Translating Classical Chinese
Poetry and Prose
David Deterding
National Institute of Education
Focus on:
• Du Fu
• Lao-zi's Dao-de-jing
Loss in Translation
• Translation inevitably involves loss.
• For poetry, full explanatory notes help offer
a full appreciation of the original.
• Maybe also for prose: translation of the
Dao-de-jing benefits from substantial
background notes.
The Poems of Du Fu
Areas of Loss
•
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•
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•
•
rhyme
metre
parallelism
compact style
ambiguity
imagery (symbolism)
allusions
Rhyme
• The syllable at the end of each couplet
rhymes.
• Rhyme is rarely retained in the translation.
Rhyme: Poem 1
了
• Line 4 : 曉
• Line 6 : 鳥
• Line 2 :
• Line 8 :
小
Metre
• These poems all have 8 lines
• 5 (or 7) characters per line
• Each line is broken into two parts: 2 + 3 (or
2 + 2 + 3)
• The translation has no fixed metre.
Parallelsm
• The second and third couplets have a
parallel structure.
• Each character has a related (or
antithetical) matching character.
• There is no parallelism in the translation.
Parallelism: Poem 1
造化
陰陽
鐘
割
神秀
昏曉
Parallelism: Poem 1
盪胸
決眥
生
入
層雲
歸鳥
Compact Style
• Poem 1 has 40 characters
• The translation has 90 words.
• Compact text can suggest multiple
meanings.
Ambiguity
盪胸生層雲
"The layered clouds begin at the climber’s
heaving chest"
Problem: look at last line; the writer appears
not to be climbing the mountain.
Alternative Translation
盪胸生層雲
"Layered clouds appear from a bulge in the
side of the mountain."
Which is Correct?
• Maybe the poem carries both meanings.
• The compactness of poetry is open to
multiple interpretations.
• It is hard to retain these in a translation.
Translation as Poetry?
• It would be possible to translate it as
poetry.
• This could also suggest multiple
interpretations.
• However, inevitably the interpretations
suggested would be different from the
original.
Imagery (Symbolism)
• All words carry lots of symbolism.
• What is the symbolism behind 'rose'?
• This symbolism differs between
languages.
• What is the symbolism behind
– 'bat'?
– 'red'?
• This symbolism is generally lost in
translation.
Imagery in Poem 1
•青
"greenness"
•齊 魯
"Ch'i and Lu"
•陰 陽
"northern and southern slopes"
Allusion
• There is (probably) no allusion to external
stories or events in Poem 1.
• We need to look at other poems to see
allusion
Let us consider these issues
once more, referring to the
other poems.
Rhyme
• Sometimes the rhyme is no longer perfect
because of sound changes in Chinese.
Poem 6
• 深 shen
• 心 xin
• 金 jin
• 簪 zan
Detour
• Rhyme can sometimes carry meaning.
• Consider the following poem written by
someone leaving a company after a few
years working there.
So, farewell my friends,
Everything good one day ends.
I've been here five years,
And together, we've shed many tears.
But a few things I won't miss,
Such as coffee tasting like it was brewed
some time ago,
Some theories I never quite mastered,
And a boss who's a real nice guy.
Meaning from Rhyme in Du Fu?
• It seems unlikely that there is any added
meaning from rhyme like this in Du Fu's
poems.
• However, the potential for indicating
meaning through rhyme exists.
Metre
• As with all good poets, Du Fu sometimes
breaks the fixed metre.
• This creates a fresh effect.
Poem 11
露 從 今夜 白
月 是 故鄉 明
Parallelism : Poem 29
五更鼓角聲悲壯
三峽星河影動搖
(Su Tung-p'o thought this the best sevensyllable couplet in the language.)
Detour
• Does parallelism extend into modern
prose?
至于我们到世上做人,是为了喜悦
而来,不是为了烦恼受苦来的,所
以自己要为自我创造欢喜。若是完
全靠别人给我们欢喜、给我们快乐,
这是不够的,所谓心中有佛,心中
会快乐,生活有禅,生活就欢喜。
(from 禅 师 与 兰 花 by 摩迦,
早 报 副 刊 1997年11月22日)
至于我们到世上做人,是为了喜悦
而来,不是为了烦恼受苦来的,所
以自己要为自我创造欢喜。若是完
全靠别人给我们欢喜、给我们快乐,
这是不够的,所谓心中有佛,心中
会快乐,生活有禅,生活就欢喜。
(from 禅 师 与 兰 花 by 摩迦,
早 报 副 刊 1997年11月22日)
心中有佛,心中会快乐,
生活有禅,生活就欢喜
questions
• Is such parallelism more common in
writing by people from Taiwan?
