What a horrible translation of Chinese poem

I am a fan of classical Chinese poetry and Li Bai is one of my favorite poets. His poem, 长干行, was about a devoted yet lonesome wife yearning for the return of her husband and recalling those old good days when they two spent together.

The poem was translated by Ezra Pound into English. Pound was a well-known American poet. He was a translator of many Chinese poems. His translations were considered by literature critics as among the best.

Internet search (of course in Chinese!) told me that Pound’s English translations of Li Bai’s above-mentioned poem are very popular among literature scholars and students in the United States. I want to know if that is true. Then I wrote an email to my colleague, a full professor with expertise in English literature. Here is her email reply: “Ezra Pound translated a bunch of Chinese poems and this was probably one of them. His work introduced Chinese poetry to the west. I don’t think that means its popular though.”

I feel relieved, knowing that this translated poem is not popular in the west. Honestly, Pound’s translations are horrible. First, his translations do not rhyme so it is unpleasant to hear when you read them aloud. Second, use of level and non-level tones in the original poem made it rise up and down in tones. The translations have no level and non-level tones at all, thus losing the work’s musical beauty. Third, this is also the most unforgivable one: The original poem is full of vivid and profound imageries. With the English translations, we can no longer see a “poetic world”(Tang, p.187), a concept which is “most central to Chinese poetry (Tang, p.187).”

Pound loved Chinese culture but clearly he did not understand Chinese language and culture well. So I don’t know why he had the courage to translate Chinese poems. Translating poems into a different language is a mission almost impossible to achieve. This is even truer for the translation of Chinese poetry into English.


Li Bai. Photo credit: Public domain work, via Wikimedia Commons


Ezra Pound. Photo credit: By Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882–1966)

(National Portait Galley, London) [Public domain],via Wikimedia Commons

Below are the original poem and the translations:


The River-merchant’s wife: A Letter


While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead, I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.


You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse, You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.


And we went on living in the village of Chokan: Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.


At fourteen, I married My Lord you. I never laughed, being bashful.


Lowering my head, I looked at the wall. Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.


At fifteen, I stopped scowling, I desired my dust to be mingled with yours.


Forever and forever and forever. Why should I climb the look-out?


At sixteen, you departed. You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river-swirling eddies.


And you have been gone five months. The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.


You dragged your feet when you went out. By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses.


Too deep to clear them away! The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.


The paired butterflies are already yellow with August. Over the grass in the West garden.


They hurt me. I grow older.


If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang, Please let me know beforehand.


And I will come out to meet you As far as Cho-fu-Sa.


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