Thoughts on Translating Poetry


Erin Cone, Parallel
Erin Cone

In the current issue (January, 2015) of The Sun magazine, Leath Tonino interviews David Hinton on translating ancient Chinese poetry. There’s much to learn here, about philosophy and wisdom as well as poetry and translation, but I was struck by a couple particulars. 

One was the idea of the “I” in ancient Chinese poetry and how there isn’t one. A separate speaker who is an “I” is left out, and the original poems are images and phrases, the witness/poet being understood as part of the larger whole taking place in a sort of eternal now. 

Another was the aspect of persona in the act of translating. As interviewer Tonino puts it, “As a translator, you say you’ve found a way to speak in the voice of ancient China’s sage-masters while also letting them speak through you.” This struck me as being very similar to acting. As an actor, I try to use everything at hand, everything in me and everything in the script, to let the character speak through me. 

Erin Cone, AbideHinton pursues this further and also explains that, in addition to no “I,” there are “no verb tenses in classical Chinese,” and “no punctuation.” He says he’s got “to reinvent the poems in my own language, in my own voice.”  

I was surprised, then, and yet delighted to find the “I” in the translations, after all! (As well as tense and punctuation!) “I live here in a village house…” begins a poem by T’ao Ch’ien, called “Drinking Wine.” Indeed, finding the “I” (and the wine!) allowed me to connect, to be transported to China and to a far-off time. As the reader, I disappeared and became the speaker of the poem, witnessing river and mountain, arranging flowers, aging, and anticipating death. And here, as reader, I was also directly addressed: 

How do you grow old living with failure and disgrace?
Stay close to the cascading creek: cold, shimmering. 

Look at the precision of punctuation (not present in the original poem) in this translation by Hinton of Wang An-Shih. 

All these things fascinate me about translation. Hinton says scholars don’t always like what he does, often preferring word-for-word translations, but, for me, these poems came alive on the pages of The Sun

–Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor  

David Hinton interview excerpt at The Sun  

David Hinton’s Website 

Poetry-in-Translation at EIL 

Erin Cone at EIL




  • Seana

    This reminds me a bit of hearing a lecture by novelist and essayist Susan Straight recently, in which she said, as the writer, you are nothing. Meaning not that you are worthless, but that you are merely the conduit of something passing through you.