Twins--Poetry and Its Translated Version

08/03/2017 10:30
Cao Xiaoan

Twins--Poetry and Its Translated Version*

Cao Xiaoan

(School of Foreign Languages, Guangzhou Maritime University)


Abstract: Poetry and its translated version are twins. This paper discusses the differences and similarities of the twins from five aspects—poetry’s transplantation, poetry’s rhythm--“wave”, poetry’s image, poetry’s neatness, and poetry’s style. The differences and similarities of the twins exist in the five aspects of poetry and poetry translation. Understanding the differences and similarities of twins in the five aspects is essential for translators’ translating poetry.

Key words: Transplantation; wave; image; neatness; style

   Poetry, the most spectacular form of literature, uses verse lines, musical effects and differential interpretation of words to present gorgeous beauty and imagination in front of us. Poetry translation has always been the most controversial topic and provocative challenge. A poem and its translated version can be compared to a pair of twins. While being two independent individuals, they share similar “genes” and are identical in most parts. We can recognize them as blood twins raised in different language environments. Since each language has its unique way of expression, the best translated version and its original should be a pair of twins. That is to say, the most ideal translated version and the original should be similar not only in appearance but also in “genes” so that the reader would ignore the type of language used by the author or translator while reading the translation.

Not only do twins provide an interesting metaphor between a poem and its translated text, “twins” as a group of letters also sets forth principles of poetry translation. Each letter represents a word or phrase. “T” stands for “translation as transplantation”. While translating, a translator moves the elements in a poem from one language and introduces them into another language, just like a process of transplantation. “W” stands for “waves”— poetic rhythm. Musical effects of poetry most successfully distinguish poetry from all other literary forms. Rhymes and rhythms raise waves to decorate poetry with beauty and sublimity. To transmit these musical effects may be the most difficult part in poetry translation. The coincidentally rhymed words and sound cadence may have already exhausted the translators’ source of inspiration. Corresponding rhyme-schemes and rhythmic patterns are difficult to accomplish. “I” refers to “image” or “information”. It is unanimously agreed that the transmission of information is always the most important aim of translation, so the symbolization of images in poetry needs to be handled prudently. “N” is short for “neatness”. As poetry is the most concise form of literature and is most accurate and complex in meaning, the translator must pay special attention to neatness. Both Chinese poetry and English poetry, for example, have their own styles. Translating or transplanting the style is another challenge. And “S” talks about “style”. Poetry style itself is subordinate to the language system in which the poet writes. Because of this, style transplantation mostly lies in the similarity of structure.


   1. “T” for transplantation

As far as translation as transplantation is concerned, elements of poetry as the object of transplantation are to be discussed. These elements involve the aural, visual and meaning systems which in this article are analyzed as waves of rhythm, styles and information (images). Neatness as an outstanding specialty of poetry must be paid attention to in translation.

 In the process of translation, it has always been a problem for translators to maintain the rhythm and rhymes of the original poem under the premise of accuracy. The soul of poetry lies in its lingering charm. Chinese Scholar Xu Yuanchong's (许渊冲) “three principles” of poetry translation— beauty in sound, meaning and form—suggest that we should try to preserve and transmit the charm of the original poem on these three levels. Another scholar Gu Zhengkun(辜正坤), in his book China and West: Comparative Poetics and Translatology, discusses the “five beauties” of poetry appreciation, which are visual beauty, “wave”-rhythmic beauty, phenomenon beauty, sense beauty and taste beauty1.

Visual beauty refers to the inner and outer beauty: 1) the specific content of poetry as the aesthetic subject displayed as specific visible things in the imagination of the subject; 2) the external form of poetry itself such as the line arrangement, special words , written form. “Wave” beauty refers to rhythm and rhyme, unitary and pluralistic beauty. Phenomenon beauty refers to aesthetic perception produced by the plot, structure and allusions of poetry in the mind of the reader. Sense beauty refers to aesthetic perception produced by understanding the words and form, the sense and implication of poetry. Taste beauty refers to the comprehensive aesthetic feeling produced by style, realm, momentum, artistic conception and natural spirit of poetry.

