The (alleged) untranslatability of Chinese poetry

« previous post | next post »


"Poems Without an ‘I’", by Madeleine Thien
NYRB October 8, 2020 Issue

The Banished Immortal: A Life of Li Bai (Li Po)
by Ha Jin
Pantheon, 301 pp.

The Selected Poems of Tu Fu: Expanded and Newly Translated
by David Hinton
New Directions, 267 pp.

Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry
by David Hinton
Shambhala, 138 pp.

I have never been a fan of the view that Chinese poetry is untranslatable, or that  any other genres of Chinese literature, for that matter, are untranslatable.  Since I have done a huge amount of translation in my lifetime, if I accepted the notion that Chinese literature is untranslatable, I would long ago have made a gigantic fool of myself.  Quite the contrary, I am content with my accomplishments in translating all sorts of Chinese literature into English, and I believe that what I have done enriches the intellectual life of Americans and other speakers of English by making available to them an equivalent emotional and esthetic experience as that afforded to Chinese readers of the works in their original language.

A colleague wrote to me:

I thought the second half of the review cited above in the current issue of the New York Review of Books was pretty appalling.  I wonder what your thoughts about it are.  Do you think writing a letter to the editor would be worthwhile?

The parts that got my goat follow:

The essential experience of Chinese poetry is all but untranslatable. Eliot Weinberger, Lucas Klein, Burton Watson, Stephen Owen, and David Hinton, among others, have set down superb translations, while noting that, in bringing Chinese poetry into English, more things go missing than in translations from other languages. Word-for-word translations, writes François Cheng in his masterful Chinese Poetic Writing (1977), can give “only the barest caricature.” Ha Jin describes a particular Li Bai poem as obtaining a beauty that “can be fully appreciated only in the Chinese.” Hinton observes that a particular line, severed from its radically different philosophical context, “fails absolutely in translation.” But the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic*) and English (alphabetic) written systems begins the moment a mark is made. Chinese ideograms** are composed of strokes, and each of the brushstrokes references others. Cheng gives this line from Wang Wei as an example, followed by its literal translation:

[*VHM:  This is a widely accepted characterization of the Sinographic writing system, one that is much better than pictographic or ideographic or, still worse, hieroglyphic.  "Morphosyllabic" is more precise than "logographic", but not every Sinitic morpheme is a Sinograph, nor is every Sinograph a Sinitic morpheme.]

[**VHM:  Many Sinologists and Sinolinguists hold that there is no such thing as an ideogram; see "Selected readings" below.]

mù mò fúróng huā
木 末 芙 蓉 花
branch end magnolia flowers

The character for “branch” 木 begins to transform at its tips 末 and bud into life. In the third character, 艹 (the radical for “grass” 艸 or “flower”) bursts forth from the crown of the words 芙蓉 (magnolia) and ends in 花 (flower). Further, in a simultaneous layer of images, the third character, Cheng writes, “contains the element 天 ‘man,’ which itself contains the element 人 ‘Man’ (homo),” or person. “Face” 容 is visible in the fourth ideogram, and the fifth contains 化 (transformation). Thus the line also records a human trajectory: spiritual metamorphosis and then mortality embedded in nature itself.

Many simple characters can be incorporated into a single ideogram—the word, Cheng writes, “never succeeds in completely repressing other, deeper meanings ever present within the sign”—and ideograms placed beside one another generate further significance. Transference, parallels, metonymy, and correspondences across words and lines generate a radically different poetic realm than lexical meanings produce in English-language poetry (with its own rich universe of etymologies and literary associations). Each of the twenty ideograms in, for instance, a pentasyllabic quatrain, are considered independent “sages” and personalities; words are not only denotative but have their own “reality.”

This is a difficult thing to wrap one’s head around; the dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface. Cheng observes that the writing system “has refused to be simply a support for the spoken language: its development has been characterized by a constant struggle to assure for itself both autonomy and freedom of combination.” To add to the constellations of meaning within any given poem, the disciplines of poetry, calligraphy, and painting are not considered distinct but rather facets of a single complete art.


