Bad poetry, bad translation

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UC Santa Barbara’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultural Studies just held “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable" on June 1 and 2. It followed on “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Workshop,” held in April.  Both events were organized by Thomas Mazanec, Xiaorong Li, and Hangping Xu.

Mazanec expects the roundtable to produce an anthology, “The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Critical Anthology,” which will feature selected bad poems and commentary that explains the issues that the poems raise about literary, social and political history, he said.

Source:  "Lyrical Losers,'The Worst Chinese Poetry: A Virtual Roundtable' will take a critical look at failures of the genre", By Jim Logan, The Current (UCSB) (Friday, May 28, 2021)

I was prompted to think of these unusual happenings at UCSB by the following news item:

"Renowned translator dies at age of 100", By YANG YANG, China Daily (Updated: 2021-06-18)

From the latter article, we learn of the passing on Thursday morning of Peking University professor Xu Yuanchong (April 18, 1921-June 17, 2021) as a centenarian in Beijing.  I am reluctant to speak ill of anyone who lived to be a hundred and translated such a massive amount of poems, plays, novels, and classics from Chinese to English and from French and English to Chinese.  Yet, when I read Xu's translation of one of the most famous poems in Chinese with which the China Daily article began, I could not help but gasp in disappointment.

From hill to hill no bird in flight

From path to path no man in sight.

A lonely fisherman afloat

Is fishing snow in lonely boat.

I will not critique the translation line by line and word by word.  Instead, I will simply present the poem and let Language Log readers form their own judgement (and perhaps rendition).

The poem is by Liǔ Zōngyuán 柳宗元 (773-819, well less than half the age attained by Xu Yuanchong).

The following simple, straightforward presentation is by East Asia Student (7/4/13):


Jiāng Xuě

[river] [snow] 

River Snow


Qiān shān niǎo fēi jué

[thousand] [mountain] [bird] [fly] [disappear] 

In a thousand mountains, the flight of birds is not seen;


Wàn jìng rén zōng miè

[ten thousand] [path] [person] [footprints] [extinguish] 

on ten thousand paths, human footprints have vanished.


Gū zhōu suō lì wēng

[lonely] [boat] [straw cloak] [bamboo hat] [old man] 

On a lonely boat, in straw cloak and bamboo hat, an old man,


Dú diào hán jiāng xuě

[alone] [to fish] [cold] [river] [snow]

fishing alone, in the cold river snow.

I have taught this poem in my Introduction to Classical Chinese course for four decades.  Of the hundreds of students who tried their hand at it, I must say that most of their versions were more satisfying than the one quoted above.

To gain a better perspective on the tradition of Chinese poetry translation during the 20th century, I offer this perceptive, informative essay by by Lucas Klein, in Cipher Journal:

Liu Zongyuan & Fishing in the Snow of Translation

千山鳥飛絕    萬徑人蹤滅
孤舟簑笠翁    獨釣寒江雪

 A thousand mountains without a bird.
Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.
A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat,
Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.
         (Kenneth Rexroth, trans.)

A thousand peaks: no more birds in flight.
Ten thousand paths: all trace of people gone.

In a lone boat, rain cloak and a hat of reeds,
an old man’s fishing the cold river snow.
         (David Hinton, trans.)

These thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat—coat—hat—an old man!
Alone    fishing    chill    river    snow.
         (Gary Snyder, trans.)


A thousand mountains—no bird’s flight.
A million paths—no man’s trace.
Single boat. Bamboo-leaved cape. An old man.
Fishing by himself: ice river. Snow.
         (Wai-lim Yip, trans.)


Sur mille montagnes, aucun vol d’oiseau
Sure dix mille sentiers, nulle trace d’homme
Barque solitaire : sous son manteau de paille
Un vielliard pêche, du fleuve figé, la neige
         (François Cheng, trans.)

With 江雪 “River Snow”, the Tang Dynasty philosopher, essayist, and poet Liu Zongyuan wrote a poem that, a millennium later and two unrelated languages away, would freeze translators trying to reproduce his poem in English and French. The poem, notable for a calmness that somehow rings with isolation and futility, achieves its affect in part by the sounds of its language. And alas, these prosodic elements have proven to be untranslatable.

The technique in question is aojue 抝絕, roughly equivalent to either feminine rhymes or off-rhymes in English. Rhyming on three “entering” tones—as they were called—the rusheng 入聲 no longer a part of standard Chinese, this poem cross-cuts against the grain of expected Tang poetry versification, leaning as it does on the clipped notes of dzhiuεt, miεt, and siuεt. The effect, no longer attainable without special training, would have been jarring to poetry readers of the day, signaling an undercurrent of disquiet beneath the otherwise tranquil scene of the poem.

Rhyme has, for good reason, been sacrificed in 20th century translations of Chinese poetry: a translation is already a form poem, and to adhere to rhyme schemes would require further sacrifices of other fidelities. As a result, translators have had to invent a tone to their translations from the Chinese (most often borrowed from the voice of Ezra Pound’s Cathay), and rely most of all on the imagery to convey meaning and feeling. But if poetry is based on phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia—image, music and meaning dancing together in the text—then the images need to be addressed all the more forcefully to make up for the lost music.

English and French again fail to achieve the directness of classical Chinese: the end words of Liu Zongyuan’s first couplet are both active verbs, 絕 and 滅, and yet the translators have had to resort to lame negative descriptions. Cheng’s French can get no stronger than “aucun vol d’oiseau” [no flight of birds] and “nulle trace d’homme” [no trace of man], and the weakness is played out in the English versions as well. Only Snyder’s translation amounts to anything with “cut[s] off the flight of birds”, but he too fails in the next line, with nothing more forceful than “human tracks are gone”.

Most fascinating, however, in these five translations, is how the translators handle the second half of the poem, after a more or less similar performance in the first couplet. But here information on Liu Zongyuan’s own poetic project may help us measure the accuracy these translations achieve: A charter member, with Han Yu, of the 古文運動 Ancient Prose Movement, Liu Zongyuan wanted to reinvigorate poetry of his day by recalling his classical masters and their nonpareil essays. In many respects, Liu Zongyuan’s desires resonate with the Modernist movement, where poets followed classical models and rallied around the dictum that “poetry should be as well-written as prose”.

That each of the translators in discussion is in a great way a descendent of—if not a true participant in—the Modernist movement is a coincidence that points to a central tension within the art of translation. James J. Y. Liu’s terms for the two sides of this split are “naturalization” and “barbarization”, or in other words, whether the translation uses its language to challenge or accommodate to the tradition of poetry in that language. Few translators fall fully to one side or another, and what was yesterday’s barbarization can easily become today’s naturalized expression. Nonetheless, looking at the above translations reveals that Rexroth is primarily a naturalizer, Snyder significantly a barbarizer, Hinton a naturalizer, Yip a vehement barbarizer, and Cheng a naturalizer.

