Life & Art

"Wistful Thoughts on Spring Winds"

17 June, 2021

Some thoughts on attempting to translate 1,200-year-old poetry. The writer’s translation of a jueju poem by Du Fu during China’s Tang dynasty was recently accepted for publication by a UK-based online poetry magazine. Here, he explains some of the considerations behind his adaptation.

By Mark Caltonhill

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A willow, supple as a maiden’s waist
yet snapped by wild dawn gales, as rascal spring
invades my guest’s sad reverie with bloom-
ing flowers and birdsong. The orchard’s mine,
but winds steal in by night to break off bloss-
omed boughs, and swallows chasing insects thus
deface my lute and books with mud. How few
more springs might I still have in store?
O, worry not, but sip while time allows.
I watch as spring departs: mad catkins ride
the breeze, peach petals float away. I close
my gate, drink home-brewed wine within my rest-
ful grove as twilight falls and spring turns into summer;
How many more? I grasp my wine, it tastes like honey.

The first point is that this is perhaps better termed an “adaptation” rather than a “translation” since, if for no other reason, I rendered the 252 Chinese syllables (organized into nine stanzas each of four lines of seven characters) of Du Fu’s (杜甫) 761 CE poem 漫興九首 (literally translated as something like “Nine Randomly Inspired Verses”) into a fourteen-line English sonnet of roughly ten syllables per line. This inevitably led to some elements being dropped or condensed, though in fact, as I will discuss, it was rather my selection of the semantically important and poetically beautiful elements that inevitably led to my using a more compact form. In any case, purists (of which I would normally include myself) would certainly not call my effort a “translation”.

Pragmatists (to which I clearly also belong) would argue that something must always be lost during the process of translation, and that it is just a question of what. As someone said: Translating a poem is like photographing a sculpture.

Even between closely related languages, say English to French or German perhaps, it would be impossible to fully capture both the meaning and form of the original (not to mention such figurative elements as metaphor, idiom and symbolism), so how much more true for unrelated languages such as English and Chinese.

In addition, especially for people living far from the source language and culture, some or all context will likely be absent. This means that, unless one’s readers are well acquainted, for some reason or other, with the life and times of the poet, as well as with the literary traditions she/he is drawing on, then there will be a great temptation to litter one’s translation/adaptation with footnotes.

It falls to the translator, therefore, to judge which aspects to “carry across” to the target language and which might be downplayed, condensed or completely omitted. When translating poetry, this very commonly includes elements relating to form, meter and rhyme, since quintessential differences between languages would make their retention akin to forcing square pegs into round holes.

Take the last of these, rhyme, for example. Chinese has such a large number of similar-sounding words that poets can find rhymes without great effort, without sacrificing meaning, form, symbolism and so forth, without drawing attention to the rhyme. This is less effortless in English when composing poetry (perhaps one reason that rhyme went increasingly out of fashion throughout the twentieth century), how much more so when translating the ideas and expressions of another person from another language.

To imitate the original rhyme pattern (never mind the rhyme itself) in English would almost certainly sound laboured.

Indeed, none of the pre-eminent translators of Chinese poetry, such as Arthur Waley, AC Graham, David Hawkes (and even Ezra Pound who was more of an adapter), ever really tried. Waley, for example, says he does not use rhyme because it would “necessarily injure either the vigour of one’s language or the literalness of one’s version”, before adding that he does not “know of any example to the contrary.”*

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First draft

Before such considerations as to whether the original rhyme scheme might be imitated, the first step of any translation process is to make sure one understands the original text. This, quite naturally, leads to the creation of a word-by-word translation, which, in using English words in Chinese word-order, will sound something like "Chinglish” at best, but at least provides a template for subsequent improved drafts.

Du Fu’s fourth quatrain:


for example, might give the following word-by-word translation:

Well-knowing thatched study/s extremely low small,
River/s-above swallow/s thus come frequently.
Beak-held mud be-spot zither/s book/s within,
Furthermore catching flying insect/s hit against person/s.

Chengdu Du Fu Thatched Cottage Chinese garden
The location of Du Fu’s thatched cottage in Chengdu, China has now become a tourist attraction

In one sense this might be called a near-perfect translation. Not only does it accurately convey the meaning, but, with its more-or-less seven words per line, it also imitates something of the structure.

This latter did necessitate a number of small liberties, however, such as the hyphenated compound “river/s-above” representing two Chinese characters (江上), whereas “beak-held” stands for only one (銜), and the single word “swallow/s” represents a two-character word (燕子).

