The Translation of Chinese poetry

Is there a decline in the prestige of rhyme and form? Does rhyme seem ‘forced’ and ‘artificial’ in the translation of Chinese poetry? (Since most ancient Chinese poetry rhymes.) What is the smart way to translate and convey the aesthetics of original Chinese poetry?

Here we compare rhymed and unrhymed translations of the same Chinese poem. The original, let it be said at once, does rhyme.

This is a quatrain, in seven-syllable meter, each line having a caesura. The even lines of a quatrain always rhyme together, and the first line may also rhyme, at the discretion of the poet. The present example is not part of a larger set, but it does resonate with other Tang poems. We judge it on its own. Here are two versions of Du Mu's quatrain, each of which has a note referring to the earlier poem which sets the stage for his effort.

Translated by Irving Y Lo
Sunflower Splendor (1975)

Soaring into the distant sky, a lone bird disappears.
Ten thousand ages dissolve and vanish in this instant.
Look, where are the deeds of the Han empire?
The Five Mounds* lie treeless where autumn wind rises


Translated by E Bruce Brooks
Other Mountains (1993)

An endless sky without a speck,
a lone bird fades from view,
Here the myriad ages have
their final obsequies;
This is what the House of Han
comes to in the end -
Not so much as a single tree
to stir in the autumn breeze*

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The first version implies an obliteration of the distance between the poet and the Han Dynasty, whereas the original (like the second version) is concerned with the distance: it shows the Han vanishing into the past as the bird vanishes into space. The second version is more faithful to the form (including rhyme) of the original.

As to which version presents Du Mu with more point, force, and connectivity, the reader must judge.

See original text here

Photo and text edited by Meng