The importance of translation for learning Literary Sinitic

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After reading "Bad poetry, bad translation" (6/18/21), Zihan Guo wrote:

Thank you for sharing this post.

While reading it, its comments, and all the selected readings related to it, I could not help but feel that translating classical Chinese poetry is the way to make sure one really understands it. Back in middle school and high school in China, my teachers would teach poetry and prose through paraphrasing, making them coherent narratives. However, adding things is as detrimental as its opposite. It was not until college that I started to truly appreciate classical Chinese poetry, through producing English translations myself, struggling with its syntactic concision and lack of precision, squeezing meanings from diction and speculating moods from imagery.

As for evaluating translations, I assume one major criticism of "bad translation" is that it fails to convey the "original sense" (if readers can easily claim to understand the authorial intent) or even distorts the flavor unique to one language / culture. I am not speaking for failures like this, but readers should also take on some responsibility to never equate a translation with its original (as is often the case since a good translation is supposed to flow smoothly to target audience with no traces of being a translation – the "invisible translators"). The former can only approach asymptotically the latter. With that consciousness, maybe we can start to appreciate a translator's effort and experimental ingenuity, like Xu Yuanchong's attempt at reproducing rhymes (typical of his translations), or Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895-1976) at recreating the desolation in one of Li Qingzhao's 李清照 (1084-1155) famous lyrics:

xúnxún mìmì, lěnglěng qīngqīng, qīqī cǎncǎn qīqī.
So dim, so dark. So dense, so dull.
So damp, so dank, so dead!

VHM:  Here are the same opening lines of Li Qingzhao's celebrated lyric as rendered by Jiaosheng Wang:

Searching,  seeking.

    Seeking, searching:

What comes of it but

    Coldness and desolation,

A world  of dreariness and misery

And stabbing pain!

From Jiaosheng Wang, "The Complete Ci-Poems of Li Qingzhao:  A New English Translation" (free pdf), Sino-Platonic Papers, 13 (October, 1989), p. 109 of i-xii, 1-122.

At various places in his book,  including this note (no. 2) on p. 111, the translator goes into considerable detail discussing the special qualities of this extraordinary poem:

This masterpiece of Li Qingzhao's is admired among other things for the three groups of re-iterated characters at the beginning of the poem. The three groups are ingeniously inter-related, the second group being the result of the first, and the third the result of the second. This heightens the pathos.

For a biographical note on the translator, see p. 122.

I like the way Zihan recognizes translation as a means to check one's understanding of Classical Chinese.  William Hung 洪業* (1893-1980), the former dean of Yenching University, used to say the same thing — and practiced it, even while teaching elite students in China by having them translate ancient Chinese texts and medieval poetry into English.

*William Hung (Chinese: 洪業; 27 October 1893 – 22 December 1980), was a Chinese historian and sinologist who taught for many years at Yenching University, Peking, which was China's leading Christian university, and at Harvard University. He is known for bringing modern standards of scholarship to the study of Chinese classical writings, for editing the Harvard-Yenching Index Series, and for his biography of Du Fu, Tu Fu: China's Greatest Poet, which is considered a classic in the English world on the studies of Du Fu. He became a Christian while a student at the Anglo-Chinese College in Fuzhou, then went to Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, Columbia University, and Union Theological Seminary. On his return to China, he became Professor and Dean of Yenching University, where he was instrumental in establishing the Harvard-Yenching Institute. He came to Harvard in 1946 and spent the rest of his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, teaching and mentoring students.

William Hung was born on 27 October 1893 in Fuzhou. In 1901 Hung traveled with his family from Fuzhou to Shandong, where Hung's father was a county magistrate for the Qing government. He began his Confucian studies there at the age of four, but soon also began to read traditional novels. He entered the Shandong Teachers College after scoring number one on the entrance exam. He was awarded a monthly stipend of two taels of silver, but was forced to transfer to a Resident Guest School because the local Shandong students taunted him for his southern accent and resented the advantage of his head start in Confucian learning.


I'm a firm believer in the Zihan Guo and William Hung school of using translation as an effective device for teaching and learning Classical Chinese / Literary Sinitic.