This last word is of further interest for two reasons. Firstly, it demolishes the oft-repeated myth that Chinese words are monosyllabic. Other examples elsewhere in this poem include 楊柳 (willow), 十五 (fifteen) and 女兒 (female child, i.e., daughter) all from the first two lines of the first quatrain**. And secondly, it exemplifies something of the prosody of the original Chinese, since the two characters 燕子 have no semantic difference from the single character 燕. The addition of 子 (primarily meaning “(male) child” but here acting as a noun-suffix) is merely functional to make the meter work.

Each of these nine linked quatrains (which some people mistakenly treat as nine separate poems and so it is not difficult to find translations of individual quatrains described as “poems” on the Internet) used by Du Fu for this long poem is a four-line 絕句 (jueju in modern Mandarin; literally “cut-off lines” or “curtailed verse”), which reached their apotheosis as well as their peak popularity during the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 CE) under the hands of poets such as Li Bai (李白; 701-762), Du Fu, Wang Wei (王維; 699–759) and many others.

That these nine quatrains were intended as a single poem is further evidenced by Du Fu’s spacing of 鶯 (“oriole/s”) and 燕 (“swallow/s”). These two birds appear in a wide range of idioms to symbolise “the joy of spring” (鶯歌燕舞; “orioles sing and swallows dance”) or “a fine spring day” (鶯啼燕語; “orioles tweet and swallows chatter”), as well as of the “pleasant sound of women’s voices” (鶯聲燕語; “orioles sing and swallows talk”). Du Fu similarly pairs them, but, since orioles appear in quatrain two and swallows in quatrain four, he clearly intends the series of quatrains to create one single poem of 36 lines.

Jueju can also be considered as a pair of matching couplets, in which the seven characters of each line (a five-character version also exists) can be subdivided into units of four plus three characters (or perhaps two plus two plus three characters), which individually and together conform to prosodic patterns of two classes of tones: level (平) and oblique (仄).

Due to their strict adherence to rules of rhyme, line length and prosody, jueju have sometimes been referred to as a “Chinese sonnet”, though less so of late and certainly not by me. Further discussion of the rules of prosody is largely beyond the scope of this present article. It is perhaps worth noting two things, however. Firstly, that it is based on tones, that is, the change of pitch across the syllable, rather than of stressed and unstressed syllables as with English meters, and secondly, that the tones of Middle Chinese spoken during the Tang dynasty do not accord with those of today’s Mandarin.

A side note of further interest is that Hoklo Taiwanese and other south-China regionalects are said to be better for reciting classical Chinese poetry than Mandarin, since the former remained closer in pronunciation while the latter was much altered under the influence of northern non-Han speakers during the Mongolian Yuan (元; 1271 - 1368) and Manchurian Qing (清; 1644 - 1911) dynasties.

The rhyme schemes of jueju are either AABA or more commonly ABCB, such as in Du Fu’s “Wistful Thoughts on Spring Winds”.


Second draft
Despite the accuracy of the first draft translation, it clearly requires a great deal of reworking before it qualifies as English never mind poetry. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind, however, that each “improvement” is likely to lead to simultaneous deteriorations in rhythm, structure and even meaning.

Any second draft of a translation from Chinese, especially the more succinct Classical Chinese, in seeking a more natural English-language word order, almost inevitably increases the number of both words and syllables. Thus “thatched study low small” in the first line of quatrain three above, will become something like “my thatched study is low and small”, for example. There is, therefore, clearly no chance of preserving the seven words per line (never mind seven syllables) of the original. One common solution is to aim for seven stressed syllables per line, which might produce a second draft of quatrain four something like:

Knowing well my thatched study is so low and small,
Swallows from above the river enter frequently;
Drops of mud from their beaks splatter my zither and books,
And, while chasing flying insects, they crash against me.

Observant readers will note that I also made a number of editorial decisions regarding number. Chinese nouns almost never indicate a difference between singular and plural, so it falls to the translator to use her/his common sense. Sometimes this can be problematic; here it was fairly easy to assume the narrator had one study, one zither but many books, that both the swallows and the insects they were chasing were numerous but perhaps only came from one nearby river, and that the person/s the poet was concerned about the swallows hitting was single, that is, himself.

