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.

Translation of the Chinese Poem “Drinking” # 5, by Tao Yuanming (a.k.a. Tao Qian, 365-427)

結廬在人境      Though I may dwell amongst the populous


而無車馬喧      By din of cart and horse I’m quite unvexed.

問君何能爾      How, you ask, do I maintain my calm?

心遠地自偏      “The wand’ring mind, no clamor may



采菊東籬下      Unreal chrysanthemums bloom all about.

悠然見南山      In fancy, too, I spy Lu Mountain’s peak;

山氣日夕佳      Its mists are splendid, as the sun fades out.

飛鳥相與還      Then, with the flying birds, my mind



此中有真意      For here is where the truest pleasure lies:

欲辨已忘言      Beyond my words, the world seen with

closed eyes.