At first glance, the vexed question of the (un)translatability of poetry seems particularly relevant in a Chinese context – the differences between Chinese and English are all too apparent. In November 2015, Writing Chinese held a fascinating workshop in Leeds on Chinese poetry translation, led by noted translators and poetry experts, Eleanor Goodman, Canaan Morse and Heather Inwood. We asked them to reflect on the translation process.
What are the main challenges in translating poetry from Chinese into English?
EG Poetry lives in language; it is made up of its flesh. To translate a poem is to toe the line between transplantation and new creation. It is as though one were attempting to both transplant a heart into another body and in the process, produce an entirely new organ from its profoundly mysterious components.
CM Mastery of the English language continues to be the deciding factor in the attainment of excellence. The intricacies of Chinese poetry and poetic language are inspired by the size and diversity of China's population, which inspires the kind of uniqueness and complexity one can find in any language. Chinese is both original and interconnected – again, just like any other language. The thorniest problems of Chinese translation usually derive from the physical or emotional distances between the core community of Chinese speakers (where language is constantly being remade) and the translators. Reading proficiency is not enough to translate. Speaking fluency is essential for capturing not only the aural effects of the language, but also the extremely subtle registers of its use.
HI: The main challenges of translating Chinese poetry into English are no different from the challenges of translating poetry in any language into any other language: the translator has to be willing to create a brand new poem in the target language that remains umbilically connected in some way to the original. It is the translator’s own decision as to which elements of the source poem constitute the poetic ‘essence’ that needs to be carried over into the translated poem. Obviously, this can’t be the words themselves (which often means losing rhymes and word play, too), so something else has to be captured instead – usually some combination of style, mood, form, imagery, humour, linguistic patterns and so on, as well as the most basic semantic meanings of the text.
What kind of poetry translates best and is any simply ‘untranslatable’?
EG: Poetry that does not rely on form; non-concrete, non-visual poetry; poetry that is not heavily culturally referential; poetry that isn't playing wild games with words; poetry that makes little use of puns, allusions, rhyme, or rhythm. In other words, poetry that is not poetry. It’s merely a matter of degree. Chinese poetry as a whole is no more untranslatable than French poetry or Swahili poetry or Icelandic poetry. Each language presents its own challenge. That said, some individual poems do not come over easily into a new linguistic context. The translator’s job is to beat her head against the page until something gives way.
CM: Let’s not wrongly ascribe agency here. Poetry doesn’t translate; translators translate. Inspired, dedicated translators translate best. No poetry is untranslatable as such, except for the mountain of government-sponsored, sycophantic screed that is literally too painful to translate.
HI: I don’t think any particular kind of poetry necessarily translates better than any other, nor that there are Chinese poems that are outright untranslatable. It is more a case of finding the right match between poem and translator, and the translator making a series of careful decisions as to how to treat the poem and which elements of the original - beyond the actual words themselves, of course - must be sacrificed. Translating poetry is not an easy skill to learn, but the more poetry a translator reads and the better able she or he is to get inside the linguistic and imaginative world of the poet and poem being translated, the more satisfying the resulting translation is likely to turn out to be.
THIRD BAI MEIGUI TRANSLATION COMPETITION
Following the success of this workshop, our convenors kindly agreed to form a judging panel and we launched our third translation competition, to give an opportunity to both established and emerging translators to put the theory into practice.
Our panel deliberately chose three very different poems, by different poets, each representative of different styles and requiring very different skills to render them for an English-reading audience.
Two winning entries were chosen for each of the three poems and are included here. Comparing the different renditions of these three contrasting works can provide a flavour of the range of approaches possible in this delicate art of poetry translation.