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Translatum Journal - Issue 5


Shi Aiwei (石爱伟)
Xinzhou Teachers University, Shanxi, China

Translatability and Poetic Translation - 2
Part 1


The “translator, traitor” is a motto that is believed by many to be true, not mentioning poetic translation, the one area too divine to be touched for literary enthusiasts, or more specifically, poetic enthusiasts. “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost, American poet and critic, once says. This thesis, starting from a brief account of old ideas of the untranslatability of poetry, proposes instead a hypothesis that poetry is translatable (Chapter One). In the next chapter (Chapter Two) an analysis of why poetry is untranslatable is made in both linguistic and cultural respects. It goes on giving a detailed analysis of translation in general, its various definitions, its multiple functions and the author’s own idea of it (Chapter Three). Then literary translation is discussed, involving its features and main function—aesthetic value which is the very core in poetic translation as well (Chapter Four). Chapter Five deals with features of poetic translation, treating at the beginning the relationship between poetry and aesthetics and then making a comparison of Sino-west poetic theories. What follows is a discussion of the longstanding issue of form vs content and the criteria of poetic translation. At the end of this chapter, the function of poetry is discussed. Chapter Six suggests some strategies in poetic translation, all with a strong consciousness of compensation of possible loss of the source text. The thesis ends with a conclusion—poetry is translatable, if translation is regarded as a purposeful act rather than a sterile irrational pursuit of exact duplication.


What is literature? Encarta defines it as written works such as fiction, poetry, drama, and criticism that are recognized as having important or permanent artistic value (Encarta, 2004).

Literature is the use of well-chosen words to tell a story through narrative, involving characters in conflict, or to express an emotion or idea through artfully arranged images.

The purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct (or to delight and enlighten) the reader through the use of the imagination. Literature can also shock, amaze, or provide readers with an escape from reality for a while. (Writer and literary critic David Madden, who teaches creative writing at Louisiana State University )

Traditionally, in most societies, art has combined practical and aesthetic functions. In the 18th century in the West, however, a more sophisticated public began to distinguish between art that was purely aesthetic and art that was also practical. The fine arts (French beaux arts)—including literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, and architecture—are concerned primarily with aesthetics. The decorative or applied arts, such as pottery, metalwork, furniture, tapestry, and enamel, are often useful arts and for a time were demoted to the rank of crafts. The scientist studies quantitative sense perceptions in order to discover laws or concepts that are universally true. The artist selects qualitative perceptions and arranges them to express personal and cultural understanding. Whereas further investigation may cause a scientific law to be invalidated, a work of art—despite changes in the artist's view or the public taste—has permanent validity as an aesthetic statement at a particular time and place.

4.2 Difference from ESP translation

It is interesting to note that Nida (1964: 85) has, in his discourse on scientific translation, pointed to this challenge.  He says,

If, however, the translation of scientific texts from one language to another participating in modern cultural development is not too difficult, it is not surprising that the converse is true--- that translating scientific material from a modern Indo-European language into a language largely outside the reach of Western science is extremely difficult.  This is one of the really pressing problems confronting linguists in Asia today.

Scientific translation, thus, becomes a prerequisite not only for the acquisition of technology, but to its introduction, installation, and operation as well.

According to London Institute of Linguistics, to be a scientific translator one should have:

1) broad knowledge of the subject-matter of the text to be translated;

2) a well-developed imagination that enables the translator to visualize the equipment or process being described;

3) intelligence, to be able to fill in the missing links in the original text;

4) a sense of discrimination, to be able to choose the most suitable equivalent term from the literature of the field or from dictionaries;

5) the ability to use one's owns language with clarity, conciseness and precision; and

6) practical experience in translating from related fields.  In short, to be technical translator one must be a scientist, or engineer, a linguist and a writer (cf. Gasagrade, 1954: 335-40; Giles, 1995; Latfipour, 1996).

Out of the six requirements listed above, the first deserves special consideration because it bears on the early attempts to found a theory of translation advocating that the text whether literary or scientific should be dealt with according to the way language is used in them (Adams, 1967: 87). This means that it is a theory which goes back to the old epistemological controversy over the objective and the subjective sides of reality, and which may imply, when extended to language varieties, a dichotomy between science and literature.  According to Adams (ibid.) “it took more than a century to reorganize these two terms” properly as illustrated in the following columns:



- Denotative adequacy.

- Unbridled connotation.

- Logical expository and/or argumentative progression.

- Lack of argumentative progression.

- Precision.

- Vagueness.

- Intellect.

- Imagination or intuition.

- Reason.

- Emotion.

- Truth to particular truth.

- Truth to the ideal and universal.

The points of contrast mentioned above side with Ilyas (1989: 109) who describes the nature of scientific texts as follows: “i n scientific works, subject-matter takes priority over the style of the linguistic medium which aims at expressing facts, experiments, hypothesis, etc. The reader of such scientific works does not read it for any sensuous pleasure which a reader of literary work usually seeks, but he is after the information it contains. All that is required in fact is that of verbal accuracy and lucidity of expression. This is applicable to the translator's language as well. Scientific words differ from ordinary and literary words since they do not accumulate emotional associations and implications. This explains why the translation of a scientific work is supposed to be more direct, freer from alternatives, and much less artistic than the other kinds of prose. The language of scientific and technical language is characterized by impersonal style, simpler syntax, use of acronyms, and clarity.”

This distinction has one significant implication for the translator of scientific texts: he has to possess some knowledge of the subject-matter of the text he is working on, over the rest of the pre-requisites which he shares with translators of other text types.

By setting off scientific against the literary translation, their characteristics and the problems that are likely to be encountered in each, become more salient as illustrated below.

In scientific texts we have an end in view and the means necessarily remains within the general conceptual framework within which the end is defined.  That is, the scientific context has a content which is concerned with the horizontal structure of the world while the literary context has a content which is concerned with the vertical structure of the world.

Thus, on the one hand, we shall have a vertical relation between height and depth while, on the other hand, we shall have a horizontal relation between width and breadth. The first relation testifies to the relative merits of artists and poets, whereas the second one signifies the merits of scientists and technologists.  The product of poets is essentially a product of height and depth which has either been brought down or lifted up so as to fit into the width and breadth of life itself, that is acquiring a horizontal dimension; while the product of scientists lacks the intuitive complexity and wealth of experience characteristic of poets. This product is therefore, essentially conceived as a horizontal line corresponding to a photographic representation of the world (Blankenburg, 1982: 35-47).

Scientists speak within the familiar and concrete realities of everyday life.  If they are to move, their movement is almost always towards the accomplishment of a new horizon or new perspectives that always remain within the horizontal structure of the concrete, tangible and objective reality.

Another point intrudes itself here: it is important to stress that these dimensions, whether vertical or horizontal, are intrinsically dependent on the perceiving man, that is both self-relationship and world-relationship are unified through the symbolic system of identification generally known as language.  However, this is not the same as saying that these dimensions can be spanned during a given culture's or individual's life time.  The relation of these dimensions seems as one of opponents while their unity seems as a harmony of opposites.  To span them, therefore, seems impossible that even a highly-sophisticated computer technology cannot bring off.

