Translating the Divina Commedia for the Chinese Reading Public in the Twenty-First CenturyTraduire la Divina Commedia pour le public chinois du XXIe siècle

  • Laurence K. P. Wong

…plus d’informations

  • Laurence K. P. Wong
    Department of Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N. T., Hong Kong

Corps de l’article

Translating the Divina Commedia into Chinese: General Observations

From the 1950s to 2000, four complete Chinese translations of Dante’s Divina Commedia were published, two in prose and two in verse.[1] In going through these translations, one becomes aware of a number of problems that prevent them from meeting the needs of a more sophisticated, more demanding Chinese reading public in the twenty-first century.[2] In this paper, I shall discuss these problems and describe what I have done to tackle them in my own, also the latest Chinese translation of the Commedia, entitled Shenqu 神曲 ‘The Divine Comedy’ and published under my Chinese name Huang Guobin in 2003 by Chiuko Press in Taipei, Taiwan in three volumes, subtitled Diyupian 地獄篇 ‘Inferno’, Lianyupian 煉獄篇 ‘Purgatory,’ and Tiantangpian 天堂篇 ‘Paradise’, respectively, corresponding to the three cantiche of the Commedia, namely, the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. In my discussion, I shall try to show that verse is a more adequate medium for coping with the source text than prose, and that, in respect of terza rima, modern Chinese enjoys an advantage over modern English. As the focus of my paper is on practice and on translation as a craft and art, aimed at sharing the translation experience with practitioners and practitioner-theorists, abstract discussion in purely theoretical terms will be avoided.

Of all the requirements for a credible translation of the Commedia, the first is related to medium: to preserve as many poetic qualities of the original as possible, the translation has to be done in verse.[3] The reason for this will become clear if we examine the two prose versions (Wang, 1954; Tian, 1997) alongside the original. Deprived of the resources of verse, prose translations have difficulty reproducing the effects achieved by Dante through poetic devices, especially those on the syntactic and phonological levels. Take the mounting tension and sense of expectancy suggested by the rhythm in the following lines:

Ed ecco qual, sul presso del mattino,

Per li grossi vapor Marte rosseggia

giù nel ponente sovra ’l suol marino,

cotal m’apparve, s’io ancor lo veggia,

un lume per lo mar venir sì ratto,

che ’l mover suo nessun volar pareggia.

Divina Commedia: Purgatorio, II, 13—18[4]

And just as Mars, when it is overcome

by the invading mists of dawn, glows red

above the waters’ plain, low in the west,

so there appeared to me—and may I see it

again—a light that crossed the sea: so swift,

there is no flight of bird to equal it.

Mandelbaum, 1982-84, Purgatorio, p. 13[5]

In Wang’s version (Wang, 1954, p. 176), only the semantic level is taken care of; what comes through the language of poetry, such as the mounting tension and sense of expectancy mentioned above, has been reduced to a minimum:

忽然, 似乎有一顆明亮的火星, 他的紅光透過海上的濃霧, 出現在遠處, (我希望能再看見一次)! 那紅光由海上向我們來, 比鳥飛還要快。

Huran, sihu you yi ke mingliangde huoxing, tade hongguang touguo haishangde nongwu, chuxian zai yuanchu, (wo xiwang neng zai kanjian yici)! Na hongguang you haishang xiang women lai, bi niaofei hai yao kuai[6]

The sentence “Na hongguang you haishang xiang women lai, bi niaofei hai yao kuai 那紅光由海上向我們來, 比鳥飛還要快” ‘The red light comes towards us from the sea, swifter than a bird’, because of its unvaried rhythm resulting from an unduly large number of three-syllable pauses in a row (Na / hong/guang// you / hai / shang// xiang / wo / men// lai,// bi / niao/ fei // hai / yao / kuai”), sounds monotonous, and fails to suggest the swiftness of the approaching angel.

Published more than forty years later, Tian’s version (Lianyupian 煉獄篇 ‘Purgatory’, 1997, p. 12) is more meticulous, able to attend to the phrase “sul presso del matino” ‘on the approach of morning’ (Sinclair, 1971, Purgatorio, p. 33), which Wang has left untranslated:

瞧! 好像在晨光映射下, 火星從西方的海面上透過濃霧發出紅光一樣, 我看到這樣的一個發光體—但願我能再看到它—渡海而來, 來得那樣快, 任何鳥飛的速度都比不上它的運動。

Qiao! Haoxiang zai chenguang [morning’s light, the idea of “morning” being left out in Wang’s version] yingshe xia, huoxing cong xifangde haimianshang touguo nongwu fachu hongguang yiyang, wo kandao zheiyangde yi ge faguangti—danyuan wo neng zai kandao ta—du hai er lai, laide nayang kuai, renhe niaofeide sudu dou bibushang tade yundong

However, denied the resources of verse for approximating Dante’s poetic devices and hampered by a sluggish rhythm resulting from the unskillful arrangement of one-character, two-character, and three-character pauses in “ren/he // niao/fei/de // su/du // dou // bi/bu/shang // ta/de // yun/dong” ‘no speed of birds in flight is comparable to its movement’, which is hardly in keeping with the swiftness described in the original, it is ill-equipped to re-create the original poetic qualities.

