Geoff Waters:

Some Notes on Translating Classical Chinese Poetry

Let me expose my bias at the outset. I am first of all a specialist, a scholar. I have been studying Tang poetry and poets in their philological, literary, cultural and historical context for over thirty-five years. I am only secondly a poet: my own poetic output has been modest and rarely published. I believe my voice now finds its best use in re-animating the Tang poets.

I work alone because I love to, my mistrust of native informants rendered moot by the fact that I understand the poems better than most non-specialist Chinese do.

In speaking for the Chinese poets, I try to include as much as possible from the original—word order, prosody, statement, implication, allusion—but hope to let them speak as if they were poets in my language.

I freely admit that I envy the publishing success of translators who cannot read Chinese well enough to do their own spadework, or “translators” who cannot read Chinese at all. But, barring my occasional rant within the 知音 community, I believe the best course of action for someone like me is to try to get my own work published and readers will judge the art for themselves.

As I work, I try to keep a few simple ideas in mind. I was going to call them “maxims,” but that sounded too professorial for a discussion among peers.

Research twice, translate once

The language of Classical poetry can be dense and challenging. It is not condensed Mandarin. Translators, including those for whom Chinese is their first language, often underestimate the difficulty or depth of these poems. Before I can start making an English poem, I must understand what I am reading in Chinese. I try to check everything, even phrases I think I understand without checking them.

In modern Chinese anthologies of classical poems, a twenty-character quatrain can easily require pages of footnotes and explanation, and often a “translation” from the original into modern standard Chinese, to make it fully accessible to present-day Chinese readers. Few native readers of English can make much sense out of a text of comparable antiquity from our own literary culture, say Beowulf, without a similar apparatus.

I try to be especially wary of poems that seem to translate themselves. It is too easy to stop once one’s preliminary understanding of a line comes out in pleasing English. But it is humbling, I can say from frequent experience, to repair a poem marred by a simple error. For example, failing—as some have done—to check the direction from Wuhan to Yangzhou on a map before translating this poem by Li Bai:


    故人西辭黃鶴樓  煙花三月下揚州
    孤帆遠影碧空盡  惟見長江天際流

    Farewell to Meng Haoran from the Yellow Crane Tower, off to Guangling

    My old friend leaves the West, from the Yellow Crane Tower,
    Through the mist and flowers of the third month, down to Yangzhou.
    His lone sail, as I watch it, fades into a vast blue nothing;
    The great river flows out empty to the end of the sky.

Or seeing Wang Wei’s line “紅豆生南國” and stopping at “Red beans grow in that southern land.”


    紅豆生南國  秋來發幾枝
    願君多采擷  此物最相思

    Thoughts of Each Other

    Red sandalwood grows in that southern land;
    When fall comes, their branches fill with seeds.
    I hope you will gather as many as you can;
    These, above all, will help you think of me.

Red sandalwood (Adenanthera pavonina), here called literally the “red bean (tree),” produces small red bead-like seeds in the fall and winter. It is also called 相思樹 “longing for each other tree,” its name echoed in the last line. No beans, please.

Poetic license is for poets; we are translators

The poet chose the words of the poem for a reason, so should I also choose mine. Once a translator changes an apple to an orange because it sounds better in English, the camel’s nose is under the tent. Modestly, I must aver that I have no example of my own to illustrate this lapse.

Put poems in context

Even poems floating timelessly in the Imagist ether can benefit from a little context. Sometimes knowing where the poet was, why they were there, what they were doing, and what was happening in their public or private life, can add a wonderful layer to our experience of a poem.


    千山飛鳥絕  萬徑人蹤滅
    孤舟簑笠翁  獨釣寒江雪

    River Snow

    A thousand mountains, flying birds, gone.
    Ten thousand paths, all trace of people, wiped away.
    All but one old man in a thatched raincoat and hat,
    Fishing alone in the cold river snow.

This quatrain is Liu Zongyuan’s most famous poem. Its simple language and evocative imagery have made it one of the best-known poems in Chinese. It can stand on its own, but a little context makes it even more beautiful for me. Liu wrote this poem after he was demoted in 815 to a minor post in the far southern town of Liuzhou, where he died a few years later. Liu’s career had been in ruins since September 805, when the Shunzong Emperor abdicated suddenly after only six months on the throne. Shunzong had appointed the reformer Wang Shuwen to be Grand Councilor, temporarily ousting Wu Yuanheng and his powerful party. Wang, in turn, appointed a number of idealistic younger scholars to senior positions in his government, including Liu Zongyuan and Liu Yuxi. When Shunzong was forced out, Wang Shuwen fell and Liu Zongyuan’s official career was effectively over.