According to Gu, poetry translators should be faithful to the original author in semantics and context to achieve a dynamically approximate equivalence. At the same time, the content of the original poem should be renewed and the aesthetic effect should be achieved in order to transplant the aesthetic effect in poetry translation. Translation is an art. Translators must understand the characteristics, convey the meaning of the original poem and transplant the original according to its own features. Basically, transplantation requires endowing the translated version with the original elements, by way of which they become twins.

Transplantation requires us to properly understand and faithfully reflect the original meaning and charm. We should be neither too literal nor too free from the original version. Poetry and translation are like twins with similar genes. Under the principle of faithfulness, poetry and translation should be similar and consistent. Since they are twins, they not only have similar genes, but also have different genes. That is to say, there are some things which cannot be translated. Flexible and inspired translation cannot replace the original, but can be regarded as a kind of creation, orientation, and limited creation. The process of translation is also a process of creation. As a process of re-creation, translators’ acceptance, interpretation, translation and reader acceptance, coupled with cultural differences, give rise to different flavors and nerves. In the process of translation, the translator is not only the appreciator and recipient of the artistic beauty of the original work, but also the performer. From appreciation to performance, there is an important link, that is, the translator's aesthetic re-creation, or re-creation of the mental and emotional form. The key is to grasp the thoughts and feelings between the lines of the original. This shows that the language of poetry and its connotation can be both fully and partly translated, but absolutely the equivalence of the content and form of poetry and its translation is not unachievable. Literal transplantation and free transplantation should be flexible so as to present a translated text faithfully and perfectly for the reader.


2. “W”for Waves

    Waves herein mostly refer to poetry’s aural system or sound system. Different from authors of other forms of literature, poets especially value the musical effects of poems which mainly come from devices such as assonance, alliteration and onomatopoeia. Prosody for English poetry is related to meter, rhythm and intonation. In the English poetic tradition, metrical patterns are definitive according to a characteristic metrical foot and the number of foot per line. There are a wide range of types of foot. Each type has a certain foot. Meter and intonation for English poetry are very different from that for Chinese poetry. The same goes with rhyme and rhythm. The method for creating poetic rhythm varies with languages. English is a syllable-timed language while Chinese is a tonal one. English metrical rhythm generally involves precise arrangement of stresses and syllables into repeated patterns called feet within a line while Chinese verse lines usually have a definite number of characters with comparatively loose stress patterns. Rhyme, alliteration, assonance and consonance are used to create repetitive patterns of sound to reinforce rhythmic patterns or as an ornamental element in both English and Chinese poetry. As a result, the transplantation of “waves” in translating poetry usually ends with a domestication of musical effects mainly aimed to achieve aesthetic success in the target. Let’s read the following translation “Composed at the Order of the Crown Prince”2 by Long Jingyao(龙靖遥), the original poem by Cao Pi(曹丕):

The original Chinese poem:










English translation:

Composed at the Order of the Crown Prince


Cao Pi


Such a state of chaos has lingered far too long,

White bones scatter the land for ten thousand miles strong,

And mournful people know not to whom they belong,

In accordance with the time I’ll correct all that’s wrong,

And hand over the reign back to you far a song.


This translation displays the translator’s good command of both English and Chinese. It successfully transmits the original spirit. As for the transplantation of musical effects--the “waves”, the end rhyme “ong” plays a significant role, achieving musical beauty and transplanting the original spirit as well.

