Translating Chinese poetry is hard

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Wei Shao sent me this photograph of the English translation of a famous Chinese poem:

(Click to embiggen.)

Here's the story of how this translation came to be. The author, who posted it on Renren (Chinese clone of Facebook), said he was caught doing English homework in a Chinese class by his Chinese teacher. The teacher was angry and punished the student by making him translate Shǔ dào nán 蜀道难 ("The Way to Shu Is Hard") into English.

The poem is by Li Bo / Bai (701-762), one of the preeminent Chinese poets of all time. Here is the original Chinese text with Mandarin translation, and the original text with interlinear Mandarin translation.

There are many other online websites that provide Mandarin translations of this and other poems written in Literary Sinitic. Here is the original text with Pinyin annotations for each character. There are lots of not very good English translations available, e.g., here and here, and some better ones, as here.

Here is a good translation of the poem by Lucas Klein:

I: The Road to Shu is Hard (Li Bai)
                           Dangerous and High.
The road to Shu is harder than
                           climbing the sky.
Cancong and Yufu forged this boundless country.
                 Forty-eight thousand
                           years later, finally,
 relations with the Qin have begun,
                   the passing of settlers’ smoke.
                                   Taibai to the west:
                                                       only birds
                                                       can pass it, reaching out
                                         as far as Emei peak.
The ground
                 collapses. The mountain
Warriors (strong) die.
               Sky-steps hook together
               on the cliff-face walkway.
     Above, six dragons drag the Sun chariot back
                                     to avoid the high peak.
Below, rushing waves whirlpool, churning back
                       to Sichuan.
 Yellow cranes can’t fly over it. Monkeys and gibbons yearn
                               to cross it, but they hang,

                         The heights of Qingni.
                                         Nine bends. One hundred steps.
                                 Coiling through the rocks
                                                       and juts.
                 Touch Orion. Pass Gemini.
Look up, panting, heaving.
Hand on the chest.
Sit with a long sigh.
                               Tell me, Westward Voyager:
                                         When will you come back?
These crags on this trip are insurmountable.
                     Tragic birds moan on ancient trees.
             Circling in the forest cocks fly,
                         chased by hens. The cuckoos
                                         yelp at the moonlight.
                       Sad, desolate mountain.
The road to Shu is harder than climbing
                                     the sky. Hear this
                   and your face bleaches out.
                             These linked peaks are a foot from the sky.
Decrepit pines hang upside-down
                                 from the cliff face.
         Flying and bursting, waterfalls cascade
                                             with whooshes and whirs.
Thundering gullies spin stones and
                                                 bang walls.
How dangerous this is.
                                               Long-road Traveler:
                     Why in hell are you coming this way?
Lofty and steep, Sword Hall on the rocky peaks.
   With one man blocking
                         the pass, ten thousand troops can’t
                                                             crack it.
             And if the guards are not kinsmen,
                       they turn into
                         and wolves.
Avoid the wild tigers in the morning.
Avoid the long snakes in the night.
                           They’ll sharpen their teeth.
                           They’ll suck your blood.
                           They’ll kill you like flax.
Happy talk of the Brocaded City
             is no match
                   for an early trip
The road to Shu
                     is hard.
                     Harder than climbing
                                           the sky.
Sidle back.                                                  Look west.
                             All my sighs
                                     are long.

Klein's translation may be found here, together with an unusual poetic response by him.

A few basic notes:

  1. Shǔ 蜀 is the name of one of an ancient kingdom in southwest China (in the area of what is now Sichuan Province).
  2. Cancong and Yufu were semi-legendary rulers of an independent state of the same name that preceded the Shu kingdom mentioned above.
  3. Qin is the name of the first Chinese empire, which conquered the independent state of Shu and many other polities.
  4. Taibai is the name of a mountain one must pass on the way to Shu as one heads westward from Chang'an (now Xi'an), capital of the Tang Dynasty; Emei is a peak in the heart of Shu; and Qingni is a peak that stands at the entrance to Shu.
  5. Brocaded City is a fancy way to refer to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
  6. A common recurrence in Chinese history was for the emperor to flee to remote Sichuan from the capital in the Yellow River valley when there was rebellion, invasion from the north(west), or other reason for the weakening or collapse of the dynasty.

It is ironic, but fitting, that the translation with which we began this post was the result of a student doing English homework in a Chinese class. Such, however, is the reality of the day in China: English is at a premium.

But, no matter how good one may be in English, if one's Chinese is not up to the task, the resultant translation will jar the senses.

