Two takes on Cao Cao's 《觀滄海》

Translating voice with an example from Classical Chinese poetry

I’m currently contracted to translate a graphic novel adaptation of Liu Cixin’s short story “The Village Schoolteacher” (《乡村教师》). The story opens with a teacher having the class read Cao Cao’s “Guan Cang Hai” aloud:


(Note: The last line is a common set phrase to conclude a Chinese lyrical poem and is not included in the graphic novel text.)

Before translating poetry quoted in prose, I like to do a quick search to see if there’s a translated version that’s already common in the anglophone literary sphere. If there is and it’s within the public domain, I’ll quote that translation to lend readers some familiarity.

More often than not, though, I don’t find translations of Chinese poetry that are famous enough to be in the Western literary canon (quelle surprise). I usually stumble across other translators’ takes. I used to think of it as cheating, somehow, to refer to other people’s translations while creating my own, but I began to realize through translating poetry that all translation is in conversation—we don’t fault an artist for referencing a model or an existing piece of art to inspire their own work. Why should words be different?

Referencing other people’s translations can also help me in my own work by shedding lights on parts of the work that I wasn’t clear about. I happened to find David Bowles’ translation of “Guan Cang Hai” from 2014 in my search. I wasn’t sure who the subject and object were for the verb 出, but Bowles’ translation suggests a stronger sense of 出 as “to originate” rather than “to exit from.” From there, I was able to craft my own translation:

I summit Mount Jieshi
to behold the blue-green sea.
How quietly the waves ripple;
how proudly the peaks and islands stand!
Grass grows wild beside a forest deep.
The autumn breeze whispers through leaves
as the sea swells and surges.
The moon and sun cycle together,
as if born from the waves.
The Milky Way sparkles,
as if unfolding from their paths.

You’ll notice that there are huge differences between my translation and Bowles’. Bowles’ has much more lush description, reminding me of Romantic poetry like Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” I didn’t set out to capture the lush imagery of the original, though, which is difficult to translate concisely in English—as with all Classical Chinese poetry, each syllable is dense with meaning and association, which has to be expanded almost like a binomial equation in English.

Instead, I wanted something that would sound conversational when read aloud, still invoked some Romantic linguistic quirks (particularly with inverted syntax that puts “how” at the beginning of the line) to connote the classroom literature setting, but was particularly strong with consonance and assonance. To that end, I used the title “Behold the Blue-Green Sea” to repeat the /b/ sound as well as repeat the long e like in “green.” I added alliteration with “grass grows” and “sea swells and surges,” and I did my best to saturate the poem with /s/ to replicate the sound of the wind whispering. Bowles’ translation still has an auditory beauty to it with the use of a lot of fricatives like the “sh” in “brush” and the “th” in “thick,” but I get the sense that that was secondary to getting the beauty of the landscape across.

“Voice” is a literary term that’s difficult to describe. Ultimately, it’s a set of choices and decisions both influenced by the author’s background and the message they intend to get across. It’s like a human voice: unique to every person, but it can sound different depending on what character you’re playing or what you want to say. When we get beyond technical challenges in translation—accuracy, fluidity of prose in the target language—one of the most delightful things I like to explore is how translations differ depending on the translator’s rendition of voice. I’ve written previously about another example with a couplet that goes into some more detail on the considerations I have for poetry.

To me, translation suffers from a similar artificial boundary as science. Replication is one of the key foundations of scientific validity, yet replication studies rarely occur because of modern pressures around the scientific production of knowledge—everyone wants to find out something new and not rehash an old topic. Similarly, a lot of people are focused on bringing translations of work that hasn’t yet been translated into the world—something I also participate in! But I think there’s also a lot to be learned from translating the same piece in different ways, both by the same translator and by different translators. Language and translation is so complex. Having more voices can only help us deepen our understandings.

Photo: Foundry / Pixabay