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Translatability and Poetic Translation

Translation used to be considered an inter-language transfer of meaning, which is the point of departure for research and study. Many earlier definitions demonstrate this, using source language and target language as their technical terms. Moreover, translation theories strictly confined themselves within the sphere of linguistics. For many years the popular trend in the translation circles had been perfect faithfulness to the original both in content and in form and it had been regarded as the iron criterion as if from the holy Bible for translators to observe.

The godly status and the impossible idealistic belief were not altered until new thoughts arose with the respect of consideration of target readers, the unavoidable translator subjectivity and the purpose and function of translations. This thesis, starting to look from new angles such as the accommodation to target cultural conventions, the translator’s consciousness of linguistic and cultural adaptations to make it easy for readers to understand translated works without too much pain and effort, and translation as a purposeful endeavor.

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Translation is then understood as a much more complicated activity with a much broader scope.

Translation of poetry was, and still is by some, believed as impossibility for any unfaithful elements would have been taken as failure, be it content or form. The arguments include linguistic elements and cultural elements. Most importantly the myth of untranslatability looks upon poetry as beauty itself which is untouchable for once it is touched it is destroyed. But as translation of poetry has never been stagnant though sometimes vigorous and sometimes not, there is strong evidence in both translation history and present day practice that poetic translation, a literary form as distinguished from fiction, drama, and prose, is translatable.

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Poetry itself serves a purpose, be it an illusive matter, and aesthetics can be reproduced in another language and culture if accommodation is made. It would be highly likely that the target readers would obtain rather similar if not the same aesthetic pleasure reading the translation as would the source readers reading the original poem. And this is, I believe, the only criterion in evaluating and assessing what is a successful piece of translation. Of course there are other functions of poetry like informative, didactic, cognitive, practical and even entertainment functions.

The aesthetic function stays at the top of the list, though. In other words, if a translation fails to perform the aesthetic function it is in my eyes a bad translation, no matter how well the form is preserved. A word-for-word translation may be judged faithful in form, but it is failure in terms of the performance of functions. As aesthetics of one people influences them with different elements from that of another, accommodation in translation is of urgent necessity. Often loss or addition is made to achieve that end and sometimes only some elements are preserved while other elements are neglected.

This is inevitable or there will be no translation, which means if one fears any loss or addition, one should learn to read the original always instead of reading the translated version. But how many of us can do that? The thesis aims at breaking the myth of untranslatability of poetry and argues from the appropriate understanding of translation to the various functions of poetry. And in the end it suggests, with examples taken from well-acknowledged translators of poetry, some strategies for poetic translators so that global talk opens up another channel for human communication.

We will understand one another better. The detailed organization is as follows. This thesis, starting from a brief account of old ideas of the untranslatability of poetry, proposes instead a hypothesis that poetry is translatable (Chapter One). In the next chapter (Chapter Two) an analysis of why poetry is untranslatable is made in both linguistic and cultural respects. It goes on giving a detailed analysis of translation in general, its various definitions, its multiple functions and the author’s own idea of it (Chapter Three).

Then literary translation is discussed, involving its features and main function–aesthetic value which is the very core in poetic translation as well (Chapter Four). Chapter Five deals with features of poetic translation, treating at the beginning the relationship between poetry and aesthetics and then making a comparison of Sino-west poetic theories. What follows is a discussion of the longstanding issue of form vs content and the criteria of poetic translation. At the end of this chapter, the function of poetry is discussed.

Chapter Six suggests some strategies in poetic translation, all with a strong consciousness of compensation of possible loss of the source text. The thesis ends with a conclusion–poetry is translatable.



(Translator = traitor. ), says the well-known Italian phrase. “ Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost says. Western tradition and culture is founded on untranslatability.

This may sound like a paradox, if one thinks of the long tradition of translatio studii or translatio imperii in the culture, or if you just ponder the very word tradition . Tradition, from Latin tradere (‘hand over’), implies a process of communication, transmission, and transference that necessarily allows for the transformation, whether in terms of “losses” or “gains,” usually associated with what we consensually mean by translation. To translate is not to say the same thing in another tongue, but to make manifest a different thing. This may sound close to what we used to call “the impossibility of translation’.