With verse as my medium, I find it easier to suggest the original’s mounting tension and sense of expectancy. Through the functional arrangement of pauses in lines 4-6 and the interplay of the four tones in the rhyme scheme,[7] I believe that I have also been able to emphasize the speed of the angel and re-create the musicality of terza rima:

之後, 突然間, 如將近黎明的時辰,


閃耀, 紅彤彤射穿濃厚的霧氛,

一道光, 疾掠入眼簾—能再睹這奇景

就好了—並射過海面, 速度之快,


Huang Guobin [Laurence Wong], 2003, Lianyupian, pp. 25-26

zhi/hou, // tu/ran/jian, // ru/ jiang/jin // li/ming/de // shi/chen,
di/xuan/ zai // xi/fang // hai/mian // zhi/shang/de // huo/xing
shan/yao, // hong/tong/tong // she/ chuan // nong/hou/de // wu/fen,
yi/dao/ guang, // ji/ lüe/ ru // yan/lian //—neng/ zai/ du // zhei/ qi/jing
jiu/ hao/le //—bing/ she/guo // hai/mian, // su/du // zhi/ kuai,
yuan/ sheng/guo // ren/he // fang/shi/de // ao/xiang // fei/ling

Using the same medium, Zhu should, in theory, have an advantage over Wang and Tian; in practice, however, he has a different limitation, which leads my discussion to the second requirement for a credible Chinese version of the Commedia: that it should be a direct translation from the Italian.[8] As an indirect recipient of the message conveyed by Dante, Zhu often has difficulty gauging its impact with precision, as is the case with the following scene:

Finito questo, la buia campagna

tremò sì forte, che de lo spavento

la mente di sudore ancor mi bagna.

La terra lagrimosa diede vento,

che balenò una luce vermiglia

la qual mi vinse ciascun sentimento;

e caddi come l’uom che’l sonno piglia.

Divina Commedia: Inferno, III, 130-136

And after this was said, the darkened plain

quaked so tremendously—the memory

of terror then, bathes me in sweat again.

A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,

a wind that crackled with a bloodred light,

a light that overcame all my senses;

and like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell.

Mandelbaum, 1982, Inferno, p. 27

The sonorous “o” in “Finito”, “questo”, “tremò”, “forte”, “lo”, “spavento”, “sudore”, “ancor”, “lagrimosa”, “vento”, “balenò”, “sentimento”, “come”, “uom”, and “sonno” and the emphatic “en” in “spavento”, “mente”, “vento”, and “sentimento” work together like hammer-strokes to drive home the sense of shock and violence.

In Zhu’s indirect verse translation, the original images are retained, and the forceful words “feng風” ‘wind’ and “guang光” ‘light’ in lines 4 and 5 have re-created some sense of violence:

他說完話之後, 那幽冥的境界

發生劇烈的震動, 回想起





我倒下了, 好像一個突然睡去的人。

Zhu, 1984, Diyupian, p. 22[9]

Ta shuowan zhihou, na youmingde jingjie

fasheng juliede zhendong, huixiangqi

wo nashide kongbu hai shi wo hunshen chuzhe lenghan

Na yincancande dishang guaqile feng,

fengzhong shanchu yidao hongsede dianguang,

shi wo quanbu shiqule zhijue;

wo daoxiale, haoxiang yige turan shuiqude ren

In terms of phonological effects, however, it is still a far cry from the original. Had Zhu translated the Inferno directly from the Italian, the construction “huixiangqi / wo nashide kongbu hai shi wo hunshen chuzhe lenghan 回想起 / 我那時的恐怖還使我渾身出著冷汗” ‘recalling my terror I experienced then, I am still sweating all over’ in lines 2 and 3, made limp by the clogged rhythm of “hui/xiang/qi //wo// na/shi/de// kongbu” ‘recalling my terror I experienced then’, the feeble form word “le了”, and the attributive adjectival structure “turan shuiqude 突然睡去的” ‘like…sleep has seized’, which has weakened the rhythm of line 7, would probably have been replaced by something more suggestive of violence.