Hinton’s austerely beautiful translations assume that Chinese classical poetry cannot be severed from philosophy. Guided by each poem, he translates and interprets Daoist concepts, refined over millennia, for which there are no precise English equivalents (just as, for example, Heidegger’s “dasein” carries a web of thinking that cannot be replaced by a conventional English word). We can translate the words, but in doing so, to borrow a phrase of Cheng’s, “nothing is truly translated.”

Du Fu’s “Spring Landscape” appears to non-Chinese readers like a block of ice, outwardly even and unified:

guó pò shānhé zài
chéng chūn cǎomù shēn
gǎn shí huā jiàn lèi
hèn bié niǎo jīng xīn
fēnghuǒ lián sān yuè
jiāshū dǐ wàn jīn
báitóu sāo gèng duǎn
hún yù bùshèng zān


The poem is an experience; it’s trippy. Meaning is generated across its various planes—across couplets and images, vertically and horizontally. Hinton’s translation maintains the couplets that are the basic unit of Tang poetic forms, and he creates his ice-cube shape by enjambing the lines:

The country in ruins, rivers and mountains
continue. The city grows lush with spring.

Blossoms scatter tears for us, and all these
separations in a bird’s cry startle the heart.

Beacon-fires three months ablaze: by now
a mere letter’s worth ten thousand in gold,

and worry’s thinned my hair to such white
confusion I can’t even keep this hairpin in.

In an essay that follows, Hinton notes that the opening is “possibly the most famous line in Chinese poetry” and that the poem is a sharp and unexpectedly wry observation of man-made tragedies overrun by the endless coming-into-being of the ten thousand things (all that exists, in the idiom of Chinese philosophy). Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep. Of course, this is a fairy-tale view, and “in the knowledge of its falsity, heartbreaking.” Du Fu’s discomfiting joke at the end both overturns and accepts his fear and anxiety.

The idea that one must know that Du Fu’s metaphors are false to get the emotional point of the poem strikes me as bizarre. 




Hinton’s translations have always gone against the grain. He has been building, translation by translation, an English language for a Chinese conceptual world. His versions get closest to what makes Du Fu sublime for Chinese readers. He isn’t afraid to baffle us; the gaps remind us that we are only guests here, and that the poems do—indeed should—hover a bit beyond our grasp. In the twentieth century, Chinese poetry was translated into the American idiom by modernists like Ezra Pound and later poets including Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder with a lightness of touch, a beguiling simplicity. Hinton is after the opposite: depth and boundlessness.


It seems the main difference between Hinton and Pound is that Hinton actually knows Chinese.

Besides these points, I was surprised that the reviewer (and I guess also the authors) did not mention the famous story about Du Fu reading his poems aloud to an illiterate woman, which, if not completely false, says a lot about how Du Fu, at least, thought about the sound and intelligibility of his poetry.

[VHM:  Here my colleague is mixing up Du Fu with another famous Tang poet, Bo Juyi, who did read his poems to illiterate folk to ensure their comprehensibility.]


Selected readings


  1. Diana S. Zhang said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 11:02 am

    Hahaha, "untranslatability" — talking about the "legacy" of Orientalism, behind the back of which was Romanticism! It's interesting how the impact of an 18th-19th century European intellectual movement still persists until now, especially in China/Sinology, the "uniqueness/difference" of which, reified by the form of its writing system, is more palpable than that of others on the visual level.

    As a Chinese myself, I dare to say that the outstanding weight of the Orientalist/Romanticist impact in China (more than elsewhere) is partly attributed to the positive spin that Chinese "literary professionals" themselves put on such "uniqueness". "That our writing system is unique " >> "that our literature is unique" >> "that our culture/civilization is unique" >> "that we are justifiably unique in every way". Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

    At last, about Bo Juyi. The myth/folklore that he ensured the comprehensibility of his poems with illiterate people is a short sketch that first comes from《墨客挥犀》, a Song Dynasty 笔记 (biji, "pen-jotting") compiled by 彭乘 Peng Cheng (985-1049), two centuries after Bo's death (772-846). How much could biji reflect reality? And, what is the "poem" 诗 genre, especially the genre of regulated verses 格律诗? Different from 词 or 曲, it has been a sheer "literati/intelligentsia" genre since its origin since people simply never spoke in equisyllabic sentences. Reading to illiterate ladies for the comprehensibility of a 诗 poem is an exact instance of how "illiteracy", was reversedly imagined by those who possessed "literacy". Such down-ward imagination does NOT reflect new consciousness of the illiterate masses and their "intellectual/aesthetic (if there was any)" needs by the literati, but merely another form of imagination.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 11:50 am

    So, the argument is that Chinese poetry is even more untranslatable than any other (…except I guess the other sinographic ones…) because the characters are part of the poetry.

