Teaching Evaluation of Classical Chinese Poetry Translation
The three-beauty principle has long been adopted in pedagogy to evaluate classical Chinese poetry translation. However, the result is problematic as the students find it too general and abstract to serve as theoretical guidance. This paper addresses the problem by linking the principle to a set of detailed literary criteria. The study reports an authentic classroom situation in which the students compare four English translations of Chunxiao, a Tang Dynasty masterpiece, and make an attempt to decide which is the most poetic rendering in terms of perception of experience and linguistic devices.
Key words: classical Chinese poetry translation; evaluation; criteria; teaching
In translation teaching, the evaluation of classical Chinese poetry translation has long been a frustrating task. For many years, the evaluation standard adopted by teachers has been the so-called "three-beauty principle" suggested by Xu Yuanchong who is a veteran translator of classical Chinese poetry. Specifically, the three-beauty principle evaluates the translation by its beauty in sense, in sound, and in form (Xu, 1984). A translator needs to fulfil the three beauties to leave the target readers impressed, touched and pleased (Xu, 2005: 44). In a classroom teaching situation, however, this principle is difficult to apply as the theoretical guide. Since "beauty" is a subjective, general, and abstract concept, students usually rely on their intuition to decide whether the translation is beautiful or not. To help the students pinpoint the qualities in such poetic texts, we relate the three-beauty principle to a set of detailed literary criteria, which we have found to effectively enhance their critical understanding of poetry translation.
In this paper we will report a real classroom situation in which the students compare four different translations of Chunxiao, a famous Tang Dynasty poem by Meng Haoran and decide which is the most poetic rendering of the same text. To do this we will first offer a definition of poetry. Second, we will relate the three-beauty principle with a set of literary criteria for the evaluation of poetic texts. Third, we will discuss each of the four versions in some detail.
Definition of Poetry
Given the traditional nature of classical Chinese poetry, we used the definition from Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (1993) of poem in its traditionally sense, that is, writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm."
To help the students critically understand how such poetic qualities are achieved in English writing, the following short excerpt from William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) poem To My Sister is given as an example:
It is the first mild day of March:
Wordsworth uses many Romantic nature images in these four lines: the season, the weather, the month, the mildness and sweetness of the time, the robin (redbreast) singing in the tree, the peacefulness. At the same time there are language conventions worth noting. For example, each line is eight syllables long and the end rhyme scheme is abab. Also the present simple verb tense is used to create a sense of immediacy for the reader. Another reason that we choose this poem is that it shares many similarities with the four versions under discussion so that it can be used as a model against which to compare those versions.
After familiarizing the students with the two aspects of poetry, we concretize the content of the three-beauty principle by associating beauty in sense with perception of experience; beauty in form, and beauty in sound, on the other hand, is associated with the aspect of language.
In a real classroom teaching experience, we select the following four different translations of Chunxiao. Literally meaning spring dawn, Chunxiao is a masterpiece which has attracted many translating efforts over the years (Zhuang, 2007). The students are third-year English majors from the English Department of Wuhan. The task is to decide which of the four versions is the most poetic rendering. To prevent any possible pre-judgement, the names of the translators are intentionally omitted.
Chuan mian bu jue xiao
Chu chu wen ti niao
Ye lai feng yu sheng
Hua luo zhi duo shao
I slept in spring not conscious of the dawn
Version 2I scarcely knew that it was dawn
So sound was the sleep of spring
Everywhere there was birdsong
All night long was the sound of wind and rain
How many flowers have fallen to the ground
Version 3How suddenly the morning comes in spring
On every side you hear the sweet birds sing
Last night amidst the stormAh who can tell
With wind and rain, how many blossoms fell.
Sleeping in spring one hardly knows it's daylight
First, the students are asked to evaluate the versions in terms of beauty in sense, which refers to perception of experience. Clearly, all four versions attempt to capture the writer's Romantic view of nature experienced in the peaceful and delightful moments of waking at dawn after a stormy and turbulent night. As in Wordsworth's poem, there are images of weather (storm), birds, and the season (spring). In this regard, there is no difference between the four versions: they all try to capture the same experience. Thus the comparison mainly focuses on beauty in sound and beauty in form, which is related to the writer's use of linguistic devices. Since we are dealing with traditional (i.e. Romantic) poetry, we use the following traditional literary terms in our evaluation.
Alliteration: a repeated initial consonant in successive words. For example, "On every side you hear the sweet birds sing" in Version 3 illustrates the repeated "s" sound.
Assonance: a repeated vowel sound, a part-rhyme. For example, lines 1 and 4 in Version 1 illustrate assonance or part-rhyme:
Pray how many blossoms have fallen down.
Meter: lines of verse can be marked in long and short syllables giving a regularity of sound. For example, Version 2 illustrates the regularity of sound pattern. (Stressed syllables are in italics.)
So sound was the sleep of spring
The rhythm patterns of "I scarcely" and "it was dawn" are repeated in "So sound" and "sleep of spring."
Syllabic Verse: lines of verse can be measured in syllables. For example, Version 3 illustrates two sequential lines of ten syllables:
On every side you hear the sweet birds sing (10)
Versification: lines can be arranged with in terms of end rhyme. For example, Version 4's end rhyme follows an abab pattern: daylight/ trilling/ night/ falling.
Now we can compare the four versions using these linguistic devices to determine the effectiveness (which is the most poetic) of each version.
