The Translation Game

Thomas Mann and Du Fu

In The Three-Cornered World, a novel by Sōseki, the Japanese novelist I wrote about last week, a painter aims to “separate and discard the scratchy sand of human emotion to discover the pure gold that lies beneath it.” In an endnote, Sōseki’s biographer relates this principled aesthetic detachment to a similar idea put forward by the hero of Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kröger”:

For the fact is: all healthy emotion, all strong emotion, lacks taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. David Luke

The observation has some truth in it, and I like the astringency, even if it’s also true that no great art can be made without strong emotion. It’s the sort of insight it makes sense to put in the mouth of a fictional character. I think what I like in novels is strong emotion that’s resisted, frustrated, constrained, or otherwise dragged against. In any case, the quote prompted me to think that I should really read “Tonio Kröger” one of these days, and I took down off the shelf the copy we have in the house, which turns out to give a different translation of the passage:

For a strong and sound feeling has no taste—and that's that.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Joachim Neugroschel

This didn’t quite land, to my ear. It almost sounded as if the person sampling strong feeling had come down with COVID-19 and lost the use of his taste buds. “And that’s that” seemed a little flip, too. I was wandering into what my husband and I call the Translation Game, which is when you become obsessed with which version of a classic text is the one to read. Ideally, one player tracks down parallel passages and reads them aloud while player two, eyes closed or averted, renders a verdict. (On my ancient blog, I once played multiple solo rounds on the various translations of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.)

I was able to find two more renderings of the sentence:

For every healthy and strong emotion, that is beyond doubt, is tasteless.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Bayard Quincy Morgan

Slightly awkward. “That is beyond doubt” is supposed to be an interjection, judging by the way it’s rendered in the rival translations, but where it’s placed here, it could easily be mistaken for a clause qualifying “strong emotion,” that is, as saying that strong feelings that are beyond doubt are tasteless. Another problem: “is tasteless,” in English, approaches in meaning “is offensive,” and saying that emotion gives offense seems to me a less subtle argument than saying it lacks taste.

For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste.
     —Thomas Mann, “Tonio Kröger,” tr. Helen Lowe-Porter

This doesn't quite work, either, because it seems possible that what's being argued is that strong emotion is flavorless, which hardly seems likely to be what Mann (or Kröger) meant. I award this round to David Luke (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Neugroschel, Morgan, or Lowe-Porter wouldn’t win on another passage).


A couple of months ago, a review in the New York Review of Books by Madelein Thien led me to David Hinton’s translations of the classic Chinese poet Du Fu (or Tu Fu). As Thien explains, translating Chinese poetry into English is more or less impossible because of “the incommensurability of Chinese (logographic) and English (alphabetic) written systems.” Between the ideograms that make up a verse of written Chinese poetry, visual resonances are possible that just can’t occur in English. “The dimensionality of the Chinese writing system itself is akin to a forest we walk through (where the trees keep grouping and regrouping as we move among them), rather than a series of twigs arranged on a surface,” Thien writes. Chinese verbs don’t have tenses, and Hinton claims that the pronoun “I,” in an English translation of a classic Chinese poem, is almost always a translator’s interpolation. It seems that translators have to prune away some of a classical Chinese poem’s ambiguity to have any hope of making English out of it—which means there can be radical disparities, from translation to translation, in what the same poem seems to mean on a literal level.

To suggest the polysemy that can’t be translated, Hinton deploys an elliptical, compressed English that sometimes left my prosaic mind stuck on the problem of what exactly was happening. Here, for example, are the closing lines of his version of a poem by Du Fu that he titles “New Year’s Eve”:

Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight 
into dusk light's over. Who changes,
who even slows this dead dazzling
drunk in the wings of life we live?
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. David Hinton

Hinton explains in an endnote that in China, a person’s age ticks up at New Year’s rather than on his birthday. So the feeling of renewal that people around the world associate with the New Year may be combined in China with the regret about lost youth and the pride in survival that an American usually associates with birthdays. That clarifies the mood, a little. But is the “drunk” in the last line a drunk person or an episode of drunkenness? What are the “wings of life we live”? Why is someone thinking about changing or slowing down a drunk (or an episode of drunkenness)?

