Chinese translators: don’t use rhyme in English!

Meandering_Stream_at_Lan-ting_Yamamoto_Jakurin_Hanging_scroll_color_on_silk

I’d like to ask a rude question. Why do people translate Chinese verse into English rhyme?

Please stop!

Burton Watson called faithfulness to the original and literary merit in the translation the Two Noble Truths for translators. By both of those criteria, translating into rhymed English is a bad idea.

There are only two reasons to read Chinese verse in English translation.

1) To be able to understand the original better.

2) To read literature in English.

Neither purpose is served by a translation into rhymed doggerel– which is all these translations are, no matter how technically accomplished; I have not yet met with an exception.

Oh! I forgot one!

3) For the translator to show off that he or she can rhyme in English

or, to give the translator the benefit of the doubt

4) for the translator to show the “musicality” of the original poem

Translation into English rhyme is a terrible idea for a simple reason. In Chinese, it is easy to rhyme. In English, it is very hard. Therefore, when someone (almost always a non-native speaker) is translating a poem into English rhyme, the English meaning has to be twisted, often out of all recognition. The result is inevitably doggerel, very much on the lines of “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” by “the world’s worst poet.”

To produce any other result, the translator would have to combine perfect translation into a non-native language (already questionable) with the ability to write beautiful rhyming poetry in English. To say the least, this is a rare skill among even literary native speakers. It’s no accident that Chinese poetry got no attention or respect in English until Arthur Waley published his beautiful, free-verse translations. To rhyme in English, a Chinese poem must be warped and deformed.

Also, of course, contemporary English-speaking poets rarely use rhyme. So on top of producing a bad translation and bad poetry, rhyme also makes a modern translation sound dustily old-fashioned.

There is little, if any, difference between “poetry” like 

For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed. 
William Topaz McGonagall (1825-1902), “The Tay Bridge Disaster” (1880)

and these examples from books published all too recently by Chinese-to-English translators.

If more distant views are what you desire
You simply climb up a storey higher.
(1990) –Xu Yuanchong

or to continue the tower theme

Rather than break faith, you declared you’d die.
Who knew I’d live alone in a tower high?
(1984) –Xu Yuanchong

Du_Fu

Alas, poor 杜甫, I knew him well–before he was translated

As ever are hills and rills while the Kingdom crumbles,
When springtime comes over the Capital the grass scrambles….
For three months the beacon fires soar and burn the skies.
A family letter is worth ten thousand gold in price.
1981 –Wu Juntao

Not simply “ten thousand in gold”– it has to rhyme with skice!

The nation split, as e’er mounts and rivers remain.
In spring, the city is o’ergrown with grass and trees.
Current events have drawn forth my tears on flowers to rain;
And birds stir my parting pain to spoil my heart’s ease.
For full three months flames of war have kept on burning;
Home letters are as dear as ten thousand guineas.
Hard scratching has made my hoary hairs thinner turning.
No longer can they hold my hairpins as I please.
(2005!) –Wang Yushu. (Compare with fifty more translations of this famous poem by Du Fu, here)

OMG! THEY DON’T EVEN SCAN.

Current affairs are entailing distress and fears.
The sight of flowers is enough to bring up my tears.
Xu Zhongjie

AKA the first time you have ever read “current affairs” and “entailing” in a “poem.”**

In times so hard, the flowers brim with tears indeed;
No kin in company, the hearts of birds do bleed.
Zhang Xueqing

“Indeed” is a sure sign of trying too hard for a rhyme.

Hating separation, I shake with fright,
even when I hear birds sing with all their might.
(2001) –Zhang Bingxing

“All their might” is another one.

Abed, I see a silver light,
I wonder if it’s frost aground.
Looking up, I find the moon bright,
Bowing, in homesickness I’m drowned.
(Xu Yuanzhong)

There’s no drowning in this poem. Come to think of it, there’s no ground, either. And the poet is not bowing, which is this:

 

bow

The bluebottles buzzing in the air
settle on the fence o’er there.
(1994) –Wang Rongpei and Ren Xiuhua

“Bluebottles” and “o’er” in a single “poem”: wow.

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Advice from an English-language online arts journal, Empty Mirror

What a scene is in the north found!
A thousand li of the earth is ice-clad aground.
(1993) –Gu Zhengkun

The syntax here makes my head feel dizzy. Not even Victorian; it’s unique to this kind of non-native rhyming “translation.”

In the south red bean shrubs grow,
In spring abundant seeds they bear.
Gather them more, please, you know
They are the very symbol of love and care.
–Gu Zhengkun

Yes, gather them more! (<—This is not English)

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From Advice to the Poets (1760), by Aaron Hill

I have discovered that some prominent current Chinese translators of poetry believe that rhyming in English shows us benighted barbarians the beautiful sounds of Chinese poetry, which we would not grasp by simply reading the Chinese original and an English translation. This is apparently the reason they persist in this folly. Of course, this being China, no one tells them that they are writing doggerel. Instead they are referred to in Chinese comparative literature studies as authorities, and given credit for transferring the “musicality” or “phonological beauty” of Chinese into English! Um, with such lines as these:

Your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.

Oops! That was William McGonagall, the “world’s worst poet.” I meant to cite

They overturn the dish and tray,
dancing in a capering way

or

I sing and the Moon lingers to hear my song;
My shadow’s a mess while I dance along.

These rhymes are bad poetry. They don’t scan; the English is unnatural; and as translations, they’re neither useful nor literary.

These “scholars” of “translation”* are seriously misleading the young Chinese academics and translators who see them getting so much praise (by non-English-speakers) for their horrible English “poetry.” An entire generation thinks this is not only an acceptable way to translate classical Chinese poetry, but something to aspire to. Yet the only modern audience for this sort of translation is people who either don’t read or like poetry, or don’t speak English.

It would be foolish to be against rhymes in poetry. Any well-known country singer or rapper can rhyme in English better, more naturally, and more affectingly than these Chinese scholars.

I have been inspired to finish this essay with my own doggerel, which I made up just now.

If into English you do translate
a native speaker your text must rate.
If further rhyming then tempts your heart
you and translation as friends should part.

 

*Xu has even won a major translation award! The mind boggles. Of course, it could have been for his translations into Chinese. Let’s hope so. He also translates into French but I’ve been scared to look.

**I found another one.

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