Croce (quoted in Carravetta, 1997) holds that poets cannot be compared, as each is unique. Translation is impossible; it is only a pedagogical necessity. The responsibility of the interpreter is to capture “the mood or state of being (stato d’animo) of its author. ” In modern times some scholars have come to realize that something in a language can not be fully translated into another, in other words, there is an inevitable loss of meaning. Catford (1965), a celebrated translation scholar of the linguistic school, raises the issue of untranslatability with a new perspective.

He argues that linguistic untranslaltability is due to the difference in the Source Language (SL) and the Target Language (TL), whereas cultural untranslatability is due to the absence in the TL of relevant situational features. Dabeluet and Viney (quoted in Wilss, 2001), in the fruitful book A comparative French and English Stylistics have analyzed in detail the points of linguistic difference between the two languages, differences that constitute areas where translation is impossible. Popovic (quoted in Wilss, 2001) also has attempted to define untranslatability without making a separation between the linguistic and cultural factors.

Nida (1984) presents a rich source of information about the problems of loss in translation, in particular about the difficulties encountered by the translators when facing with terms or concepts in SL that do not exist in TL. Newmark (1982) has also once briefly talked about the deviation in translation. In Chinese translation history, in contemporary and modern day translation circles, many experts and scholars have also discussed the problem to some extent in their empirical assertions and research papers.

As early as the flourishing period of Buddhist scriptures, the problem of untranslatability was mentioned and a rather strong expression was used to criticize certain versions as ‘feeding others what one has munched in his own mouth'( ???? , my translation), not mentioning translation of poetry. Zhu guangqian (Zhu, 1987: 113) says that the reason why poetry translation poses more difficulty than prose translation lies in that poetry stress more on its musical quality while prose emphasizes more on meaning.

Translating meaning is apparently easier than translating the musical quality (my translation). Chinese, unlike English, uses characters which are all single syllables, namely, one character as one syllable. So phrases and clauses are easily arranged into even number phrases and neat even number couplets, if the need arises for comparison or contrast. However, the western languages have strict grammatical rules, requiring fixed structures that forbids free inversions or disorders. If translating literally according to the Chinese form, confusion emerges.

(Ibid: 201) (my translation) Poetry can not only be translated into a foreign language nor can it be translated into another style or another historical period of the same language because the sound and meaning of the language change with the times. Modern syllables and rhythms can not replace those needed in ancient language and modern associated meaning can not replace the ancient associated meaning (Ibid: 223) (my translation). Chen Shuxin (Chen, 2000) proposes that poetic untranslatability mainly lies in the transference of the beauty of the original sound.

If put in order, the transference of sound stays at the top of the list, then form and style, lastly meaning (my translation). Wen Yiduo (Zhu, 1925: 149) exemplifies untranslatability as follows: “Li Bai stands between the ancient style and contemporary style. His wul u , which consists of five characters in each line and eight lines altogether, has the soul of ancient style and the body of the contemporary which is characterized with abundant embellishment. The embellished style may be translatable but not the poetic power.

Nevertheless Li Bai without his tremendous power is no longer himself”. (my translation) For example, the lines ????? , ????? was translated as : (1. 1) The smoke from the cottages curls Up around the citron trees, And the hues of late autumn are On the green paulownias. “What is the matter? ” Mr Zhu asks, “The glorious beauty of the Chinese poem, once transformed into English should become so barren and mediocre! Such precious lines as these are untranslatable for they are too subtle and too refined. If one has to translate it anyway, it is doomed to be destroyed.

Beauty is untouchable. If it is touched, it dies. ” ( my translation) (Ibid: 150). But Zhu later has to admit in another book that translation is not intended for the original author or those who understand the source language. It should not intend to compare with the original. It is impossible and unnecessary to please the reader who understands the source language with one’s translation (my translation) (Ibid: 154). In summary, I find that those who stick to untranslatbility are but two kinds of people.

Some strictly believe the holiness of the original text and others the absoluteness of the unity of meaning and form in a certain language. And they, idealistically, do not allow any addition or loss of meaning in the transferring process as in translation, which is actually inevitable and is a rule rather than an exception.