[For a fine translation of "The Way to Shu is Hard" and a scholarly treatment of its literary background, see Paul W. Kroll, "The Road to Shu, from Zhang Zai to Li Bo," Early Medieval China, 10-11.1 (2004), 227-54. A pdf of the 29-page article is available here.]


  1. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 3:56 pm

    1. I'm wondering about the amount of Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) literature that has been translated into Modern Standard Mandarin or English.
    2. I'm also wondering about the amount of LS literature that has been faithfully translated into MSM or English.

  2. Daniel Bryant said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    Well, whatever else it may be, the student's translation is not "just so so".

    It is, incidentally, striking how many junior colleagues today did their undergraduate work in English in China, then switched to Chinese in the process of becoming graduate students in the West. Perhaps they were inspired by classroom punishments!

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 8:47 pm

    For those who do not wish to download the pdf of Paul Kroll's article cited in the final note of the original post, I enter his translation here, together with the Chinese text. Unfortunately, in this comment, I am not able to reproduce Prof. Kroll's careful indentations, though they may be seen in the pdf.

    “The Way to Shu is Hard”
    Yeee―hooo―syee! How perilous ! So high !
    Hardships of the way to Shu―
    much harder than climbing the blue sky!
    Cancong it was, and also Yufu,
    Who founded this state in the oh so dim past,
    Thence were four myriad, eight thousand more years
    Till its homefires were joined up with the Qin frontier.
    Facing west then from Mount Taibo was a pathway but for birds,
    By means of which one could cut across to the summit of Emei.
    There the land crumbled, a mountain collapsed, stalwart men died;
    Only after came
    Sky-strung ladders, edgeways of stone, to clinch the link at last.
    And above is
    The high bough where the six dragons reversed the sun’s course,
    And below,
    A backflow of waters where waves crashing swirl and recoil.
    Even the flight of the yellow crane cannot push on beyond this place;
    Long-armed monkeys who wish to cross over fear to swing up here.
    Twisted so and tortuous is the Blue Mud Pass―
    Nine turnings for every hundred paces to wind round the rugged crest.
    Grab onto Triaster! Pass through the Well! Look up and gasp in alarm!
    Hold your hand against your panting chest―sit down, catch your breath.

    I ask you, sir, as you travel west, when is it you’ll come back?
    One dreads the craggy steeps of the route, impossible to scale.
    There you’ll see only disheartened birds, calling in age-old trees;
    The male takes wing, trailing his mate, circling amidst the grove.
    And too, you’ll hear the cuckoo’s crying―
    In the moonlight, sorrowing in empty hills.
    The hardships of the way to Shu—
    much harder than climbing the blue sky.
    It will waste the ruddy features of all who hear of it!

    There linked peaks lie distant from the sky by no more than a foot,
    Where withered pines hang head-downward against sheer walls.
    And airborne billows, currents of spray, clash in a deafening din;
    Pounded banks, hurtling rocks, thunder through ten-thousand
    The cramped hazards of it are just as I say,
    Oh! you,
    who are on such a distant road, why ever did you come this way?
    Loftily lifted, Sword Gallery, so towering and tall―
    With one man at its barrier,
    Ten thousand cannot force through.
    If that guard be any but one of our kin,
    He is just as well changed into wolf or dhole.

    At morning beware of fell tigers;
    At night beware of long snakes.
    Their whetted teeth will suck your blood,
    They crop people like rows of hemp.
    And though the Brocade City is said to be so pleasing,
    Better it is to turn back home as quickly as you can.
    The hardships of the way to Shu―
    much harder than climbing the blue sky!
    Turned to the side, I gaze off to the west, sighing long, alas! oh no!


  4. Daniel Bryant said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:54 pm

    It is interesting that Paul Kroll's translation characteristically catches something that many translators miss and that Klein skips over. That is the punning adjacency of the verbal nan (second tone) 'is difficult' and nominal nan (fourth tone) 'difficulty'.

  5. julie lee said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 12:02 am

    Many thanks, Professor Mair, for these fine translations and for Li Po's original poem "Shu Dao Nan" in Chinese. Also for the other links, especially to Paul Kroll's learned article on Li Po's poem and other poems of the same title, "Shu Dao Nan" (The Road to Shu is Difficult), preceding Li's. I never knew of these previous "Shu Dao Nan" poems by earlier poets. Although I once spent time on the poems of the medieval poet Bao Zhao, and saw that some of Li Po's poems showed the influence of Bao, and Bao, it seemed to me, was influenced by the poems of Qu Yuan, almost a thousand years before him–for example, in the motif of riding the clouds.

  6. Wentao said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

    @Daniel Bryant
    难 is pronounced nan2 in both adjective "difficult" and noun "difficulty". I pronunciation nan4, meaning "danger/disaster/crisis/misfortune" as in 磨难, 灾难, 大难临头.