    The use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations. Similar figures of speech such as metaphor, simile and metonymy create a resonance between otherwise disparate images—a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived. Kindred forms of resonance may exist between individual verses, in their patterns of rhyme or rhythm. When we translate a poem, or when we translate anything, we should first land the corresponding words and phrases from the target language. Identical expression of meaning ensures understanding and communication on both sides. Due to linguistic and cultural diversities, complete equivalence is rarely achieved. Through either literal translation or free translation, the original version and the translated version, just like a pair of twins, share the most similar genes in this world, giving us at least an apparently similar sense and feeling. The language of a poem is comparatively short and concise, while the meaning it conveys is always profound and metaphoric. As a result, the translated version will inevitably be completed to a certain level without losing its primary meaning and flavors. Those would be the subtle distinction to identify one twin from the other. Literal translation usually complies with the rule of faithfulness, while free translation may convey more artistic effects. In the same way, twins share almost the same appearance but have different spirits and verves.


3. “I” for image

   Poetry consists in image. Any translation cannot be completed at the expense of the original image. The translation of image in poetry translation should not be neglected. The same image in different cultural backgrounds may be different in sense, symbolization and resonance. Like twins, they look the same, but differ in personality, idea and attitude. The translator should try to preserve the original image in the translation, discard the useless or stale image, replace the old image with a new one, or interpret the unique image in the original culture.

    Image is a combination of thing and feeling. On the one hand, it refers to the total sum of perceptions involved in poetry and other literary works. On the other hand, it refers to the reconciliation and emergence of the subjective things and objective things in the target language. In western theory, the term "image" refers to the combination of reason and emotion. Language and words are not only symbols, but also images created by the author. The translation of images is the most difficult. It is difficult to convey the charm, artistic conception and taste of poetry. Image occupies such an important position in both Chinese and English poetry that it is necessary to retain or reproduce it in translation. It is particularly important to accurately understand the image of the original poem and faithfully reproduce the original image in the translated version. However, it is not an easy job to do so since the same image may have different cultural connotations in different languages.

   In order to appreciate the difference of the same image in different cultures, let's take a look at Percy Bysshe Shelly’s famous poem “Ode to the West Wind.” The poem is translated into Chinese《西风颂》by Zha Liangzheng(查良铮). Ode in English is equivalent to Chinese “颂歌”。West wind is also equivalent to Chinese “西风”. But the image of west wind conveyed to English speakers is completely different from that to the Chinese. Britain is located in the west of Europe. The Atlantic is on its west. For the British, west wind is most popular. It's a warm wind blowing from the Atlantic, which is similar to China’s southeast wind or spring breeze. It brings warm air and adequate rain to Britain, so the British people sing an ode to it. On the contrary, China is located in the east of Europe and Asia. China's West is not the sea but Gobi Desert. To Chinese people, west wind means wind blowing from the Gobi Desert. The wind does not bring rain but dry air and sand all over the sky, so the Chinese people bear such an adversity to it that they would seldom think of liking or praising it. It can be seen that the same west wind produce different sensations in the minds of the Chinese and the English people, which are like twins, similar in outer look but different in inner attribute.

    Another example. In classical Chinese poetry, the moon is usually a medium for the poet to express depression and sorrow. The moon inspires the poet in melancholy and entangled thoughts. Take ancient Chinese poet Zhang Ji’s(张继) poem as an example:









    In this Chinese poem, the moon is endowed with special meaning. What the speaker sees, hears and feels in the cabin as depicted in the poem all triggered his loneliness and homsickness so that he couldn’t fall asleep. In the deep autumn night, the dark sky and the setting moon upset the speaker a lot.

    In contrast, the image of the moon in English poetry is relaxing, lively, and friendly. A typical example is Bob Tucker's poem “My Friend, The Moon”:


         My Friend, The Moon3


          Bob Tucker


          I see the moon with its round light,       

  Is here again for fun tonight.            

  It seeks its playmates on the ground,    

  For in the sky no one's around.            

  It sneaks its light down through the trees,

  It's moonbeams seem to light the breeze.    

  And colors dance as cool winds blow,    

  As it paints for us its famous glow.