The issue, then, is whether naturalization or barbarization is a superior tactic in translating the verse of a poet with a desire to innovate through Ancient Prose. Does “Single boat. Bamboo-leaved cape. An old man. / Fishing by himself: ice river. Snow” come closer because it is an attempt towards freshness, as Liu Zongyuan desired to be fresh, or is “A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat, / Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river” stronger because the words seem more prosaic, just as Liu Zongyuan modeled his writing after classical prose?

The debate—and its answer—surpasses solely linguistic matters, re-entering questions of literary translation from another angle, namely, whether poetry can be best translated through high fidelity or by following the spirit of the original. But fidelity here is no longer a matter of word-for-word, but rather movement-for-movement. The definition of Liu Zongyuan as rebel or classicist, then, is in the end the definition of how to translate his poetry. Without attention to this detail, translating this poem becomes as futile as an old man in a straw hat fishing on a river in the snow.


(English translations by Rexroth, Snyder, and Hinton from Weinberger, Eliot, ed. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, © 2003, p. 139; Wai-lim Yip translation from Yip, Wai-lim, Chinese Poetry—An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres, Duke University Press, © 1997, p. 234; French translation by Cheng, François, L’écriture poétique chinoise—suivi d’une anthologie des poèmes des Tang, Editions du Sueil © 1996, p. 177)

"River Snow" has been an inspiration for countless Chinese paintings, for a sampling of which see here.  Even though the paintings are visual art, few of them capture the spirit of the scene as well as the little poem of Liu Zongyuan.  Through a refined mastery of synesthesia, he conveys the vision and feelings of what transpired on that wintry day, as conceived in the mind of the poet, thus attaining the sublime, which is beyond all sensation.

As for the multitudes of translators who have been so bold as to attempt to render "River Snow" in English, Mandarin, or some other language, most of what they have given us is ghastly. If you dare to translate "River Snow", keep it spare, stick to the grammar (!), know what the words mean, don't distort the syntax.  Humbly follow the Chinese, and you will succeed better in conveying the sense and sentiments of the poem than if you strike out on your own.


Selected readings

[h.t. Jim Fanell, Karen Yang]


  1. François Demay said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 2:32 pm

    2 coquilles dans la traduction de l'académicien français François Cheng


    François Demay

  2. Yuanfei Wang said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 2:45 pm

    To be honest, Xu Yuanchong is the very first English translator of traditional Chinese poetry that I read in college. I loved his translation so much–I thought his translation captured the essence of the original poems and his English was lucid and fluent–that reading him inspired me to study "comparative literature" abroad. His translation is not perfect. But his translation was a stepping stone or an opening door to me. A door leading to a whole new world.

    Without having read him, I couldn't imagine where I could have stood today. This is a bit of exaggeration. But you know, he is kind of like a 啟蒙老師 [VHM: qǐméng lǎoshī 啟蒙老師 ("mentoring teacher")] to me.

  3. E. N. Anderson said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 2:58 pm

    They all downplay the very dramatic contrast of two words for "alone" leading in the last two lines. This is pretty stark in the Chinese. About a million ink paintings of this scene have been done. A really lovely one appeared at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art show a couple of years ago. I expected an explanation on the label, but, no, you had to know that a lone fisherman in the snow in a straw hat and raincoat was a reference.

  4. Jerry Packard said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 4:23 pm

    I have to say, Xu's translation seems quite elegant to me.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 5:41 pm

    I too liked Xu's translation, Jerry, especially as it resonated with memories of some of the translations of Vietnamese poetry that I had made a decade or so ago.

  6. ardj said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 6:44 pm

    Thank you Professor Mair, for this fascinating discussion, and even more for the trace of a remarkable poem that sets it off (more than a trace if one can read the original, of course).

    With no Chinese, I am unable to comment very usefully, let alone attempt a version. But I have some questions, which do not begin to deal with all the issues which are raised..

    1.Klein's discussion is informed and stimulating, and makes some excellent points about capturing the whole of a poem (or, indeed of prose, but… I admit also to some uncertainty about whether he thinks Liǔ Zōngyuán's construction is poetry or prose). I wonder though if he does not get confused about "modernism" at times – at least in the way he uses it, that would be a move away from realism to some more striking or artfully confused representation: but apart from Snyder's dramatic ellipses, there is little evidence of that in the translations offered. Yip is rather leaden than dramatic or re-creative, for instance.

    Many movements in many languages have tried to "make it new", and often with the intent of making "it" more direct or comprehens-ive/-ible. That after all was the declared purpose of Lyrical Ballads, and a successor in that climate veered between lush romanticism from which feeling seems often to seep away and a chiseled verse which captures more feeling than one can readily absorb. But in La Belle Dame, Keats came very near, it seems to me, to the kind of tone that this poem is dealing with, in "The sedge is withered from the lake And no birds sing." Obviously not the referential aspect but the contemplative and rueful tone briefly conveyed.

    2. To elaborate, I do not think it is necessarily impossible to supply a good idea of what a foreign languge poem might be trying to convey. It may need a change of method -of rhythm, rhyme or diction – to find a suitable corresponding stimulus for the alien reader, but of course if one goes too far, one is writing a different poem, as is so often the case with Pound. And no-one said it was easy.

    3. I am more than confused by Klein's mention of "the clipped notes of dzhiuεt, miεt, and siuεt", as I cannot see these in the version you kindly give by East Asian Student. Are they critical terms rather than words from the poem ? Of course, I might just be blind.

    Each of Klein's vernacular examples has it moments. Xu's version, though, as you say is execrable: the mountains are lost, never mind the huge landscape of ten thousand paths or whatever, and the pathos intended (I think) by "is fishing snow", while a perfectly reasonable image in some other context, is nonsense here as the fisherman is actually fishing, albeit in snow – it is a practical occupation set against the barreneness of the country, of the setting.

  7. Jin Xu said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    Here's another translation by Arthur Cooper:

    Among mountains
    where birds fly no more
    Nor have the paths
    any men’s tracks now,

    There’s orphaned boat
    and old straw-hat man
    Alone fishing
    the cold river snow.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 18, 2021 @ 8:52 pm


    Thank you for your sensitive, learned remarks.

    Aside from whether a translation makes sense and reads well in and of itself, we must also ask to what degree it conveys the images and ideas of the original poem — that is the first duty of a translator.

    As for dzhiuεt, miεt, and siuεt, those are the Middle Sinitic reconstructions of the three characters / words in question (the ones at the end of ll. 1, 2, and 4). That is to say, they represent how historical phonologists reconstruct the way those three characters / words would have sounded at the time when Liu Zongyuan wrote "River Snow".

  9. David Marjanović said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 2:39 am

    I think Xu's translation could be dramatically improved by simply omitting the first syllable of every line.

    In the original, is it fair to say that the third line doesn't contain any verb, it's just picture – picture – picture?

  10. Scott P. said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 5:16 am

    Xu's translation reminds me a bit of Tom Brown's translation of Martial's 32nd epigram, which has become more famous than the original:

    I do not like thee, Doctor Fell,
    The reason why – I cannot tell;
    But this I know, and know full well,
    I do not like thee, Doctor Fell.

