Translating verse: A couplet from Chiung Yao’s “Princess Pearl”

Stylistic approaches and considerations for translating poetry.

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And now, for our main topic:

Translating verse: A couplet from Chiung Yao’s “Princess Pearl”

All translation is both an act of interpretation and an act of judgment. The translator has the power to adapt and edit texts for their target audience, and there is no such thing as a “perfect” translation that will convey every semantic nuance between languages.

Still, I find prose more straightforward to translate than poetry, as there are usually limited numbers of interpretations for each sentence, and there is a flow to the story that prose adheres to. Poetry, on the other hand, not only has vast room for stylistic liberties, but also for semantic interpretation. For a truly wild extrapolation of this, read Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language (1997), which features several translations of the same French poem as well as commentary on the act of translation.

I want to illustrate just one example of translating verse in this issue. The following couplet appears in the first chapter of Princess Pearl (sometimes called My Fair Princess) by Chiung Yao (《還珠格格》作:瓊瑤):

山也迢迢,水也迢迢,山水迢迢路遙遙! 
盼過昨宵,又盼今朝,盼來盼去魂也消。

A conservative approach that captures the diction of the Qianlong period (1850–1861) would be something like the following:

How distant the mountains, how distant the rivers;
how far the scenery on this long journey!
Longing for the past, longing for the present;
longing until so too disappears the spirit.

But, although the translation hints at the repetition in the original Chinese, it doesn’t quite capture the playful rhythm, which becomes more obvious when transliterating the Chinese verse into pinyin (presuming, as is probably likely, that the author was writing for a Mandarin-speaking audience):

shān yě tiáotiáo, shuǐ yě tiáotiáo, shānshuǐ tiáotiáo lù yáoyáo! 
山也迢迢,水也迢迢,山水迢迢路遥遥!
pàn guò zuó xiāo, yòu pàn jīnzhāo, pàn lái pàn qù hún yě xiāo. 
盼过昨宵,又盼今朝,盼来盼去魂也消。

In addition to the repetition of terms like 迢迢 tiáotiáo, the -iao rhyme (spelled “yao” when the syllable begins with a vowel) occurs throughout, creating a lilting pattern fitting the verse, which is meant to be sung.

Here’s another take on translating the verse, one in which I try to preserve the rhyme and assonance:

Faraway mountains, faraway rivers;
faraway lands on a path far away!
Longing for yesterday, longing for today;
longing to and fro for my spirit’s belonging.

It’s a futile question to ask which translation is more “accurate.” Both of them are, strictly speaking, accurate, in that they convey the semantic content of the original Chinese. Both translations have their pros and cons. The first conveys the majesty of the original while losing some playfulness, while the second captures the spirit of the original but may sacrifice some clarity with its wordplay.

The job of the translator is to decide between interpretations based on their experience, understanding of the text, relationship with the target audience, and their own discretion. Ultimately, I would say that a translator’s voice is the sum total of all these kinds of decisions in a piece. While I wouldn’t argue for a translator to impose their voice over the original author’s, I think it’s overly simplistic to act as if the translator doesn’t leave a trace on the translated manuscript. Even machine translation has its own philosophy toward semantics and style encoded into its development.

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