These demarcation lines between vertical and horizontal dimensions suggest another area of investigation and comparisons. We can now expand the previous columns (p.3) of differences between science and literature so as to include more important language details:

Scientific Texts

Literary Texts

- Logicality.

- Lack of argumentative progression.

- Precision.

- Vagueness.

- Reason.

- Emotion.

- Truth to particular reality.

- Truth to the ideal.

- Generalization.

- Concretion.

- Referential meaning.

- Emotive meaning.

- Denotation.

- Connotation.

- Lexical affixation.

- Grammatical affixation.

- Idiomatic expressions are rare.

- Idiomatic expressions are frequent.

- Use of abbreviation, acronym, and registers.

- Very few abbreviations, acronyms, and registers.

- Standard expressions.

- Almost all varieties.

-Use of scientific terminology,  specialized items, and formulae.

- No use of scientific terminology, or formulae.

- No use of elements of figurative language.

- Expensive use of figurative language.



Wilss (2001: 119), when discussing text function, asks the following questions: What does S (source) intend with his text? Does he want to describe or comment on something? Will he teach R (reader) something? Is it his intention to deceive him? Does he practise what in English is called “tell it to the Marines!”( 谁信你那一套 )? Does he want to play down a problem or, conversely, does he want to make a mountain out of a mole-hill? Does he intend to motivate R to do something or to prevent him from doing something? Is he after R's money? Does he strive to influence him or to criticize him more or less openly? Does he want his M (message) to be understood at face value or does he want R to read between the lines? What is his M ultimately aimed at? Does it contain a primary function or a primary function plus one or two secondary functions?

To answer these questions, lets take a look at the functionalism in Literary Translation.

The target receiver takes the translators' interpretation for the intention of the sender. (What is actually translated is not the sender's intention but the translator's interpretation of the sender's intention) (sender's intention/text).

The function of the translated text is based on the interpretation of an interpretation of the sender's intention and on the target-cultural background knowledge and expectation of the target receivers (sender's intention/receiver's expectation).

In both the source and the target situations, the comprehension of the text world depends on the cultural background and world knowledge of the receivers (fiction/the real world).

The elements of the target-literature code can only achieve the same effect on their receivers as the source-literature elements have on theirs if their relation to literary tradition is the same (the text /receiver).

In order to achieve the faithfulness of intention, the following requirements must be observed.

1) The translator's interpretation should be identical with the sender's intention (interpretation).

2) The translator should verbalize the sender's intention in such a way that the target text is able to achieve the same function in the target culture as that which the source text achieved in the source culture. (text function).

3) The target receiver should understand the text world of the translation in the same way as the source receivers understood the text world of the original. (cultural distance).

4) The effect the translation has on its readers should be the same as the one the source text has or had on its readers. (text effect).

Suggestions are accordingly listed here so as to comply with the above-mentioned requirements.

1) The translator interprets the source text not only with regard to the sender's intention but also with regard to its compatibility with the target situation. (interpretation).

2) The target text should be composed in such a way that it fulfils functions in the target situation that are compatible with the sender's intention (text function).

3) The text world of the translation should be selected according to the intended target-text function. (cultural distance).

4) The code elements should be selected in such a way that the target-text effect corresponds to the intended target-text functions (text effect).

Variables that determine the purpose include: addressees, temporal and spatial conditions, initiators' intentions, and so on.

Wilss (2001: 29) says, “To the Romans this meant a form of translation which could stand alongside the exemplum graecum and be of equal value as a creative achievement. Where possible, it could even surpass the original in its artistic level and aesthetic expressiveness, thus placing the translator above the author of the original text”. One of the protagonists of this principle of translation, which aimed at rhetorical self-affirmation, was Cicero. (The Science of Translation-Problems and Methods, 2001).

Qian Zhongshu (1995: 257) in his book Collection of Prose by Qian Zhongshu, recalls his experience when reading the translation by Lin Shu, the eminent literary translator in the end of the Qing Dynasty, as preferring the translation to the original (the original Chinese reads 我发现自己宁可读林纾的译文, 不乐意读哈葛特的原文). This is proof positive that the translation can in some sense surpass the original with the translator's creative rewriting skill for the translated version has now gained a life of its own.

Further, the quarrels about “pure art” and about 'art with a tendency' took place between the liberals and the “populists” in literary circles. However, materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian. It finds the necessary rhythm of words for dark and vague moods, it brings thought and feeling closer or contrasts them with one another, it enriches the spiritual experience of the individual and of the community, it refines feeling, makes it more flexible, more responsive, it enlarges the volume of thought in advance and not through the personal method of accumulated experience, it educates the individual, the social group, the class and the nation. And this it does quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a 'pure' or of a frankly tendentious art (Trotsky, 1923).

In conclusion, just as the ultimate function of art is aesthetic, so is the function of literature. The translated piece should have the aesthetic value first and foremost, as Mao Dun (1957, quoted in Fan, 2000: 36), a well-acknowledged writer and translator, says in a translation conference that the translated version should be similarly artistic. (The original Chinese reads 译作同样也应该是艺术品). Abiding by this principle, I render the two English lines:

Let life be beautiful like summer flowers
And death like autumn leaves



让死亡似秋叶宁静自然 .

With aesthetics as the guiding principle, and by bearing this in his heart, Zhu Guangqian (Zhu, 1996: 57) translated William Wordsworth's Lucy:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove
A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden form the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!




This translation is successful in that it conveys the very aesthetic value of the original so readers of the Chinese version produce a quite similar response –passion and love and regret and sympathy--to that of the readers of the English version.




Shelly (1820) makes the following comment, “it is as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower- and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel ” (cited from Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001: 58).

James Holmes (1970), a great translator of poetry across several languages and distinguished scholar of translation, attempted to produce a basic set of categories for verse translation. He lists a series of basic strategies used by translators to render the formal properties of a poem: mimetic form (imitation); analogical form (equivalent in the target language); organic form (starts with the semantic material of the source text and allows it to shape itself); deviant or extraneous form (utilizes a new form) (cited from Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001: 62.)

Mathews (1966: 67) (quoted in Wilss, 2001) says that to translate a poem whole is to compose another poem. A whole translation will be faithful to the matter, and it will ‘approximate the form' of the original; and it will have a life of its own, which is the voice of the translator.

Italians has a saying, "traduttore--traditore" (translator--betrayer). The phrase reveals at once the problem of all translators - words don't have literal equivalents in different languages. To say "translator-traitor" in English would be unduly dramatic!

But, as Christopher Caudwell notes in his "Illusion and Reality", while the qualities of great novels can survive translation, those of poetry cannot. Surprisingly enough, this is not due to the difficulty of translating metrical pattern, but to the nature of poetry itself. The usefulness of the debate on translating is that it compels us to look more critically at the task of the poet and the function of poetry

Poetry is neither just words, nor just meter. It is a music of words, and is a way of seeing and interpreting the world and our experience of it, and of conveying to the listener a heightened awareness of it through an intense concentration of metaphor and words in which the natural flow of speech sounds is moulded to some kind of formal pattern. Such patterns can never be the same after the act of translation.