Translating directly from the Italian, I find it easier to make accurate decisions as to what phonological effects to preserve:

維吉爾的話剛說完, 晦冥的平原





嚇走我所有的知覺, 使我昏迷

不醒, 像沉睡的人倒在地上。

Huang Guobin [Laurence Wong], 2003, Diyupian, p. 141

Weiji’erde hua gang shuowan, huiming de pingyuan

jiu juliede zhendongXiangqi dangshi de jingji,

manshende lenghan reng hui liutang ru quan

Hanleide tudi ba yizhen yinfeng chuiqi,

huoran shanchu yidao hongsede guangmang,

xiazou wo suoyoude zhijue, shiwo hunmi

buxing, xiang chenshuide ren dao zai dishang

Apart from “guangmang 光芒” ‘flash’(line 5) and “shang上” ‘on’ (line 7), which are loud and heavy in phonological terms because of the open vowel “a”, “I have used “huoran 霍然” ‘suddenly’ (line 5) to convey the sense of abruptness suggested by “balenò” ‘flashed’. Conscious of the need to re-create a scene of violence and shock, I have avoided using feeble form words like le了 (an aspect word here) in rendering “e caddi come l’uom che’l sonno piglia” ‘and fell like one whom sleep has seized’; instead, I have tried to make my version as forceful as possible by tightening up the rhythm and using a loud-sounding word (“shang上” ‘on’) to bring up the rear: “xiang chenshuide ren dao zai dishang 像沉睡的人倒在地上” ‘fell on the ground like one whom sleep has seized’.

In comparing Zhu’s version with mine, one will also see a difference with respect to the translation of “lagrimosa” ‘tear-drenched’. In rendering “lagrimosa” as “yincancan 陰慘慘” ‘gloomy’, Zhu has left out one important message of the original, which is both literal and symbolic. According to the Italian commentator Chiappelli (1972, p. 40), “lagrimosa” means “triste, irrorata di lagrime” ‘gloomy, bedewed by tears’. As the scene describes damned souls entering hell to be punished, the tear image is highly symbolic, and should, for this reason, be preserved. Without direct access to “lagrimosa”, which derives from “lagrima” ‘tear’, a translator is unlikely to see how important it is to look for an equally specific, equally evocative, and equally symbolic word in the target language. In my version, I have taken the image into consideration and rendered the line as “Hanleide tudi ba yizhen yinfeng chuiqi 含淚的土地把一陣陰風吹起” ‘A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,” which matches the original’s atmosphere on both the mimetic and symbolic levels.

Translating the Commedia from the Italian into Chinese verse[10], Huang Wenjie should be the best-qualified translator of the four, potentially able to do better than Wang, Zhu, and Tian. In practice, however, he has put on a rather mixed performance. With respect to the lines quoted above, his version is an improvement upon those of the other three:

話剛說完, 黑暗的荒郊突然地動山搖,


至今一想起, 我仍然大汗淋漓。



霎時間, 我喪失了一切知覺

Huang, Wenjie, 2000, Diyupian, p. 28

Hua // gang shuowan, // hei’ande // huangjiao // turan // didong-//shanyao,

zhei // ba wo // xiade // hun bu // fu ti,

zhijin // yi xiangqi,// wo rengran // da han // linli

Leishui // jintoude // dadi // guaqi // kuangfeng,

xuehongsede // dianguang // shanguo // yekong,

shashijian, // wo // sangshile // yiqie // zhijue

The rhythm is more precise, and the image of “lagrimosa” ‘tear-drenched’ is preserved in “leishui jintou de 淚水浸透的” ‘bedewed by tears’; yet, he seems unable to exercise control over line-length, so that the first line gets too long and unwieldy, thereby undermining the effectiveness of metre, which works on the basis of variety in regularity. Properly manipulated, metre can enable a poet to create contrapuntal effects by gliding back and forth within a line, as well as by allowing free play to pauses, feet, or, in the case of Greek and Latin poetry, quantity. When line-length gets out of control, as is the case with Huang Wenjie’s version, metre as a means of creating phonological effects will be vitiated; in extreme cases, it may even cease to function. In Huang Wenjie’s translation, whether with regard to the Inferno, the Purgatorio, or to the Paradiso, many lengthy lines simply sprawl into shapeless prose.