  11. Bill Nienhauser said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 8:07 am

    I have always pondered whether the final line couldn't end in a verb (xue). That would make the line 4/1. Jue and mie above (the other rhyme words) punctuate those lines. If my supposition were a possible reading, the line would be something like
    Alone fishing the cold river: snow.
    The idea is we have the scene set with the old fisherman on the river and then it snows to complete the picture. I'm sure others can improve the line I suggested but I like the ambiguity of just "snow" as a verb or houn. Perhaps this was what Liu Zongyuan was suggesting.

  12. David Moser said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 8:33 am

    What a marvelous post, Victor. Thought provoking, as always.

    Reading it made me think of a question I've often posed to Chinese people: How transparent is the meaning of a totally unfamiliar Tang poem to a modern Chinese reader? I don't think modern Chinese readers can always fully understand even the surface meaning of an unfamiliar classical poem. They often think they have direct access to the meanings of the poems, but in fact, their understanding comes from the explanations and paraphrase provided by teachers and parents. Modern English speakers can still pretty much understand and appreciate Shakespeare, and modern editions usually just provide glosses and explanations of the Bard's archaic usages and vocabulary. But I think the linguistic distance between the language of Chinese classical poetry (and most wenyan in general) is greater than the distance between Shakespeare's English and our modern English. A better comparison might be translations of Chaucer into modern English. There are many editions of Chaucer rendered in idiomatic modern English, and they are indeed full-fledged translations; most modern readers can only glean a general sense of Chaucer's original text. Is a modern Chinese reader's understanding of unfamiliar Tang poetry roughly equivalent to my ability to read Chaucer in the original? It's hard to compare the two. Certainly there doesn't seem to be any lively tradition of native Chinese translators making serious attempts to translate Tang poems into modern Mandarin. In all of the Chinese-language anthologies of classical poetry I've seen, the editors merely provide a gloss 注释, and often a literal translation 译文 of the poem for the reader to consult. I've never seen an edition in which the translator attempts a serious poetic version in the modern tongue, as with the Chaucer translations. Perhaps the default assumption is that the poems are already "written in Chinese", so there is no need to provide a "translation" that attempts to convey the poetic force of the original. But are these tasks really equivalent? Maybe just apples and oranges.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 9:10 am

    Reading the translations, I'm curious why no one has thought to reverse the order of the Chinese. For example:

    No bird’s flight over a thousand mountains.
    No man's tracks over ten thousand paths.
    An old man in a bamboo-leaved coat on a single boat.
    In the cold river snow fishing alone.

    This is not offered as a 'good translation' (anyone could do better), but quite a different effect, possibly more natural to English, can be achieved by abandoning the sacrosanct order of the Chinese.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 9:44 am

    But would you not agree, Bathrobe, that Xu's translation has the merits of both a predictable and consistent metre and an equally pleasing rhyme ? I am sure that it is old-fashioned to believe that metre and rhyme are an intrinsic part of poetry, but I for one continue to hold on to those old-fashioned beliefs …

  15. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 10:33 am

    @ Philip Taylor

    I didn't put my own version into strict rhyme and meter (note spelling); I merely tried to point out how reversing the word order in each line has potential to produce a better poem in English. This is one of the problems with translations from Chinese: they all sound the same because of the rigid ordering of elements (e.g., lines constantly beginning with expressions like 'over ten thousand mountains….').

    I don't agree with you on strict meter and rhyme. These are all too often the mark of doggerel. Xu's translation is an interesting attempt to recreate the poem in English, but for me it leaves out too much of the original to be a good translation.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 10:57 am

    I do not dispute that the use of rhyme and metre [1] can be a mark of doggerel, but would you not agree that they can equally form the basis of superb classical poetry ? As to metre | meter, the OED says :

    metre | meter, n.¹

    Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈmiːtə/, U.S. /ˈmidər/
    Forms: Old English– meter (now chiefly U.S.), […]
    Frequency (in current use):6/8
    Origin: Of multiple origins. Partly a borrowing from Latin. Partly a borrowing from French. Etymons: Latin metrum; French metre.
    Etymology: Partly < classical Latin metrum…
    <b<I. Poetic rhythm; a technique or arrangement by which this is achieved.

    a. Any specific form of poetic rhythm, its kind being determined by the character and number of recurring units of rhythm (esp. feet) within the verse. Frequently with modifying word.

  17. Victor Mair said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 11:09 am

    From Bill Porter (Red Pine):

    The only good translation is the one I just did, and that one not for long.

  18. Michael Fuller said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 12:34 pm

    The battles about translation are seemingly endless. So, regrettably, is the battle over providing Mandarin readings of Tang poems. I find them worse than useless: in my experience, they deceive contemporary students into a false sense of continuity and sameness that actually interferes with their engagement with the poems. In this poem in particular, as Lucas points out, the entering tone rhyme is noteworthy but disappears in Mandarin. (Hugh Stimson stressed that Cantonese is still a modern dialect, but at least it has entering tones, the final -m, etc.)

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 12:47 pm

    It wouldn't take much to put active verbs into East Asia Student's English version.

    In a thousand mountains, birds' flight disappears;
    on ten thousand paths, human footprints vanish.
    On a lonely boat, in straw cloak and bamboo hat, an old man
    fishes alone in the cold river snow.

    But if I take the approach of showing what the poem is like—what do you notice more, whether a poem has rhyme and meter, or which verbs are active? And Lucas Klein's essay suggests that off-rhyme would be appropriate. So daring to disregard Prof. Mair's advice, I made an attempt that sacrificed the hat and the syntax (as far as I can tell) but preserved some features such the lack of apparent etymological relation between parallel words. Hoping that the word translated "extinguish" can suggest "cover" as in snuffing a candle, and risking a reminiscence of Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat

    A thousand mountains—no birds flying over.
    A myriad paths—human footprints are covered.
    Solitary boat—an old, straw-cloaked man,
    Alone, fishes the cold, snowy river.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 1:02 pm

    Bathrobe: And I completely flouted your advice by preserving as much of the parallelism (that I saw) as I could.

    Philip Taylor: "I am sure that it is old-fashioned to believe that metre and rhyme are an intrinsic part of poetry, but I for one continue to hold on to those old-fashioned beliefs …"

    Believing that rhyme is an intrinsic part of English poetry went out in the 16th century after coming in during what, the 14th? Believing that meter is an intrinsic part lasted much longer, but it was old-fashioned before you were born. (I think you've said you're in your seventies.) However, as someone who likes to write both free verse and rhyme, I think there's a case to be made for choosing to sacrifice features other than rhyme and meter in translations.

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 1:34 pm

    Well, Jerry, I am sure that you are right, but what I must therefore infer is that my teachers, my parents, the BBC, and virtually everyone to whom I was exposed before I finally discovered the late Sir John Betjeman for myself was equally old-fashioned. I say this because we learned many poems at school (Sea Fever, Semmerwater, Drake's Drum, …), I read many more in my parents' poetry books (How Sleep the Brave, He fell among thieves, Hiawatha, If, Gunga Din, Vitai Lampada, …), heard many on the radio (sadly no longer remembered), and each and every one had rhyme and metre. It was only when I read Summoned by Bells that I finally understood that a poem need not have rhyme in order to qualify as a poem; but then Sir John was a poet beyond compare.