Pattern, obviously, is governed by the rules of syntax and prosody that language has inherited from the historical and social pressures that shaped it. Poets may accept or reject these rules, but this is also determined by historical and social tensions. Some who choose to modify the rules may, like Lear or Carroll, for example, or Edith Sitwell, do so by writing "sound poems" or nonsense verse, musical but meaningless. Emerging from the same social tensions, poetic "movements" have expressed widely divergent views on what should be the purpose and the structure of poetry.

What, then, is a translator to do? Which of the many threads of which poetry is made must he capture in his translation? Luckily, we don't have to answer that question. He answers it for us. He responds to his own poetic instincts. He chooses which of the poem's many threads he will seek to interpret. If he aims at literal translation, he will not necessarily expect a "poetic" result. He may aim to translate a poem's "music" or "mood". But the sounds of words and the norms of prosody make of every language a fortified compound, as hard to escape from as to access.

Many years ago, Stanley Burnshaw, aware of these problems of translation, compiled a work in which poems in various languages were translated literally, and set side by side with texts interpreting the verse and a guide to the prosody and pronunciation of each poem's original language. The book, "The Poem Itself", was - and remains - a unique and fertile work.

Literal translations do not make a poem. Some of the music or magic, some faint ghost of the original, may come across, but its full, rich fabric rarely survives undamaged. Understanding, tuning in on its or the poet's linguistic or cultural wavelength, a free translation, may all make an acceptable, even an outstanding poem, but then it may not be a "translation". It was Jorge Luis Borges who pointed out in his famous 1967 Harvard lectures, just published in Italian as "L'invenzione della poesia", that German clearly distinguishes between Umdichtung (a poem modeled on another), Nachdichtung (a free translation) and Übersetzung (a translation), but however neat the distinction, any translation is a new poem, modeled, closely or less closely, on the original.

At its deepest level, poetry attempts to communicate unspeakable aspects of human experience, through the still evolving traditions of an ancient and passionate art.

In some lyric poems, this voice seems to speak about individual feelings; in epic poems, the voice seems to speak on behalf of a nation or community.

Poets throughout the ages have defined their art, devised rules for its creation, and written manifestos announcing their radical changes, only to have another poet alter their definition, if not declare just the opposite. “Poetry is the purification of the language of the tribe,” wrote French poet Stéphane Mallarmé at the end of the 19th century. But 20th-century American poet William Carlos, just 50 years later, would call for poems written in a language so natural “that cats and dogs can understand.” (cited from Encarta, 2004) I am trying to write poems observing Carlos' principle, though on the other hand I might be accused of writing rhymesters only rather than poetry for some poetic theorists believe poetry is too artistic to be mastered by a layman.


"Beauty is the gift of God", says Aristotle. Philosophy has traditionally grouped together ‘the True', ‘the Good', and ‘the Beautiful'. Augustine, who wrote that: "If I were to ask first whether things are beautiful because they give pleasure, or give pleasure because they are beautiful, I have no doubt that I will be given the answer that they give pleasure because they are beautiful." Matthew Kieran notes, "contemporary philosophers have, following this tradition, defined aesthetic value in terms of our delighting in and savoring an object with pleasure." Aesthetic value, like moral value, is experienced as a transcendent reality, an outside influence. Neither moral nor Aesthetic perceptions are actions; rather, both are re actions. In both we appear to perceive a teleological reality, something that draws us towards itself as an end rather than a means. We see that the concept of Aesthetic value is linked to the concept of moral value. Albertus Magnus wrote that "Beauty calls things to it because it is an end and a good." while Aquinas thought of the Beautiful "as a way in which the good makes itself manifest." and wrote that "anyone who desires the good, by that very fact desires the beautiful." This view was echoed by John of LaRochelle who concluded that "beauty is the good when it pleases the apprehension." Matthew Kieran reports that in the classical tradition of Aesthetics, "the key thought is that what we take delight in is itself delightful."

The perception of a link between Aesthetics and moral values is not restricted to Medieval Philosophers. Roger Scruton writes that: "To show what is bad about a sentimental work of art must involve showing what is bad in sentimentality. To be certain in matters of taste is, therefore, to be certain in matters of morality: ethics and aesthetics are one." (cited from at http://www.leaderu.com/theology)

In philosophy, aesthetics is the study of beauty and taste, whether in the form of the comic, the tragic or the sublime. The word derives from the Greek aisthetikos , which means "of sense perception." Aesthetics has traditionally been part of other philosophical pursuits like the investigation of epistemology or ethics. However, it started to come into its own and become a more independent pursuit under Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who saw aesthetics as a unitary and self-sufficient type of human experience.

Aesthetics, branch of philosophy, is concerned with the essence and perception of beauty and ugliness. Aesthetics also deals with the question of whether such qualities are objectively present in the things they appear to qualify, or whether they exist only in the mind of the individual; hence, whether objects are perceived by a particular mode, the aesthetic mode, or whether instead the objects have, in themselves, special qualities—aesthetic qualities. Philosophy also asks if there is a difference between the beautiful and the sublime.

Criticism and the psychology of art, although independent disciplines, are related to aesthetics. The psychology of art is concerned with such elements of the arts as human responses to color, sound, line, form, and words and with the ways in which the emotions condition such responses. Criticism confines itself to particular works of art, analyzing their structures, meanings, and problems, comparing them with other works, and evaluating them.

The term aesthetics was introduced in 1753 by the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, but the study of the nature of beauty had been pursued for centuries. In the past it was chiefly a subject for philosophers. Since the 19th century, artists also have contributed their views.

Hegel considers art to be one of the supreme developments of spiritual and absolute knowledge, surpassed only by religion and philosophy. In the excerpt from Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, which was based on lectures that Hegel delivered between 1820 and 1829, Hegel discussed the relationship of poetry to other arts, particularly music, and explained that poetry was one mode of expressing the “Idea of beauty” that Hegel believed resided in all art forms. For Hegel, poetry was “the universal realization of the art of the mind.”


Translation as is well-know involves two languages and cultures, to understand the similarities and differences between English and Chinese poetry therefore is of fundamental value. Or translation of poetry will be going astray---without the translator's proactive consciousness to make adjustments, a word-for-word strategy will be adopted, which is killing the poem in the absolute sense.

5.3.1 Origin of poetry

Zhu (1987) holds that poetry, music and dance are in one in terms of their birth. He supports his proposition with researches of Australian aborigines and African primitive tribal societies, saying that singing and dancing commenced at the same time and singing is the early form of poetry, namely, words with music. In Poetics, Aristotle asserts that poetry and music are of the same origin. For Hegel, poetry was “the universal realization of the art of the mind.”