In his translation of the climax of the Commedia, Huang Wenjie’s inadequacies become most obvious:

Qual è ’l geometra che tutto s’affige

Per misurar lo cerchio, e non retrova,

Pensando, quel principio ond’elli indige,

tal era io a quella vista nova:

veder volea come si convenne

l’imago al cerchio e come vi s’indova;

ma non era da ciò le proprie penne:

se non che la mia mente fu percossa

da un fulgore in che sua voglia venne.

A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;

Ma già volgeva il mio disio e il velle,

sì come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

Divina Commedia: Paradiso, XXXIII, 133-145

As the geometer intently seeks

to square the circle, but he cannot reach,

through thought on thought, the principle he needs,

so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see

the way in which our human effigy

suited the circle and found place in it—

and my own wings were far too weak for that.

But when my mind was struck by light that flashed

and, with this light, received what it had asked.

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my

desire and will were moved already—like

a wheel revolving uniformly—by

the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Mandelbaum, 1986, Paradiso, p. 303



他百般思忖, 也無法把他所需要的那個原理探尋,


我想看清: 那人形如何與那光圈相適應,


但是, 我自己的羽翼對此卻力不勝任:


也只有在這閃光中, 我心靈的宿願才得以完成。

談到這裏, 在運用那高度的想像力方面, 已是力盡詞窮;

但是, 那愛卻早已把我的欲望和意願移轉,



Huang Wenjie, 2000, Tiantangpian, pp. 483-484

Rutong yi wei jihe xuejia qingzhu quanbu xinxue,

lai ba na yuanxing ceding,

ta baiban sicun, ye wufa ba ta suo xuyaode nage yuanli tanxun,

wo cike miandui na xinqide jingxiang ye shi zheizhong qingxing:

wo xiang kanqing: na renxing ruhe yu na guangquan xiang shiying,

you ruhe ba zishen anfang qizhong;

danshi, wo zijide yuyi dui ci que li bu shengren:

chufei wode xinling bei yi dao shanguang suo jizhong,

ye zhiyou zai zhei shanguang zhong, wo xinling de suyuan cai deyi wancheng

Tan dao zheili, zai yunyong na gaodude xiangxiangli fangmian, yi shi li jin ci qiong;

danshi, na ai que zaoyi ba wo de yuwang he yiyuan yizhuan,

youru chelun bei junyunde tuidong,

zhengshi zhei ai tuidong taiyang he qita qunxing

Inspired, as it were, by the Holy Spirit, Dante’s imagination in these lines soars from pinnacle to pinnacle without showing any sign of fatigue. The reader, rhythm-drunk and in transports of joy, is hurled higher and higher until he reaches the limit of all human experience—the experience of sharing the Beatific Vision with Dante the Pilgrim, an experience beyond words and understanding. To appreciate how formidable the task of translating the above quotation can be, one has only to read the following comment by Sinclair:

Nowhere else does Dante attain to the greatness of the last canto of the Paradiso, and in it more than any other it must be remembered that a canto is a song. Here his reach most exceeds his grasp, and nothing in all his work better demonstrates the consistency of his imagination and the integrity of his genius. In the culmination of his story he reports his experience with such intensity of conviction, in a mood so docile and so uplifted, and in terms so significant of a vision at once cosmic and profoundly personal, that we are persuaded and sustained to the end.

Sinclair, 1974, Paradiso, p. 487

Words like “Nowhere else”, “greatness”, “his reach most exceeds his grasp”, “the consistency of his imagination”, “the integrity of his genius”, “the culmination of his story”, “such intensity of conviction”, “uplifted”, “so significant of a vision”, “at once cosmic and profoundly personal”, and “sustained to the end” are sufficient warning to the translator that, in rendering these lines, he should be prepared to find his abilities taxed to the utmost.

