Liu Zongyuan & Fishing in the Snow of Translation

by Lucas Klein

千山鳥飛絕    萬徑人蹤滅
孤舟簑笠翁    獨釣寒江雪

A thousand mountains without a bird.
Ten thousand miles with no trace of man.
A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat,
Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river.
         (Kenneth Rexroth, trans.)



A thousand peaks: no more birds in flight.
Ten thousand paths: all trace of people gone.

In a lone boat, rain cloak and a hat of reeds,
an old man’s fishing the cold river snow.
         (David Hinton, trans.)


These thousand peaks cut off the flight of birds
On all the trails, human tracks are gone.
A single boat—coat—hat—an old man!
Alone    fishing    chill    river    snow.
         (Gary Snyder, trans.)

A thousand mountains—no bird’s flight.
A million paths—no man’s trace.
Single boat. Bamboo-leaved cape. An old man.
Fishing by himself: ice river. Snow.
         (Wai-lim Yip, trans.)


Sur mille montagnes, aucun vol d’oiseau
Sure dix mille sentiers, nulle trace d’homme
Barque solitaire : sous son manteau de paille
Un vielliard pêche, du fleuve figé, la neige
         (François Cheng, trans.)

With 江雪 “River Snow”, the Tang Dynasty philosopher, essayist, and poet Liu Zongyuan wrote a poem that, a millennium later and two unrelated languages away, would freeze translators trying to reproduce his poem in English and French. The poem, notable for a calmness that somehow rings with isolation and futility, achieves its affect in part by the sounds of its language. And alas, these prosodic elements have proven to be untranslatable.

The technique in question is aojue 抝絕, roughly equivalent to either feminine rhymes or off-rhymes in English. Rhyming on three “entering” tones—as they were called—the rusheng 入聲 no longer a part of standard Chinese, this poem cross-cuts against the grain of expected Tang poetry versification, leaning as it does on the clipped notes of dzhiuεt, miεt, and siuεt. The effect, no longer attainable without special training, would have been jarring to poetry readers of the day, signaling an undercurrent of disquiet beneath the otherwise tranquil scene of the poem.

Rhyme has, for good reason, been sacrificed in 20th century translations of Chinese poetry: a translation is already a form poem, and to adhere to rhyme schemes would require further sacrifices of other fidelities. As a result, translators have had to invent a tone to their translations from the Chinese (most often borrowed from the voice of Ezra Pound’s Cathay), and rely most of all on the imagery to convey meaning and feeling. But if poetry is based on phanopoeia, melopoeia, and logopoeia—image, music and meaning dancing together in the text—then the images need to be addressed all the more forcefully to make up for the lost music.

English and French again fail to achieve the directness of classical Chinese: the end words of Liu Zongyuan’s first couplet are both active verbs, and , and yet the translators have had to resort to lame negative descriptions. Cheng’s French can get no stronger than “aucun vol d’oiseau” [no flight of birds] and “nulle trace d’homme” [no trace of man], and the weakness is played out in the English versions as well. Only Snyder’s translation amounts to anything with “cut[s] off the flight of birds”, but he too fails in the next line, with nothing more forceful than “human tracks are gone”.

Most fascinating, however, in these five translations, is how the translators handle the second half of the poem, after a more or less similar performance in the first couplet. But here information on Liu Zongyuan’s own poetic project may help us measure the accuracy these translations achieve: A charter member, with Han Yu, of the 古文運動 Ancient Prose Movement, Liu Zongyuan wanted to reinvigorate poetry of his day by recalling his classical masters and their nonpareil essays. In many respects, Liu Zongyuan’s desires resonate with the Modernist movement, where poets followed classical models and rallied around the dictum that “poetry should be as well-written as prose”.

That each of the translators in discussion is in a great way a descendent of—if not a true participant in—the Modernist movement is a coincidence that points to a central tension within the art of translation. James J. Y. Liu’s terms for the two sides of this split are “naturalization” and “barbarization”, or in other words, whether the translation uses its language to challenge or accommodate to the tradition of poetry in that language. Few translators fall fully to one side or another, and what was yesterday’s barbarization can easily become today’s naturalized expression. Nonetheless, looking at the above translations reveals that Rexroth is primarily a naturalizer, Snyder significantly a barbarizer, Hinton a naturalizer, Yip a vehement barbarizer, and Cheng a naturalizer.

The issue, then, is whether naturalization or barbarization is a superior tactic in translating the verse of a poet with a desire to innovate through Ancient Prose. Does “Single boat. Bamboo-leaved cape. An old man. / Fishing by himself: ice river. Snow” come closer because it is an attempt towards freshness, as Liu Zongyuan desired to be fresh, or is “A boat. An old man in a straw raincoat, / Alone in the snow, fishing in the freezing river” stronger because the words seem more prosaic, just as Liu Zongyuan modeled his writing after classical prose?

The debate—and its answer—surpasses solely linguistic matters, re-entering questions of literary translation from another angle, namely, whether poetry can be best translated through high fidelity or by following the spirit of the original. But fidelity here is no longer a matter of word-for-word, but rather movement-for-movement. The definition of Liu Zongyuan as rebel or classicist, then, is in the end the definition of how to translate his poetry. Without attention to this detail, translating this poem becomes as futile as an old man in a straw hat fishing on a river in the snow.


(English translations by Rexroth, Snyder, and Hinton from Weinberger, Eliot, ed. The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, © 2003, p. 139; Wai-lim Yip translation from Yip, Wai-lim, Chinese Poetry—An Anthology of Major Modes and Genres, Duke University Press, © 1997, p. 234; French translation by Cheng, François, L’écriture poétique chinoise—suivi d’une anthologie des poèmes des Tang, Editions du Sueil © 1996, p. 177)