    Personally I prefer Kroll's translation, as it captures (imitates?) the overflowing, turbulent style of Li Po very well. The version by Klein is a little bland in comparison, although the visual presentation is clever. I also like some of his touches such as the repeated "Tortuous." even though it is more of a translator's imagination rather than a representation of the original.

    That being said, translation of classical Chinese poetry is a Herculean task. Even a MSM translation doesn't quite have the rhythmic vigor and succinct subtlety of wenyan.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 1:49 pm

    @Stephan Stiller

    A vast amount of material in Literary Sinitic (LS) has been translated into Mandarin (the official histories, Zizhi tongjian, all the classics, Buddhist and Taoist scriptures, the major poets and essayists, etc.). Probably somewhat less has been translated into English, but still a formidable amount of translated texts is available in English (also German, French, Italian, etc.). There is also a huge number of LS texts available in Japanese translations.

    Although many translations into European languages, both by Westerners and by Chinese, are sloppy and incompetent, a considerable portion are of very high quality (e.g., anything by Paul Kroll, David Knechtges, James Robert Hightower, James Crump, Ronald Egan… [I could list many scores of extremely able and reliable translators of LS texts into English]).

    As for the faithfulness of Mandarin translations, my experience is that they are generally not of the high degree of precision one finds in the work of rigorous Western Sinologists, and they also have a pronounced tendency to fall back on mere quotation of the LS wording when they cannot understand difficult passages.

    The very best Japanese translators, such as Iriya Yoshitaka, can be as good as the best Western Sinologists, but more run-of-the-mill Japanese translators also tend to lapse into extensive quotation of the LS in parts that are hard to understand. Furthermore, Japanese is (in)famous for its ability to be intentionally imprecise, wishy-washy, and noncommittal — this is true not just of translations, but of Japanese writing as a whole. Of course, if a Japanese writer wants to be very clear and precise, they can be so, but if they want to fudge things, they have an enormous amount of weapons in their literary arsenal for writing that way too.


    If you take a look at Prof. Kroll's translation in the pdf that I provided, you will see that the format he employs illuminates the structure of the original in a very effective way.

  8. Ken Brown said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

    It seems a wonderfully appropriate punishment, and one that fits the crime perfectly, stretching the student's abilities in both languages. And it looks as if they need stretching.

    On the other hand I like some of the students version. OK it's barely English, but there's a striking phrase or three in there. "Ai, you faraway person, why come here!"

    Isn't there an inbuilt problem in translating poetry? A three-way pull between the literal meaning (often deliberately obscure, ambiguous, or multiple in poetry), the form and sound of the original (much more important in poetry than most prose), and trying to write a good poem in the target language (which might depend on structure and form unused in the source).

    Well illustrated by English versions of the Hebrew psalms, which traditionally try to reproduce as much of the original word order and idiom as possible, in ways that aren't at all naturally English – though some have become so familiar they have been adopted into English. (Has there been similar transfer from literary Chinese into other East Asian languages such as Vietnamese, Japanese, or Korean?)

  9. Victor Mair said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    @Ken Brown

    The Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans all wrote in Literary Sinitic before they developed their own vernacular writing, and they all absorbed massive amounts of Sinitic vocabulary, allusions, and lore that color writing in these languages still today, including in Korean, which barely uses characters any longer, and Vietnamese, which has become alphabetical.

  10. Kuiwon said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

    I am a hobbyist and translate Classical Chinese poetry from Korean authors on my blog. Following the format of most Korean books, I prefer literal translations plus annotations. Do you know whether there are any books on translating Classical Chinese into English in particular?

    On another note, I wouldn't say Korean "barely uses characters any longer," but we've merely written Sino-Korean words in Hangul alphabet (e.g., 韓國 -> 한국) similar to the Vietnamese.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    April 6, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    A couple of relevant Wikipedia articles:

  12. Matt said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    Kuiwon, I think that's the point — Korea has retained the words, but (generally) does not write them using actual Chinese characters any more. And the sky has yet to fall in!

    Re translating LS into English, you might be interested in The Transparent Eye, by Eugene Eoyang.

  13. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 7, 2014 @ 8:53 pm

    I'm with you in that there is a place for different types of translations (as long as accuracy is maintained and the translator explains what he is doing).

    @ Kuiwon¶2, Matt¶1
    Let me add that the use of Sino-Korean vocabulary has been decreasing over the years, with people more and more using "native" Korean expressions. Incidentally, those native expressions tend to be much longer, just like in Japanese.

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