Is There a Good Way to Translate Chinese Poetry?

By Xujun EberleinMay 20, 2016

Is There a Good Way to Translate Chinese Poetry?
A WELL-KNOWN CONTEMPORARY Chinese poet, Han Dong, when interviewed by his English translator, said: “If your poems don’t stand up to translation into another language, then why should the translator continue to be loyal to the original? If those poems can shine in another language, then why worry if they have departed from the original?”

Han Dong is regarded as the most representative figure of the “third generation” poets in the People’s Republic of China. His poems will be discussed below, but here he spoke from the stance of a poet being translated, not a reader who wants to read his poetry in translation. But it begs the question: As a reader, why would I want to read a translation that has departed from the original? Wouldn’t I be better off reading original poetry in the target language, instead of a half-baked translation?

Which begs another question: Why do we read translated poetry after all? If specific manners of expression and thinking, different uses of words and images, serve as the carrier of a different culture and reality, the stuff that draws in the translator and reader alike, what can translation accomplish? For poetry, language — the nuance of language — is paramount. We care not only about a poem’s meaning; we care equally, if not more, about how thoughts and observations are expressed in unfamiliar, refreshing ways. Form is part of content in poetry translation. Given this, it makes sense for a translation to preserve as much as possible of the original poem’s form as well as its meaning.

I’ve heard some other Chinese poets praising Ezra Pound’s errors in translating ancient Chinese poetry, saying that even the errors were interesting to read. A close look at Pound’s errors, however, demonstrated otherwise for me. Take “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” as an example. The original poem by Li Bai (701-762) makes allusion to the “holding-pillar faith” allegory, which comes from a book by ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi. The allegory goes like this: A man is waiting for his date under a bridge. Before the woman arrives, however, the river water unexpectedly rises. To be faithful to his date, the man doesn’t leave; he holds onto a pillar of the bridge until he drowns. The moral of this allegory is that one can place love above his own life. Pound, who did not know the Chinese language at the time, based his “translation” on Ernest Fenollosa’s meticulous unpublished notes. Fenollosa had written a draft translation of the lines that allude to the allegory, “I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars / And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.” This is quite accurate literally, but it is unclear whether Fenollosa was aware of the allusion. In any case, he did not explain it. At this point, Pound, who had faithfully followed Fenollosa’s notes so far but apparently couldn’t make sense of this part, chose to dodge it completely. He simply translated the corresponding line as “forever and forever and forever.” The meaning of “forever” was indeed implied by Li Bai in the poem, but the great Tang Dynasty poet whose pen was said to “startle the wind and rain” would never have written it so tritely. Translation like that, certainly a big departure from the original style, is uninspiring.

Assume we agree on the principle that a good translation should preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the original poem’s form, as well as its meaning. This is easier said than done. Some elements of the original form are simply impossible to replicate in the target language; for example, many meters of ancient Chinese poetry can’t be rendered in English, because of the incompatible syllable systems between pictographic and alphabetic languages. Rhymes, which commonly exist in traditional poetry, are also difficult to reproduce. Allusions provide yet another difficulty. The compact form of poetry does not allow room for explanation, but that’s merely a technical challenge. A bigger issue is that a translator whose mother tongue is not the source language risks missing or misunderstanding the meaning of the allusion, as happened to Pound. Fortunately perhaps, contemporary poetry has largely liberated the translator from these concerns. Nowadays, free verse is more commonly seen than rhymed poems, and allusion is less favored than direct speaking. For better or worse, such style evolution actually helps shorten the distance between poetry from different cultures, and makes the translator’s job somewhat easier with contemporary works than, say, ancient Chinese poetry. But the basic challenge, namely of managing the intertextuality, remains the same.

Let’s look at two translations of a poem by Han Dong (born in 1961), the contemporary Chinese poet mentioned earlier. One of Han’s most well-known poems is about a historical architectural feature named Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which has traditionally been regarded as a symbol of China’s ancient culture and has attracted many tourists. Before Han, poems about the pagoda were all awed, but Han takes a completely different, antitraditional view:




In addition to antitraditional, this poem is also anti-heroism and anti-grandness, this in sharp contrast to the earlier generations of the PRC poets. So how can such intertextuality be translated?