  22. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

    Philip, Hiawatha isn't rhymed. But I think we have here the definition of "conspicuous by its absence". My first children's poetry book after nursery rhymes, Sendak, and Milne had "Sea-Fever" and "If"—and "All the world's a stage" and "She is the fairies' midwife." Didn't your school books and your parents' poetry books have excerpts from Shakespeare's plays?

    Or a sentence or two from Paradise Lost? Or "Ulysses"?

    Free verse is less obvious. I seem to recall Sandburg's "Fog" and "Chicago" and a decorous excerpt or two from Whitman, and maybe something from the Psalms or Job, but British children's introduction to free verse might have been different.

  23. Philip Taylor said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 3:03 pm

    You are right, of course, about Hiawatha, Jerry — somehow that basic fact eluded me. But no, we had nothing from Paradise Lost, Shakespeare would have been treated as drama, not poetry, and James Joyce's Ulysses was never even mentioned. A A Milne I knew and loved from a very early age, but even there I remember mainly the rhyming verse ("J J M M Double-U G Du P — Took great c/o his M., tho' he was only three").

  24. Lucas Klein said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 3:03 pm


    Agreeing with Hugh Stimson (whose transcription I used for the Middle Chinese dzhiuεt, miεt, and siuεt), it's probably worth pointing out that in Cantonese zyut6 絕 and syut3 雪 don't rhyme well with mit6 滅.

    Just like David pointing out that a lot of contemporary Chinese readers don't understand classical Chinese as well as they think, a lot of Cantonese speakers assume that Cantonese "preserves" Tang pronunciation because it has entering tones, even though there are still a lot of differences between the two pronunciation systems.

    Thanks for digging up this old piece of mine, Victor!


  25. Richard John Lynn said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 3:37 pm

    Here's my CAD 2 cents worth:


    Over a thousand mountains bird flights ceased,
    On a myriad paths men’s tracks vanished,
    And a straw hatted old man in a solitary boat
    All alone fishes the river snow.

  26. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 5:33 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    And I completely flouted your advice

    All is fair in love and translating poetry.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 6:27 pm

    Philip Taylor: Sorry, I meant Tennyson's "Ulysses". I was just thinking that there's a great deal of blank verse that could have shown up in your parents' poetry books, though less likely to be in a children's book.

    Bathrobe: Thanks, that's my poetic license to kill.

  28. Diana S. Zhang said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 6:59 pm

    To begin with, this translation is far from "bad". It is not good, though, but between "good" and "bad" there is yet a long way. Xu sure has a number of bad translations, some of them I would not hesitate to say "ghastly", but to my mind this 江雪 does not belong to that category.

    Several aspects that I would like to consider before any judgments are to be made, are target readers, era of composition, fluency/nativeness of languages, etc. Xu's translation were mostly composed around the mid-century, when Chinese civilization has been barely known to the general public (I'm not talking about Orientalist or intellectual specialists/elites) of the West. Xu did not aim at scholarly achievement in any Department of Literary Art; he was attempting to introduce a selection of Chinese poetic works — to his/the Chinese standard worthwhile — to the masses who spoke another language than Chinese. One might also not forget that it was the cold-war era when "Chinese-ness", again, in the eyes of the "general literate public" of the West (I cannot draw enough attention that I'm speaking about the crowd/multitude rather than the sophisticated East Asianists whose existence is sure of common sense), stood for mystic exoticness. Be that Wester emotion Sinophile or Sinophobia, they stood at the two ends of the same scale of the Otherness of the Orient or the Communist (depending which lineage one's thought traces down to), neither of them were unbiasedly, and inclusively, appreciative.

    In addition, we may also bear in mind that, different from some familiar and famous translators who were contemporary or even previous to Xu — such as Arthur Waley or Ezra Pound — Xu was a native speaker of Chinese rather than English. In other words, while Waley or Pound was translating from a foreign tongue into their native tongue, Xu was doing it the other way around. As an international student myself, I have every right to say that it makes a MAJOR difference. Talking about an American poem in Chinese while speaking to my family in China is WAAAAYYY easier than talking about a Chinese poem in English to my English-speaking friends. I believe that many secondary-language learners resonate with me on this point. An evaluator of the "quality" of any textual product must take this different in consideration and be accommodative to the writers who attempt to compose in their foreign tongue.

    Given these two contexts in mind, may I make my points line by line.

    Line 1 & 2: 千山 lit. "a thousand hills" and 万径 lit. "a myriad paths" have been rendered as "from hill to hill" and "from path to path" in Xu's work. And student homework submissions are used to serve comparative, if not denigrative, purpose. While one certainly admits the inaccuracy of Xu's rendition in these lines, are the 千/万 "thousand/ten thousand" here, in the Classical Chinese context itself, concrete numbers? They are 虚指 (empty values), simply denoting "a lot, all, ubiquitously". So I do not think there is anything "wrong" with Xu applying the method of free translation here.

    Line 3: "afloat" is nowhere in the original line, 孤舟蓑笠翁, and that is, too, a controversial rendition. However, I think Xu's failure in this line is never the addition of "afloat" which is indeed an allowed interpolation in translational theories where necessary elements may be added for either clarification or assistance to comprehension. Xu mainly failed much in his oversight of 蓑笠 "straw rainhat" — the apparel of the fishermen — that, as a Classical Chinese literary imagery, much more than signifying the textile (which reflects the Tang poet's attentiveness to details inferred from which his utterly calm mind maybe conveyed), a representation of either the fisherman's social/economic status as in dire poverty and belonging to the peasantry class, or the fisherman's indifference, even detachment, to material life.

    To the former point (on social/economic status), a later intellectual, 孙承宗 Sun Chengzong (1563-1638) in the Ming Dynasty, wrote a politically satirical poem which was directly incising this "River Snow" poem per se:

    《渔家》The Fisherman


    "[He] breathed on his freezing [hands] that carried fishing pole — which have not yet regained awareness;
    Cold moonlight filled his boat, and snow was blurry [in his sight].
    A describer could never realize a fisherman's agony!
    [This scene] well-served [the former's] use for a Cold-River Fishing-in-Snow portrait."

    To the latter point, clothings made out of straw has a long tradition in Chinese literature to express detachment to the mundane world. 陶渊明 Tao Yuanming (365-427) is among the most famous in using shabby clothes and straw equipments as illustration of his love for a plain, minimal, anti-material, and anti-social lifestyle.

    So going back to the translation itself, Xu should have never left the 蓑笠 part out. That is a big minus point.

    Line 4: As for the Chinese sentence: 独钓寒江雪 — this line is grammatically ambiguous. There are two allowed and correct readings: 1) the more conventional reading, 寒江雪 as the qualifyer for 独钓. Where/How does he 独钓? Within the context of 寒江雪. So the translation for this reading would be "Fishing alone in the cold river snow." This reading seems to have gained consensus. However, 2) 寒江雪 being the object of the action 独钓, is also a grammatically allowed reading: the matter that is being "fish-ed" is the snow. In this way: "Alone (he) fishes the cold river snow." Apparently, Xu's translation follows the second case.