Poetry, and that means all poetry, is the language closest to human experience. Poetry, says Aristotle, is superior to history because it uses words in their fuller potential, and creates representations more complete and more meaningful than nature can give us in the raw. Man needs coherence and consistency in his affairs, and the arts provide meaning, significance and purpose in a universe that seems increasingly strange and hostile. The Chinese also consider poetry the highest art form in literature, an art form that juxtaposes other forms of art such as painting and sculpture, which are representations of nature but are more complete and more meaningful than nature per se . Speaking generally, according to Aristotle's ideas expressed in Poetics, poetry seems to owe its origin to two particular causes, both natural. From childhood men have an instinct for representation, and in this respect, differs from the other animals that he is far more imitative and learns his first lessons by representing things. And then there is the enjoyment people always get from representations. What happens in actual experience proves this, for we enjoy looking at accurate likenesses of things which are themselves painful to see, for instance, obscene beasts and corpses. The reason is this. Learning things gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but also in the same way to all other men, though they share this pleasure only to a small degree. The reason why we enjoy seeing likenesses is that, as we look, we learn and infer what each is, for instance, "that is so and so."   We have, then, a natural instinct for representation and for tune and rhythm--for the meters are obviously sections of rhythms--and starting with these instincts men very gradually developed them until they produced poetry out of their improvisations. Here emerges the conjunction where the Sino-west philosophies on the origin of poetry meet, sharing a lot in common. The ancient Chinese believe that poetry is what expresses one's mind and it is an instinct that they do so. The tune and rhythm come naturally without artificial elaboration which is quite similar to what Aristotle means by improvisations. I am not intending to translate literally what the original words go, but for those who may be interested, I copy the Chinese here, as taken from Preface to Poetry (《 诗大序 》 诗者 , 志之所之也 。 在心为志 , 发言为诗 。 情动于中而形于言 ; 言之不足 , 故嗟叹之 ; 嗟叹之不足 , 故咏歌之 ; 咏歌之不足 , 不知手之舞之 , 足之蹈之也 。 情发于声 , 声成文谓之音 。). From this it can be inferred that East or West poetry is rhythmic in nature. One thing that is slightly different is Aristotle stresses representation of nature while Chinese goes a step further----- poetry reflects nature which touches and moves the poet. Then the poet, while observing nature, reflects on what he has seen and relates it to himself, his inner self and his life. It is an everlasting tradition influencing the Chinese poets over two thousand years, as is shown in the three ways of poetry composing fu ( 赋 ), bi ( 比 ) and xing ( 兴 ). Another similar point concerning the origin of poetry is both peoples started with ballads or folk songs which are rhythmic in nature and have a rhyming system of their own respectively. They are mostly about the recordings of their life, or facts, and expressions of their emotions, or their spiritual world. Poetry are believed to originate from this and later developed into a literary genre which only the educated could appreciate and enjoy. All the above-mentioned similarities establish the common ground for translatability between.

The origin of poetry in Britain is in the form of ballad. It is a narrative poem which is, or originally was, meant to be sung. Ballads are the narrative species of folk songs, which originate, and are communicated orally. The narrator begins with the climactic episode, tells the story by means of action and dialogue, and tells it without self-reference or the expression of personal attitudes or feelings. Folk songs ( 民谣 , 民歌 ), similarly, are believed to the earliest form of poetry in China such as shijing (the Book of Songs).

In the West, poetry then splits into two kinds according to the poet's nature. For the more serious poets represented fine doings and the doings of fine men, while those of a less exalted nature represented the actions of inferior men, at first writing satire just as the others at first wrote hymns and eulogies. When tragedy and comedy came to light, poets were drawn by their natural bent towards one or the other. Some became writers of comedies instead of lampoons, the others produced tragedies instead of epics; the reason being that the former is in each case a higher kind of art and has greater value. The Chinese do not divide poetry into these categories. In a macroscopic perspective, poetry is defined as that what causes us to see ourselves and the world in greater depth and clarity. Its truth, its moral dimensions and its wider social significance are things that seize us immediately. Life and poetry occupy very different spheres, but with poetry we travel with our eyes open through a world that is cruel, uplifting and beautiful.

Poetry is still the workshop of language, and things can be explored in poetry that escape other literary genres such as prose or drama. Indeed, for all the current difficulties, poetry has the most innovative, exciting and significant of today's writing. Here ends our discussion of poetry from a philosophical perspective between the West and China , including the origin and categories of poetry.

5.3.2 Traditional criticism of poetry

The Chinese poetic history, according to Han (2000), undergoes the following phases. At the very beginning, poetry is to express emotions and record life in a simple unembellished way like Shijing (《 诗经 》 used to be translated as Book of Songs ), which actually is more like what is today defined as folk songs. Later in the span of a few hundred years, poetry is to be allegorical in nature. In other words it has become a tradition for poets to point out the faults and defects of the kings and ministers and express their dissatisfaction with the rulers with the hope that they will improve themselves and mend theirs ways so the people will live a peaceful and well-off life. Yet from the Han Dynasty on the trend turns in another direction due to the oppressions of the rulers accusing the poets of rebellions or of incensing people to rebel with their allegory poems. The poetry is now an expression of one's inner-self, completely abandoning the former tradition, which is much like the western “arts for arts sake”, completely away from the real social life of the time, with all the poems purely depicting nature per se and expressing one's love of nature. After that, Chinese poetry ushers in a new era when poetic taste is everything in a poem forbidding any other themes or forms. The prevailing taste is named Yijing ( 意境 ) , a term which can hardly be explained in English, not mentioning to find the equivalent of it in English. It means poetry must be fundamentally romantic, such as the following style, to quote Shelley, “His name was written on water.” If we attribute the early poetry composition tradition to the Confucian influence, the later trends are certainly the results of Toism and Buddhism both of which mainly emphasizes the harmony of man and nature, sometimes including mystery of one's inner self and the connotations of superficially simple language.

But which variety of criticism should be chosen? There are now so many — traditional, new critical, rhetorical, stylistic, metaphoric, structuralist, post-structuralist, mythological, Freudian, Jungian, historical, sociological, feminist, Marxist and moralist to name but a few. That which proves the most illuminating is the usual answer. The various approaches are not entirely distinct, and one can aim for a wise eclecticism, incorporating several approaches in the one assessment.  But bulk is surely no substitute for quality. Should not the individual approaches be sound in themselves? Earlier critics claimed nothing more than personal taste for their enthusiasms, but criticism since the WWII has borrowed from other disciplines in an attempt to build objective grounds for judgment.