Translation work, in its present form, dates back more than a thousand years in China and in Western countries. The ever-lasting practice of translation itself manifests the translatability of languages.

Therefore, it stands to reason that a language can be translated from one language into another. Under the guide of this perception, former scholars usually probe into the problem of translation from an instinctive and empirical point of view. Not all words need to be translated. Some cannot. Some can be transcribable, but if there is no cultural equivalent, whether it is translatable or not it still needs to be explained, just like a jargon needs to be explained to the non-specialist in a footnote.

Words, expressions or interjections that are exclusive to a culture, a religion or a jargon cannot always be translated in a satisfactory way because the same thing does not exist in the other language’s culture. In many cases such words with no perfect equivalent are the words that end up being borrowed by the other language, sometimes with a possible spelling adaptation to ease pronunciation in the other language. Jacobson ( 1966: 238) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001) comes to the conclusion that poetry by definition is untranslatable. Only creative transposition is possible.

With this as a prerequisite, translation of poetry should and must be translatable. Historically speaking, the activity of poetic translation has always been there, popular at one time and losing momentum at another, though always being practiced. In other words, whenever human communication is necessary, translation will live on and maintain a firm and fast stronghold. The reason is simple but unavoidable—we, as a nation or a country, are not living alone. As long as we do not lock ourselves up, translation will be translatable, be it scientific translation or poetic translation.

Many translators in contemporary and modern China have made and are making outstanding contributions to the literary and poetic exchanges between China and the West through their diligent and painstaking work. Xu Yuanchong, for instance, has translated several books of Chinese ancient poems into English, the most important being the The 300 Hundred Tang Poems . Gu Zhengkun, by rendering into English The Collection of Mao Zedong’s Poems , is another example to have introduced Chinese poetry to readers of English.

Foreigners include Arthur Waley, Herbert Giles, Witter Bynner, W. J. B. Fletcher, James Legg, Amy Lowell, etc. Translators from English into English are, needless to say, numerous, such as Bian Zhilin, Guo Moruo, Tu Ang, Huang Gaoxin, Jiang Feng, Cao Minglun , and Zhu Chunshen, to name but a few for the present purpose. All these people do not only support the idea that translation of poetry is possible but provide living proof by their many well-received and highly-acclaimed translated works.


Let’s see what specialists say, to begin with, about the nature and essence of translation. Ebel (1969: 50) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001) says that indeed, modern translation theory denies the very existence of translation as it has previously been understood, i. e. as the replacement of an utterance in one language by another, so that the two are interchangeable. The dream of “literal” or “close” translation, which culminated in the attempt to computerize translation, has given way in turn to what might be termed a higher subjectivity.

Since “there are connections but not correlations or diagnostic correspondences between cultural norms and linguistic patterns”, no language is ever a valid substitute for another; “faithfulness” in translation is thus impossible. Gipper (1972: 91) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001: 41) believes that translation is and will continue to be a relative concept. It could be said that every translation represents a transposition from the perspectives of one linguistic view of the world to those of another and that this cannot take place entirely without changes or metamorphoses (change of form or character).

Durbeck (1975: 8) (quoted in Wolfram Wilss, 2001: 42) holds that the world view of one’s native tongue is dominant, thus making man a ‘prisoner of his language”. Wolfram Wilss (Ibid: 49) says, “The translatability of a text can thus be measured in terms of the degree to which it can be re-contextualized in TL, taking into account all linguistic and extra-linguistic factors. …The translatability of a text is thus guaranteed by the existence of universal categories in syntax, semantics, and the (natural) logic of experience.

…Linguistic untranslatability occurs when the linguistic form has a function beyond that of conveying factual relationships and is therefore a constituent part of the functional equivalence to be achieved. This, for example, is true of play on words, which can usually be adequately translated semantically but not stylistically. ” For instance, (2. 1) 1)-Are you training for a race ? – No, I’m racing for a train. 2) Just because I am chased don’t get the idea I am chaste . These are examples of linguistic play of words. (2. 2) 1) The problems of the world are easily soluble in wine.

