. The phoenix carriage pendants meet
     each other in the scented street.
5. Golden dust and water speak
      of three Immortal Mountain peaks.
6. Changes that in centuries sigh
     are like a horse that gallops by.
7. Gazing from the distance spoke
     of Qi’s nine spots of misty smoke.
8. What ocean stream is taken up
     and drained within a single cup?

       *   *   *   *  

C 9.6 Sui Palace (Li Shanyi: AD 813-858)

1. The Purple Spring has palace halls
     entrammeled in their mist and haze.
2. Our emperor, though, would have those walls,
     though overgrown, still serve his days.
3. Should indications not prevail,
     nor seal of office prove his worth,
4. brocaded silks would onward sail
     to the very ends of earth.

5. The former had the fireflies glow,
     contesting even sunset’s blaze:
6. he had the needed willows grow
     along our ancient waterways.
7. But if ours met that former lord,
     returned to earth with all he’d got,
8. he’d ask for song that once assured:
     which might be fitting, might it not?

       *   *   *   *  

C12.4 To the Tune “On the Water Clock at Night” by Wen Tingyun (813-870)

From incense burner, worthy jade,
these tears of bright red tallow fall:
now shunned is painted autumn in the hall.

In this the made-up eyebrows fade,
be tangled as the clouds the hair:
and cold the quilt stays through the long night air.

No palace Wutong tree knows pain,
nor does this continual third-watch rain:
how bitter, bitter to me, is the bane

of being lost to you, as to the ground
goes leaf on leaf, faint sound on sound,
till, bleak and purposeless, the dawn comes round.

       *   *   *   *

C15.10 Varied Reflections through the Seasons: Summer by Fan Chengda (AD 1126-1193)

Picking water-chestnuts means hard work,
        where plow are hoe are left behind.
The fingers hurt and bleed so much
        we scarce belong to humankind.
But having swapped the land for what
        we might at last afford, we find
the issue from the nearby lake
        will now be taxed in equal kind.

      *   *   *   *

C13.5 To the Tune 'Congratulating the Bridegroom' (Xin Qiji: AD 1140-1207)

1. How much, how very much I have decayed.
2. In this poor carnival of life we travelers fall away.
3. How many of us, tell me, stayed?
4. Ten thousand zhang my white hair falls: how vain and shoddy
5. seem our lives. I laugh at earthly things, that fade.
6. And what exists to make us happy, free from blame?
7. I look on charming, fresh green mountains:
                                                           how beautifully they’re made.
8. Perhaps they find in me ― who knows? ―  a charming shade:
9. At heart and in the body
10. we are much the same.

11. At wine, I knock my head against the eastern window frame,
12. and think of Yuan Ming then, his Halting Clouds now done at last.
13. His mood is somewhat mine.
14. Unlike the southern Yangtze folk who only drink for fame
15. how could they know the magic of this murky wine?

16. At this a summoned wind returns me now to ancient lore:
17. it’s much regrettable I do not know the ancient people more,
18. nor can they know the dancing wildness of my past.
19. For my familiarity
20. is with but two or three.

       *   *   *   *

C 13.6 To the Tune 'Groping for Fish' by Xin Qiji (AD 1140-1207)

How many more must I outlast
              of buffetings, this wind and rain?
Yet here, and brief as well, comes spring again.

So what is longed for most is soonest lost,
and countless rich-hued blossoms fall away:
the springtime cannot stay.

The fragrant grass on heaven’s rim, they say,
        have urged it to delay.
So why no word still, pray?

I only see how diligent have been
the spiders’ webs in painted eves,
and catkins play to passing breeze.

So think what’s happened up till now,
what cautious planning envy lost,
what lift of moth-like brow has cost.

A tender letter can be bought with gold, but how,
please tell me, should the heart advance,
if, sir, you will not dance?

Recall, the loveliest have lost all face,
must in their displaced leisure pace.
So do not trust what high walls crown,
for there it is sun goes down
and grief-soaked willows take their place.