    I always stand by a notion that as long as a reading is allowed for in the native language, it should NOT be seen as a "wrong" reading. So I do not see a point in overlooking the double-reading of the 4th line and claim a mistake in Xu here. Poetry is about ambiguity and allowance for different readings, right? And perhaps ambiguity is exactly what the original poet, Liu Zongyuan, wanted to convey to us. In addition, the 2nd reading, "fishing snow in the river" implies a sense of emptiness in the fisherman's action — either there was no fish in the river so cold, that he could only fish snow; or, his "fishing" was not intended for fishes, but simply for vain, for emptiness, for no purpose, and for something that detached from the original intention of "fishing", which was, to get a fish. Doesn't that resonate with Zen? Doesn't this notion of emptiness, vainness, and non-purposefulness fit into a typical Tang poetic landscape?

    At last, having finished parsing the 4 lines, I must again stress that I am NOT defending for Xu's translation as a good one. I simply say that it's a non-bad one, based on the above listed facts. There is no point in using 21st-century, Ivy-League trained, academia-aiming young students' homework to compare with a mid-20th-century, completely "foreign" to the west, general-public-targeting translator's product and see whose excel who else's. Inclusivity in assessing the attempts of linguistic or aesthetic interactions between two cultures may never be less called for. Be it "good/beautiful poetry" or "ugly/ghastly poetry" in the recipients' eyes, whether the sender's heart perceived it as "good/beautiful enough to be given" should also be kept in mind. — Well, whether the political propagandists used the same source for some other they-know-it's-not-so-beautiful goals…. is not, I believe, what the poetic worker had originally in mind, and for which one might need another forum to debate about. LOL

  29. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 7:19 pm

    @ Jerry Friedman

    preserving as much of the parallelism (that I saw) as I could.

    Actually, my rough version did preserve the parallelism; it just reversed the order by putting 'thousand mountains', 'ten thousand paths', 'single boat' and 'fishing alone' last.

    I have read enough translations of Chinese poetry in my time to realise that lines in Chinese poems often adopt a 'topic-comment' order: first the thousand mountains, then the lack of birds; first the myriad paths then the lack of footprints, etc.

    My own feeling is that following the Chinese order in translation can give rise to two problems:

    1. Translation often becomes an exercise in twisting the syntax of the comment into something resembling smooth, poetic English (not always unsuccessful), and

    2. Chinese poetry comes to sound very stereotyped.

    These are precisely the problems that all translators have to grapple with — how to smooth the angularity of the Chinese format and produce an elegant translation in English without losing the parallelism and contrast. Every single translation that has been offered here, except Xu's, simply offers variant solutions to the same problem, and every single translation sounds just like a stereotypical Chinese poem.

    My suggestion to reverse the order of the parallelism is designed to explore the possibility of preserving the parallelism without distorting the syntax. I have seen much worse than this example. In their struggle to make the Chinese sound "poetic" in English, some translators depart completely from meaning, spirit, and (in the end) parallelism of the Chinese. It doesn't need to be so if you are willing to be flexible with the order.

  30. Bathrobe said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 7:23 pm

    That should have been "an exercise in twisting the syntax of the comment into something resembling smooth, poetic English (not always successful)"

  31. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 10:06 pm

    Bathrobe: Actually, my translation preserved one parallelism that none of the others did: "Solitary boat" and "Alone, fishing", unlike, for example, your "single boat" and "fishing alone". Whether that was a good idea is another question, as is whether I implemented it in a good way.

    I can't say anything in general about preserving the parallelism in a different order, but in this poem, the order of the Chinese words seems to sharpen the contrast. Even in a thousand mountains, there are no birds. I'm not sure what you gain by changing the order, though certainly the possibility is worth exploring.

    Diana S. Zhang: Personally, my biggest problem with Xu's translation is that first there's no man in sight, and then there's a man in the center of the scene. That happened because he left the footprints out. You could go back and say, "OK, there are no men on the paths, but that doesn't mean there's no one in a boat." But then the question is what "From path to path" is supposed to mean. To me it's not concrete or sensible enough to explain away the absurdity of "no man in sight" and "a lonely fisherman". If that's supposed to be a Zen contradiction, I don't see it in the gloss of the original.

  32. julie lee said,

    June 19, 2021 @ 11:05 pm

    For what it's worth, here's my humble translation of the poem:

    A thousand hills, flight of birds extinguished,
    Ten thousand paths, trace of humans annihilated.
    Lone boat, rush cape straw hat, an old man
    Fishing by himself, in chilly river, snow.

  33. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 1:38 am

    @ Jerry Friedman

    Actually, my translation preserved one parallelism that none of the others did

    Sorry, I didn't mean to sound belligerent. I wasn't criticising your translation at all. I myself had simply copied someone else's version and reversed the order to show how my proposal would look in practice. Yours definitely brought out the image of solitary loneliness that my lazy, plagiarised version didn't. The actual point of my response was that I did, in fact, preserve the contrast of the original Chinese.

    I'm not sure what you gain by changing the order, though certainly the possibility is worth exploring.

    I wanted to emphasise how my proposal avoids the topic-comment clunkiness of "A thousand mountains—no birds flying over. / A myriad paths—human footprints are covered". This sounds fresh if you've only ever read a few Chinese poems but (IMHO) quickly gets tired when you read poem after poem phrased like this.

    And yes, I was only offering this as a suggestion — a way of thinking outside the box, not a hard-and-fast rule. I am still amazed that everyone translating here, to a man (woman), feels constrained to follow the order of the Chinese without even considering other possibilities. This reduces translation to basically tinkering with the choice of words.

    I'm not a translator of poems; my usual interest is in more prosaic subject matter. But a major factor to be considered when doing any translation is how to fit clauses and sentences together. I think that this applies as much to poetry as it does to prose — especially given that Chinese lies outside the familiar English/Western tradition. When translating Japanese poetry, translators are forced to alter the order to correspond with English sentence structures and think nothing of doing so. Translators from Chinese don't seem to consider that possibility, probably because it is so superficially easy to string the images together.

  34. ktschwarz said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 3:10 am

    Diana S. Zhang, thank you for explaining the grammatical ambiguity of the last line. That's exactly what I was wondering about. "Fishing snow" does not sound natural in English (here's an English learners' forum where someone asks Can you fish snow?, and the native speakers respond that it's not normal), but a poem might be unnatural on purpose, and your Zen interpretation is illuminating.

    Also, thanks for explaining the significance of the straw hat — I had no clue about that!