2) Pay your taxes with a smile. These are instances of cultural play of words. Catford(1965: 99) believes that Cultural untranslatability is usually less “absolute” than linguistic untranslatability. Nida (1969: 483) holds that relative adequacy of inter-lingual communication are based on two fundamental factors: 1) semantic similarities between languages, due no doubt in large measure to the common core of human experience; and 2) fundamental similarities in the syntactic structures of languages, especially at the so-called kernel, or core, level.


Levy (1967: 58) (as quoted in Wilss, 2001: 124) thinks that the translator frequently finds himself in a conflict-and-decision-marked situation during the translation process, a situation which becomes all the more difficult to master, the more complex the textual segment to be translated is in terms of syntax, semantics and stylistics. In recent years the scope of linguistics has widened beyond the confines of the individual sentence. Text linguistics attempts to account for the form of texts in terms of their users.

If we accept that meaning is something that is negotiated between producers and receivers to texts, it follows that the translator, as a special kind of text user, intervenes in this process of negotiation, to relay it across linguistic and cultural boundaries. In doing so, the translator is necessarily handling such matters as intended meaning, implied meaning, presupposed meaning, all on the basis of the evidence which the text supplies. The various domains of socio-linguistics, pragmatics and discourse linguistics are all areas of study which are germane (pertinent) to this process ( Hatim & Mason,1990: 133).

The focus of translation studies would be shifted away from the incidental incompatibilities among languages toward the systematic communicative factors shared by languages. Only in light of this new focus can such issues as equivalence and translation evaluation be satisfactorily clarified. Ke (Ke, 1999) says that the problem of translatability or untranslatability is closely related to man’s understanding of the nature of language, meaning and translation.

From the socio-semiotic point of view, “untranslatables” are fundamentally cases of language use wherein the three categories of socio-semiotic meaning carried by a source expression do not coincide with those of a comparable expression in the target language. Three types of untranslatability, referential, pragmatic, and intra-lingual may be the carrier of the message. Language-specific norms considered untranslatable by some linguists should be excluded from the realm of untranslatables.

And since translation is a communicative event involving the use of verbal signs, the chance of untranslatability in practical translating tasks may be minimized if the communicative situation is taken into account. In a larger sense, the problem of translatability is one of degree: the higher the linguistic levels the source language signs carry meaning(s) at, the higher the degree of translatability these signs may display; the lower the levels they carry meaning(s) at, the lower the degree of translatability they may register.


Translation practice is one of the strategies a culture devises for dealing with what we have learned to call the “Other” (a term borrowed from Lefevere, 2001, meaning a culture different from one’s own—my interpretation). The development of a translational strategy therefore also provides good indications of the kind of society one is dealing with.

The fact that China, for instance, developed translational strategies only three times in its history, with the translation of the Buddhist scriptures from roughly the second to seventh centuries AD, with the translation of the Christian scriptures starting in the sixteenth century AD, and with the translation of much Western thought and literature starting in nineteenth century AD, says something abut the image of the Other dominant in Chinese civilization, namely that the Other was not considered very important, only as ‘branches or leaves’ instead of the ‘trunk’.

Cultures that are relatively homogeneous tend to see their own way of doing things as ‘naturally’, the only way, which just as naturally becomes the ‘best’ way when confronted with other ways. When such cultures themselves take over elements from outside, they will, once again, naturalize them without too many qualms and too many restrictions. When Chinese translate texts produced by others outside its boundaries, it translates these texts in order to replace them, pure and simple. The translations take the place of the originals.

They function as the originals in the culture to the extent that the originals disappear behind the translations. The Chinese were forced to deal with the Other by the spread of Buddhism, which did not threaten the fabric of society, and therefore could be acculturated rather easily on the terms of the receiving, Chinese society. This is apparent not just from the manner of translating, but even more so from the fact that Taoist concepts were used in translations to acculturate Buddhist concepts. ( quoted from Bassnett & Lefevere, 2001: 169)

What are the options the translator faces ? We suggest they are as follows: Is the element being translated obligatory or optional in the TL text format? If it is obligatory, is the order in which it occurs appropriate for the TL text format? If it is obligatory and the order is appropriate, will iteration (repetition), if there is any, be appropriate in the TL text format? The less evaluative the text is, the less need there will be for its structure to be modified in translation. Conversely, the more evaluative the text is, the more scope there may be for modification. (ibid: 187)

The less culture-bound (treaties, declarations, resolutions, and other similar documents) a text is, the less need there will be for its structure to be modified in translation. Conversely, the more culture-bound a text is, the more scope there may be for modification.