I see in this poem, beneath the striking visual, an ironic self-commentary: Liu was growing old, banished, alone, and wasting his talent far from Court, in a deep southern backwater town where snow never fell.

Every anthology has room for a few “culture-bound” poems

(I am borrowing the term “culture-bound” in this context from my friend Sandy Seaton.) Some poems are so allusive or so dense with historical references that putting them in context for a general reader in English can result in some fairly long and turgid footnotes. One might say that my note, just above, on Liu Zongyuan’s career woes would make a fine example. Even so, I think some poems are so great in the original that the effort should be made. A good example is the challenge that many of us have faced in making an interesting English poem out of this masterpiece by Du Fu:


    功蓋三分國  名成八陣圖
    江流石不轉  遺恨失吞吳

    The Eight Formations

    His achievements were the greatest of that age of Three Kingdoms;
    These Eight Formations made his name.
    In five hundred years, the river has not moved his stones,
    Or diminished his remorse at failing to swallow Wu.

The Eight Formations is thought to be a reference to sixty-four piles of large stones that, until they recently disappeared beneath the Three Gorges Reservoir, stood in shallow water near the shore of the Yangzi River southwest of Fengjie. They are said to be the Shu general Zhuge Liang’s depiction of the battle formation he would use in his decisive battle against Wu, another of the Three Kingdoms (220-265).

[Du Fu’s “Six Quatrains Written in Jest,” elsewhere in CipherJournal, are another good example of such culture-bound material.]

Poetic Form

Most of Tang poetry is composed in a poetic meter and form as rigid and confining as a straitjacket, yet sometimes achieves astonishing freedom of expression. Not all of this structure can be represented in poetic English, but I believe we should make an effort to preserve what we can.

That said, rhyme is difficult to handle, especially for those of us raised on twentieth century British and American poets. There were only a couple of hundred syllable endings to choose from in Middle Chinese. So rhyme came much more easily and I think must have sounded more natural to their ear than it does to mine in English. The same degree of rhyming in English, following the usual aaxa (xaxa etc.) scheme can make a poem sound like a parody, unless very well done. Imagine a rhymed English version of a long poem like Han Yu’s “Song of the Stone Drums,” that uses the same rhyme sound throughout its sixty-six lines

So, I tend to let rhyme fend for itself, although I sometimes use slant rhyme, or choose strong and weak line endings to suggest the rhyme scheme.

Now and then, I find a poem has spontaneously rhymed itself in English only when I read my draft aloud and hear it for the first time, as with this quatrain by Rong Yu:


    風卷寒雲暮雪晴  江烟洗盡柳條輕
    簷前數片無人掃  又得書窗一夜明

    The Snow Stopped

    Wind rolls up the cold clouds; after evening snow, the sky is bright;
    River mist all blown away, willow twigs are light.
    Beneath the eaves, a few piles of snow that no one sweeps;
    Outside my study window, they shine all night.

In longer poems with internal rhyme changes, I like to break the English version into stanzas at the changes.

In English, too often, these intensely formal, structured, compact poems end up with their lines unnaturally broken, or even scattered whimsically down the page. I was going to scatter the next poem artfully and impressionistically down the page as a negative example, but in the end, I couldn’t bear to do it. I am too much of a traditionalist, if that is the word. Here is one of my favorite quatrains by Wei Yingwu, in four long end-stopped lines, just as he wrote it. If you have more flexible tastes, and feel the urge to rearrange it, please get out your scissors.


    九日馳驅一日閒  尋君不遇又空還
    怪來詩思清人骨  門對寒流雪滿山

    On My Day Off, Calling on Censor Wang but Not Finding Him at Home

    Nine days dashing around, now one day of rest;
    I looked for you, but couldn’t find you, so I’m about to head back.
    It was a strange thing though, how this poem came to me, as if from within my bones,
    As I stood by your gate, by the cold rushing river, snow filling the mountains.

Don’t be afraid to retranslate the official masterpieces

We all know that working with poems everyone else has already translated can still be worth the effort. The poem may have no more secrets to give up, but each translator can make it live in a different way. I suppose the final example, by Li Bai, must be the most often translated poem in Chinese literature?


    床前明月光  疑是土上霜
    舉頭望明月  低頭思故鄉

    Thoughts on a Quiet Night

    Beside my bed, the bright moon lit the floor;
    Waking, at first I thought it was the frost.
    I looked up to see the bright moon shining,
    Then bowed my head to think of home again.


Burton Watson called faithfulness to the original and literary merit in the translation the Two Noble Truths for translators. My hope, in translating classical Chinese poetry, is to strive for those Noble Truths. My goal is to create poetry in English that will cause a reader to feel something like what I feel when I read the originals, to reproduce that moment when their world opens up for me, briefly, as their words echo in my ears.