    Is there a kernel of truth in that? Are the cases where poets have, say, picked one synonym instead of another not for its sound, but for its character?

  3. Conal Boyce said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 11:51 am

    I lean toward 'untranslatable,' not because of the logographic nature of Chinese, but because of its morphosyllabic aspect (referring back to VHM's note near the top of this thread). In other words, it is the rhythmic aspect of Chinese poetry that is crucial, I think, but that's the very part which is inevitably lost in translation — the magic of whole semantic units being mapped, one-to-one, against the steady progression of equal time units. (Well, that's the rhythm in a naive reading at least; sophisticated readings involve the use of a short-long short-long pattern, too, but that is just an 'overlay' which does not alter the basic March of the Morphosyllables, beneath it.)

    As for François Cheng's example from Wang Wei…
    木 末 芙 蓉 花
    … there's no denying that it is a wonderfully crafted line, with visual, semantic and auditory effects to savor (the latter weakened, however, by bisyllabic fúróng — which nicely illustrates VHM's point about 'morphosyllabic' not being the silver bullet we'd like for describing for the _whole_ language); but I think it is wrongheaded to cite the line as a kind of touchstone to Chinese poetry generally (if that was François Cheng's intent — I haven't seen his book). In fact, to do so would veer close to Chinoiserie, of the kind that is so often reveled in by western adolescents upon 'discovering' Chinese and telling the world, breathlessly, that "When the Chinese say their word for 'bright', they think about the sun and moon! And when they say the word for 'family' they think about a pig under a roof!" etc. — not yet aware that Chinese is just a language, like any other language, with an effing _job_ to do, not a toy whose words exist only for foreign youths to dissect like insects under a magnifying glass. Rather than cite the Wang Wei line as an example of what's special about Chinese poetry, I think it would be better classified along with something that _can_ be done in both Chinese and western poetry, namely: Playing around with visual effects on the page. This occurs in many of the poems of Octavio Paz, for example. (See 'Entrada en materia' and especially 'Anotaciones/Rotaciones' in Eliot Weinberger, tr. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, pp. 38 and 358.)

  4. Terry K. said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 1:51 pm

    I can't speak to Chinese poetry in particular, but as far as translating poetry, the Spanish language poem in the recent post "Waiving goodbye" strikes me as untranslatable. Impossible to catch all the nuances of meaning in a poem in English. Perhaps, though, it's better to talk about degrees of translatability rather than translatable or not. Clearly, someone did translate that poem, after all.

    And while for me, the English translated poem in that other post seems a poor reflection of the original, that doesn't mean it's not worth translating.

    I can certainly imagine the same sort of thinking, degrees of translatability, applying to Chinese poems. And I can also imagine some being more translatable than others.

  5. Maurice Buxton said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 2:19 pm

    Isn't much poetry in any language "untranslatable" almost by definition? In that it deliberately makes use of features of the language itself — the sound of particular words, their length, the way they're written and so on — as part of what it's trying to convey? That aspect is never going to map into a different language except by fluke — it would be like trying to translate cryptic crossword clues.

  6. KevinM said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 3:04 pm

    @Maurice B. Agree with your general point; indeed, poetry has been famously defined as that which is lost in translation (Frost, supposedly). I think what's getting their goat is the notion, perhaps tinged by stereotypes of the "mysterious East," that Chinese poetry is any more resistant to (English, I guess) translation than poetry in other (Western, I guess) languages.

  7. Twill said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 5:12 pm

    @KevinM Not even sure it can be granted that this article is especially overwrought in analyzing Chinese poetry. The particulars of the Chinese writing system aren't butchered as they might be, and the rest is the sort of high-flown vacuities that pervades the arts. One can just as easily bloviate about the intricate tapestry of subliminal concepts that are present on the back of a cereal box.