There are numerous examples in both English and Chinese that exhibit historical elements deeply rooted in the languages. Idioms and legends always provide ready support in this respect. Once an idiom or fixed expressions has been recognized, we need to decide how to translate it into the target language.

Here the question is not whether a given idiom is transparent, opaque, or misleading. Maybe it’s easier to translate an opaque expression than a transparent one. The main difficulties in the translation may be summarized as follows. An idiom or fixed expression may have no equivalent in the target language. One language may express a given meaning by means of a single word, another may express it by means of a transparent fixed expression, a third may express it by means of an idiom, and so on. So it is unrealistic to expect to find equivalent idioms and expressions in the target language in all cases.

The idioms and expressions may be culture-specific which can make it untranslatable or difficult to translate. The expressions such as hot dog (?? ) and Kangaroo Court (????? ) which relate to specific cultural background provide good examples. An idiom or fixed expression may have a similar counterpart in the target language, but its context of use may be different; the two expressions may have different connotations, they may not be pragmatically transferable. The expression such as make a come-back ( ???? ,???? ) , though similar in meaning, the contexts in which the two idioms can be used are obviously different.

Make a come-back is usually in positive occasions, but ???? is usually used in negative occasions. An idiom may be used in the source text in both its literal and idiomatic senses at the same time. The expression such as kick down the ladder (???? ) is a good example . It means treat with contempt those through whose assistance one has risen to a position of importance . It refers to the rising up politically or socially. But ? in Chinese translation refers to the tool or means to overcome difficulties, and is widely and commonly used.

They are similar in the point of forget the help, and do harm to (???? ) but different in details. Legends are of a quite similar character. What is a legendary hero in one language, for example, King Arthur in English may not be known in another language, such as Chinese. Without necessary annotation the target reader would be certainly at a loss. But if a Chinese legendary figure is loaned to serve the purpose of a courageous and brave man, the readers may be wondering if the English people also have such a legend, which may result in misunderstanding.

Translation from Chinese into English exhibits the same problem. 2. 2. 2 GEOGRAPHICAL ELEMENTS Just as the Chinese saying goes that a people of one geographical location is different from that of another, translation of geographical terms is where another problem is encountered. Recognition and familiarity of the geography is of immense help to bring about the readers’ association, thus making comprehension easier. On the contrary, without a sense of geography, the readers have only their imagination in their power to employ.

Translation of the following Chinese poem is a case in point. (2. 3) ?? ????? , ????? . ????? , ????? . Xu Yuanchong’s translation of the geographical location liaoxi becomes ‘frontier’, which provides enough space for readers’ association even without a note to explain it. Unlike Xu, another translator uses pinyin and has it annotated, saying it is the frontier of the battlefield. Herbert Giles also translated this poem. (2. 4) Drive the young orioles away, Nor let them on the branches play; Their chirping breaks my slumber through And keep me from my dreams of you.

In this translation the translator dismisses the geographical location liaoxi altogether, for it would be difficult for English readers to associate the place with the frontier where her husband has been summoned. (Lu,, 2002: 255) The reason why the geographical name is omitted is that the translator feels no need to burden the target reader who would know little where that place is while for a Chinese the association is immediate, activating a vivid picture of the harsh environment for the poor soldiers, hungry, cold with knee-deep snow and whipping wind, hopeless of returning safe and sound, and confronted with the deadly barbarian enemy.


Lindbeck in his article The Gospel’s Uniqueness: Election and Untranslatability says: “ This essay is an experiment in looking at the uniqueness of Christianity from the perspective of religions as community-forming comprehensive semiotic systems. Uniqueness in this outlook consists formally of untranslatability and materially of the unsubstitutable memories and narratives which shape communities identities”. The Biblical story is well known.