Given its Romantic subject matter, Version 3 is the most poetic version of the four, that is, it embodies the most effective combination of form (linguistic devices) and content (a Romantic view of Nature). In fact, this version nicely parallels the Wordsworthian model. In Version 3, all lines are 10 syllables, creating a syllabic equilibrium which symbolizes the balance of Nature. The rhyme scheme is aabb, another rhythmic device demonstrating the symetry of Nature. The writer employs "s" alliteration in lines i,ii,iii, and iv:
On every side you hear the sweet birds sing
Last night amidst the stormAh who can tell
With wind and rain, how many blossoms fell
The "s" sounds give the lines pace and a similarity of sound. At the same time the "s" suggests the sound of the storm. Scanning Version 3 for meter reveals a regular -/-/-/-/-/ meter as the lines repeat each other. The stressed syllables are in bold.
The regular rhythm evokes in the reader a sense of balance, and with that balance, security, calm, and beauty, whereas asymmetry would create discord, anxiety, and tension.
The first two lines describe the moments of waking: the quickness of the dawn and the sound of the birds; while the second two lines prepare for and formulate the question: "how many blossoms fell". In Versions 1, 2, and 4, the question is suddenly presented in the last line. However, in Version 3, the question begins in line 3 and continues into line 4. This results in a much smoother transition between the two ideas of waking at dawn and wondering about blossoms. This fluid transition embodies the easy ebb and flow of Nature; whereas the following two lines of Version 2, "all night long was the sound of wind and rain/ How many blossoms have fallen to the ground," are jagged and have the abrupt feeling of non sequitur.
Versions 1, 2, and 4
While these versions are not without poetic merit, they do not as completely as Version 3 embody form and content. For example, Version 2 is an almost prosaic rendering of the events. Each line offers a fact: line 1, dawn; line 2, sound sleep; line 3, birdsong; line 4, last night's storm; line 5, how many flowers have fallen. The semantic choices are prosaic: for example, "flowers" instead of "blossoms" and "how many flowers have fallen to the ground." There is no need to mention "ground" as that is stating the obvious and not the poetic. Version 2 does not have an end rhyme scheme, although there is assonance or part-rhyme between lines 1 and 3, "dawn" and "birdsong." Neither is there a consistent line rhythm. Free verse, as demonstrated in Version 2, is a valid poetic form (Shakespeare's poetry, for example); however, in the case of Romantic poetry, its conventions and its sentiment, a free verse form offers a less effective rendering of the experience.
Version 4 works better with its abab end rhyme and its odd-even-even-odd numbered syllabic line length (line 1 is 11 syllables, line 2 is 8, line 3 is 10, line 4 is 9) which creates a sense of rhythm. However, there are two features in this version which reduce its poetic impact: verbs and diction. Part of the success of Version 3 is the use of verbs. In Version 3, the verbs in lines 1, 2, and 3 are in the simple present tense which creates a sense of immediacy and action, as well as clarity and simplicity (like Wordsworth's poem). And line 4 is in the simple past tense, asking the question "how many blossoms fell." Whereas in Version 4, the line 1 verbs are in the simple present, line 2 is in the simple present passive voice, line 3 is in the present perfect, and line 4 is in the present perfect progressive. This increasing verb complexity does not contribute to the poetic quality as it succeeds in making the lines longer than they have to be. Especially, using the passive verb voice "Birds are heard ..." needlessly adds a word to line 2 ("are"). Diction is the second curiosity in Version 4. To trill or "trilling" is an old word. To the modern reader the word sounds out of place and archaic.
Version 1 is a relatively successful attempt at Romantic poetry. Each line is ten syllables in length and each line has five stressed syllables. Lines 1 and 4 end in assonance "dawn" and "down"giving a sense of symmetry and finality to the experience. Version 1 also successfully uses "s" alliteration: "I slept in spring not conscious of the dawn." However, after the first line this device is discontinued unlike Version 3 which uses this device in lines 1, 2, and 3, and echoes the sound in "blossoms" in line 4. Verb tenses in lines 1 and 2 are in the simple past; line three has a present simple verb and a simple past verb; however, the verb in line four is in the present perfect which is a needless complexity. As already mentioned, past tenses are less effective than the present tense in creating the immediacy and intensity of the emotional experience which poetry tries to describe. Also the transition from storm to blossoms in lines 3 and 4 feels abrupt.
After applying the three-beauty principle explained in a detailed set of criteria, the students generally agreed that Version 3 is the most poetic translation. The reasons are given as follows:
More successfully than in the other versions, the writer has used alliteration, meter, end rhyme, and syllabic verse. At the same time the writer has used present tense verbs effectively and has kept the language both modern and simple, which is in keeping with the simplicity of the experiencewaking after a storm. Finally, Version 3 offers the smoothest transition between the ideas of the remembered storm and the wondering about the blossoms. Version 3 better fulfils our definition of poetry: "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm."
Due to the difficulties in teaching evaluation of classical Chinese poetry translation, translation teachers in Chinese universities have become very reluctant to assign their students to such tasks. Some universities even exclude classical Chinese poetry translation from syllabus. By linking the three-beauty principle to language and experience, we have provided a concrete and specific set of criteria which have proved to be applicable. We hope the findings can be used to encourage the students to appreciate, evaluate, and even participate in the translation of classical Chinese poetry. We also call for further investigation and discussion since very limited research has been done on this subject.
Bloom, H. & Trilling, L. (1973). Romantic poetry and prose. New York: Oxford University Press.
Conrad, R. (1983). The act of writing. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.
Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary (10th ed.). (1993). Markham, Ontario: Thomas Allen & Sons.
Parker, S. (1993). The craft of writing. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.
Xu, Y. (1984). The Arts of Translation. Beijing: China Translation and Publishing Corporation.
Xu, Y. (2005). On Translation Theory of the Classical Chinese Poetry. Foreign Languages and Their Teaching, 11, 41-44.
Zhuang, J. (2007). The Realization of the Three-beauty Principle by the Four Versions of Chunxia. Journal of Inner Mongolia Agricultural University (Social Science Edition), 33, 344-349.
Published - January 2010
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