In my puzzlement, I put down the book and went online, where I found an essay about Kenneth Rexroth’s reworkings of Chinese poetry that printed both a 1945 Rexroth version of the same poem and Rexroth’s probable source (he didn’t know much Chinese), a more literal translation by Florence Ayscough in 1929. Here’s Ayscough’s rendering of the lines:

At bright dawn my years will bridge four tens; 
I fly, I gallop towards the slanting shadows of sunset.  
Who can alter this, who can bridle, who restrain the moments? 
Fiery intoxication is a life’s career. 
     —Tu Fu, "A New Year Vigil at Tu Wei’s House," tr. Florence Ayscough

Though “my years will bridge four tens” seems pointlessly quirky, the line “Fiery intoxication is a life’s career” is heady and absolute. And Ayscough conveys the emotional logic of the closing lines more clearly than Hinton does: in her version, the poem’s speaker sees himself as in decline, as falling—the setting sun has put him in mind of this—and there’s a parallel between his wish to halt the setting of the sun, which will mark him as a year older and that much more of a lost cause, and his wish to halt his own decline. Thus the exhilaration of the last line, which damns the torpedoes.

Here’s Rexroth, meanwhile:

                                   Soon now 
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.
     —Tu Fu, "New Year's Eve," tr. and adapted by Kenneth Rexroth

I like this a little less than Ayscough, actually. Her bridge of “four tens” is more sensibly rendered as “my fortieth year,” but the whole question of whether to halt, or try to halt, the sunset and/or one’s own decline has been lost in translation. Rexroth’s version of the poet has made up his mind to a future of ecstasy and decay. He’s almost looking forward to it.

The most scholarly translation I could find is by Stephen Owen:

Tomorrow I pass my fortieth year, 
evening light slants too low for a meteoric rise. 
Who can continue to stay so constrained?— 
utter drunkenness will be the rest of my life. 
     —Tu Fu, "New Years Eve at Du Wei’s Home," tr. Stephen Owen (poem 2.11)

In his notes, Owen argues that Du Fu’s reference to his fortieth year “echoes Confucius’s dictum that one should get established in one’s thirties,” and that the opposition between the slanting evening light and a now-impossible meteoric rise in the second line here is a symbolic way for the poet to convey that “it is too late in my life to rise swiftly.” I didn’t get any of this career anxiety from Hinton, Ayscough, or Rexroth. All versions, however, seem to oppose the sun’s downward setting to an upward motion that the poet has been attempting. Tomorrow morning the sun sets on forty years of my upward striving, is maybe the paradoxical idea.

It’s striking how completely Owen’s understanding of the rhetorical question in the penultimate line reverses that of the other translators. Their versions ask who wants to (or can) halt the decline of the sun and the poet; Owen’s asks who can bear to be held back from decline. There must be an ambiguity about subject and object in the original. Or maybe a touch of humor? Something like, Drink up, fall down—who will stop, or could even stand to stop, the career of a lifetime?

Owen is also chaster with imagery than the other translators. There’s a sunset in his version, as there is in everyone’s, but there’s a bird in Hinton, and there’s fire in Ayscough and Rexroth. Are they reading the Chinese characters differently, or emphasizing different resonances in the same characters? The answer is probably yes, and my final verdict on this round of the Translation Game is that the best translation of Du Fu is two or three of them.


News: A new short story of mine, “Massachusetts,” is published in the spring 2021 issue of The Yale Review. If you’d like to read it, you can get just the spring 2021 issue of The Yale Review for $15, or you can get a year’s subscription (four issues) for $44, along with a coupon for 50% off some of Yale University Press’s books.