       *   *   *   *

C14.3 Prelude to the Oriole's Song (Wu Wenying: AD 1200-1260)

1. This wretched cold still lingers on,
     and I have drunk enough of wine.
2. Behind me now I close a door
     of finely fashioned aloe wood.
3. I note the swallows have come late this year
     about the oriental wards.
4. The spring indeed is almost gone,
     or so it would be understood.
5. Our Qing Ming festival of painted
     boats has also slipped away,
6. and mists on Wu’s old palace steps
     have dwindled into ghosts of trees.
7. I think somehow of travellers
     unsettled, lifting with the wind,
8. as catkins do, so ever changing,
     insubstantial as the air.

9.  So went ten years. I tied my horse
10. at West Lake to the willows there.
11. And what I sought was scented dust,
       or yielding vapour, as it were.
12. I followed petals to their source,
      red petals to a fairy cove,
13. in secret one brocaded girl
     would proxy what you felt for her.
14. A silver screen was your support:
     the spring is vast, the dream but short.
15. The rouge-tinged broken tears were shed
     on singing fan and golden thread.
16. The dykes should empty at the dusk
17. although the sunlight touched us both.
18. The birds fly home: why think of that?

19. Unnoticed, orchids soon grow old,
20. but pollias are hardier things.
21. Lingering at the water villages
     I stay on here, in thought, alone.
22. Six Bridges, which we parted at,
     I visited, but nothing stirred.
23. All flowers wilt when love grows cold,
24. as jade and fragrance when interred.
25. How many bouts have wind and rain?

26. Like the water were your glances,
27. your brows light-brushed as distant hills.
28. Far lights of the fishermen recalled
       spring’s swelling waters where we slept.
29. I still remember, well remember,
          how on those short oars, this our boat,
             our Peach Root boat, was rowed across.
30. In quarters of the courtesans
31. are poems always, much on parting,
       like shadows on unpainted walls.
32. The ink is pale, perhaps with tears
         diluted, or with dust and loss.

33. From this pavilion I gaze
34. on green hills and the far horizons,
35. regret my tangled hair is now
       as rootstocks of the ramie class,
36. mull over, secretly, the traces
       of parting tears and spent saliva:
37. they stain this handkerchief of silk.
38. That phoenix has but drooping wings:
39. mythologies won’t fill the glass.
40. I want to write for you a letter
41. of still and everlasting sorrow,
42. but into the blue mists of the sea
      fall flights of the migrating geese.
43. I weave in vain unvanished longing
      into what zither strings I’ve got:
44. a thousand miles away your soul
      is in the south somewhere. With this
45. bare song I think to summon you:
46. tell me, are you there or not?

       *   *   *   *

C 17.6 Song of Suffering Calamity (Wang Duanshu: AD 1621-1680)

1. Before the Jiashen year, as I recall,
the common people had enough to eat,
2. Soft, wooded shadows shielded us, with all
the flowers rich-brocaded, fresh and neat.

3. We heard the oriole’s plump tenderness,
as curtained sun glowed softly overhead.
4. There was no haste to rise and dress:
long hours I’d linger by the scented bed.

5. Then suddenly, with horses, soldiers spilled
across the boundary of the Xiling Hills.
6. At once our scattered lives were filled,
in place of gold, with darkest ills.

7. Though plainly dressed and with my hair unkempt,
I missed my chance when elder cousin went
8. to hide in villages. From none exempt,
calamities are what my fortune sent.

9. No help could hard-pressed soldiers send
whose Wuning orders held them back to fight.
10. Commands were clear, no one to lend
a hand, or here be quartered for the night.

11. And so I fled, my female heart beset
by mounting portents, unknown worries. I
12. felt the river wind blow in my face, but yet
could take no issue with it, nor dared cry.

13. Then midnight, I remember, and the tide
was dark, and rising swiftly, I would find.
14. I called my boy. Who would not stir. I tried
to put these desperate troubles out of mind.

15. So went the whole night there, on that bare beach
as water lapped and threatened, ever close:
16. through sleeves of gauze I felt the wetness reach,
then through the body’s silks and underclothes.

17. At length we woke, and with the troops again
trudged on and with and as the orders came.
18. Dew-wet on that hard ground we bedded down,
got up at cockcrow, tired, went on the same.

19. And that whole days together: we never stayed
at one place long, or had that hard pace slowed.
20. It was a bugle sound when horses neighed,
a long, long column on a long long road.

21. In perspiration drenched, with flooding tears,
which seemed to mingle with our very blood,
22. buffeted by Heaven we were, beset by fears
as roads and bridges showed a waste of mud.