5.3.2 .1 Traditional Literary Analysis

Traditional poetry achieves an amalgam of formal beauty, emotive response, fidelity to experience and abiding pleasure by employing language in unusual ways.  Such departures from everyday usage — the elements of poetry — are commonly studied under:
1) Diction. The vocabulary may be recondite, and include words with a literary or slightly archaic flavor. Words in poetry are chosen not only for denotation but also connotation — i.e. for their associations (literary and nonliterary) and for auditory and rhythmic qualities.
2) Meter. Emotive language is overtly rhythmical. Regular rhythm is meter, but in good verse such meter is only the base line over which infinitely varied and subtle melodies are played.
3) Simile and Metaphor . Language is very largely built of dead metaphors, but poetry resurrects them in vivid and arresting turns of phrase, attempting to achieve the immediacy that is one of the characteristics of art.
4) Myth and Symbol. As pictorial expression and a good deal else, myth and symbol are woven into all types of language. Poetry uses their denotative power to explore fundamental aspects of human nature.
5) Arrangement. Poetry is commonly laid out in lines of a certain length or pattern. Shaping can be emphasized by meter and/or rhyme. Additionally, and independently of typography, traditional poetry makes greater use of rhetorical devices, both for emotive effect and for clarity of argument and narration.
6) Some general points. Which elements are used, and how deployed, depends on literary conventions and the effect being sought. The elements are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and all need to unobtrusively pull their weight.

Naturally, that best is very hard to achieve, requiring a long apprenticeship, a fine ear and constant application.

But humanism is not at heart a belief in man's perfectibility, but an attempt to give our lives significance by extending the great commonplaces of existence — the brevity of human existence, the joy of love and comradeship, the pain of separation and bereavement, and so on. Ceaselessly these great themes are repeated in more subtle and telling ways. The commonplaces are myths — compelling and self-reinforcing structures of understanding that give our lives purpose and coherence — but they seem also to reflect structures biologists recognize in neural physiology. Even in the very different traditions of Indian and Chinese poetry something of the same themes appear — though expressed with a good deal more acquiescence and abnegation.

All subjects and genres of poetry are facilitated: meditation, lyricism, social comment, satire and public pronouncement.

5.3.2 .2 Form vs content

Meter is a systematic regularity in rhythm. It creates and organizes content, giving emphasis to words or elements that would otherwise escape attention: the tighter the meter, the more expressive can be small departures from the norm. Meter gives dignity and memorability, conveys tempo, mood, the subtle shifts in evidence, passion and persuasion beyond what is possible in prose. In the hands of great master like Shakespeare, meter provides grace, energy, elevation, expressiveness and a convincing approximation to everyday speech.

What follows is an attempt to weigh up the pros and cons.

Traditional meter and stanza shaping confer certain advantages, and certain disadvantages. They:

1) Please the reader by their display of skill, their variety within order, their continuity with the admired literature of the past.

2) Help the actual writing of the poem, either by invoking words from the unconscious, or by pushing the poem into new areas to escape the limitations of the form.

3) Provide a sense of completeness impossible in free verse. The author knows when the last word clicks into place.

4) Enforce dignity, emotional power and density of meaning.

5) Are more memorable.

Alliteration is another important form in shaping poems. The stressed sounds in these words from the poem The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman (1360?-1400?; attributed to English poet William Longland) demonstrate the technique of alliteration. Through the repetition of sounds and syllables, usually at the beginning of words, alliteration helps to create a mood or to unify a passage.

One characteristic that makes poetry different from ordinary language is that it uses many kinds of repetition. One kind, called poetic meter, is essentially the repetition of a regular pattern of beats. In poems organized by lines of syllabic meters—in which each syllable has a beat—the number of beats and the number of syllables are both repeated. Accentual poetry refers to poems organized by the recurrence of a set number of accents or stronger beats per line. In poetry written in accentual-syllabic meters, both the number of beats and number of syllables recur in a set pattern. The most commonly used accentual-syllabic meter in English language poetry is iambic pentameter, in which unaccented and accented syllables alternate in lines of ten syllables. Other kinds of repetition in poetry include rhyme, the recurrence of sound clusters; assonance, the echoing of vowels; and consonance, the echoing of consonants. Many early poems included refrains, the repetition of lines or whole phrases.

The following is a list of poetry types and styles that we have learned about, used and discovered through many different sources.  Each different type will be given a detailed explanation.

BALLAD: A narrative poem which is, or originally was, meant to be sung. Ballads are the narrative species of folk songs, which originate, and are communicated orally. The narrator begins with the climactic episode, tells the story by means of action and dialogue, and tells it without self-reference or the expression of personal attitudes or feelings.

BLANK VERSE: unrhymed iambic pentameter, used in Shakespeare's dramas and Milton 's Paradise Lost, is one of the most common metrical patterns in English poetry.

CINQUAIN: A poetic form invented by Adelaid Crapsey, an American poet. The five lines of the poem contain, in order, two, four, six, eight, and two syllables. Iambic meter prevails.

CHORUS: Among the ancient Greeks the chorus was a group of people, wearing masks, who sang or chanted verse while performing dance-like maneuvers at religious festivals. Choruses also served as commentators on the characters and events who expressed traditional moral, religious and social attitudes. During the Elizabethan Age the term "chorus" was applied to a single person who spoke the prologue and epilogue to a play and sometimes introduced each at as well.

COUPLET: Two successive lines of poetry with end-words that rhyme.

EPIC: Long narrative poem, majestic both in theme and style. Epics deal with legendary or historical events of national or universal significance, involving action of broad sweep and grandeur.

EPIGRAM: In literature, a terse, pointed, frequently witty observation, often in verse.

FREE VERSE: A fluid form of poetry which conforms to no set rules.

IDYLL: Expression of experience of serene happiness; an experience or period of serene and carefree happiness, usually in beautiful surroundings and often in the context of a romantic relationship.

LIMERICK : A light or humorous verse form of five lines in which lines one, two and five are of three feet and lines three and four are of two feet, with a rhyme scheme of aabba.

NURSERY RHYME: A short poem for children written in rhyming verse and handed down in folklore.

ODE: A lyric poem, usually expressing exalted emotion in a complex scheme of rhyme and meter.

SONNET: Fourteen-line rhyming poem with a set structure ;  a short poem with fourteen lines, usually ten-syllable rhyming lines, divided into two, three, or four sections. There are many rhyming patterns for sonnets, and they are usually written in iambic pentameter. (adapted herein from Encarta 2004)

What follows is the definition of some basic terms in poetry, to make it easier to understand the above technical terms.

LINE: The sequence of words printed as a separate entity on the page.

METER: The pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables or the units of stress pattern.

METRIC LINE: A line named according to the number of feet composing it (including for instance MONOMETER,DIMETER,TRIMETER, ect.)

RHYME SCHEME: The pattern of rhymed words. Stanzas are often linked by their rhyme scheme. Rhyme scheme is lacking in some modern poetry.
RHYTHM: A variable pattern in the beat of stresses in the stream of sound. Rhythm can also be defined as the sense of movement attributable to the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Although rhythm is sometimes used to signify meter, it includes tempo and the natural fluctuations of movement.
(adapted herein from Encarta,2004)

The rather thorough list of poetic forms in English is intended to convey one point. Forms are but forms and easy to learn or to imitate. But mastering only forms does not make one a good poet. Unlike English poetic forms, the Chinese poems have much simpler forms. Stanzas are usually two, each consisting of four lines which have either five characters or seven characters. The rhyming scheme is also simple with even-numbered lines rhymed with each other. There may be exceptions but what is introduced here is beyond doubt the norm and the rule. In songci , another poetic form prevalent in the Song Dynasty, the number of characters varies according to the tunes for they are meant to be sung. The stanzas are again two, but lines can be made up of one, three, four, five, six or seven characters, with even-numbered lines rhymed with each other.