While this quatrain is already starting to sound more natural, there is a simultaneous loss of shape, feeling and form. My attempts to improve the other eight quatrains were even more difficult and, in order to sound less clunky, less Chinglish, they also ended up sounding less poetic.

How, for example, might one translate 二月已破三月來 (literally “second month already broken third month arrived”) in the fifth quatrain? The second month of China’s lunisolar calendar is closer to the third month, March, of the Western calendar, and its third to our April, though they vary quite considerably from year to year. This presents a choice between the more accurate “... and the third lunisolar month comes” and the more poetic “... and April comes”, though the latter imposes a Western construct where there was none. Hence the temptation to add footnotes.

Perhaps this also explains why many translators of Chinese poetry prefer to offer prose translations (or poetry that is little more than prose), no doubt believing that conveying the meaning of the words is paramount. But the strength of Chinese poetry in general (and this poem in particular) is often found in its images (which is why it appealed so much to Pound, Amy Lowell***, and other poets of the Imagist Movement), and which, as composition teachers everywhere stress: show rather than tell. The problem with prose translations is that they often tend towards telling over showing.

Draft three
My second draft was almost worse than my first, therefore, and I was tempted to abandon my translation at this stage. I really like Du Fu’s poem, however, and have not yet found a satisfactory translation of it in print or online. Waley, to my knowledge, did not attempt it, otherwise I probably would never have embarked on my project, wouldn’t have needed to.

Throwing out my second draft and returning to my first, I decided to take a radically different approach to my “translation”, that is, to retain all the images and, therefore, poetry of the Chinese, while risking abandoning some of semantic accuracy. There is also a fair amount of reduplication in Du Fu’s original, as he introduces his topic of spring’s arrival, passing and imminent departure.

I therefore decided that the main image in quatrain three, for example, was of the:
 “swallows … chasing insects … deface my zither and books … with mud”
and not the details of where the narrator lived, how often and from where the swallows came, or even that they threatened to crash against him.

I did this for all nine quatrains and, since there appeared a clear twist after the first five, linked them together into two paragraphs of six or seven sentences:

A willow, supple as a young girl’s waist yet snapped by wild dawn gales, as rascal spring invades my guest’s sad reverie with blooming flowers and birdsong. The orchard is mine, but winds steal in at night and break off blossomed branches, and swallows chasing insects thus deface my zither and books with mud. How few more cups might I still have?


O, do not worry, but sip while there is still enough time. I watch as spring departs: mad catkins ride the breeze, peach petals float away. I close my gate, drink turbid wine within my restful grove as twilight falls and spring turns into summer; How many more? I grasp my wine, which tastes like honey.

And suddenly there it was. Not only did the paragraph break resemble the feel of a volta in an English-language sonnet, but it also fell after an initial 79 syllables and before a final 69, which is not so far from the 80 and 60 of a sonnet. It was tempting, therefore, to do something a purist would never do, that is, to “translate” these nine “Chinese sonnets” into one English one.

English sonnets (for those who may have forgotten their high-school lessons) are characterised by 14 lines of (largely) iambic pentameter (der-dum der-dum der-dum der-dum der-dum) with a choice of rhyme schemes such as ABBA ABBA CDECDE, ABAB CDCD EFEF GG and a couple of variations on these.

Surprisingly, my third draft already had a high degree of iambic meter. Perhaps it is not so surprising, actually, since iambic pentameters are sometimes claimed to be close to the natural rhythm of spoken English. In any case, a few tweaks such as changing “young girl” to “maiden” and “the orchard is mine” to “the orchard’s mine” helped tighten this up without changing the meaning or sounding clunky.

As for rhyme, despite the occurrence of “summer” and “honey” as almost naturally creating a couplet (albeit with feminine rhyme) at what could be the last words of the final two lines of a sonnet (GG above), I decided to follow Waley’s advice and not risk injury to either the vigour or literalness of my version. Instead, I limited myself to increasing the prevalence of alliteration and assonance at non-line end positions. Thus, in addition to such pairs as “willow” and “swallows” and “mine” and “wine”, “branches” could be “boughs” to rhyme with “time allows” which could replace “enough time” and “cups might I still have” could be “in store” to rhyme with “how many more” just before the end.

Fourth (and final) draft
By now I felt I was closing in on a final draft. A number of prosodic issues remained, however, things that were beyond my common sense and would need some research.