  35. Random Rita said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 4:16 am

    many mountains no birds flying
    many paths all footprints gone
    single boat straw cloak oldguy
    lonely fishing cold river snow
    ri- ver snow

    1000 peaks 0 beaks
    10000 tracks 0 traces
    1 boat raincoat rainhat
    old man river fishing cold snow

    one thousand mountains, not a single bird
    ten thousand footpaths, not a human turd
    one boat straw coat man is old
    fishing river snow is cold

    Über tausend Gipfeln ist Ruh
    Auf zehntausend Wegen siehest du niemandes Schuh
    Nur ein Boot, alter Mann mit Hut
    Angelt im eisigen Fluss im Schnee

  36. Scott P. said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 4:50 am

    A thousand hills, flight of birds extinguished,
    Ten thousand paths, trace of humans annihilated.
    Lone boat, rush cape straw hat, an old man
    Fishing by himself, in chilly river, snow.

    This has the issue that Friedman points out above — all traces of humans are annihilated in this landscape, but there are still 10,000 paths visible. This makes it sound like the T'ang version of a modern highway interchange. In which case the traces of humans are not only visible, they dominate the picture.

  37. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 6:33 am

    Well, it's not a competition, but I thought I'd have a go …

    A thousand peaks, no bird in flight;
    Ten thousand paths, of man no sight:
    In peasant dress and snow-swept boat
    A lonely fisher marks his float.

  38. Kingfisher said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 7:09 am

    A thousand eyes on barren climes
    A cold capped geezer, ten thousand times
    To catch attention, he needs no baits
    For willing fish, the hook awaits

  39. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 7:34 am

    I would be very happy if someone attempted a translation into Mandarin.

    Or Cantonese.

    Or Taiwanese.


  40. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 7:52 am

    Victor's last request raises an interesting question, in my mind — how much more difficult is it for a non-native speaker to translate [a poem] into a given language than from that language into his/her native tongue ? And is the answer significantly different for "a poem" to "a stretch of prose of comparable length" ? My gut feeling is that it is at least five times (maybe even 10 to 100 times) harder to translate a poem into a language other than one's own than it is to translate the equivalent poem from that language into one's own, whereas for prose I think that the ratio might be somewhat smaller.

    In the Vietnamese poetry to which I referred in a previous comment, the only poem written in English ("Penguin") was translated into Vietnamese by my wife, whereas I carried out all of the translations from Vietnamese. Needless to say I sought advice from both the author of the poetry and from my wife, over multiple iterations, before settling on the final version of each.

  41. Victor Mair said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    Now see "Good poetry, good translation" (6/2021)

  42. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:13 am

    I would be very happy if someone attempted a translation into Mandarin.

    I'm not going to do it, but see this website: Mulberry Poems


  43. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:15 am

    Or this one from Du Gu Shici:




  44. Scott P. said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:27 am

    Across the peaks, one hears no bird
    Along the trails, no spoken word
    In lonely boat, a man afloat
    His hat pulled low, seeks fish in snow.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 9:58 am

    Or, with a slight twist (all credit to Scott P) —

    Across the peaks, one hears no bird
    Along the trails, no spoken word —
    In lonely boat, his hat pulled low,
    A man afloat seeks fish, in snow.

  46. julie lee said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    Hats off to the translations posted after mine by Random Rita, Philip Taylor, Kingfisher, and Scott P. I like them all.

    Translation is often categorized as being either literal or paraphrastic. I myself lean toward the literal.

    Looking back on my translation of this poem, I see that by being literal I've kept the crescendos in the first and second lines.

    A thousand hills, flight of birds extinguished,
    Ten thousand paths, trace of humans annihilated.

    "A thousand" to "ten thousand" is a crescendo;
    "birds" to "humans" a crescendo;
    "extinguished" to "annihilated" a crescendo.

    Line 1 to line 2 is a crescendo.

    Didn't think of crescendos when I was translating, but literal translation often preserves features lost in paraphrastic translation.
    Of course, vice versa, paraphrastic translation can also preserve features lost in literal translation, such as fluency, or, in translating into English, Englishness.

    At first I translated iines 1 and 2 thus:

    "A thousand hills, flight of birds no more,
    "Ten thousand paths, trace of humans gone",

    then thought "no more" and "gone" too weak, not faithful enough to the original 絕 jue "extinguished" and 滅 mie "annihilated". The two words have connotations of violence, and bespeak the violence of winter.

    Nabokov said somewhere he prefers literal translation of poetry. Russell said somewhere he prefers literal translation of philosophy.
    I was glad to read that. But literal or paraphrastic is a matter of taste, depending on what you prefer to sacrifice in translation.

    A question for VHM here:

    Victor, does James Liu's dichotomy of "naturalization" versus
    "barbarization" in poetry translation correspond to "paraphrastic" and "literal" translation?

  47. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 1:36 pm

    I found a German translation that I like, by Jan Kellendonk, which rhymes and has a consistent meter whose stressed syllables match the Chinese:

    Tausend Berge, die Vögel außer Sicht
    Pfade zahllos, von Menschen Spuren nicht
    Flaches Bötchen, mit Mantel, Schirm ein Greis
    Eine Angel, am Fluss wo Schnee fällt dicht

  48. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 6:17 pm

    One thing I haven't mentioned is that different translations might be suitable for different readers and purposes. To accompany a painting in a museum, I'd go for something like East Asia student's very literal version.

    Random Rita: Your German version made me smile.

    Bathrobe: You didn't sound belligerent to me, and I didn't think you were criticizing my translation (and if you had, that wouldn't necessarily be belligerent). I was just pointing out that I had in fact kept one more parallelism than you and others—which as I said is not a criticism of your translation.

    If a lot of English translations of Chinese share a feature that the originals share, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I haven't read a lot of translations like that, but I think I might like it. Does one get tired of translations of Villon's ballades all having the same refrain structure?

    I read what you said about changing the order, but I don't have anything to add about it.

    Now that you've criticized (without belligerence) my translation as clunky, I'll try something a little more English:

    A thousand peaks with no bird flying over,
    Myriad paths where human tracks are covered.
    On the only boat an old, straw-cloaked man,
    Alone, fishes the cold, snowy river.

  49. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 6:49 pm

    It looks like my proposal has garnered zero support, at least on this blog. Oh well….

    I do have one substantive criticism of your earlier translation: you transformed a simple caesura in the Chinese into a rather strident dash. This is a gratuitous addition and fails to mirror the actual effect of the Chinese. I think your newer version is better.

    At any rate, my final version, based on yours:

    No birds over the many peaks,
    No human tracks on the myriad paths.
    An old, straw-cloaked man on a single boat
    Fishes the cold snowy river alone.

    Perhaps a little too humdrum to be poetic.

    In the end, I find Rexroth's and Hinton's versions the most effective.

  50. Kingfisher said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:02 pm

    I'll do the courtesy of posting this in the "bad" thread; I have a certain appreciation for doggerel.

    You'll find no fowl about these hills
    The skies have kept them all at bay
    And every trace along the roads
    Has utterly been ground away
    Why then that single fisher there
    Some codger in his shabby garb
    Who braves this bitter river still?
    To plumb these snows, his lonely barb

  51. David C. said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 8:52 pm


    I think your proposal to re-order the syntax to one that is more natural in English is a good one. In my mind it's down to striking a balance between faithfulness to the original and conformity with what is considered poetic in English.

