Captivating translation: young Turk with flowing charm

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In my Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS) seminar yesterday evening, Diana Shuheng Zhang submitted this translation:

Even more there is the young Turk with flowing charm,
who could take advantage of you with his coiled-up turban.
His horse white, his robe blue, his wide-open eyes bright ­–
Probably he is truly a debauchee at heart!

gèng yǒu fēngliú shè núzi
néng jiāng pánpà lái qī ěr
báimǎ qīngpáo huō yǎn míng
xǔ tā zhēnshi chá láng suǐ


Li She 李涉 (fl. 806-835)《Què guī Bālíng túzhōng zǒubǐ jì Táng Zhī yán 卻歸巴陵途中走筆寄唐知言》 “Returning Once Again to Baling, Written Hastily [lit., Running My Brush] En Route to Confide in Words to Tang Zhi”

The entire poem in 44 lines may be found here.

There were several aspects of the translation that immediately took my breath away.

Right in the first line, I was enraptured by Diana's rendering of fēngliú 風流 as "flowing charm".  A+ just for that.

The notion of "fēngliú 風流" is one of the most ineffable, yet quintessential, characteristics of stylish medieval Chinese personages.  Here are some of the many English definitions for it in zdic:

distinguished and admirable; talented in letters and unconventional in lifestyle; dissolute; loose; romantic; custom and culture; custom handed down from the past; demeanor; bearing; charm; distinguished and accomplished; outstanding

Wiktionary adds:

elegant and tasteful; talented and unrestrained; amorous; relating to affairs; licentious; promiscuous

[in Japanese, pronounced fūryū:  elegance, refinement, grace]

To this dizzying mix, not all of which (e.g., "romantic") I would recommend to the budding translator, we might consider the magnificent Italian word sprezzatura:

Sprezzatura ([sprettsaˈtuːra]) is an Italian word that first appears in Baldassare Castiglione's 1528 The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".  (source)

I would not advise using sprezzatura in the translation of a Tang (618-907) poem, though, because it is too distinctively Italianate (from the Renaissance).

Translating "fēngliú 風流" as "flowing charm" is not completely unprecedented in the annals of Chinese literary studies, but it is so perfect and rare that I marvel at Diana's being able to come up with it independently (she did not consult any dictionaries or other references in making her translation).  It is all the more impressive since English is not her native tongue.

The next expression in the first line, "young Turk", initially left me nonplussed and skeptical, because it sounded anachronistic:

a member of a revolutionary party in the Ottoman Empire who carried out the revolution of 1908 and deposed the sultan Abdul Hamid II.

    • a young person eager for radical change to the established order.

"the Young Turks of the Faculty demolished the idea of the self"


The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that this was another stroke of genius on Diana's part, since "núzi 奴子" really did mean "young Turk" in medieval Sinitic, as my old friend, Elling Eide (1935-2012), the Li Po (701-762; evidently born in Central Asia and part Turk himself) specialist, never tired of telling me.

I will not continue to go through the whole poem in such detail, because it would take us beyond the confines of a usual Language Log post, but will simply say that the whole translation beautifully captures the spirit and sentiment of the four lines by Li She.  Never mind that there are a few points that merit further discussion — as Sinologists are fond of saying about things they don't completely understand, dàikǎo 待考 ("awaits verification") — Diana's rendition of Li She's lines is artistically inspired.  My guess is that part of the reason she captured the essence of the verse so exquisitely is that she had in her mind's eye a living model of that dashing, young gallant so vividly depicted by the poet.

Diana whimsically comments:  "Who can help but falling for this young, bright-eyed man?"


  1. Gene said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 10:44 am

    Probably he is truly a debauchee at heart!
    Debauchee seems a strange choice for the translation. "Debauch" To leave work.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 1:01 pm

    Odd that you should say that, because I — knowing no Chinese — was immediately dazzled by that line. The word "debauchee" has not come before my eyes in a long time, and it feels perfect to me in the context of the three previous lines… it seems to imply that the woman who has fallen under the charms of the handsome young Turk is, perhaps, HOPING that he is a debauchee!

    In my opinion "debauch" could only mean something like "to leave work" in French. ("Détourner une personne de son travail," according to the CNRTL.)

    I tried looking up 許他真是查郎髓 on Google Translate, but it's hopeless!

  3. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 2:57 pm

    I found it odd because it seemed to me that if a debaucher did the ravishing, a debauchee must be the one ravished.

    But according to the OED, a debauchee is 'one who is addicted to vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures', while a debaucher is more of an active ravisher!

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 3:10 pm

    Well, I have learned something from your post, Jen. For me, "vicious" has always been associated with the OED's fourth sense : " 4. a. Of animals (esp. horses): Inclined to be savage or dangerous, or to show bad temper; not submitting to be thoroughly tamed or broken-in", except, of course, I associated it more with people than with animals. But now, at the age of 73, I finally learn of sense 1 : " I. Characterized by depravity or spite, and related uses. 1. Of habits, practices, etc.: of the nature of vice; contrary to moral principles; depraved, immoral, bad". Thank you !

  5. john v burke said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 4:57 pm

    "Sprezzatura" took on a dubious association for me several years ago, when an early blogger created a "sock puppet" to engage in verbal combat with his detractors; he gave this non-existent character the name Sprezzatura. The stratagem was detected pretty quickly and the comments sere not flattering.

  6. KevinM said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 7:31 pm

    One reference came to mind.
    "Inebriate of air am I/and debauchee of dew"
    Emily Dickinson, "I taste a liquor never brewed" (re: the intoxicating effect of nature).

    @ Gene, were you thinking of debouch?

  7. Bathrobe said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 7:38 pm

    Another word involving 'wind' and 'elegance' that is hard to translate into English is 风情 fēngqíng 'wind passion' or 'wind feeling'. Many years ago, at the height of the earlier coronavirus crisis, I wrote about the strange ways this was translated into English in name of a tourist attraction: Style Plaza or Amorous Square?

  8. Sarah Creel said,

    March 26, 2020 @ 7:43 pm

    Poor Mister Pamuk!

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    March 27, 2020 @ 2:51 am

    I think what makes "flowing charm" especially good is that it substitutes a representative detail of the particular situation for the portion of the original wording that isn't captured in a straight translation of that term. Instead of saying he has "an unconventional lifestyle", it references something that is unconventional about his style.

  10. y said,

    March 27, 2020 @ 12:49 pm

    fascinating. Didn't know 奴子 means Turks. And I am writing about Turks in East Asia right now. This whole poem deserves a good translation. Fascinating.

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