  8. Bathrobe said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 7:42 pm

    I think I agree with Twill. This is mystifying at its worst.

    Du Fu tells us that birds seem to cry for us, and blossoms weep. Of course, this is a fairy-tale view.

    Isn't it just another version of the pathetic fallacy?

    the gaps remind us that we are only guests here

    So are many Chinese. While Chinese believe it to be their patrimony, Chinese poetry was in many ways the property of the scholarly bureaucracy and reflected their view of the world. I suspect that a lot of Chinese don't understand Chinese poetry, except that they think it's "beautiful".

    There is one poem by Su Shi 苏轼 that has always struck me as totally transparent. This is the first part:


    This is one translation (not a good one):

    When is there moonlight?
    Winecup in hand, I ask the deep blue sky
    Not knowing in those celestial palaces on high
    What year it is tonight
    I long to fly on the wind
    Yet dread those crystal towers, those courts of jade
    Freezing to death among those icy heights
    Instead I rise to dance with my pale shadow
    Better off, after all, in the world of men.

    Su Shi was out of favour with the Emperor and was banished to a provincial post. Most Chinese commentaries, like the one at Baidu (水调歌头·明月几时有) carry on about how Su Shi believed he came from the moon and wanted to go back there, carried by the wind, but he feared it was too cold up there.

    The one interpretation that gushing Chinese commentaries don't seem willing to spell out is that Su Shi wants to go back to the Imperial court but is afraid of the reception he will get.

    Due to the last few lines, this poem is now famous in Chinese as an expression of longing to be reunited with family at the Moon Festival:


    People may have sorrow or joy, be near or far apart,
    The moon may be dim or bright, wax or wane,
    This has been going on since the beginning of time.
    May we all be blessed with longevity though far apart,
    We are still able to share the beauty of the moon together.

    As that site says, "This is a famous Mid-Autumn lyric written by Sushi (a poet in Song Dynasty) for his brother Zi-you (1039-1112) when the poet was away from the imperial court." That's the sentimental part the Chinese love.

    But "According to some commentators, 'the palace on high' might allude to the imperial palace." According to some commentators, indeed. The poem is entirely transparent if you know the circumstances. Despite this, I'm really wondering whether many Chinese actually make the connection when they cite this "beautiful poem".

    Perhaps Professor Mair could tell me whether I'm right or wrong in my judgement.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 7:51 pm

    Apologies! The execrable translation is from

    It actually says: "after reading this lyric, Emperor Song Shen Zong said that Su Shi was loyal."

    Some Chinese commentaries I've read really gush about this poem in densely-printed pages without mentioning once that Su Shi was saying he wanted to get back to the capital.

  10. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 11:06 pm

    KevinM: The Frost quotation is "Poetry is that that evaporates from both prose and verse when it's translated."

    From a lecture at Dartmouth, May 18, 1953.

    He's sometimes
    quoted as saying "Poetry is what evaporates from all translation." I don't
    know whether he really said that–maybe it's just somebody's improved
    version of the above.

    (Apologies to anyone who saw my post of almost the same words at alt.usage.english today. There was another discussion of the (un)translatability of poetry.)

  11. John Swindle said,

    September 26, 2020 @ 11:13 pm

    What struck me as odd about the review wasn't that she found poetry hard to translate but that she attributed the difficulty to the shapes of the written characters.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 2:19 am

    "Poetry is that that evaporates …" — hmmm, the « wicked "which" » peeve has clearly been around for longer than I realised. I could not cast that as anything other than "Poetry is that which evaporates …".

  13. GH said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 6:06 am

    I recently came across much the same sentiment in a story by Cixin Liu, "The Poetry Cloud." In this story, Earth is visited by alien gods: beings of incomprehensible power and intelligence who intend to destroy our planet. In the process, one god comes across a classic Chinese poem copied down by the main character, and asks for an explanation:

    "Don't bother, you will only misinterpret it." […]
    "Why?" the god asked with a good deal of interest.
    "Because it is an art that can only be expressed in classical Chinese. Even when translated into another human language, it still loses the better part of its meaning and beauty, and is transformed into something quite different."

