Literal and Literary : Language and the Representation of Chinese Poetry


Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review


he evaluation of translation is beset with all sorts of subjectivities, a bewildering array of often conflicting theories, and it is invariably determined by very personal tastes. Too many evaluations of translation follow what might be appropriate for food—de gustibus non disputandum est—but not for literary constructs. This paper is an attempt to provide at least a template for the evaluation of translations that will establish some form of objective measure for judgment. We will look at translations through two prisms: the literal and the literary. These two foci will provide four permutations: (1) false to the letter; false to the spirit; (2) true to the letter; false to the spirit; (3) false to the letter; true to the spirit; (4) true to the letter; true to the spirit. Most readers would dismiss at least (1) and (2) as unsatisfactory; some would also dismiss (3). Few readers would dismiss (4).

In establishing these criteria, I am not trying to establish an absolute metric of measurement, I am merely trying to narrow the parameters of evaluation, so that one’s own presuppositions and assumptions can be clearly identified. Before we begin, let me confess to a preliminary bias of my own. I believe a literary construct is ambiguous and ambivalent, not a discrete or discriminate code to be decoded into one meaning. To be successful, a translation must convey the nuances as well as the feelings that the original text conveys to, or elicits from, the source audience.

With any criteria, it’s useful to explore exemplars, so that one can understand in practical terms how the criteria may be applied. Presumably, as we proceed from (1) to (4), we can approach increasingly more satisfactory translations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18-33
JournalYearbook of Comparative and General Literature
Publication statusPublished - 2008


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