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  • Can Poems Be Translated? Reflections on Poetry Translation and Translating Emily Dickinson into Chinese
  • Dali Tan (bio)

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[End Page 151]

Ju tong guo qu bian shi zheng chang gan jue— After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
Mei gen shen jing zheng jin wei zuo, zhen xiang mu xue— The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
Shi ta ma, jiang ying de xin zai wen xun, The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
Zuo tian, hai shi yuan gu, cheng shou guo na ju tong? And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
Shuang jiao ji xie shi de you dang si chu— The Feet, mechanical go round—
Liang jiao zhuo di, huo shi wu li yun wu— Of Ground, or Air or Ought—
Mu ji ji dai ban ban A Wooden way
Bian de shen bu she shou, Regardless grown,
Shi ying yang de an fen, xiang kuai shi tou— A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
Zhe shi chen zhong de shi ke, xiang kuair qian— This is the Hour of Lead—
Hui xiang chi lai, ruo neng xing mian yu nan, Remembered, if outlived,
Hao xiang xian xie dong si de ren, yi chi xue hua— As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
Kai shi han leng—jie zhe ma mu—ran hou ba shou yi sa— First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

Poems can be translated, it is true. Many outstanding translated poems have made great contribution to cultural exchange and understanding and have become an inseparable part of the world civilization. Poems cannot be translated, it is also true. Many excellent poems fail to be good poems when they are translated into another language. The above claim that "poems can be translated and also cannot be translated" seems to be a self-contradiction; however, it is the state of affairs in poetry translation. Poems can be translated because they reflect many of the common pursuits, general feelings, and emotions of humankind. People with different cultural backgrounds can touch each other deeply through their understanding and appreciation of each other's poems.

The essential conditions for a person to translate a poem from the original language to the target language should include his or her profound mastery of both languages and a deep understanding of the two different cultural backgrounds as well as his or her critical knowledge of and insights into both the poet and his or her works. However, unless the translator is full of poetic enthusiasm, imagination, and inspiration, all those above conditions are still not sufficient for good poetry translation. Poems can be translated because their contents can be expressed in another language. However, it is sometimes very difficult or even impossible to express the content of a poem perfectly in a different language because of the differences between the original language and the target language, especially in cases of phrases with double, triple, or multiple meanings, metaphors, and allusions. Furthermore, the artistic concept or imagery of a poem often consists of two aspects: the emotion and the scene. In the original poem, both aspects are [End Page 152] inseparably mingled. However, because of the differences in cultural backgrounds, the translation sometimes keeps the scene but loses the emotion or vice versa. Mei Yao—ch'en (1002-60), a Chinese poet in the early Sung Dynasty, told us how to create the perfect poem in the following way: "You have to be able to give the manner of a scene that is hard to describe, to bring it as if before your eyes: it must hold inexhaustible thought in reserve, thought that appears beyond the words. Only then it is perfect" (Owen 375). In other words, the ideal poems express limitless implications in limited words. The words of those poems can be translated sometimes, but their implications "get lost" (to use Robert Frost's all too famous words) in the process of translation.

The conventions and forms of poetic composition in different languages can be very different. It can be very difficult to retain the original poetic form in translation. It is not surprising that versions of a poem in the same target language by different translators...


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