    After scanning through the corpus of extant classical Chinese poetry in a moment, the god is amazed, and abandons the destruction of Earth to attempt to write a poem that can equal it. This eventually leads to the word being made flesh, more specifically the god turning itself into the reincarnated Li Bai, and attempting to relive that poet's life in order to recapture his genius, like an alien/Chinese Pierre Menard.

    I found the story more obnoxious than the article quoted here.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 6:45 am


    Many thanks for recounting that audacious Cixin Liu story, the gist of which, I suspect, is embraced by many / most Chinese and non-Chinese alike, regardless of whether (they believe) they can read Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic or not — very few people can. It amounts to the romanticization / exoticization of an imaginary language, one that has never existed in reality.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 8:56 am

    From Red Pine / Bill Porter:

    How absurd that Chinese poetry would be untranslatable, or anything for that matter. Poems don't come with moonlight or wind, much less the effects of the wine. They're just words, until the reader, or the translator comes along and brings them back to life.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 11:52 am

    "I found the story more obnoxious than the article quoted here" — from your summary, I thought that I might enjoy it; sadly two pages were more than sufficient to realise that this was very unlikely to prove the case.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 1:14 pm

    Philip Taylor: 1953 doesn't strike me as particularly early for a "no which introducing a restrictive clause". This example would be odd, since "that which" is normally an exception. I wouldn't be sure Frost was guided by the peeve. Maybe he was feeling a little eccentric, or he started to say something like "that thing that evaporates" and then decided to delete the noun, or something.

  18. ktschwarz said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    The thing about "that that evaporates" is that Frost never *wrote* it, never put it in a single polished form meant to stand permanently. He's reported as *saying* something like this a lot, in speeches and interviews and conversations, in various forms including "that which evaporates" and "what is lost", but those are all transcriptions, sometimes from memory. So maybe he was varying it at random or for fun, or it was a spontaneous bobble as Jerry Friedman speculates, or maybe somebody wrote it down wrong. (More discussion, from poet Don Share: scholars have been trying to document this quote for decades!)

    So it's certainly not evidence that Frost had any objection to restrictive which. (I'm now tempted to search Frost's writing for it.)

    Ezra Pound: “I would know what was accounted poetry everywhere, what part of poetry was ‘indestructible,’ what part could not be lost in translation.” Frost may well have been responding to that.

  19. graywyvern said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 4:37 pm

    in my view, translation is more like doing a cover song, than it is like "turning" one thing "into" another thing.

    if i do a version of a song i grew up with, it is probably going to be better than a version of a song from a tradition i'm not very familiar with–but that doesn't mean that what i do in that case is completely worthless.

    the distance between one language & another language is not a distance. the distance between my experience of another language years ago & my experience of it today–is a distance.

    what we inadvisedly name "translation" is more about the latter than the former.

  20. Bathrobe said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 5:38 pm

    I read the first part of Liu Cixin's famous trilogy a couple of years ago in Chinese. It struck me how deeply he drew on 'ancient China' (or a certain view of ancient China) as a source, setting up a kind of opposition to figures from Western tradition. I'm not surprised that he would ascribe to such myths as Li Bai as the 'god of poetry' who can't be understood by anyone but Chinese. He is also known to support the Uyghur re-education camps, which is again something that many Chinese would support. These views somehow seem to be of a piece. But then again, you don't necessarily expect cultural depth from an SF writer. Good SF is equally at home with deep insight into the universe and bad cultural tropes.

  21. Victor Mair said,

    September 27, 2020 @ 9:31 pm

    Blog post (9/28/20) by Lucas Klein:

  22. liuyao said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 4:41 pm

    One does not need to be proficient in classical/literary Chinese to read and appreciate Chinese poems, as any Chinese child learns and memorizes a couple to a dozen before school age. I think it's analogous to listening to and singing the tunes and lullabies by Brahms, Mozart and Bach; you don't need to know any music theory or history. And, reading Tang poems in a modern Chinese language is like hearing Bach on the piano, even though musicologists would prefer the harpsichord. (On the other hand, I'd love to listen to "recordings" of Tang poems in Middle Chinese, if anyone wants to take up the challenge.)