For comparison purposes, let us look at two different translations of this poem: one by a non-native Chinese speaker, Maghiel van Crevel, who is a professor at Leiden University, Netherlands, specialized in contemporary Chinese poetry, and another one that is jointly translated by Donald Revell, a native English speaker, and Zhang Er, a native Chinese speaker, both established poets.

Of the Wild Goose Pagoda

(Trans. Maghiel van Crevel; Pathlight, No.1/2012, published by Foreign Language Press Co. Ltd., Beijing, China)

of the Wild Goose Pagoda
what do we really know
many people come rushing from afar
to climb up
and be a hero
some come a second time
or even more than that
people not pleased with themselves
people grown stout
they all climb up
to be that hero
and then they come down
walk into the road below
and disappear in the blink of an eye
some real gutsy ones jump down
red flowers blooming on the steps
now there’s a real hero—
a hero of our time

of the Wild Goose Pagoda
what do we really know
we climb up
look at the view around us
and then come down again

About Da Yan Pagoda

(Trans. Donald Revell and Zhang Er; from Another Kind of Nation: An Anthology of Contemporary Chinese Poetry, edited by Zhang Er and Chen Dongdong, published by Talisman House Publishers, 2007)

About Da Yan Pagoda
What more to know?
The people come far
To climb it, to be
Heroes for once, or even a second time
Some of them, or perhaps more.
The unhappy ones, and also ones
Ample in the flesh of their leisure.
These, whole gangs of them, climb together,
Becoming heroes for once,
And then climb down,
Disappearing instantly almost
Into the streets and crowds below.
There are also those, a very few,
The seed people who, leaping from the stairs,
Burst into scarlet flowers.
These are the true heroes, yes,
Heroes for our time.

Of Da Yan Pagoda
What more to know?
We climb into the view,
Then hurry down.

The pagoda’s name is translated by meaning in one, and by transliteration in the other, but they mean the same thing. The name notwithstanding, what would a reader’s first impression be upon reading the two different translations?

Neither is off in terms of overall meaning, but there are notable differences regarding the feelings they engender in the reader. Most markedly, the language in the first translation, by Maghiel van Crevel, is contemporarily plainspoken, a style in line with the original, while the second one feels more Western and wordy. One thing worth noting is that enjambment is a Western but not a Chinese tradition, and this style is not adopted in Han Dong’s poem quoted here (though he does sometimes use it in other poems). Nonetheless, enjambment appears in the translation by Revell and Zhang, usually in an attempt at over-explaining. For example, the two lines:


are translated by Crevel as:

people not pleased with themselves
people grown stout

while by Revell and Zhang as:

The unhappy ones, and also ones
Ample in the flesh of their leisure.

While “stout” and “ample in the flesh” are both legitimate diction choices for translating “发福”, Han Dong’s original poem says nothing about why or how those people got to that shape; thus, “of their leisure” is not only redundant, but also inaccurate.

The usual image suggested by “发福” is that of a middle-aged man who is successful and content, and so in contrast to the previous line’s image of the unpleased/unhappy. The thing is, even if a translator is not aware of the cultural connotation of this particular term, when the translator sticks to the original diction and form closely, as Crevel has attempted, the meaning comes out fine (though personally I might prefer the word “jolly” instead of “stout”). There is no need for over-explanation.

Revell and Zhang’s translation seems not as effective as Crevel’s in conveying Han’s antitraditional style, which is part of the poem’s intent. The intent — and the irony — are partially lost in the extra words, lines, and styles that make Revell and Zhang’s translation sound like an imitation of T. S. Eliot.

That said, there are pros and cons in either translation, as demonstrated below. Let me highlight four lines critical to Han’s poem, followed by their translations:


Crevel’s translation:

some real gutsy ones jump down
red flowers blooming on the steps
now there’s a real hero
a hero of our time

Revell and Zhang’s translation:

There are also those, a very few,
The seed people who, leaping from the stairs,
Burst into scarlet flowers.
These are the true heroes, yes,
Heroes for our time.