To his readers’ disappointment, however, Huang Wenjie has failed to rise to the challenge. Not only has he misinterpreted two crucial lines (lines 139-40), in which “se non” means “if not”, not “chufei 除非” ‘unless’, as is understood by Huang, but he has also failed to convey Dante the Pilgrim’s ecstasy, which the original imagery and rhythm, working in perfect unison, have so powerfully expressed. Although meant to be poetry, the translation sounds like prose, for no poet with an ear for rhythm would, at such a crucial moment, allow himself to produce limp, monotonous lines with seven two-character pauses coming in a row as Huang has done, seriously retarding the crescendo of the original movement: “Ru/tong // yi/wei // ji/he // xue/jia // qing/zhu // quan/bu // xin/xue如同 / 一位 /幾何 / 學家 / 傾注 / 全部 / 心血” ‘As the geometer intently seeks’ [11]. Nor would such a poet tolerate the jumble of ineffective syllables in lines 3-5, “ta baiban sicun, ye wufa ba ta suo xuyaode nage yuanli tanxun, / wo cike miandui na xinqide jingxiang ye shi zheizhong qingxing: /wo xiang kanqing: na renxing ruhe yu na guangquan xiang shiying 他百般思忖, 也無法把他所需要的那個原理探尋, / 我此刻面對那新奇的景象也是這種情形: / 我想看清: 那人形如何與那光圈相適應” [12] ‘but he cannot reach, / through thought on thought, the principle he needs, / so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see / the way in which our human effigy / suited the circle’, which drag on with little vigour. Towards the end of the poem, the translation (lines 9-11) continues to flag,[13] until it ends in an anticlimax: “zhengshi zhei ai tuidong taiyang he qita qunxing正是這愛推動太陽和其他群星” ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’. As the Chinese counterpart of the last—perhaps also the most powerful—line of the entire Commedia, the rendering is a total disaster. Whereas the original line “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’ is worthy of the lofty task assigned to it, functioning as the last notes of a perfect coda to a poem of 14,233 lines, with the emphatic “o” and “e” in “amor”, “che”, “move”, “sole”, “altre”, and “stelle” resonating and rhyming across the line, the Chinese translation can hardly match the original; impeded by four two-character pauses coming in a row (“zheng/shi // zhei / ai // tui/dong // tai/yang正是 / 這愛 / 推動 / 太陽” ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, it just dies out in a whimper.

In a way, one is not even sure whether Huang Wenjie’s rendering of the last lines of Canto 33 of the Paradiso is comparable with Wang’s prose version:

像一個幾何學家, 他專心致志於測量那圓周, 他想了又想, 可是沒有結果, 因為尋不出他的原理; 我對於那新見的景象也是如此; 我願意知道一個人形怎樣會和一個圈子結合, 怎樣他會在那裏找著了地位; 但是我自己的翅膀不能勝任, 除非我的心靈被那閃光所擊, 在他裏面我的欲望滿足了。

達到這想像的最高點, 我的力量不夠了; 但是我的欲望和意志, 像車輪轉運均一, 這都由於那愛的調節; 是愛也, 動太陽而移群星。

Wang, 1954, p. 546

Xiang yi ge jihe xuejia, ta zhuanxin-zhizhi yu celiang na yuanzhou, ta xiangle you xiang, keshi meiyou jieguo, yinwei xunbuchu tade yuanli; wo duiyu na xinjiande jingxiang yeshi ruci; wo yuanyi zhidao yige renxing zenyang hui he yige quanzi jiehe, zenyang ta hui zai nali zhaozhele diwei; danshi wo zijide chibang buneng shengren, chufei wode xinling bei na shanguang suoji, zai ta limian wode yuwang manzule

Dadao zheiyangde zuigaodian, wode liliang bugoule; danshi wode yuwang he yizhi, xiang chelun zhuanyun junyi, zhei dou youyu na aide tiaojie; shi ai ye, dong taiyang er yi qunxing

Though Wang has made the same mistake as Huang Wenjie in interpreting lines 140-41 of the original,[14] his rendering of the last line (“shi / ai / ye,// dong / tai/yang // er // yi / qun/xing 是愛也, 動太陽而移群星” ‘the Love that moves the sun and the other stars’), with a more forceful, more varied rhythm made possible by the one-character pause “//er//” inserted between the two three-character pauses, “//dong / tai/yang // and // yi / qun/xing//”, conveying the same clinching effect as the original, is far superior to its counterpart in Huang Wenjie’s (2000) version.[15]

Translating Dante’s Metre in a Different Linguistic Medium

To capture the rhythm, the emotional intensity and, above all, the dizzy height the poet’s art has attained, one has to rely on verse:


企圖以方測圓, 苦苦揣摩

其中的規律, 最後仍徒勞無功,


一心要明瞭, 那樣的容顏怎麼



幸虧我的心神獲靈光 火霍 然

 一擊, 願望就這樣垂手而得。

我的神思, 至此再無力上攀;

 不過這時候, 吾願吾志, 已經

 見旋於大愛, 像勻轉之輪一般;