Selected reading


  1. Neil Kubler said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 7:31 am

    I couldn't agree more with the Zihan Guo and William Hung and Victor Mair school of using translation as an effective device for teaching and learning Classical Chinese. When I teach Classical, I do use Mandarin as our classroom language (as most of the students are Chinese majors) and, after reciting a paragraph together, will call on a student to read a Classical Chinese sentence in Mandarin pronunciation and then translate that sentence into spoken Mandarin. However, after that, I also insist they translate the same sentence into English, to prove they really understood the meaning. Whether it is native or non-native speakers of Chinese, it is all too easy to "automatically" translate one-syllable Classical Chinese words into two-syllable Mandarin equivalents (or near equivalents or non-equivalents), without really understanding the sentence in the context of the discourse.

  2. Jim Hargett said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    Arthur Waley's approach to translation is described in his A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (p. 33) as follows:

    "I have aimed at literal translation, not paraphrase …. Above all, considering imagery to be the soul of poetry, I have avoided either adding images of my own or suppressing those of the original."

    Some good advice here. If inspiration is needed, read some of Waley's translations of Chinese poetry. In my view, they remain unrivaled.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 11:53 am

    Jim Hargett: I like Ezra Pound's advice on this. The soul of poetry is imagery, sound, association and connotation, and overall form (phanopoeia, melopoeia, logopoeia, and architectonics, using Pound's terms quoted by Lucas Klein). A good translation sacrifices as little of all of them as possible.

    Did Waley ever translate "River Snow"?

  4. Arthur Waldron said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 2:58 pm

    The method of turning Classical Chinese into mandarin by inserting characters was taught me in Taiwan in the 1970s. I became rather adept, so much so that as a farewell present my sainted teacher and her husband inscribed to me a lexicon/guide to this technique.

    Back home I found that already knowing some Chinese was a huge help in Chinese history graduate studies. With one exception: namely the classical language class taught by the sainted Francis Woodman Cleaves. He would give us classical. I would deftly inflate it with 虛字 etc as taught. Francis would then gently demolish my work, with great kindness- but also thoroughness . “Look at the characters!” he would insist. Like 洪業 he would insist on English. I quickly grasped that Francis was a genius, behind whom stood true sinology and its makers. Victor has translated Sun Zi. Long ago I chatted with a young professor admired for his understanding of classical military writings. I had the same trouble with him that Cleaves had with me. I was dismissed however. His mentor in Classical Chinese was a PLA colonel, no less! I thank God for Cleaves and his midcourse correction- and for all of you reading who do it right! Arthur

  5. Kingfisher said,

    June 27, 2021 @ 6:03 pm

    Very interesting methods to think about. I notice however that most of the material has to do with poetry. Is there any necessary difference when it comes to prose literature?

  6. arthur Waldron said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 12:25 am

    Poetry is impossible for me. So is prose. Even toaster warranties.

    Give me “time was”. Marcel would be starting the absinthe. Late for me. 晚安。arthur

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 28, 2021 @ 12:58 pm

    Since the "good translation" and "bad translation" threads are now unavailable for comment, I'm hijacking this thread to mention that Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-yuan, translated by Bill Porter (Red Pine), appeared in 2019. According to the publisher, it provides translations of almost all of Liu's poems, of which fewer a dozen or so had been translated into English before, as well as notes and "an in-depth introduction". This review by the poet Anthony Madrid, though something like half of it is devoted to a criticism of Wade-Giles romanization, quotes the translation of "River Snow".

  8. s said,

    June 29, 2021 @ 8:37 pm

    I've read nobody is allowed to translate the Koran into any other language, since the translation of Allah's word might be inaccurate. But *interpretations* are allowed. So I wonder about the accuracy of some of those *interpretations*, and how those *interpretations* are influencing some groups like the Taliban, etc.

  9. Pickering said,

    June 30, 2021 @ 9:37 pm

    Re translation, here is an article on the roles translators play in baseball.

  10. Phil H said,

    July 2, 2021 @ 11:35 pm

    Translation may be the only way we can interact with these poems any more. As Prof Mair points out in another post, Classical Chinese is dead and has been for a long time. There is probably no one alive who could listen to a classical poem and understand it in the way its target audience did. So the only option is to pick through it and translate it into our own language, whether that's modern Chinese, modern English, or any other.

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