23. And yet we went on blindly, pressed by fate,
and still the orders came, both prompt and curt:
24. my shoes were shredded: in that desperate state
my skin was sorely cracked, my bound feet hurt.

25. We went to Dinghai in the driving rain,
the waves were loud and fell as thunderclaps.
26. I clung to life and effort, hurt and pain,
when all turned hopeless, to a large perhaps.

27. I’d fled to what? Had left my parents too
as prey to illness, hunger and attack,
28. and so, despite my fears, what blade could do,
at last, if wearily, I turned on back.

29. At dusk the sky seemed darker overhead,
my heart in every fearful step I’d take.
30. Our boat, much patched and leaky, was misled:
we came to Jiang Crossing by mistake.

31. There robbed of valuables, what things we had,
we lacked the cash for clothes or even bread.
32. In wind and rain we went, and, more than sad,
surveyed and earnestly the road ahead.

33. All last, all hardships overcome, we came
to our once home, relieved to find the place.
34. But in the gladness there was also shame:
where could I put this much dishonored face?

35. We saw on old house walls how creepers won,
how gate on broken hinges hung instead.
36. My poor dear sister sent to be a nun,
with father, long ago, we heard, was dead.

37. And so was kinship weakened, from this time on,
not close to those of whom we had been fond.
38. That sense of fitting place was also gone:
I lodge now on the east side of the pond.

39. The Odes and History – I still have those
to read within my all-too modest home.
40. I seek no carriages or splendid clothes
nor from this quiet spot much hope to roam.

41. I have the rain for company, and flowers,
the dawn, the plum tree blossoms’ scented proof.
42. At night I ask of stars’ own kindly powers
to cover tiles still missing from my roof.

43. Sometimes I hear the trails of wild geese call
as from the clouds descending they have flown,
44. and then am saddened by it, those and all
who feel a sorrow kindred with my own.

Transcription and Translation

Some of the above are a little free, and purposely so.  Translation, as I see it, is not faithful transcription but a re-creation in the medium of another language. Perhaps an analogy in the visual arts will explain what I'm getting at, at least to those with some painting experience. If, for example, we were hoping to convert an oil painting into a water-colour, it would be futile to copy each little detail of one across to the other medium. Oil painting allows for a progressive approximation to get things right, matters like composition, lighting, colour harmony, and so forth. Water-colours, in contrast, require immediate and decisive brushwork to capture the vitality and freshness of the subject. We'd have to start afresh from the subject, as each medium possesses features missing from the other, and technical success is judged on different criteria.

To continue the analogy: Art-class beginners commonly arrive with a photo that they wish to paint, and which they do paint, meticulously, the tutor helping them over the difficult bits. The sky in the photo is blue, and, prompted sufficiently, the beginner lays in the appropriate mixtures on the canvas. Ditto for the green fields, and the church tower emerging from the wooded hill. Each feature of the photograph, skills permitting, is carefully transfered over, item by item.  A few weeks later, perhaps with some deft touches from the tutor, and the picture is finished.  Unfortunately, no thought having been given to composition, to tonal values, to colour schemes, or even to the way that paintings grow out of the perceiving and depicting process, the picture ―  through of course delighting the beginning artist ― is no better or worse than the other offerings that exasperate us in going round the annual amateur art show. A painting has not come about, only a transcription of the photograph, usually a rather laboured and prosaic transcription. Yes, it is an honest and conscientious attempt, just as is so much translation of Chinese poetry, but it hasn't used the medium in its own terms to re-create something alive and individual.

That is not to disparage academic translation. As Nabokov remarked, it's essential, what we cannot be without. But there are now so many accurate renderings, and so many serviceable online translation services, that it seems reasonable to expect something more, that a poem translated will reappear as a poem in the translated language. And this in turn means reading  beyond the Modernist canon to really appreciate the range of English literature, in poetry and translation, as it is against those past but still living accomplishments that their efforts will finally be judged. Verse-writing is no different from any other art form, of course, where skill comes from many thousands of hours of practice, whatever the gifts an artist may be born with. But as important as skill are matters of insight, wide experience and taste. Before teaching institutions start laying down rules, therefore, art needs to be more fully appreciated in context ― indeed in its various, open and shifting contexts, an approach encouragingly becoming the case in the life sciences. {39}


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.