Then how have poetry come into being and developed? Old English verse was originally delivered orally, a highly formalized method of transmitting cultural and political history in an illiterate society. The heavy alliteration of the verse, using words that begin with similar sounds, may have made it easier to remember. Heroic themes of honor, valor in battle, and fame among one's descendants are often featured in these poems, but there is also a sorrowful tradition that focuses on the concept of the exile. “The Wanderer,” one of the most beautiful Old English poems, recalls a sense of the harshness of life and the sadness of the human experience.

Christina Georgina Rossetti wrote in a variety of styles and forms, often exploring themes of religion and death.

Nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most important figures in American literature. She wrote nearly 2000 poems, most of which were discovered and published after her death in 1886. Her work was compressed, painstakingly crafted, and often experimental, using off-rhymes, varying rhythmic patterns, and unusual syntax. She confronted all themes—love, sex, death, immortality, religion—with a passion and lack of sentimentality that belied the popular image of her as a sensitive recluse.

In addition to creating balanced rhythms or cadence through the use of meter, poets give richness to their language through shadings of sound, orchestrating the musical quality of vowel and consonants through the words they use. Perhaps the most familiar form of sound patterning is end-rhyme, a similarity of sound carried by word endings. It began as an aspect of oral poetry (poetry composed, transmitted, or performed orally rather than through writing), and was probably intended to help people memorize poems. Over centuries written verse forms developed using rhyme in set patterns known as rhyme schemes.

The classical Greek philosopher Aristotle in his Poetics (about 330 BC) declared metaphor one of the highest achievements of poetic style: “it is the token of genius. For the right use of metaphor means an eye for resemblances.”

Poetry is an ancient art, with its origins well before those of recorded history (about 3000 BC). The oldest surviving remnants come from the Near East , dating as far back as 2600 BC. The Assyro-Babylonian, Sumerian, and Egyptian cultures all contributed to this fascinating and fragmentary store of work. The remnants are preserved in cuneiform, an ancient wedge-shaped writing on clay tablets, or on papyrus paper stenciled with hieroglyphs, characters used in picture writing. These early poems included praises of gods and heroes, chants (songs that repeat the same note or words), wisdom literature (lists of advice and truths from elders or other authorities), magic charms, and laments to mourn or inspire pity. All these poems were for the most part religious in nature.

Evidence suggests that much early poetry was intended to be sung, at times with musical accompaniment. Longer works existed as well.

These traces suggest the presence of a widespread oral poetry tradition aimed at providing pleasure and offering prayer, as well as fulfilling the important social function of commemorating lives, battles, and historical events. Within the warrior culture that helped shape much early Greek poetry, this final purpose was particularly crucial. In a preliterate world lacking many means of remembering a person's story after death, oral poetry took on great importance as a vehicle for awarding a kind of earthly immortality. Once passed into the “fame” of words, the hero would live forever in the minds of listeners. Poetry gained power and authority in part because it was felt to be divinely inspired.

Within a given culture a conventional image—an image with a long history—reminds people of thoughts, feelings, and ideas that have collected around that image over time. For example, one of the most common Western images in poetry is the moon. It is also a common image in Eastern poetry but carries different meanings. In Greek and Roman myth, in which Western culture originated, the moon was associated with the goddess Artemis (called Diana by the Romans). This hunter and virgin rejected men, preferring to roam the woods alone or with bands of female followers, all of whom were required to renounce male companionship. This association, along with the moon's shifting shapes, led to a shared understanding of the moon as an image of women's indifference, changeability, elusiveness, and inconstancy. Even when not attached specifically to a particular woman, the image evoked a principle of change and flux that was thought of as essentially feminine.

T. S. Eliot is known as one of the originators of modern poetry. He broke with the tradition of using iambic pentameter in poetry, advocated for impersonality in art, and argued that every new poem added to a tradition reshapes the whole tradition.

The Avant-Garde in poetry is a new trend or experiment with poetic forms. To be an avant-garde artist is to create work that consciously refutes the accepted standards of one's medium. English poet and critic Peter Porter traces the avant-garde movement in poetry, giving credit mainly to poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound for revitalizing English poetry. Williams's “The Red Wheelbarrow” American author William Carlos Williams wrote simple, direct poetry that avoids complexity and obscure symbolism. He frequently experimented with short poems that capture individual moments, thoughts, feelings, or images.

In modern day China , there are less restrictions on poetic forms and free verse are written, but many still keep the traditional style. The new style is not taking a dominant position yet.

With so much being treated about forms, we can now talk a little about themes and contents in Chinese poetic tradition. Zhu (1987) divides ancient poetry into three categories: funny poems; riddles; play of words. Bai Juyi , a Tang Dynasty household-popular poet, holds that poets must take up the responsibility of speaking the truth and pointing out faults of the governing class so they could refrain from oppressing the common people too harshly (the original Chinese reads: 言者无罪,闻者足戒,言者闻者莫不两尽其心 。 ). Wang Shizhen ( 王世贞 ), a Ming Dynasty poet, believes that to write about poverty, old age, grief and sickness or a life of instability and un-safety is good poem while the opposite (wealth and high position) is considered bad poems, though in the real world these things are what are admired and adored. (the original Chinese reads :贫老愁病,流窜滞留,人所不谓佳者也,然而入诗则佳;富贵荣显,人所谓佳者也,然而入诗则不佳。) Wang Guowei, a poet and poetic theorist in the Qing Dynasty, proposes that all poems are good if they express the poets' real true exalted emotions. Many others firmly believe poetry expresses a kind of yijing ( 意境 ), which should be considered most important above anything else but which is an illusive concept and can hardly be put into clear words. For them, form is far less important. I assume poetry is a combination of both form and content, with content carrying more weight than form.


In the translation circles there used to be two contending regimes, namely those holding that translation is scientific and the other believing that it is artistic. We believe that poetic translation absolutely involves artistic elements.

Susan Bassnett (2001) says that if translation is, as Lefevere and others claim, rewriting, then the relationship between writer and rewriter has to be established as productive. Translations of poems are part of a process of reading continuity. Writers create for readers, and the power of the reader to remake the text is fundamental. Different readers will produce different translations. What matters in the translation of poetry is that the translator should be drawn into the poem that he or she then seeks to transpose it creatively, through the pleasure generated by the reading. (as quoted in Wilss,2001: 74, 128). The authors of lyrical productions do not work with recurrent but with concurrent linguistic material (Schmidt 1968) or with “low-probability” collocations (Catford, 1965: 102 as quoted in Baker, 1992: 87). The translator is faced with the paradoxical situation that on the one side the obligatory character of the semantic and formal structure of the SLT leaves him only a minimum of linguistic room for maneuvering, and that on the other side he must overcome the limitations set by the aesthetic function of the SLT by mustering up all his expressive-poetical imaginative power and his language-creative resources.