    In this poem, the moon is portrayed as an innocent, lovely and naughty child. The moon feels lonely or unaccompanied in the sky, so it quietly slips down from the tree to the ground, looking for a partner. This anthropomorphic description is vivid. Then, the poet outlines the peaceful and quiet moonlit night with delicate brushwork. On the moonlit night, moonlight illuminates the breeze and dances with the wind. The moon shines onto the earth. The tone of the poem is cheerful. The rhythm is clear. The poem gives people a relaxed and happy feeling.


    4. “N” for neatness

    Form and meaning of poetry are inseparable. They are not simply mechanical correspondences; they are two but in one and of one. It is far from enough merely to interpret the original poem in translation, for poetry is a form--form of form, and a meaning--meaning of meaning. Only in this way will the differences between the twins as individuals be clear to us. Compared with other literary genres, poetry is the complete and natural fusion of thought and word of the poet in his creation. Poetry occupies the essence of language and culture of a nation with distinctive cultural features. Although it is difficult, in the process of poetry translation, the formal beauty of the original poem should be faithfully translated and in some cases can be adapted. However, the premise of creation or creation of image must be able to serve the content, taste, style and artistic conception of the original poem. Translation should not stick to the word-for-word and sentence-for-sentence way, or to an unrealistic demand for the agreement of foot and rhythm. Otherwise it would be self defeating, causing some mechanical "dead translation”. Translation form should be subjected to the content. The translator should first consider how to convey the original artistic conception, style and charm so as to take a corresponding form. Let’s read the first lines of the following example from Book of Songs (《诗经》):







The first translation is by James Legge; the second is by Xu Yuanchong.

The first version:

Ode (Kwan ts’eu)4

Kwan kwan go the ospreys.
On the islet in the river,
The modest , retiring, virtuous, young lady: ─
For our prince a good mate she.


The second version:

Cooing  And  Wooing5


By riverside are cooing

A pair of turtledoves;

A good young man is wooing

A fair maiden he loves.

    This poem is generally considered to be a love song for men and women. It is the description of the water birds singing for love, which is the performance of two persons in love, firing our imagination by the scene that a gentleman needs a lady’s company. Let’s look at the first translation by Legge. Legge’s title uses ode annotating Kwan Ts’eu in an attempt to encourage the readers to link the onomatopoeia Kwan with the Kwan-kwan in the first line of the poem. The translator pays more attention to the pronunciation of the words but cares less about the implied meaning of the poem. The name of “guan ju” (Chinese pinyin) implies the theme of the poem. In China, osprey fishing symbolizes man's courtship. Osprey is a faithful bird, a symbol of chastity. The implied meaning of osprey is unique in Chinese culture, which is not well understood by Europeans and the Americans. Obviously, the translator has missed the theme. Even if Legge tries his best to translate the poem into a metrical one, if we read the Chinese version, the implied meaning of his translation is deviated from the original poem. And the number of words in each sentence is not equal. The translated poem and the original one are not in neat antithesis. The translation has lost much in form and meaning.

The second translation by Xu Yuanchong uses the word, cooing, to refer to a water bird. The use of onomatopoeia presents a vivid image of the water bird calling and a lively feeling of the original poem for us. Turtledoves not only embody the same cultural meaning of doves, but also that of lovers. The use of turtledove suggests it is a love poem in accordance with the original artistic conception. The use of “a good young man” rather than “gentleman” shows the characteristics of original folk song, free, easy, not rigidly adhering to the form. In the translated version there are four to six words in each stanza, and a total of four stanzas, which is consistent with the original poem. The stanzas of this poem parallel with one another neatly. It is a good example of translation. Due to differences in language expression, cultural background, and traditional habits, etc, we can only use free translation and try to convey the original meaning of the original text. Free translation with its overcoming of cultural differences is comparatively more faithful to the original text.


