CHIN 213 2003 Essay.                                                                Ray Brownrigg                                                                       26 September, 2003


Some Thoughts on Translating Modern Chinese Poetry



1. Introduction


Modern Chinese literature is generally considered to be the literature of the period 1919-1942, known as the May Fourth period.  This literature is characterised by radical anti-traditionalism, a deliberate move away from traditional language, style and subject matter.  Modern Chinese poetry in particular shows most evidence of change, mainly because of the very strict requirements previously imposed upon the classical form.  This same period is characterised by tremendous political, cultural and social upheavals that were taking place within China at the time.  These to a large extent acted as catalysts for the literary revolution.  Further, a significant part of the ‘new’ literature is about the literary revolution itself, with essays about literary reform, and poems about ‘new’ poetry.


This essay attempts to highlight issues with the translation of literature in general, and poetry in particular, with specific reference to modern Chinese poetry.



2. What is Modern Chinese Poetry?


Modern Chinese poetry may be defined as the poetry characterised by the radical changes associated with the May Fourth movement of 1919.  There are three primary characteristics that define such poetry.  Firstly, it does not conform to the very rigorously defined structure of classical poetry.  Secondly, it uses the language of the masses – the spoken language – in preference to the classical written language that was available to such a small percentage of the population.  Thirdly the poetry was free to widen the horizons of subject material available.  Previously, classical poetry, and indeed classical literature in general (with a few notable exceptions) was mainly concerned with non-fiction, either from an objective or more personal viewpoint.  The existence of any one of these three characteristics is sufficient in general to identify a non-classical poem.


The birth of modern Chinese poetry was predated by a decade or so of gestation around the time of the fall of imperial rule and the setup of a nationalist government in 1911, although there had been some precursory attempts in the last few decades of the Qing dynasty to break away from the restrictive classical mould for poetry.  The May Fourth incident provided the defining moment in the psyche of the nation that empowered the protagonists to unleash their potential and be accepted by the masses which were, after all, the primary intended audience.



3. Why Translate Modern Chinese Poetry?


Why not?  There are many arguments about how it is impossible to translate poetry.  For example there is the oft-quoted line from Robert Frost "Poetry is what gets lost in translation."  However Eugene Chen Eoyang, somewhat charitably, states “The generally accepted notion that translation, even without obvious faults and mistakes, is impossible, particularly when rendering poetry, may be viewed not as a source of mischief and ignorance, but as a mode of insight and understanding – even self-knowledge.”    This implies that even though the task may be impossible, that is not a good reason not to attempt it, and recognising the ‘impossibility’ of the task is a step towards producing something of value.


In general, there are good points raised in the arguments that translation of poetry is ‘impossible’, but the reality is that poetry has been translated in the past, and will continue to be translated in the future.  The world would be a poorer place if this were not so.  Indeed, Eoyang also suggests that “… the development of civilization as we know it could not have occurred without translation.”


In one sense, arguments about the impossibility of translation of poetry are incontrovertible.  The ‘exact’ translation of a poem from one language to another, while retaining all the features that distinguish a poem from prose, is indeed impossible.  However one must analyse what is meant by translation in the context of poetry.  The reality is that “… to translate a poem whole is to compose another poem.” [Jackson Mathews, p67]  Not only that but when one considers what a poem is then the meaning of translation in this context becomes clearer.


It cannot be denied that the composition of poetry is an art form and thus the poet is an artist.  As is usually the case with art, the feelings driving the composition of any single work of art can come from within the artist often with little or no conscious effort.  Further, and for the same reason, it may be the case that the artist does not have a specific audience in mind – the work of art is being created ‘merely’ to manifest in a concrete form these inner feelings.  Thus it may be difficult for even the poet to be able clearly to describe the exact ‘meaning’ of a poem. If it is difficult to completely define a poem even in its native language, how can one possibly then determine the accuracy of a translation?  To borrow from the age-old phrase, the appreciation of poetry is in the mind of the beholder.  This being accepted, then any poem, in whichever language, can mean different things to different people, and so this confounds any potential comparison to an infinite degree.


The point is that the translator should aim for good poetry primarily, rather than just a good translation.  Perhaps it is better to refer to a translation that produces good poetry as a successful translation rather than a good translation, to avoid confusing the quality of the translation per se with the overall quality of the resulting poem.


Once written, a poem immediately can start to take on a new ‘life’.  Like the Heraclitus saying “You cannot step in the same river twice”, any single poem can evoke different emotions each time it is read, even if by the same person.  Therefore one cannot expect any two readings to be the same, let alone any two translations.  Even if the original author translates his own poems, the moment of creation of the original has passed, and so the translation is of an already different poem.[1]


Hence when we talk about translation of poetry, perhaps a more appropriate word would be interpretation (as distinct from the specifically real-time meaning of interpreting).  However since the general meaning of translation is to transform a piece of literature from one language to another, it is convenient to retain the word translation even when referring to poetry, as long as we recognise that for poetry there is more to translation than just converting words from one language to another.