What are the characteristics of the style best suited to self-knowledge and catharsis? In general, it is short, pithy and personal, plain spun, with little artifice, ornament or social nuance.

Built with little of the poet's tool-kit — just lines of approximately the same length, breaks engineered to emphasize the sense or confound expectations, metonymy, a simple sound patterning, structuring to hook the reader's interest and release it on conclusion.


The earliest ideas about poetry are proposed by Confucius in his The Analects tell the purpose or function of poetry. “Why don't you study Book of Songs ? Iit will help you to incite people's emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. The songs may be used at home in the service of one's father; abroad, in the service of one's prince. Moreover they will make you acquainted with the names of birds, beasts, plants and trees. (my translation; the original Chinese reads: 子曰 : 小子何莫学否 《 诗 》 ? 《 诗 》 可以兴 , 可以观 , 可以群 , 可以怨 , 迩之事父 , 远之事君 , 多识于草木鸟兽之名 . 《 论语 . 阳货 . 九 》 )

It reorganizes and restates the general value judgments of the society. We become more clearly aware of what is good and bad, interesting and dull, beautiful and ugly, lovable and mean. Experience thus comes to have greater scope, greater depth, and greater intensity. Many activities of man do this — but it is specifically, primarily, the function of poetry .

Is art — or poetry — communication or construction? Purposive construction of any kind is a species of communication, just as any kind of communication must be structured.

In poetry, as in all the arts, both the constructive and communicative aspects are tremendously raised in power, but they do not differ in kind from ordinary speech. Only the aesthetician who brings to the arts considerations from elsewhere in philosophy, from ontology or epistemology, can postulate a different realm of being with its own kind of communication in poetry.

The thing that endures, that gives value to life, is comradeship, loyalty, bravery, magnanimity, love, the relations of men in direct communication with each other, personally, as persons, committed to each other. From this comes the beauty of life, its tragedy and its meaning, and from nowhere else.”

(“Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art” was presented as a lecture at the University of Southern California Library (May 1958) and published in Bird in the Bush (1959). Copyright 1959. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. )

Jacobson (1966) states there are four types of functions, namely, conative, phatic, metalinguistic, and emotive aspects of the function of poetry. Gu Zhengkun (Gu, 2003: 68), after his thorough comparative and contrastive study of English and Chinese poetry, originally puts forward the conclusion that there are altogether five functions: purely aesthetic (纯审美) function, entertainment (娱乐) function, educational (教谕) function, congnitive (认知) function, and practical (实用) function (my translation for the original is in Chinese). Probably it is safe to say if a translation has succeed in fulfilling the above-mentioned functions of the source poem we then can consider it a good translation to some degree.



Jacobson (1966: 238) (quoted in Wilss, 2001) concludes that poetry by definition is untranslatable and only creative transposition is possible. Xu ( 1998), a highly reputed translator of poetry, sums up his principles saying that translation of poetry is a kind of creative reproduction and the translator must make various sorts of adaptations such as adding necessary information or deleting redundant information to convey and relay the beauty of the source poetry. (my translation. The original Chinese reads: 我认为译诗是一种再创作,译者要尽可能传达原诗美,可以采取等化、浅化、深化等丰富而具有强烈表现力的手法 .)


This is a strategy used whenever the so-called untranslatable elements are encountered, be they linguistic or cultural. Some poems are nothing but play of words: a, funny; b, graphic; c, riddles. These are really untranslatable without explanatory notes. Or even if you have translated, nothing can be made out.

For instance, when dealing with the play of words, which is quite common in most languages. Such playing of words often has rhetorical values and they can make language vivid, lively, and sometimes funny so the readers might attain aesthetic pleasure. Without explanation in such cases the translation may lose too much of the original flavor so the translator can not help making a painful effort to get a certain idea into the target readers' head, though it is never an assurance whether it would succeed or not for if readers do not have enough background knowledge they may still end up enjoying little. The following lines are the translation of a Chinese poem of a folk favor:


The sound of a drum on a mountain travels afar,

Third sister Liu has long been known for her singing;

Divide twenty-seven coins by three--

The answer is well known, well known!

In order to make foreign readers understand the homophonic pair of “ jiuwen ” and “ jiuwen ”, the translator appends a note: Twenty-seven coin divided by three makes nine coins, “jiu wen”, pronounced the same as another “jiuwen” meaning “well known”. This type of play on words is very common in Chinese folk songs, where an object may stand for something quite different while having the same sound. (Yang Hsian-yi & Gladys Yang, 1979) This is quite similar to the English play of words, puns.


This strategy is adopted when the translator decides to give the target readers an easy time in terms of comprehension for without substitution the reader might be at a loss understanding what the poem is driving at, thus causing confusion and difficulty in comprehension. The translation of the following poem



寥落古行宫 ,

宫花寂寞红 .

白头宫女在 ,

闲坐说玄宗 .

by Fletcher is

The ancient Palace lies in desolation spread.

The very garden flowers in solitude grow red.

Only some withered dames with whitened hair remain,

Who sit there idly talking of mystic monarchs dead.

Apparently Fletcher substitutes the original Xuanzon (玄宗) with monarchs, which will be understood easily by most reader.

6.3 PHONEMIC TRANSLATION (imitation of ST sound)

As a matter of fact, there is no poem which is merely composed of sound without meaning, so it is only for the present purpose that such a strategy is brought about. Sound and meaning are one thing in any language. While reproducing the meaning, sound quite often is simultaneously reproduced. Here we just call translator' attention to be paid on the power of sound if dealt with skillfully. It will produce a strong echo in the readers.

The famous poetess Li Qingzhao's poem 寻寻觅觅 , 冷冷清清 , 凄凄惨惨戚戚 is translated by Xu Yuanchong as


I see but seek in vain,

I search and search again;

I feel so sad, so drear,

So lonely, without cheer. (quoted in Feng, 1995)

Here we can see with clarity Mr Xu's effort in using the sound ‘s' eight times to create the sad and lonely atmosphere the poetess is in, which perfectly expresses the poetess' heartfelt emotion.


Literal translation is the opposite of free translation, both being used to explain the two choices translators make in their translation practice. Earlier in my thesis enough has been said about their distinctions. As a strategy, it is intended for those particular groups of readers who would like to know what exactly the original poem says and by comparing the original and the translation to learn that foreign language or to do academic research. Usually this kind of translation does not read smoothly and sometimes presents bad grammar and poor collocations, or poses difficulty in understanding.

Nevertheless how literal or how free is the question. This pair of terms seems now to be of expediency value only, which means that it is a universally acknowledged fact that in all translations traces of both free and literal strategies can be detected and all translators have adopted both strategies in dealing with the same piece of translation. But for the purpose for those target readers who are also the source language learners, literal translation is useless and absolutely unnecessary, especially for the Chinese-English pair as they have remarkable differences in their respective linguistic conventions, Chinese being paratactic and English being hypotactic . It is said that languages of one linguistic family such as those belonging to Indo-European family can tolerate such a strategy without resulting in understanding failure altogether.