    Not that I have a better translation to offer, but I still find that the attempts at translation above demonstrate just exactly how challenging the task is.

    There is an elegant use of 對偶 (lexical pairs; the parallelism mentioned by Jerry Friedman) in the original that is sacrificed in the translations to varying extents. 千 contrasts 萬, 山 is paired with 徑, 鳥 with 人, and so on and so forth.

    In line with your thought about being constrained by the original Chinese, I also find that translating 千 and 萬 as thousand and ten thousand (or a million) to be unnatural. The words simply mean many/endless/boundless in this case (which you've reflected in your translation).

  52. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 9:51 pm

    I will add a comment on the Mandarin translations I gave earlier:


    This can be roughly translated as:

    "Among the thousands of mountains there is not a single flying bird; on the tens of thousands of paths there are no human traces. There is only a lone boat, an old fisherman wearing a cape of grass and a straw hat, fishing alone in the swirling snow of the cold river."

    You will notice that for 鳥飛絕 'bird fly disappear' this "translation" uses 絕無一隻飛鳥, where 絕 does not mean 'disappear' or 'cut off', but something like 'absolutely', i.e., not a single bird.

    萬條小徑上沒有任何人跡 means simply "on the ten thousand small paths there is no human trace at all". There is no connotation of tracks being obliterated.

    The other "translation" is:


    This can be roughly rendered as:

    On the surrounding mountains [on four sides] there were no traces of birds; there was not even a single track of people on the trails. On the river there was only an old man in a grass cape and straw hat on a small boat, fishing alone on the cold river.

    Neither of these tries to recreate the poem in modern Chinese. Their goal is simply to explain the meaning of the poem to speakers of the modern language. It's akin to translating "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote" as "When the sweet showers of April have pierced The drought of March to the root" — a "translation", not a poem in itself. This is quite different from the presumed goal of English translations, which is to create something in English that can stand as a poem.

    (I would further differentiate between translations that purport to give a poetic rendition of what the Chinese says, and attempts to create one's own poetry using the original poem as an inspiration. Rexroth and Hinton belong to the first group; Snyder, with his idiosyncratic "A single boat—coat—hat—an old man!" to the second.)

    The second source has a more complete version, styled as 昇華, literally 'sublimation':



    "The surrounding mountains were undulating and empty; the chirping and traces of the flying birds had gone. The tracks of people on all the small paths in and out of the mountains had disappeared. There was only an old fisherman wearing a grass cape and straw cap on the wide and peaceful river, sitting on a lonely boat fishing alone."

    What is most interesting about these modern Chinese "translations" is that many of the nuances of the original Chinese have been lost in much the same ways as in translations into English. This does not inspire great confidence in the ability of modern Chinese to understand poems written in the language of over 1,000 years ago.

  53. Phil H said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 10:12 pm

    @Bathrobe I just wanted to comment on your suggestion of turning the sentences around. It is often a very effective technique, because there are many cases in which the natural flow of (modern and Classical) Chinese is inverted compared to the natural flow of English.
    In the case of the first line of this poem, there is a factor that pushes against the reordering, which is the visual progression. Liu shows us a scene: first the mountains, then notes that one expected element is strangely absent, i.e. there are no birds in the sky. If you try to reverse that, the flow is awkward, and you lose the visual flow of the source.
    Following the source order:
    Across a thousand mountains
    Bird flight

    Reversing the order is possible, but we have to do more grammatical work to make it hang together:
    No birds in flight across a thousand hills
    The flight of birds has ceased in endless mountains

    In these versions, the emphasis seems to fall on the birds, so they set the reader up wrong for what follows, which is more discussion of what the hills look like.

    You’re spot on with the point about the paths being obliterated. The key is not to translate the word 踪.

  54. Bathrobe said,

    June 20, 2021 @ 10:43 pm

    Thank you to David C. and Phil H for supporting syntactic reordering as one possible way of arriving at a better translation (although admittedly maybe not in this case).

    Epoch Times gave a Japanese translation in 2007. It went:


    千山 鳥飛ぶこと絶え
    万径 人蹤(じんしょう)滅す
    孤舟 蓑笠(さりゅう)の翁
    独り釣る 寒江の雪

    The meaning is roughly:

    Thousand mountains flying of the birds ceases
    Ten thousand paths erases people's tracks
    Solitary boat cape-and-hat old man
    Alone fishes the cold river snow

    (Modern translation)


    Roughly (and quite unsatisfactorily):

    In the mountains as far as you can see, no sign of birds flying can be seen
    On the small snow-piled paths too, no footprints of people can be seen
    An old man wearing a cape and hat floats a small boat on the river
    And alone holds a fishing line in the cold river where snow is falling

    1. The idea that snow has obliterated people's tracks on the paths is spelt out clearly.
    2. 'Cape and hat' (蓑笠) refer to straw or grass garments from previous times, not modern garb.
    3. 'Floats a small boat' uses the causative/transitive form. In Japanese prose this means that the boat is floating on the river, and that the old man is the one who put it there. It does not show us an old man actively pushing the boat off from the shore.

  55. Jason Mills said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 1:28 am

    From a thousand peaks the birds have flown away;
    Ten thousand traveler’s paths have blown away;
    One old man in homespun hat and coat
    Fishes the snowy river from a solitary boat.

  56. Jason Mills said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 1:29 am

    oops: *travelers’

  57. ktschwarz said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 4:04 am

    julie lee, thanks for pointing out the crescendo and the difference between the verbs jue "extinguished" and mie "annihilated". That's the kind of thing a non-Chinese-speaking reader like me won't get.

    What wrecks the Xu translation for me is "in lonely boat" — that just strikes my ear as bad English. I know there must be plenty of English poetry that omits an "a" from time to time, but this one just sounds wrong, not poetic. But no one else so far has objected to this; is it just me?

  58. alex said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 8:07 am

    Hi All,

    Over the course of the last year and a half we have been working on a new venture which includes a poetry section. I was wondering if we may reprint these translations on our website (in beta for another 3 months). One of our sub goals is to create a social and educational platform for those who appreciate Chinese poetry.

    I have asked for approval from Professor Mair before reaching out.

    This is the poetry section we are building

    An example of a single poem with independent artwork. you can see there are Mandarin Cantonese and English read alongs.

    How your translation will appear (for now as we are still in beta)

    We will make it easy for you to edit as we know iterations occur and we will keep track so that people can see the process.

    I might have missed some translations from others will reach out here when kids are asleep.

    @Jerry Packard

    Over myriad mountains, no birds in flight
    On every pathway, human traces gone
    From a solitary boat, a codger in bamboo gear
    Alone on the cold river, fishing in the snow

    @Nick Kaldis

    A thousand mountains, birds fly off
    Ten thousand paths, people’s prints gone
    A solitary skiff, poncho, rainhat, old man
    Alone, fishing, winter, river, snow

    Into a thousand mountains birds fly out of sight
    where countless travelers' paths disappear.
    In a solitary skiff, under poncho and rainhat, an old man
    sits alone, fishing the icy river, as it snows.

