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Notes on Translating

Notes and Commentary on Translating

The following pearls of wisdom about the translation process comes from the well-known and respected Arthur Waley (1889-1966). Mr. Waley was an English sinologist and translator of Chinese and Japanese. His book One Hundred Seventy Poems was published in 1918.

Waley discussed his insights about the translation process under the title Notes on Translation within the book Madly Singing in the Mountains. In his view, translating for meaning alone is enough if the documents are legal in nature. But for literature, one has to convey the author’s feelings. The feelings that the poet put into the original includes the rhythm, emphasis and his exact choice of words.

There is a lot to learn from translating. It is not after all, that a translator has to be a creative genius. His or her role is like that of the performer of music, in contrast to the composer of the music.

Waley found that trying to use rhyme when going from Chinese to English carries one too far away from the original. However, the translator must use the tools that he or she knows best. He then cites a basic law of translating: one should only translate the original text into one’s own primary and best language.

What matters most is that the translator delights in the handling of words. Translate because you enjoy translating, and the final product should be in your own language. (voice). Waley thought it natural for anyone to prefer their own translations, after all he has made them to own tastes and liking.


Obviously I chose to present Arthur Waley’s views on the translation process because I agree with his observations. In his statement that an author’s feelings must be preserved, I can only add that the sense of atmosphere also needs to be included. Atmosphere for the lack of a better word. Atmosphere, tone, and mood are forms of communication outside the individual words and their meanings. It is the feelings and impressions one has after reading the whole poem, and after having at least some understanding of the poem’s context. I personally try to follow the author’s exact use of words as much as possible. I make the assumption that the poet used these exact words on purpose and for a very good reason. Adding unneeded words, or omitting needed words too often leads to a miscommunication of meaning, as well as of feeling and atmosphere. But in rare cases it is unavoidable. For instance, I have found some of the lines in some of the poems of Tao Yuanming have to be paraphrased to a certain extent. Keeping your audience in mind can, on occasion, override more literal translations.

Waley is correct when he says a translator does not have to be a creative genius. However, he or she should strive in that direction. I believe that the final product in the translation process should be a well-written poem in the translator’s primary language. His observation that translating is like a performer playing a composer’s music is dead on correct. For instance, when I play Bach’s Aria for the Goldberg Variations, I play it the way I feel it. Bach put no tempo or dynamic recommendations on the printed music. He correctly left it up to the performer to interpret his music. In this particular case, as well as with all original poetry, no improvements are necessary. Play the music as written, but also play it the way you feel it.

Too often the basic law that Waley talks of, that is, one should only translate into one’s primary and best language, is well illustrated by the work of Lin Yutang.  A Chinese man, obtaining a Western education in England, had very good English prose skills, but when it came to translating Chinese poetry into English his attempts fell flat.

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