Translating Tang Poetry

Features Editor

Today is international poetry day – which reminded me of the time when I was an English teacher at a university in Kaifeng, Henan Province. My students gave me a beautiful scroll to hang on my wall. It was, they explained, a poem from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907) – a golden era in China’s history in many spheres, from culture to engineering, administration, religious freedom, education, women’s rights, cosmopolitanism. And also poetry.  Around 50,000 poems have survived from the Tang period and many experts believe this to be not only the greatest era of Chinese poetry, but also China’s biggest contribution to world literature. Many people in China today know Tang poems by heart – you can watch some primary school children in Ningxia reciting a Tang poem here !

Tang Dynasty Poet Li Bai

The scroll my students gave us had perhaps twenty Chinese characters, arranged in columns and written in a mesmerising, flowing hand. At the bottom, a few simple ink brush strokes evoked a branch of plum blossom. The scroll was a thing of beauty – but it also turned out to be a source of great entertainment and wonder to me. We used to ask every visitor to our house to explain what the poem meant. And their contrasting answers gave me a small insight into classical Chinese poetry.

They would say that the characters were those for “snow” “spring” “plum blossom” and so on. This much they could agree on. But when it came to explaining what the poem actually meant, the fun began. Some visitors explained it was a poem about hope and resilience in the face of adversity; others said it was about love’s losses and how to survive them while others explained that it was about the transience of life and love. Others explained it was a poem about the beauty of Nature but – and here they would be a little apologetic – as so many elements of the natural world were symbolic in Chinese culture, to a Chinese reader the poem was also packed with denser meanings, hidden to a foreign reader.

It seemed to me that the words offered by the poet were so sparse that the reader could interpret them in many ways. This ancient poem – written almost a thousand years before Shakespeare – offered a kind of space into which the reader could pour his own thoughts and obsessions. The nature-lover, the philosopher, the romantic could all take something different from the poem.

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The stunning West Lake in Hangzhou has inspired poets since the Tang Dynasty

I once met a writer who described poetry as “words under pressure.” Tang dynasty poetry is certainly like that. Not only do individual words carry their heavy cargo of symbolism, but also the structure of the poems – how many characters per line; the tone of each character and so on – is strictly determined. The apparent simplicity of the words fit into a scaffolding that is actually quite rigid. Of course, those of us who can’t read classical Chinese miss all that.  (And the misguided tendency of some translators to manhandle the Chinese words into an English rhyming scheme can distance us still further from the original.)

But even understanding only a fraction of what the poet intended, these Tang poems can be luminous, touching and funny. Try reading this one – Spring Dawn by the influential early Tang poet Meng Haoran where the simple English translation of the original and an attempt to show what the poet means are placed side by side. Find more Tang era poems here

I love both versions…What about you?

Spring Dawn by Meng Haoran

Spring sleep not wake dawn
Everywhere hear cry bird
Night come wind rain sound
Flower fall know how many

I slumbered this spring morning, and missed the dawn,
From everywhere I heard the cry of birds.
That night the sound of wind and rain had come,
Who knows how many petals then had fallen?





9 thoughts on “Translating Tang Poetry”

    1. Hi chinesehistorycorner, thanks so much for your comment – it’s great to be introduced to your blog! I read your translation and found it really thought-provoking. Personally, it’s my preference when translating ancient poetry to modernise the English, rather than using words such as ‘warbling’, as I fear they can be jarring. That being said, it’s purely a matter of interpretation. A fascinating aspect of translating Tang poetry is that it can be done in countless ways, and interpreted in even more. I look forward to reading your posts in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I have also translated some Tang Poem in my blog. These lyrical poems are not easy to translate. The hanyu pin yin has four tones, but Tang poems have much more tones. A literal translation makes the poem unreadable in English. Right or wrong, I try with end rhyme in ABAB structure. On top of that I am really not Chinese educated in a formal sense, but I have learned and read some classics in bilingual. Hope we could have some exchanges.


    1. Hi wonkywizard, thank you for your comment. I agree, they are not easy to translate but I always enjoy discovering new interpretations and analysis of the ancient texts. I think it is interesting to use an ABAB rhyme structure as a way to make the meaning of the text accessible and emotional to an English-speaking audience. I do think literal translations have merit, which is why I find side-by-side comparisons fascinating. It’s great to be introduced to yourself and your blog, and I look forward to speaking with you further in the future.


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