• Should we try to maintain any parallelism
in translation?
Ambiguity : Poem 6
感時花濺淚
恨別鳥驚心
The flowers shed tears of grief for the
troubled times, and the birds seem startled,
as if with the anguish of separation.
Null Subjects
• Chinese is a null-subject language.
• Maybe the first line has a null first-person
subject. (Can flowers shed tears?)
• Maybe the flowers are an adverb of place.
• If this is right, then the next line should
have a similar structure.
Alternative translation
感時花濺淚
恨別鳥驚心
Troubled by the times, I shed tears on the
flowers, and hating separation, I am
startled by the birds.
Symbolism : Poem 11
一雁聲
symbolises an exile's letter home
Symbolism : Poem 21
北極朝廷終不改
"The Court of the Northern Star remains
unchanged."
Northern Star 
Symbolism : Poem 21
北極朝廷終不改
"The Court of the Northern Star remains
unchanged."
The Northern Star symbolises the Emperor,
because everything revolves around him.
Symbolism : Poem 16
柏 "cypresses"
黃 鸝 "yellow oriole"
錦 "brocade"
what symbolism do these words carry?
Allusion : Poem 16
三顧頻煩天下計
"The importunate humility of those three
visits resulted in the grand strategy which
shaped the world for a generation."
Allusion : Poem 21
日暮聊為梁父吟
"As evening falls I shall sing a song of Liangfu."
Allusion : Poem 29
臥龍躍馬終黃土
"Sleeping Dragon and Horse Leaper ended
in the yellow dust. "
Symbolism / Allusion
• Sometimes the distinction between
symbolism and allusion is fuzzy.
• However, both cause problems for
translation.
• Maybe detailed notes are the answer;
however, detailed notes are an admission
of failure.
The Dao-de-jing
Parallelism
• Is the Dao-de-jing verse or prose?
• Maybe there was no clear distinction in
Classical Chinese.
Parellism : Verse 1
道 可 道 非 常 道
名 可 名 非 常 名
Translation of Verse 1
The Tao (Way) that can be told is not the
eternal Tao;
The name that can be named is not the
eternal name,
(Wing Chit Tsan, A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy,
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963)
Alternative 1
The Dao that can be expressed is not the
eternal Dao .
The name that can be named is not the
eternal name.
(http://www.imperialtours.net/daoism.htm)
Alternative 2
The Way that can be experienced is not
true;
The world that can be constructed is not
true.
(Peter A Merel: http://www.chinapage.com/gnl.html)
Alternative 3
Dao may be accepted as "Dao", but that
would conflict with the constant motion of
Dao.
A name may be accepted as a "Name", but
that would conflict with the constant
motion of what's been given a name.
(by Nina: http://www.daoisopen.com/Chapter1.html)
Ambiguity : Verse 1
無 名, 天 地 之 始
有 名, 萬 無 之 母
"The Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth;
The Named is the mother of all things."
Alternative 1
無,名 天 地 之 始
有,名 萬 無 之 母
"Non-existence" I call the beginning of Heaven and
Earth.
"Existence" I call the mother of individual beings.
(http://www.imperialtours.net/daoism.htm)
Alternative 2
The Way manifests all that happens and
may happen;
The world represents all that exists and may
exist.
(Peter A Merel: http://www.chinapage.com/gnl.html)
Alternative 3
Everything started out without needing to be
named or categorized.
When they were seen as things that needed to
be nurtured, they were then given names.
(by Nina: http://www.daoisopen.com/Chapter1.html)
Symbolism : Verse 5
天地不仁,以萬物為芻狗
Heaven and Earth are not humane,
They treat all things as straw dogs.
"straw dogs" ???
Symbolism : Verse 5
天地之間,其猶橐籥乎
How Heaven and Earth are like a bellows!
"bellows" ??
Finally
多言數窮,不如守中
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