那大愛, 迴太陽啊動群星。

Huang Guobin [Laurence Wong], 2003, Tiantangpian, pp. 510-511

Xiang ge // jihe // xuejia // ba jingshen // jin yong,

qitu // yi fang // ce yuan, // kuku // chuaimo

qizhongde // guilü ,// zuihou // reng tu lao // wu gong,

wo duizhe // na // qiyide // jingxiang // caiduo,

yixin yao // mingliao,// nayangde // rongyan // zenme

yu guanghuan // xiangpei // er you // an yu // qi suo

Keshi // chibang // que meiyou // shengrende // jinghe—

xingkui // wode // xinshen // huo lingguang // huoran

yiji, // yuanwang // jiu zheiyang // chui shou // er de

Wo de // shensi, // zhi ci // zai wu li // shang pan;

buguo // zhei shihou, // wu yuan // wu zhi, // yijing

jian xuan yu // da’ai, // xiang yunzhuan // zhi lun // yiban;

na // da’ai,// hui taiyang // a // dong qunxing

In my version, I have used the five-pause line to translate Dante’s hendecasyllable (eleven-syllable line).[16] My choice was made with reference to Western poetry and in the light of actual practice. In long narrative poems—especially epics—written in European languages such as English, Greek, and Latin, the average line-length normally falls within the range of the English pentameter, the Greek dactylic hexameter, or the Latin hexameter. The English pentameter as used in long poems is best exemplified by Milton’s decasyllabic line in Paradise Lost:

All night | the dread|less an|gel un|pursued

Through heav’n’s | wide cham|paign held | his way, | till Morn,

Waked by | the cir|cling Hours, | with ros|y hand

Unbarred | the gates | of light. | There is | a cave

Within | the mount | of God, | fast by | his throne…,

Paradise Lost, VI, 1-5

while the “standard” Greek line is to be found in the opening of Homer’s Iliad:

Μῆνιν ἄ|ϵιδϵ, θϵ|ά, Πη|ληϊά|δϵω ᾿Αχι|λῆοϛ

οὐλομέ|νην ἣ | μυρί᾿ ᾿Α|χαιοῖϛ | ἄλγϵ᾿ ἔ|θηκϵν…

Murray, 1924, p. 2[17]

The wrath do thou sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son, Achilles, that baneful wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans…

Murray, 1924, p. 3

With regard to Latin poetry, the representative line is provided by Virgil’s Aeneid:

Corripu|ere vi| [am] intere|a, qua | semita | monstrat:

iamqu[e] asc|endeb|ant coll|em, qui | plurimus | urbi

inminet | advers|asqu[e] asp|ectat d|esuper | arces.

Aeneid, I, 418-20[18]

Meanwhile they sped on the road where the pathway points. And now they were climbing the hill that looms large over the city and looks down on the confronting towers.

Fairclough, 1999, p. 290

In addition to what I have observed in the works of the masters of epics,[19] I have also discovered, during the actual translation process, that the average hendecasyllabic line in Dante’s Divina Commedia is best matched by the five-pause (five-foot) line in modern Chinese. Take the first five lines of my translation quoted above:

像個 | 幾何 | 學家 | 把精神 | 盡用,

企圖 | 以方 | 測圓, | 苦苦 | 揣摩

其中的 | 規律, | 最後 | 仍徒勞 | 無功,

我對著 | 那 | 奇異的 | 景象 | 猜度,

一心 | 要明瞭, | 那樣的 | 容顏 | 怎麼

與光環 | 相配 | 而又 | 安於 | 其所。

Xiang ge // jihe // xuejia // ba jingshen // jin yong,

qitu // yi fang // ce yuan, // kuku // chuaimo

qizhongde // guilü ,// zuihou // reng tu lao // wu gong,

wo duizhe // na // qiyide // jingxiang // caiduo,

yixin yao // mingliao,// nayangde // rongyan // zenme

yu guanghuan // xiangpei // er you // an yu // qi suo

One can see that they have accommodated the original sense-units quite comfortably, and that the need to compress content unduly or to pad out a line for metrical reasons has been reduced to a minimum. If I had opted for a longer or shorter line, that is, a line with more or fewer pauses, I would have been harder put to avoid padding or to cope adequately with the original sense-units. In general, I find that, within five pauses, there is just about the right amount of space for me to reproduce the music of the original by moving the caesura back and forth, by introducing variation, by deploying one-character, two-character, and three-character pauses as required, and by creating contrapuntal effects as well as tension between similarity and variety.

Terza Rima in Modern Chinese versus Terza Rima in English

As for rhyming, I have followed Dante’s terza rima. Assigned prosodic as well as symbolic functions, terza rima in the Commedia is no mere embellishment. Prosodically, it gives the poem an interlocking unity in which lines, while resonating across the page, echo each other within each tercet. Take the following lines, for example:

Ne la profonda e chiara sussistenza

de l’altro lume parvermi tre giri

di tre colori e d’una contenenza;

e l’un da l’altro come iri da iri

parea reflesso, e ’l terzo parea foco

 che quinci e quindi igualmente si spiri.