    5. “S” for style

    Style is the natural expression of the writer's personality after certain ideological and cultural cultivation with a certain language style. Style can be the performance of personal and collective wisdom. The main task of translation is to convey the artistic conception of the original in another language, so that th targets readers can get the same or similar inspiration and feeling as that in reading the original. This in part requires us to apply creative methods in translation and to be faithful to the style of the original. However, English poetry and Chinese poetry have different styles. What should we do in the process of translation?

    The style of poem always lies in the form of language. It is presented in a certain range of words, sentences, rhetoric and artistic techniques. When the original style is reproduced in the translation, the use of word, sentence, stanza, rhetorical devices and artistic techniques cannot be ignored. These style signals can be transplanted in the translation process. The translator should convey the scenery of the poet, analyze the poet's values, the world outlook and the aesthetic view. The translator should make efforts to identify the poet's creative personality, fully demonstrate his artistic style, and properly deal with his unique language expression. The following selection is from Ancient Poetry 19, translation by Wang Rongpei(汪榕培):






Ancient Poetry 193


Green, Green spreads the bank-side grass,

Lush, Lush grow the garden willows;

Fine, Fine stands upstairs the lass,

Fair, Fair her shape behind the windows.6

    Chinese people pay special attention to the balance of beauty. A reflection of the aesthetic psychology in language is that the Chinese language is very symmetrical. The use of reduplicated words in this poem is a good embodiment. Each line has reduplicated words. “青青”(pinyin: qingqing) is the description of the lush vegetation. “郁郁”(pinyin: yuyu) is the description of lush trees. “盈盈”(pinyin: yingying) is the description of elegant female posture. “皎皎”(pinyin: jiaojiao) is used to show the beautiful appearance of the lady. With the combination of literal and free translation, the translator uses two repeated English adjectives to translate the original poem in order to reflect the rhythm of the original poem. The image of a beautiful and gorgeous woman is quite successfully portrayed by the reduplicated words. Wang uses words correspondingly-- green, green; lush, lush; fine, fine; fair, fair—to represent the reduplicated relative Chinese characters, which is a good reproduction of the original version. There are six to seven words in each stanza of the poem, and it is a good reflection of the beauty of rhythm and form of English poetry. The natural charm of the original poem is also reflected in terms of the retention of the literal meaning of the original. In the translation, the reader can still feel the vibrant colors of youth, and the beautiful imagination about the woman. The cadence, as well as the lively and unique style, is well reproduced.   

    All in all, a translator is just like a clone scientist cloning the other twin. He should try to transplant the original style into translated version and hold back his own style to reproduce the poet's style rather than overwhelming the original style in his language. When a poem comes to a translator, in the first place, he tastes it, chews it and digests it as a reader usually does. However, as a translator, the next step should be making up another poem which should be just the same or similar one, a cloned one, the twin, in another language. This is a process of imitation as well as composition. By imitation, the poem and its translated version are endowed with similarities. By composition, they become two distinct individuals like twins. Poetry translation is a process of looking for similarities and differences. It is also a process of transplantation and recreation of form, artistic conception, and rhythm. Although it is difficult to finish this process, it is great pleasure to compare the original poem and the translation for target or bilingual readers. People always think twins are very compelling and marvel at their similarities and find their differences. So do translation readers. Even if for this, it is significant for translators to follow “twins” code to translate poetry from five aspects—transplantation, “wave” (rhythm), image, neatness, and style.



1. Gu, Zhengkun. China and West: Comparative Poetics and Translatology [M]. Beijing:Tsinhua 2.

University Press,2003: 253.

2. Cao, Pi. Trans. Long Jingyao. Composed at the Order of the Crown Prince [J], London: Verse Version. 2014, (2): 77.

3. February 26, 2017.

4. February 27, 2017.

5. February 27, 2017.

6. Ancient Chinese Poetry. Trans. Wang Rongpei. Campus English: 2016, (33): 238.

* This article is one of the achievements of the research project--Translation Literature and Translation of Literature (No. GD16WXZ26) from Guangdong Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science (China).


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