In our poetic translation history there has been a trend that tries to reproduce the source language meter, the English feet becoming in Chinese pauses (顿). Because the translators believe the readers are interested in learning about the original form. For instance, the first four lines of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in the Church Yard

(The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o ' er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and me. )

are translated as





这周围剩下的唯有我和幽冥. (高健)




把整个世界留给了黄昏与我. (卞之琳 ) (quoted in Huang,1999)

6.6 PROSE TRANSLATION (rendering as much sense as possible)

This is seldom used because most translators believe a poem must be translated as a poem. Without a specific or particular purpose this strategy is seldom adopted. Though examples in this category are rare, I upon careful and patient hunting, have found the following one. Weng (as quoted in Feng, 2001: 420) translated the renown poem by Meng Haoran—

春晓 : 春眠不觉晓



One Morning in Spring

Late! This spring morning as I awake I know. All round me the birds are crying, crying. The storm last night, I sensed its fury. How many, I wonder, are fallen, poor dear flowers!

Handled this way, the original poetic form is no longer preserved with the apparent purpose to render the most correct or at least closest meaning as possible. Perhaps in some way the original poetic function is performed, but I assume that poetic form, as contrasted from prose form, creates different visual and mental images and thus produces different impacts upon readers. That may justly explain the reason why in China quite rarely is a poem not translated as a poem, namely in prose form rather than poetic form.

6.7 RHYMED TRANSLATION (added constraints of rhyme and meter)

Sometimes translators think rhymed translation can re-creates the musical quality of the source language poem. Next is an example taken from Gu (2003) translation of Mao Zedong's Collection of Poems.


Hands waving from you off I start,

How can I bear to see you face me with an aching heart?

Retelling me your sorrows as we part,

Grief is written over your brows and in your eyes;

You wink back the hot tears about to break ties.

In this world only you and I in each other's hearts dwell;

For how can heaven tell if man suffers hell?

With a sound of the whistle our hearts break and moan,

Henceforth I embark on a journey to the world's end alone.

6.8 FREE VERSE TRANSLATION (no constraint of rhyme but still one of structure)

It is the new movement in today's world that poetry does not have to have strict meter or foot restrictions or rhyming schemes. Correspondingly, translation of poems shifts the emphasis on the meaning, putting form on a less important status, if not neglected altogether.

Li Shanyin's poem ( 夜雨寄北 : 君问归期未有期 , 巴山夜雨涨秋池 . 何当共剪西窗烛 , 却话巴山夜雨时 ) is translated by Witter Bynner as


You ask me when I am coming. I do not know.

I dream of your mountains and autumn pools brimming all night with the rain.

Oh, when shall we be trimming wicks again, together in your western window?

When shall I be hearing your voice again, all night in the rain? (Lu, 2002: 277)

6.9 INTERPRETATION (complete change of form and/or imitation)

This is just like the above one for the translator is almost writing another poem. The following translation by Allen of an ancient poem selected from the Book of Songs ( the Chinese goes: 摽有梅 : 摽有梅 , 其实七兮 . 求我庶士 , 迨其吉兮 . 摽有梅 , 其实三兮 . 求我庶士 , 迨其今兮 . 摽有梅 , 顷筐墍之 . 求我庶士 , 迨其谓之 .)


The plums are ripening quickly;

Nay, some are falling too;

‘Tis surely time for suitors

To come to me and woo.


See more and more are falling

From off the parent tree.

Why don't the men come forward

To win a maid like me?


At length upon the plum-tree

No fruit can be espied,

Yet no one comes to court me,

Or bid me be his bride . (Lu, 2002: 9)

Against such categories as these, translations can be judged according to what the translator set out to achieve, instead of some notional criterion of what qualifies as good translation of poetry. Once again, we must place the act of translating within a social context. Since total re-creation of any language transaction is impossible, translators will always be subject to a conflict of interests as to what are their communicative priorities, a conflict which they resolve as best they can. It follows from this that, in assessing translations, the first thing to consider is the translator's own purpose, so that performance can be judged against objectives. In sum, it should be possible to arrive at some statement, along the lines of Jacobson's, of what can and what cannot be achieved and then to discuss results in terms of what the translator is aiming at, and for what kind of reader: do the results match up to the stated aims? If the aim is achieved, the mission of translation is competently fulfilled.


Wang (1995), a senior translator, changed the original Chinese image to adapt to the English aesthetic tradition when he translated a poem in the ancient poetry collection generally known as the Book of Songs. The ancient Chinese used the following simile to depict a beautiful girl (literally translated): her hands are like soft sprouts; her skin, condensed cream; her neck, larva of a scarab; her teeth, deviltree; her head, qing (a cicada-like insect); and her brows, the shape of a moth. Let's not inquire about the reasons why the ancient Chinese made such comparisons or analogy. One thing is sure: Westerners would not be able to appreciate such a 'beautiful' girl. Wang's version, after his artistic modification or adaptation, reads like this:


Her hands are small, her fingers slim;
Her skin is smooth as cream;
Her swan-like neck is long and slim;

Her teeth like pearls do gleam.
A broad forehead and arching brow
Complement her dimpled cheeks
And make her black eyes glow.
(quoted in Shi, 2004)


Poetry is translatable. Based on the above discussion, we naturally come to that conclusion. All of those who hold the idea of untranslatability have talked from an idealistic perspective, drawing the conclusion that poetry is too delicate to be translated. That, I find myself obliged to say, is going to the extreme. Following their line of argument, we may say translation should be abandoned altogether and poetry of a certain nation, a specific language and a unique culture can only be exclusively appreciated by the people themselves alone. Yet we human beings are after all not living alone and are curious animals. We have the need and desire to know about one another, trying to learn what other people are doing, how they are living, and how they have lived. We would like to know, apart from our different ethnicity, color, language, and culture, whether we share the same understanding of love, passion, sorrow, aspiration, sympathy, jealousy and many other respects of human nature. So long as the desire to know stays with us, translation will be the only bridge across which our aims are reached and our desire realized.

Poetry, as a branch of literature, is aesthetic in essence. Yet there are many different opinions about what poetry really means and reading poetry both in the west and in China we find poetry, beside its aesthetic function, has many other functions. As translators, we believe that we have done our job well if we manage to deliver the message of the original and if our translated version plays the functions of the original. Even in the aesthetic sphere, we can also adapt and accommodate to re-create the power and the expressiveness of the original so that the original beauty is preserved at its best. Exact preservation and representation is but an idealistic bubble which immediately explodes in translation practice. Complete and thorough faithfulness is an impossibility and absolutely unnecessary since we after all are in different cultures and have different aesthetic conventions. Perfectly faithful rendering often fails to ignite the emotional flame in the target readers' heart as it does the source readers.

Different purposes decide translators' choices. It is the translator who analyzes and judges and then makes the decision who his target readers are and what his target readers want, be it for academic purposes or for general reading. Different purposes result in different versions of translation. So we are opposed to the idea that poetry is untranslatable.

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