Paradiso, XXXIII, 115-20

…In the deep and bright

 essence of that exalted Light, three circles

appeared to me; they had three different colors,

but all of them were of the same dimension;

 one circle seemed reflected by the second,

as rainbow is by rainbow, and the third

seemed fire breathed equally by those two circles.

Mandelbaum, 1986, p. 303

Together with the whole complex of vowels (“a”, “e”, “i” ,”o”, “u”) and the consonant “n” (“profonda”, “d’una”, “l’un”, “quinci”, “quindi”), the rhyme scheme (“sussistenza”, “giri”, “contenenza”, “iri”, “foco”, “spiri”) weaves an intricate and highly effective pattern of sounds to suggest the ever increasing rapture of the Pilgrim.

By giving up terza rima, English translators like Mark Musa can convey only part of the emotional intensity:

Within Its depthless clarity of substance

 I saw the Great Light shine into three circles

 in three clear colors bound in one same space;

the first seemed to reflect the next like rainbow

 on rainbow, and the third was like a flame

 equally breathed forth by the other two.

Paradise, XXXIII, 115-20

This difference between the original and the translation will become audible if one reads the Italian and English quotations aloud: in the original, there is an exciting symphony of interlocking sound patterns echoing one another, delighting the ear and reinforcing the mounting emotional intensity at the same time; in the translation, the semantic content is retained, but the symphony can no longer be heard. In the light of this comparison, then, Musa’s defence of his not using terza rima merits detailed discussion:

My desire to be faithful to Dante, however, has not led me to adopt his metrical scheme. I do not use terza rima, as, for example, Dorothy Sayers does, or even the “dummy” terza rima of John Ciardi. My medium is rhymeless iambic pentameter, that is, blank verse. I have chosen this, first, because blank verse has been the preferred form for long narrative poetry from the time of Milton on. It cannot be proved that rhyme necessarily makes verse better: Milton declared rhyme to be a barbaric device, and many modern poets resolutely avoid it.

Musa, 1986, Paradise, p. 61

At first sight, the defence appears to be an excuse made by one who has not done his job properly. As one reads on, however, one will see that he has put his finger on an obstacle that English translators cannot easily surmount:

But my main reason for avoiding rhyme has been the results achieved by all those who have used rhyme in translating The Divine Comedy: they have shown that the price paid was disastrously high (…).There are two reasons for the crippling effects of rhyme in translating a lengthy poem. First of all, it is apparently impossible always to find perfect rhymes in English for a long stretch of lines—and if good rhyme gives a musical effect, bad rhyme is cacophonous; it is a reminder (…) that the search for rhyme has failed (…). One can be more faithful to Dante (…) by avoiding rhyme than by introducing imperfect rhyme into the rendition of his lines, whose rhymes are always acoustically perfect.

Musa, 1986, Inferno, pp. 61-62

In going through the translations of the Commedia that employ rhyme, such as the two mentioned by Musa (one by Sayers and the other by Ciardi)[20], one does see “the crippling effects of rhyme in translating a lengthy poem”, and tends to agree that “it is apparently impossible always to find perfect rhymes in English for a long stretch of lines”. In using terza rima to translate the Commedia, an English translator will, much to his chagrin, find that he cannot be faithful to the rhyme scheme without doing severe violence to the meaning, so that his gain will be outweighed by his loss. Perhaps for this reason, no English translations of the Commedia, whether partial or complete, published in recent years have used rhyme in general, much less the very “crippling” terza rima. When I say “English translations of the Commedia, whether partial or complete, published in recent years”, I have in mind the versions by Sisson, Durling, and Zappulla respectively. Of the three translators, Durling’s case is especially noteworthy. In the Introduction to his translation, Durling is keenly aware of the symbolic significance of Dante’s terza rima:

Terza rima is an extremely supple and flexible medium. In the Divine Comedy, there is no set number of lines in a canto; the cantos range in length from 115 to 160 lines. It is clear that Dante associated the triplicities of the form (groups of three lines, interlocking chains of three rhymes) with the idea of the Creator as triune and with the idea of the chain of being. In the wake of Saint Augustine’s De Trinitate, he saw the marks of the Creator’s triple unity everywhere in creation—in the structure of time (past, present, and future), in the triple structure of man’s nature (rational, appetitive, and vegetative), and in the three “first things” (form and matter, separate and conjoined)—and regarded his verse medium, terza rima, as one of the ways his creation of the poem imitated God’s creation of the universe: others are, of course, that the poem has three parts and that it consists of a “perfect” number of cantos, 100—or, after the prologue of the first canto, three parts of thirty-three cantos each.

