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Ming Arete Home Forums Poetry & Literature Idea about rhythm for translating classical poems

  • Phil Hand

    January 18, 2021 at 2:02 am

    I spotted this translation of a Li Bai poem by Xu Yuanchong (in an interesting paper found here:, and it gave me an idea about how to write Chinese rhythms in English:






    Farewell to a Friend by Xu Yuanchong

    Green mountains bar the northern sky; White water girds the eastern town.

    Here is the place to say good-bye; You’ll drift like lonely thistledown.

    Like floating cloud you’ll float away; With parting day I’ll part from you.

    We wave and you start on our way; Your horse still neighs: “Adieu, adieu!”

    I’m not a big fan of Xu, but he has some good ideas, and in the first couplet, the rhythms sound exactly right. I think he was trying to write in iambs, but the heavy “green” and “white” at the beginnings of the lines actually create a spondee – two strong beats. And as a result, the rhythm of the five character line comes out beautifully. As it’s usually read, the five character line runs across two bars of common time music:

    1 [rest] 2 [rest] | 1 2 3 [rest]

    And a spondee in the first two syllables of the line can reproduce those two heavy beats. If you use three weak syllables for the second half of the line – or, as Xu has it here, three fairly light iambs, then you can get the feeling of the quicker three beats after the caesura.

    So I tried applying this idea to some famous poems:



    Moonbeams by my bed

    Seem strangely like a frost

    Craned up to look at the moon

    Sunk down to think of home


    Moonbeams by my bed

    Seem strangely like a frost

    Moon’s high, I lift my head

    Slump back, home I lost




    Void hills with no-one to be seen

    Voice rings reflected on the cliffs

    Slant rays come deep into the woods

    Fleck moss with many spots of green

    Those are just quick first attempts. There’s a lot to be done to smooth out the language, but I quite like the aural effect. In particular, I want to make use of a feature of English that I haven’t heard talked about before: that a string of words that sounds CVCVCVC seems quick and light, while (at least some) strings of CVC CVC CVC seem much heavier. This rhythmic resource gives us another tool to use as we reproduce the effects of Chinese verse.

    What do you all think?

  • Michael

    January 18, 2021 at 1:52 pm

    Interesting post, Phil. I agree that it is worth trying to convey something of the rhythm of the original Chinese texts when translating shi poems, and that doing so entails recognizing that the verses in these poems are divided into hemistichs. I have never understood why David Hinton introduces wild enjambments into his versions. (Then again, Robert Lowell took analogous liberties in his translations from European poetry, sometimes to good effect; I’m thinking in particular of the final section of Near the Ocean, where he does wonderful things with the Spanish poets Quevedo and Góngora, among others.)

    What do you think about using alliteration to help convey the highly-patterned nature of shi poetry? For example, one might translate the first couplet of Du Fu’s 春望 as follows:



    the state shattered hills and rivers still here

    city spring trees and grasses grown thick

    I like the idea of using rhyme (or at least slant rhyme) where it can be achieved without forcing things, but for me the key goal it to try to convey, by whatever means are available, that what is being translated is a poem.

    • Phil Hand

      January 18, 2021 at 2:44 pm

      Yep, alliteration definitely works… In fact, you’re right, I think I’ve led myself down the Sinologists’ blind alley again. Because the point isn’t to try to reproduce the form of the Chinese poem, or even to transmute it in some way. The urge to do that comes from the scholar’s natural interest in Chinese forms. But a translator should be translating the poetic expression in Chinese into a poetic expression in English (or whatever language), using the resources available in English…

      I think the same must go for rhyme, as well. Rhyme is a resource that exists in both Classical Chinese and English; but that’s not a reason to think it should be used the same way in the two languages. In short poems I manage to remember that, and I generally choose a rhymescheme that works for the English poem. But in longer poems I quite often borrow the rhymescheme from the source text. For example, in Du Fu’s Army Carts and Autumn Gale Blows Thatch off my Roof, he uses rhyme to define different sections of the poem. He keeps a single rhyme for a whole section of six or eight lines, and when he changes the rhyme, the mood or subject changes, too. It’s quite convenient to follow his lead, but I wonder if I should be looking for other options to use.

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