    I for one find it hard to read Chinese poems (only) in translation. I'd cite as an example this line by Li Yu 李煜, 恰似一江春水向東流, which is more vernacular and perfectly understandable today, both the word-to-word meaning and the feeling it invokes in the reader. This kind of untranslatablity should be the same as any language. (Speaking of Western music and Chinese poems, I can't help but think of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, which was composed to the lyrics of Tang poems in German "translation". I don't know German, but hearing the music doesn't give me any idea that it came from Chinese.)

    Much more than the logographic nature of the Chinese script, I'd attribute the "unique" untranslatability of Chinese poems to the monosyllabic nature or tendency of the language, which in particular makes "matching couplets" a stable feature than perhaps for other languages. Out of the quoted verses above, 人有悲欢离合,月有阴晴圆缺 would be a good example. The quadrisyllablic phrases 悲欢离合 and 阴晴圆缺 match more perfectly than in translation. Hypothetically, if Chinese poems were to be translated into another monosyllabic language, it may work out better?

    Cai Zong-qi's "How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology" is an interesting approach by having a word-for-word translation, but it may be most valuable to students of East Asian languages and cultures than to the general reader.

  23. Conal Boyce said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 5:36 pm

    Taking your post as my starting point, I'm going to attempt to define a space in-between that of a Chinese chauvinist such as Cixin Liu and that of a de-mystifier who argues (as I often would) that Chinese, just like any other language, is comprised of workaday words, not fragile exotica to be studied with tweezers. I will try to do this in such a way that even someone who knows no Chinese at all can begin to see what people are driving at when they say, "I wonder if Chinese poetry really is translatable?" The problem might be better described as an 'export problem' or 'transport problem,' rather than 'translation problem' because the latter evokes a process such as translating Baudelaire from French to English which is substantially different in its nature. anyway, to teach this mini-lesson, I'll borrow the opening line from the Du Fu poem that we saw near the top of this thread already:

    guó pò shānhé zài
    "The country in ruins, rivers and mountains continue" –Hinton, tr.

    First, learn which semantic units go with the 5 characters, namely: NATION, BROKEN, MOUNTAINS, RIVERS, EXIST. Next, try reciting the line, either with the Romanizations shown above, or with any five letters, such as GPSHZ (the initials of the five syllables ) or ABCDE, etc. Notice how there is a kind of 'slide show' or cinematic montage effect as you place the five semantic units against five equal units of time (and how this relates to the term 'morphosyllabic language' that VHM taught us, about halfway down the thread).
    Now return to Hinton's translation. It seems that he has tried to capture a bit of what I call the 'slide show' effect, but the only way to do it fully would be to lapse into pidgin, like LAND BROKE, MOUNT STREAM ARE, which would land a translator somewhere between the New Age Chinoiserie of the 1970s and just plain goofy. No matter how you play around with the words on the English side, there is simply no way you are going to reproduce the 'slide show' effect which is the beating heart of all Chinese poetry. Rather than looking at a 'translation problem' in any normal sense of the term, we are dealing with some other kind of problem — one that reflects a unique aspect of Chinese poetry and that has the potential to make all of Western poetry look rather lame by comparison.
    So, if I wrap it up on that note — mentioning something 'unique' — does it make me a Chinese chauvinist after all, despite my disclaimer at the beginning? No. I really am trying to convey something 'cold' and objective here, without taking sides. It's true I devoted myself to Chinese from age 14 to age 37 [1957-1980], but then I gave it up entirely, finding other things to do that I regard as more interesting and worthwhile. I still appreciate the fact that Chinese poetry is unique, but I point out its uniqueness without any vested interest or "adoration for the Chinese people and their culture." It's just a fact.

  24. David C. said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

    It is not uncommon to hear that Chinese culture or the Chinese language is described as 博大精深 (literally, broad and profound), which embeds a certain sense of national pride and the implication that it is too difficult to outsiders to understand. One politician particularly liked to quote traditional poetry during press conferences, requiring the interpreter to come up with an English translation on the spot (we are told).

    A well-known formulation by 嚴復 Yan Fu of the principles of translation is 信、達、雅 (faithful, understandable, elegant), which I find itself an elegant encapsulation that illustrates the concision of classical Chinese.