Inferno, 1996, p. 23

Yet, in his translation, he has avoided it, probably because, like Musa, he knows how helpless the English language is when confronted with this intractable rhyme scheme.

Not so with modern Chinese. To be sure, translating terza rima into modern Chinese is an arduous task,[21] but I have found that modern Chinese has more affinities with Dante’s Italian than English and classical Chinese. This is because unique syllable-endings in modern Chinese, called by Chinese linguists “yunmu韻母” ‘simple or compound vowels of a Chinese syllable, sometimes with a terminal n or ng’ (Wu, 1983, p. 860), make up only a relatively small number. Compared with the rich and diverse syllable-endings of English words and with the larger variety of consonant endings of classical Chinese, which make the task of finding matching rhymes formidable, they are more “rhyme-friendly” when it comes to using terza rima.[22] Thus, in my translation of the Commedia, I have chosen to retain this prosodic feature, a feature that is anathema to English translators. Because of the linguistic “advantage” I enjoy, I believe that, in my version of the lines quoted above, I have generally succeeded in achieving my goal: to convey the original’s emotional intensity and re-create its phonological features, features that include the resonance between vowels within the lines, the echoing between vowels and sound patterns, and the orchestration of vowels, sound patterns, and the rhyme scheme:


本體, 出現三個光環; 三環

華彩各異, 卻同一大小。

第一環映著第二環, 燦然

如彩虹映著彩虹; 第三環則如


Zai gaoguang shensui wubiande jiaojiao

benti, chuxian sange guanghuan; sanhuan

huacai ge yi, que tong yi daxiao

Diyi huan yingzhe di’er huan, canran

ru caihong yingzhe caihong; disan huan ze ru

yi er huan hunran penchude huoyan zai liuzhuan

Words like “guang光” (“lume” ‘light’), “shen深” (“profonda” ‘profound’), “huan環” (“giri” ‘circles’), “tong同”(“d’una” ‘of one’), “can燦” (‘bright’, translation of the meaning implied in the original), “hong虹”(“iri” ‘rainbow’), “ying映”(“reflesso” ‘reflected’), “san三”(“tre” ‘three’), “hun渾”(“igualmente” ‘all in one’), “ran然” (Chinese function word), and “yan焰”(“foco” ‘flame’) echo one another with their vowels, as well as with their “n”s or “ng”s, creating an intricate phonological pattern that suggests the emotional intensity of the original; reinforced by the rhymes (“jiao皦”—“xiao小”, “huan環”—“ran然”—“zhuan轉”), some of which in turn set off sub-resonance, as it were, in the diezi疊字 ‘reduplication’ “jiaojiao皦皦” ‘bright’, as well as in the dieyun疊韻 ‘rhyming collocation’ “canran燦然” ‘brightly,’[23] this phonological pattern becomes all the more powerful, creating effects which are, to use Nida’s terminology, dynamically equivalent to those in the original.[24]


In an article entitled “What is Minor Poetry?”, Eliot has made the following point about Crabbe:

I think that George Crabbe was a very good poet, but you do not go to him for magic: if you like realistic accounts of village life in Suffolk a hundred and twenty years ago, in verse so well written that it convinces you that the same thing could not be said in prose, you will like Crabbe.

Eliot, 1957, p. 49

If there are “accounts of village life” that “could not be said in prose”, how much more is this dictum true of accounts of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise! In using verse as a medium of translation to re-create the effects produced by the prosodic devices used by Dante, I hope that I have minimized the inevitable refraction of “la profonda e chiara sussistenza / de l’alto lume” ‘the profound and clear / essence of that lofty Light’.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, when translation from the major European languages like English, French, Italian, German, and Spanish into Chinese was a relatively new activity, it was not uncommon to see someone who did not know any English or French become a well-known “translator” of English and French novels. Of this class of “translators”, the most famous was Lin Shu林紓 (1852-1924), who, by rewriting in classical Chinese what he was told by someone who knew the original, had “translated” some 170 works written in European languages. In the twenty-first century, when translation from the major European languages has developed for nearly a hundred years, and when the Chinese reading public, with its taste made more sophisticated by a host of fine translations, has become more demanding, this kind of “story-retelling” is no longer acceptable.[25] In translating a masterpiece like the Divina Commedia for the Chinese reading public in the twenty-first century, one has to go many steps further: not only must one translate from the original Italian, but one must use a medium which can reproduce as many qualities of the original as possible. By this, I mean verse in modern Chinese that can cope with all the prosodic devices used by Dante, including his terza rima.

Parties annexes