On the Difficulties of Translating Chinese Poetry

I once gave a talk as part of a ‘Lost in Translation’ series on rendering Chinese poems into English. I presented my translation of the Tao Yuanming poem ‘Drinking #5’ (which I posted here last week), and, although I claimed nothing for its style, related with pride how I had expanded upon Tao’s original meaning (or gone beyond earlier translations), to make it seem that he was imagining and not really observing the chrysanthemums and mountains and other phenomena described in the poem. I thought this expansive (and almost certainly incorrect) rendering would reinforce what I believe he was saying about the process of escaping bleak reality via the power of imagination.

As usual, I wasn’t sure the audience were following my abstruse argument. Some Chinese people were present, and they said nothing.

Days later, a Chinese student who had been at the talk approached me at a study abroad fair and informed me, now that it was just between us, that she didn’t like my translation at all. It was too cerebral, in her view, totally lacking the emotive element that suffused the original.

Digesting her criticism, I realized that the emotive element of Chinese poetry accounts for the bulk of its power, that this emotive aspect is the hardest quality to translate, and that the failure to capture the emotive connotation of Chinese poetry in translation was chiefly responsible for the seeming pointlessness of Chinese poetry to foreigners.

For instance: Do you know the sound of children’s swings, clanging against each other, in a deserted playground? Well, that is a Chinese poem. It’s not that non-Chinese people are insensible of the emotive potential of such a thing, but it’s doubtful that a Westerner, especially, would use poetry to convey it. He would be likelier to use more modern media. There is, of course, the sound of clanging swings in the middle of the second side of Abbey Road (before ‘Sun King,’ I think); and a similar sound and image, from a deserted playground, begins the film Midnight Cowboy. In both cases, the emotive effect is very strong.

But if you try to put it in a poem –

                The swings clang —

                ching! ching!

                Who was just playing here?

– you can’t pull it off.

I’ll speak for myself: I can’t pull it off.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and a soon to be published novelist.

4 thoughts on “On the Difficulties of Translating Chinese Poetry”

  1. I have never really studied chinese poetry but it is undoubtedly true that certain messages are lost in translation. This is so, I believe due to the way language is built around culture. To accurately translate would require the understanding of both sides of the culture.

    I fully agree with you that emotions are difficult to translate because even people who spent a great deal of time on a particular language can’t fully comprehend the subtle differences between words, much less translating those nuances. Thus, making the emotions that these words connote even harder to translate.

    Like

  2. But you did, when you presented it to us:

    sound of children’s swings
    clanging against each other
    deserted playground

    It presents a a scene both incongruous and mysterious at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

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