It has two main chapters: chapter one, Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9); chapter two, the Pentecost (Genesis 10: 9-11). In Genesis, the Almighty creates the different human languages to colonize an upstart humanity and thus secure the untranslatability of his own divinity. In the Acts of the Apostles, the miracle of total intelligibility, because it is a miracle and not a first instance of simultaneous translation, transcends language difference, and hence humanity, and thus once again presupposes and guarantees the ungraspable ideal of God’s absolute meaning.

The Babelic confusion of languages imposed by a jealous God, on the one hand, and the gift of the Holy Ghost in the Pentecostal cloven tongues of fire granted by a proselytizing god, on the other, both tell the same story of imperial identity and subjugated otherness. One single language is good, for it bespeaks the untouchable self-sameness of the deity. If we follow the argument above, then translation simply becomes ‘mission impossible’. Yet translation of all kinds of religious scriptures are taking place all the time, with either meaning addition or loss of the original.

And the ideas are spreading far and wide. Untranslatability of the divinity is only of pedantic research value, not barring the way of the translators practicing translations, much less the way of the common people fervent to learn about divinity.



It is universally agreed that translation means translating meaning. What is meaning, then? As G. Steiner (1975: 45) points out, and as much research into the reading process has shown, each act of reading a text is in itself an act of translation, i. e. an interpretation.

We seek to recover what is ‘meant’ in a text from the whole range of possible meanings, in other words, from the meaning potential which Halliday (1978: 109) defines as “the paradigmatic range of semantic choice that is present in the system, and to which the members of a culture have access in their language”. Inevitably, we feed our own beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and so on into our processing of texts, so that any translation will, to some extent, reflect the translator’s own mental and cultural outlook, despite the best of impartial intentions.

No doubt, the risks are reduced to a minimum in most scientific and technical, legal and administrative translating; but cultural predispositions can creep in where least expected (Hatim & Mason. 1990: 11). In literary translating, the process of constant reinterpretation is most apparent. The translator’s reading of the source text is but one among infinitely many possible readings, yet it is the one which tends to be imposed upon the readership of the TL version.

Since an important feature of poetic discourse is to allow a multiplicity of responses among SL readers, it follows that the translator’s task should be to preserve, as far as possible, the range of possible responses; in other words, not to reduce the dynamic role of the reader. The readers’ purposes can be divided into two types: for comparative literary research (intellectual) and foreign literature appreciation (aesthetic). For different purposes the translator may translate differently.

Translation is a matter of choice, but choice is always motivated: omission, additions and alterations may indeed be justified but only in relation to intended meaning (Hatim & Mason. 1990: 12). The translator’s motivations are inextricably bound up with the socio-cultural context in which the act of translating takes place. Consequently, it is important to judge translating activity only within a social context. Before there is translation, for example, there has to be a need for translation.

In fact, the social context of translating is probably a more important variable than the textual genre, which has imposed such rigid distinctions on types of translating in the past (‘literary translation’, ‘scientific and technical translation’, ‘religious translation’, etc. ) Divisions of this kind tend to mask certain fundamental similarities between texts from different fields. There are regularities of discourse procedures which transcend the boundaries between genres and which it is our aim to describe.

Nida (1975) discusses translation from the point of view of semantic componential analysis, which consists in common (shared) components (the overlapping features of the single lexical units of a word field); diagnostic (contrastive) components (features which distinguish the meaning of individual lexical units of a word field or lexical units with more than one meaning); supplementary components (semantically optional secondary features which often have a connotative –in addition to fundamental meaning/denote: be the sign or symbol of –character and can cause metaphorical extensions).

I have done some research from the perspective of hermeneutics which studies meaning in human communication. Modern ideas on hermeneutics hold that the writer may be an editor or a redactor and that he may have used sources. In considering this aspect of discourse one must take into account the writer’s purpose in writing as well as his cultural milieu. Secondly, one must consider the narrator in the writing who is usually different from the writer. Sometime

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Translatability and Poetic Translation. (2016, Sep 19). Retrieved from

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