While I think it is unnecessary to have an extra line in their translation, Revell and Zhang’s use of the verb “burst” seems accurate, as it establishes the direct consequence of the red/scarlet flowers (blood) from the jumping. I’m sure Crevel, too, understood the cause and effect, but his diction choice doesn’t reflect that. On the other hand, the word “seed” used by Revell and Zhang is curious, as no corresponding diction or meaning exists in the original. I can only guess that the translators might have intended to establish a literal connection between “seed people” and “flowers.” This extra effort is not only unnecessary but also kills the metaphor in the original. If I take the liberty to combine the pros and avoid the cons of the two translations for this section, I could come up with the following lines:

The real gutsy ones leap from above
Burst into red flowers on the steps
Now they really become heroes
Heroes of our time

Note that my second to last line above is different from either, as I attempt to follow the original line faithfully and, in doing so, I believe the sarcastic tone is better preserved. Be loyal to the original poem’s form, and chances are you’ll be able to preserve its intertextuality better than those who aren’t, regardless of what your mother tongue is. To reinforce this point, let’s look at translations for another poem by Han Dong.

The Chinese original:






A Loud Noise

(Trans. Nicky Harman; from A Phone Call from Dalian, ed. Nicky Harman, published by Zephyr Press, 2012)

A loud noise
I went out to check

An hour later
I discovered the chopping board
Fallen on the cook top
A broken cup

The chopping board lay still
Fragments of the cup were also
Quite quiet

The chopping board used to hang on the wall
The cup beneath it
Both quite quiet


(Trans. Donald Revell and Zhang Er; emphasis mine)

A crashing sound.
I walk outside, take
A look around — nothing

After an hour
I go to kitchen and find
The cutting board fallen to the counter
And shards of glass everywhere

Everything still,
The cutting board, the shards of glass so still.
All’s quiet.

An hour before, the cutting board hanging on its nail
And the water glass below it
Were quiet too.

The first translator, Nicky Harman, is a native English speaker and literary translator based in the UK. Again, I chose Revell and Zhang’s translation for comparison, not because I have anything against them — in fact, I truly appreciate their great effort at organizing a collaborative translation project on contemporary Chinese poetry — but because it is hard to find two different translations for the same poem. My purpose is to propose a good principle in translating poetry, so I go with what I have at hand.

A careful read of the two translations tells me that, overall, Harman’s translation is closer in form to the original. Though both of them are quite well done, Revell and Zhang’s tends again to slightly over-translate.

To illustrate that tendency, I’ve underlined the extra words that are in their translation but not in the original. Are they necessary? Do they add to or reduce the original’s poetic quality? I am, as the Chinese say, “picking bones from an egg,” I know. And I feel apologetic to Revell and Zhang for doing this to them.

But isn’t that what a poet does, finally, all about words? And if poetry translation is an art, as I believe it is, then my nitpicking tendency as a translator can perhaps be forgiven.

I do have a question on Harman’s translation above, regarding the ending stanza. There are actually two issues here, the first being whether a tense change should take place. The Chinese language does not have tenses, and this can present a challenge to a translator whose native tongue is not Chinese. In Han Dong’s original, the ending is a flashback that makes a clear reference to the state before the cutting board fell and crushed the cup. Harman’s translation uses the past tense all the way through without distinguishing the ending, while Revell and Zhang’s translation uses the present tense until the last line, where it then changes to past tense. The latter handling makes better sense to me in terms of translation accuracy.

Related to the issue of tense change is the issue of verb form choice. The original ending is artistically ambiguous about whether the “quiet” state describes the board, the cup, or both; to preserve this ambiguity, it is best to have no indication of plural or singular in the translation. I’d avoid using either the verb form “were” (Revell and Zhang) or the word “both” (Harman) in the last line.

If this above analysis makes sense, I hope that the point is made in proposing a necessary criterion for good translation of poetry: do all you can to preserve the original form.


Xujun Eberlein, who grew up in Chongqing, China, is a writer and translator based in Boston. Her previous contributions to LARB include a book review, “The Teacher of the Future.” She is currently working on a memoir, The River Drowns the Able Swimmer.

LARB Contributor

Xujun Eberlein is the author of an award-winning story collection, Apologies Forthcoming, and a cultural blog, Inside-Out China.


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