    The wave of 新詩 (New Poetry, or what can be approximated as free verse in modern Chinese) in the early twentieth century in part reflected a yearning for unshackling from the rigid constraints of classical poetry written in classical Chinese that was inaccessible except to the educated.

  25. Rodger C said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 7:29 am

    I suspect that the trope "Chinese poetry is untranslatable" comes from people trying to do so, encountering the difficulties, and then (knowing only Chinese and their own language) imagine that these difficulties are peculiar to Chinese. After all, Spanish poetry offers no problems, right?

  26. Alex Lorenc said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 10:00 am

    I'm no scholar, and I barely know a few words of Mandarin…But I learned that the idea of "untranslatability" of Chinese poetry is hogwash in the very first class I took as a wide-eyed freshman nearly two decades ago.

    It was in your class, Professor Mair – "Chinese Poetry & Prose in Translation", with an assignment based on the book "Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei", which directly addresses the issue at hand. So there I went, translating a short poem by literally tackling characters one by one with a Chinese-English dictionary, adjusting and finessing the translation as I came to each new character and word. It was an enlightening exercise – perhaps moreso because of my lack of any knowledge of Chinese at the time – and the end result wasn't terrible (I do remember getting a good grade for it).

    The lesson I learned from that class, bolstered by many experiences since, is that all translations are both art and science, but they always boil down to capturing the overall meaning and "vibe" of a given work – context matters. This is easier for some creations than it is for others. I do believe, however, that it's always possible, even if the format or even translation of parts of the whole are not direct.

  27. Nelson Goering said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 10:17 am

    (On the other hand, I'd love to listen to "recordings" of Tang poems in Middle Chinese, if anyone wants to take up the challenge.)

    The challenge has been taken up from time to time already. Here are a few poems reconstructed and read by A.Z. Foreman:

  28. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:20 pm

    if Chinese poems were to be translated into another monosyllabic language, it may work out better?

    It would be interesting to see how they are translated into Vietnamese, which is written monosyllabically and uses a lot of Chinese vocabulary.

    Chinese poetry tends to be translated into Japanese via the medium of kanbun, which uses the Chinese words but indicate how they are to be syntactically transformed into Japanese. The result is unfortunate — old-fashioned, stiff, scholarly, and heavy, something that aficionados of pre-modern Chinese culture might like but not so attractive to your average everyday Japanese.

  29. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:34 pm

    To answer my own question, the Vietnamese Wikipedia article on Tô Thức actually gives two Vietnamese translations of Su Shi's poem I cited above. One makes heavy use of Chinese words from the original (as borrowed into Vietnamese); the other is a rendition in more ordinary Vietnamese. I ran the first through Google Translate and got gibberish. The second made sense.

    Thủy Điệu Ca

    Minh nguyệt kỉ thời hữu?
    Bả tửu vấn thanh thiên:
    "Bất tri thiên thượng cung khuyết,
    Kim tịch thị hà niên?"
    Ngã dục thừa phong qui khứ,
    Hựu củng huỳnh lâu ngọc vũ,
    Cao xứ bất thăng hàn.
    Khởi vũ lộng thanh ảnh,
    Hà tự tại nhân gian!

    Chuyển chu các,
    Ðê ỷ hộ,
    Chiếu vô miên,
    Bất ưng hữu hận,
    Hà sự trường hướng biệt thời viên?
    Nhân hữu bi hoan li hợp,
    Nguyệt hữu âm tình viên khuyết,
    Thử sự cổ nan toàn.
    Ðãn nguyện nhân trường cửu,
    Thiên lý cộng thiền quyên.

    Bản dịch

    Mấy lúc có trăng thanh?
    Cất chén hỏi trời xanh:
    "Cung khuyết trên chính từng,
    Ðêm nay là đêm nào?"
    Ta muốn cưỡi gió bay lên vút,
    Lại sợ lầu quỳnh cửa ngọc,
    Trên cao kia lạnh buốt.
    Ðứng dậy múa giỡn bóng,
    Cách biệt với nhân gian!