    @Richard John Lynn
    Over a thousand mountains bird flights ceased,
    On a myriad paths men’s tracks vanished,
    And a straw hatted old man in a solitary boat
    Fishes all alone in the river snow.

    @Michael Fuller
    Amidst a thousand mountains bird flights ceased;
    On the myriad paths men’s tracks vanished.
    A straw hatted old man in a solitary boat
    Fishes alone in the river snow.

    @julie lee
    A thousand hills, flight of birds extinguished,
    Ten thousand paths, trace of humans annihilated.
    Lone boat, rush cape straw hat, an old man
    Fishing by himself, in chilly river, snow.

    @Philip Taylor
    A thousand peaks, no bird in flight;
    Ten thousand paths, of man no sight:
    In peasant dress and snow-swept boat

    @Scott P
    Across the peaks, one hears no bird
    Along the trails, no spoken word
    In lonely boat, a man afloat
    His hat pulled low, seeks fish in snow

    No birds over the many peaks,
    No human tracks on the myriad paths.
    An old, straw-cloaked man on a single boat
    Fishes the cold snowy river alone.
    A lonely fisher marks his float.

    We can credit your name or handle and at anytime you can have it removed.

    I can be reached at or if you can respond here in the comments with a sure. Thanks

  59. alex said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 8:10 am

    I forgot to add our youtube channel

  60. Kris said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 3:39 pm

    I don't speak (or read) Chinese, but I very much liked this discussion. I favor the translations that depart from the too-stereotypical sound of translated Chinese poetry into English, and that read like an English poet might be likely to produce in English. So much of this is a matter of taste, or perhaps intended audience.

    I like Richard John Lynn's:
    Over a thousand mountains bird flights ceased,
    On a myriad paths men’s tracks vanished,
    And a straw hatted old man in a solitary boat
    All alone fishes the river snow.

    and Jerry Friedman's last rendition:
    A thousand peaks with no bird flying over,
    Myriad paths where human tracks are covered.
    On the only boat an old, straw-cloaked man,
    Alone, fishes the cold, snowy river.

    These two capture the isolation and almost desolation of the scene really well, IMO. I like that Lynn's rendition leaves the ambiguity of fishing (for fish) vs fishing the snow itself. Friedman's approaches the ambiguity still but doesn't fully capture it. I also like "All alone" as the most effective descriptor for the man's extreme solitude. The rhythm of Lynn's final line is wonderful. My opinion is worth next to nothing compared to someone who could make such a translation, but I'd only remove "a" from the second line.

  61. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 21, 2021 @ 5:29 pm

    Glad you liked my attempt, Kris.

    I made some changes in Random Rita's German, without even asking permission. The devil made me do it. My lines may not be actual German.

    Über tausend Gipfeln ist Ruh.
    Auf zehntausend Wegen siehest du niemandes Schuh.
    Der Schiffer im kleinem Schiffe, einsam und alt,
    Behütet, angelt im Schnee im Fluss so kalt.

  62. Chau said,

    June 22, 2021 @ 12:50 pm

    In response to Prof. Mair's call for translation into Mandarin, or Cantonese, or Taiwanese, etc., I am submitting my translation into modern vernacular Taiwanese. But before doing so, I would like to pay homage to the poet by transcribing the poem in Literary Taiwanese, whose pronunciation is said to be close to the accent of the Tang court:

    江雪 Kang soat
    柳宗元 Liú Chong-goân

    千山鳥飛絕 Chhian san niáu hui choa̍t,

    萬徑人蹤滅 Bān kèng jîn chong bia̍t;

    孤舟簑笠翁 Koo chiu soo li̍p ong,

    獨釣寒江雪 To̍k tiàu hân kang soat.

    Note: the rime scheme is known in Tang poetry as "入聲九屑韻 ji̍p-seng kiú-siat-ūn (entering tone, No. 9, the 'siat' rime)" with its rime in -at. In a five-syllabic quatrain (五言絕句), the rime should appear at the end of the 2nd and 4th lines (in this poem: 滅 bia̍t; 雪 soat), but riming is optional at the end of the first line (絕 choa̍t), and is forbidden at the end of the third line. The entering tone (入聲 with -p/-t/-k coda) was lost from the northern branch of Sinitic toward the end of Song Dynasty but has been preserved among the southern topolects such Cantonese, Haka, and Taiwanese. Thus, the sing-song auditory effect is lost when the poem is recited in Mandarin. To a Mandarin speaker, as Lucas Klein points out, the effect is "no longer attainable without special training", but to a Taiwanese like me, it comes naturally.

    For my translation into vernacular Taiwanese, I need to say a few words of my interpretation of the original poem. The title of the poem is River Snow 江雪. The first two lines (the first couplet) depicts the snowy scene without using the word 雪, and the third line the river without using the word 江. It is only in the last line that 江 and 雪 appear. And the key word of the poem 雪 at the very end! All these points are taken into account in my translation.

    雪 is pronounced soat in literary Taiwanese, the version we use in reciting Tang poems. But in vernacular (everyday) Taiwanese, 雪 is pronounced seh. Therefore, I adopt the -eh rime, differing from the -at rime of the original.

    In the original poem, the end words 絕 and 滅 are active verbs, as has been mentioned by Lucas Klein. But my feeling is these verbs are used in passive voice. It is as if the poet were painting a large landscape with many mountains and winding paths, originally he had painted birds in the sky and foot tracks on the paths, but with the snow storm he had to erase the birds and cover the foot tracks. Therefore, I adopt the passive voice for the active verbs.

    Tōa soann sió soann tiong, poe-chiáu siū chóo-keh,
    Among the big and small mountains, flying birds are obstructed,

    Sóo-ū soann-lōo téng, kha-jiah lóng khàm leh;
    On all the mountain paths, foot tracks are completely covered;

    Koo-toann sió chûn téng, ló-ong chhēng sui-loe̍h,
    In a single small boat, an old man wearing straw rain gear,

    To̍k-sin léng kang tiong, tiò-hî jím hong-seh.
    Lonely in the cold river, fishing, enduring the windy snow.

  63. Victor Mair said,

    June 24, 2021 @ 5:12 pm

    From Zhang He:

    A very good catch!

    I also had a similar yī lèng 一愣 ("taken aback") when I read the Xu's translation of "River Snow" quoted in some recent memorial log, where a student of his mentioned that this was his favorite translation by Master Xu. I think you people should conduct a seminar or roundtable meeting on Bad translations!

    This student of Xu, who kept using such bad translation like Hēi mìng guì 黑命贵 ("Black life is expensive") for Black Life Matters, which upset me a lot. Some Chinese, I believe intentionally, mistranslate (worse than bad translation) the phrase, so the word guì 贵 ("expensive") automatically implies a comparative level, here "more valuable". You can imagine what kind of bad impact this translate could make.

    I agree with your reaction and comments. I think that Xu's translation failed to convey Liu Zongyuan's yìjìng意境 ("artistic conception") in English, and was not even accurate word by word.

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