David Hawkes on translating Chinese poetry

april 4, 2013

Having, then, investigated the main formal aspects of Chinese verse which resist successful communication by the translator, let us now consider some features of its content which can prove equally refractory.

A notable one is the Chinese poet’s preference for impersonal statement. The Chinese verb can be, and often is, left uncommitted as to number and tense. When, in addition to this, the personal pronoun is omitted, the effect is a timeless, universal quality comparable to that of the statement made by a painting. Significantly, Keats had to use three or four different forms of the verb in describing the figures on the Grecian urn, even while he was stressing the timelessness of the scene. When the Chinese poet is describing anything his statements are invariable and automatically timeless.

Of course, the poet’s presence may often be inferred even when it is not explicit. Yet even so there is an objectiveness in the Chinese which cannot quite be paralleled in English. The following poem by the eleventh-century Song poet Kou Zhun demonstrates the translator’s dilemma:


Feng kuo qiang xi bo miao mang

Du ping wei lan si he chang

Xiao xiao yuan shu shu lin wai

Yi ban qui shan dai xi yang

Widely separated peaks, a few scattered masts, a great blank

of water;

All alone, leaning on vertiginously high-up ralings, far lost in


Forlorn, leafless trees in the distance beyond the sparse woods;

One half of the mountains wearing the colours of sunset.


This is not a finished translation but the intermediate draft from which a translation is made. When we come to make the final draft, what do we do with line 2? When did the leaning occur, and who is its subject? I? You? She?

In this particular case we know that the poem was one of four written by Kou Zhun on the wall of a riverside pavilion, each describing the view from the pavilion at a different season of the year. This poem is the one for autumn. So Kou Zhun’s presence in the scene can be assumed.

But this still does not entirely dispose of our problem. Is the verb “I am leaning”? “I have been leaning”? “I leaned (last autumn)”? “I often lean”? Or is it “One might lean”? Or “When you lean”?

In fact, it is impossible to say. It could be all or none of these. The Chinese poet does not really care, and to tell the truth would probably not understand the question. He is describing a picture which includes a little figure in a pavilion looking at the view. He is not interested in the history of identity of the little figure or the date of the painting, even if the little figure is himself and the time is now.

The problem of allusion, regarded by many Western students as the greatest bugbear of all in interpreting Chinese poetry – or indeed Chinese literature of any kind – is a product less of Chinese obscurantism than of our own cultural alienation. Our literature, even our daily speech, teems with allusion of every kind. “Look at Hercules!” said of a muscular man on the beach lifting heavy objects above his head is not a remark indicative of profound classical learning. It is, nevertheless, an allusion, and would mystify an Asiatic visitor who knew our language but nothing of what we call our cultural heritage. When we speak of universal themes, having in our mind psychologically interesting stories like the myth of Oedipus, we ought to remind ourselves that although we and our European cousins were reared on bible stories and the tales of Greece and Rome, a large part of the human race knows nothing of either.

(From «Chinese Poetry and the English Reader»)


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