    Trăng quanh gác tía,
    Cuối xuống cửa son,
    Dòm kẻ thao thức,
    Chẳng nên ân hận,
    Sao cứ biệt li thì trăng tròn?
    Ðời người vui buồn li hợp,
    Trăng cũng đầy vơi mờ tỏ,
    Xưa nay đâu có vạn toàn.
    Chỉ nguyện đời ta trường cửu,
    Bay ngàn dặm cùng với thuyền quyên.

  30. Bathrobe said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:39 pm

    And this is the Japanese kanbun version:

    明月幾時有   明月 幾時より有るや
    把酒問青天   酒を把って 青天に問う
    不知天上宮闕  不知ず 天上の宮闕
    今夕是何年   今夕 是れ何の年ぞ
    我欲乗風帰去  我れ 風に乗って去かんと欲す
    又恐瓊楼玉宇  又恐れる 瓊楼玉宇
    高処不勝寒   高き処は 寒に勝えざらんことを
    起舞弄清影   起ちて舞い 清き影と弄る
    何似在人間   何ぞ似ばん 人間に在るに

    轉朱閣     朱閣に転じ
    低綺戸     綺戸に低れ
    照無眠     無眠を照らす
    不応有恨    応に恨有るべからざるに
    何事長向別時圓 何事ぞ 長えに別時に向いて円なり
    人有悲歓離合  人には 悲歓離合あり
    月有陰晴圓缼  月には 陰晴円欠あり
    此事古難全   此事 古より全う難し
    但願人長久   但だ願わくは 人長久に
    千里共嬋娟   千里 嬋娟を共にせんことを

    I have no idea how the Koreans treat it.

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 2:54 pm

    Conal Boyce: Rather than looking at a 'translation problem' in any normal sense of the term, we are dealing with some other kind of problem — one that reflects a unique aspect of Chinese poetry and that has the potential to make all of Western poetry look rather lame by comparison.

    I have no doubt that the aspect of Chinese poetry you're talking about isn't available in Western languages, but Western languages may have resources that aren't available in Chinese.

    I don't know any Chinese, but I'd be interested to hear whether it has equivalents for the effects in these poems:

    The Span of Life

    The old dog barks backwards without getting up.
    I can remember when he was a pup.

    —Robert Frost

    I imagine that in Chinese you can contrast erudite and everyday terms as in the following famous lines, but can you contrast polysyllables and monosyllables?

    Rather will this my hand
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.


    (The ambiguity at the end of the sentence is a bug or feature that I imagine many languages can offer.)

  32. suburbanbanshee said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 9:06 pm

    I suspect, although I cannot prove, that Cixin Liu's story is referencing a very famous American science fiction story, Murray Leinster's "First Contact." It's a beautifully tense story about spaceships from alien cultures encountering each other in space, both afraid to go home lest they be followed, both afraid to reveal anything strategic or tactical.

    The "solution" is very clever, but there's a second twist — the reason why the two alien cultures thought they could manage to understand each other's motives enough to trust each other was that they could understand each other's dirty jokes.

    This twist/humor at the end has offended an awful lot of sf fans! There's a Russian/Soviet story that was written as a reply, for example. But I've always thought it was pretty funny, myself.

    The other reference might be as a reply to Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life" and the movie Arrival, where alien glyphs are seen as amazingly cool. I mean, I guess at that point you could theorize aliens seeing human language symbols as amazingly cool.

    Shrug. Don't really care, other than it being silly to say that anything human is untranslatable to humans.

  33. GH said,

    October 1, 2020 @ 6:53 am

    As I half-hinted in my summary, Liu's story makes what I assume are deliberate allusions to two stories by Borges: "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote," and "The Library of Babel."

    On the other hand, it appears to predate "Story of Your Life" by a year, so it's unlikely that there's any reference there. As for Leinster's story, I have not read it, but I fail to see the connection.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    October 1, 2020 @ 11:54 am

    From Richard Lynn:

    Under "Books" I have made available a PDF file of

    Lynn, Richard John. Guide to Chinese Poetry and Drama. Boston (Mass.): G.K. Hall, 1984.

    Several entries address the question, indirectly, of the alleged impossibility of translating Chinese poetry. Much at various entries on good and bad translations; see especially pp. 40-42. The book might also be of interest for the historical state of the field 1984–my oh my how far we have come since then!

RSS feed for comments on this post