115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Between Heaven and Earth: Translating Poetry from Classical Chinese to English and Italian

Curtis Smith, "California State University, Sacramento"

Together with Italianist Dr. Barbara Carle, I translated seventy-eight poems and prose pieces for the anthology, Between Heaven and Earth: Poems in the Classical Chinese, English, and Italian.  Poetry in Classical Chinese, and non-inflected language, is very difficult to translate well into inflected languages.  In this presentation, I will
describe the reasons for the project and the process of the translation.


The world of the classical Chinese poet is so different from ours! Fortunately, we are able to experience that world through classical Chinese poetry.  Chinese poetry is like a literary virtual reality. The poems carry us not through narration, nor description, but by the evocation of sympathetic sensory experiences in the reader.  Because the classical Chinese writing system is not a direct phonetic representation of the language, but represents ideas of words, the reader is able to bypass the phonetic value of the word, and perceives the meaning of the idea.  This creates a much more immediate experience.

There are two major obstacles to translating classical Chinese poems for readers in the West: the language and the cultural context. Literary Chinese, a non-inflected and non-phonetic language, is integral to the art of classical Chinese poetry.  Syntax and juxtaposition are fundamental to the expressive qualities of poetry. The position of a word with a line can dictate what the word means, and even the grammatical word category of the character.  Although the rich English vocabulary can offer a broad choice to express the cultural content of texts, grammatical conventions sometimes narrow the position of words within the line.  On the other hand, Italian has
a much more flexible syntax, able to bring the words, like the original Chinese, to their original place.
In translating Between Heaven and Earth: Poems in the Classical Chinese, English, and Italian, the translators worked closely to recover the original positions of the words, to keep the verse's evocative versatility.  The format of the page, with all three languages presented together, encourages the reader to compare the two
translations to each other and to the original.  We hope that this format will allow the reader a deeper appreciation of the internal structure of the originals, and of the process of translation.

In this presentation, I will present the process that the translators chose to employ, and why.  I will reflect on the challenges and successes of the project, and share a sample or two of the finished anthology.