One such common problem which leads to errors everywhere from product branding through newspaper copy to classical poems is how to translate the Chinese character 酒 (Mandarin jiu) meaning alcohol. A wide variety of beverages are available today including those from brewed and distilled rice, millet, sorghum and other grains, as well as grapes and other fruit. Historically the choice was more restricted; nevertheless a variety of different alcoholic drinks were available and popular in different eras. As a consequence, it is almost essential for a translator to have knowledge of the history of alcohol in China before attempting to tackle this harmless-looking word.

In Du Fu’s day (712-770 CE) for example, distillation of alcohol was still about four hundred years away, although strong alcoholic drinks could be produced by freezing water out as ice. Wine, that is, fermented grape juice, had been available since the Han dynasty half-a-dozen centuries earlier, initially as imports via the Near East, but it was originally restricted to the imperial court and, although Du Fu’s near-contemporary Li Bai mentions it in a poem, it was still unusual and is definitely not what Du Fu is using to toast the spring. Similarly, Western-style wheat and barley beers and ales were not drunk in China till much later.

The Chinese did have their own fermented-grain drinks, however, primarily made from millet in the Late Neolithic Age and rice from classical times onwards. These ranged from lower-strength 3-6% beverages similar to today’s Korean makgeoli and Aboriginal xiao-mi jiu (小米酒), to stronger 13-15% drinks similar to Japanese sake. Although technically beers, as they are made by fermenting grain, they are generally referred to as rice or millet “wine”, partly because they have a similar strength.

And it is presumably some such product that Du Fu’s narrator is drinking when he mentions 濁酒 (“turbid”, i.e., unclarified, “alcoholic-beverage”) in quatrain seven. Since this would primarily have been brewed at home and not merchandised, and since his peach orchard in quatrain three is described as 手種 (“hand planted”), I took the liberty to translate it as “home-brewed wine”.

Similar historical research is required for a variety of other words. What, for example, were the nature of 書 (“books”) in the Tang dynasty? Chinese writing had been executed on bones and turtle shells which were tied together into primitive 冊 (“books”). Subsequently wooden strips and silk cloth were also used, before the invention of paper, apocryphally by Cai Lun (蔡倫) in 105 CE but probably a little earlier, and this was initially rolled up as scrolls. By Du Fu’s day hand-bound collections of pages existed, however, so “books” is a reasonable translation, unless that generates an image of printing, which would also await several centuries. And in any case, 書 could simply mean things like documents and letters, or just writing and calligraphy.

And what should we make of the preceding character 琴 (qin in Mandarin), a musical instrument originally with five or seven strings and frets, which better dictionaries merely translate as a “qin” (just as 龍 should really be a “long” rather than a “Chinese dragon”). Lesser dictionaries offer “Chinese zither” or merely “zither”, and since “drops of mud from their beaks splatter my qin and books” would necessitate a footnote, and also since “zither” derives from German and “lute” derives from Arabic, I settled for the latter as the imagery was almost as good and its single syllable was far more amenable to my target iambic pentameter.

My final observation, which is more of a query, concerns the mention of a 客 (“guest”) in quatrain two, who the narrator observes is 愁不醒 “unable to stir from sadness” until 無賴春色到江亭 “Rascal Spring arrives at his riverside pavilion”. At first it seems odd to mention a guest at this point when the narrator is alone for the other 35 lines of the poem. I was then reminded of the “uninvited visitor” metaphor used by sufferers of bipolar depression to describe their symptoms and experiences. Could Du Fu be applying the same metaphor 1,260 years ago? His narrator’s guest was certainly suffering an unshakeable sadness until his mood was lifted by 花開 (“flowers blossoming”) and 鶯語 (“orioles chattering”) in the next two lines, which, as noted earlier, are symbols of spring’s arrival and also of young women and love. His poem certainly describes the ability of spring to raise him from his winter gloom; was he suffering some form of severe depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD) perhaps, rather than introducing a one-time reference to a new character? Just a thought.

Chinese text:



















*1 Preface to “A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems”, 1918
**2 There are different versions of this poem; this first quatrain commonly appears as the ninth, but I follow Arthur Cooper (“Li Po and Tu Fu: Poems Selected and Translated with an Introduction and Notes”; Penguin Books, 1973), as it accords with the time sequence of spring’s arrival symbolized by the maiden’s youth.
***3 See “Fir-Flower Tablets - Poems translated from the Chinese by Florence Ayscough; English Versions by Amy Lowell” (1921)

Mark Caltonhill is a Taipei-based British writer and translator of academic texts.

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