4. How Should Modern Chinese Poetry be Translated?


There are four possible ways that modern Chinese poetry could be translated, each with its own benefits and disadvantages.  These are:


1.      Literal translation word for word.

2.      Literal translation (poetry into prose).

3.      ‘Poetic’ translation (poetry into poetry).

4.      ‘Form-retaining poetic’ translation that retains rhyme, rhythm and structure.


These could be considered a progression from one extreme to another, but it is certainly not clear that the latter extreme is the best target for a translator.

The first two methods do have some merit in providing a foundation for fine-tuning a final translation, or for providing study material for students of translation (or indeed students of poetry), but there is no way that a literal word for word or a literal prose translation of a poem could be considered to be a genuine translation in the sense of  a ‘final product to be enjoyed as a poem in its own right’ which surely is the whole point of translating poetry.


Literal translations alone are not enough, since “When the sense lies in sentences and contexts, and not in the composites of meanings for individual words, the flavour of the work must be captured intuitively, not analytically.” [Eoyang, p.102] and “… absolute verbal accuracy is less desirable than reproducing the tone of voice and rhythm of the original.” [O’Brien p.84]


Certainly the fourth, ‘ultimate’ way, is a candidate for the impossibility label discussed earlier.  That is, while it may indeed be poetry, there is a danger that the process of conforming to the structure and rhythm and rhyme (henceforth collectively referred to as form) of the original causes a loss of meaning in the translation, and therefore the non-conforming translation is the ‘better’ translation.  Jackson Mathews considers this copying of form to be “the error of literalness”.  [Mathews p.68]


Nevertheless, it must be remembered that when an identifiable form is present in the original, each word has been carefully chosen to craft this form.  It is then the interpolation by the reader who ‘transforms’ these chosen individual words and phrases into meaningful images.  In this context it could be argued that there is no reason why a similar process of crafting could not happen during the translation, without significantly altering the diversity of potential images that the reader may conjure up.  Alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are an entirely different matter, still an integral part of a poem when present, but certainly harder to reproduce in another language.  Further we have not touched upon some of the many other aspects of translation of poetry in general, such as cultural differences in imagery and subtleties of language, both of which many authors about translation seem to be interested in discussing.



5. Special Comments Relating to Modern Chinese Poetry.


One barrier to successful conversion of form when translating modern Chinese poetry into English may well lie in the very richness of the English language.  Chinese characters in general are frequently blessed with multiple meanings, whereas in English, most words have quite specific meanings.  Thus while there may often be a multitude of interpretations in the original the translator is usually constrained to ‘select’ one, or at best a small subset, of these.


Michelle Yeh identifies three specific “difficulties in translation intrinsic to the unique nature of modern Chinese poetry.” [p.107]  These are the use of the vernacular, which can cloud meanings for all but those familiar with the language of the time of composition, the potential for convoluted syntax, which can introduce ambiguities, and the fact that repetition is more common in Chinese than in English poetry, although this may be better expressed as repetition being less acceptable in English poetry.


It has earlier been mentioned how the lack of an identifiable audience can make it very difficult to determine how good a translation is.  In the case of modern Chinese poetry, this is somewhat less of a difficulty, since in general there were two identifiable audiences.  The primary audience was the population at large, not just the literati, with the availability of literature to the masses being one of the primary motivational forces behind the literary revolution.  A secondary, but much smaller audience, was other contemporary poets, many of whom were engaged in discourse about the revolution.




6. Conclusions


While one of the key points above is that in translating poetry one should aim for a good poem as the outcome rather than a ‘good translation’, we hopefully have identified some of the characteristics of what constitutes a ‘successful’ translation of poetry and identified some of the characteristics of modern Chinese poetry that make such ‘successful’ translations difficult.  Further it is concluded that it is very difficult to define the accuracy of translation of a poem, since the original is in a sense a moving target.


Nevertheless it is hoped that some encouragement has been given to students of Chinese in general and of Chinese literature in particular to take up the challenge and at least attempt ‘composing a poem’ in one’s native language as a translation of a poem in the language being studied.





Eoyang, Eugene Chen, The Transparent Eye: Reflections on Translation, Chinese Literature, and Comparative Poetics (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1994)


Fang, A., "Some Reflections on the Difficulty of Translation", in R.A. Brower, Ed., On Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1966)


Huang, Parker Po-fei, "On the Translation of Chinese Poetry", in Rosanna Warren, Ed., The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), pp. 84-97


Mathews, Jackson, “Third Thoughts on Translating Poetry", in R.A. Brower, Ed., On Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1966)


O’Brien, Justin, “From French to English", in R.A. Brower, Ed., On Translation (NY: Oxford University Press, 1966)


Yeh, Michelle, “On English Translation of Modern Chinese Poetry”, in Eugene Eoyang and Lin Yao-fu, Translating Chinese Literature (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995)

[1] One possible exception to this might occur if the poet simultaneously composed a poem in two or more languages in which s/he was equally fluent.  Then throughout the process of composition the ideas and emotions would feed back and forth between the compositions, and one might be able to claim that the poems were ‘the same’.