The three-beauty principle has long been adopted in pedagogy to evaluate classical
Chinese poetry translation. However, the result is problematic as the students
find it too general and abstract to serve as theoretical guidance. This paper
addresses the problem by linking the principle to a set of detailed literary
criteria. The study reports an authentic classroom situation in which the
students compare four English translations of Chunxiao, a Tang Dynasty masterpiece,
and make an attempt to decide which is the most poetic rendering in terms of
perception of experience and linguistic devices.
Key words: classical Chinese poetry translation;
evaluation; criteria; teaching
n translation teaching, the evaluation of classical Chinese poetry translation has long been
a frustrating task. For many years, the evaluation standard adopted by teachers
has been the so-called "three-beauty principle" suggested by Xu Yuanchong who
is a veteran translator of classical Chinese poetry. Specifically, the three-beauty
principle evaluates the translation by its beauty in sense, in sound, and in
form (Xu, 1984). A translator needs to fulfil the three beauties to leave the
target readers impressed, touched and pleased (Xu, 2005: 44). In a classroom
teaching situation, however, this principle is difficult to apply as the theoretical
guide. Since "beauty" is a subjective, general, and abstract concept, students
usually rely on their intuition to decide whether the translation is beautiful
or not. To help the students pinpoint the qualities in such poetic texts, we
relate the three-beauty principle to a set of detailed literary criteria, which
we have found to effectively enhance their critical understanding of poetry
In this paper we
will report a real classroom situation in which the students compare four different
translations of Chunxiao, a famous Tang Dynasty poem by Meng Haoran and
decide which is the most poetic rendering of the same text. To do this we will
first offer a definition of poetry. Second, we will relate the three-beauty principle
with a set of literary criteria for the evaluation of poetic texts. Third, we
will discuss each of the four versions in some detail.
Definition of Poetry
Given the traditional nature of classical Chinese poetry, we used the definition from Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (1993) of poem in its traditionally sense, that is, writing that
formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language
chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning,
sound, and rhythm."
The two key elements of this definition are language and experience: the language of poetry
and the poetic experience or the poetic feeling. First, poets have used a
variety of different tropesmetaphor and simile, metonymy, synecdoche,
hyperboleas well as linguistic devicesrhythm, rhyme, alliteration,
assonanceto achieve the effect of generating and expressing intense feeling
through language. Perception of experience is the second aspect of poetry or as
William Blake wrote: "To see the world in a grain of sand,/ And heaven in a
wild flower." The subject or what the poet evokes in the mind of the reader to
engage the reader's emotion is the second half of poetry's definition. For example,
English Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th century used language to
recreate the feeling they experienced when observing the sensual beauty of
nature. They awakened in the reader a nostalgia for the ageless organic beauty
of the countryside, its seasons, its sounds and its textures. Essentially,
these poets taught the reader how to feel about nature.
The three-beauty principle evaluates the translation by its beauty in sense, in sound, and in form.
To help the students critically understand how such poetic qualities are achieved in
English writing, the following short excerpt from William Wordsworth's
(1770-1850) poem To My Sister is given as an example:
It is the first mild day of March:
Each minute sweeter than before.
The redbreast sings from the tall larch
That stands beside our door
Wordsworth uses many Romantic nature images in these four lines: the season, the weather, the month, the mildness and
sweetness of the time, the robin (redbreast) singing in the tree, the
peacefulness. At the same time there are language conventions worth noting. For
example, each line is eight syllables long and the end rhyme scheme is abab.
Also the present simple verb tense is used to create a sense of immediacy for
the reader. Another reason that we choose this poem is that it shares many
similarities with the four versions under discussion so that it can be used as
a model against which to compare those versions.
After familiarizing the students with the two aspects of poetry, we concretize the
content of the three-beauty principle by associating beauty in sense with perception
of experience; beauty in form, and beauty in sound, on the other hand, is
associated with the aspect of language.
In a real classroom teaching experience, we select the following four different translations of Chunxiao. Literally meaning spring dawn, Chunxiao is a masterpiece which has attracted many
translating efforts over the years (Zhuang, 2007). The students are third-year
English majors from the English Department of Wuhan. The
task is to decide which of the four versions is the most poetic rendering. To prevent any possible pre-judgement, the names of the translators are intentionally omitted.
Chuan mian bu jue xiao
Chu chu wen ti niao
Ye lai feng yu sheng
Hua luo zhi duo shao
I slept in spring
not conscious of the dawn
But heard gay birds chattering all around
I remember there was a storm at night
Pray how many blossoms have fallen down
I scarcely knew that it was dawn
So sound was the sleep of spring
Everywhere there was birdsong
All night long was the sound of wind and rain
How many flowers have fallen to the ground
How suddenly the morning comes in spring
On every side you hear the sweet birds sing
Last night amidst the stormAh who can tell
With wind and rain, how many blossoms fell.
Sleeping in spring one hardly knows it's daylight
Birds are heard everywhere trilling
There've been sounds of wind and rain in the night
How many blossoms have been falling,
First, the students are asked to evaluate the versions in terms of beauty in sense, which refers
to perception of experience. Clearly, all four versions attempt to capture the
writer's Romantic view of nature experienced in the peaceful and delightful
moments of waking at dawn after a stormy and turbulent night. As in
Wordsworth's poem, there are images of weather (storm), birds, and the season
(spring). In this regard, there is no difference between the four versions:
they all try to capture the same experience. Thus the comparison mainly focuses
on beauty in sound and beauty in form, which is related to the writer's use of
linguistic devices. Since we are dealing with traditional (i.e. Romantic)
poetry, we use the following traditional literary terms in our evaluation.
Alliteration: a repeated initial consonant in
successive words. For example, "On every side you hear the sweet
birds sing" in Version 3 illustrates the repeated "s" sound.
Assonance: a repeated vowel sound, a part-rhyme. For
example, lines 1 and 4 in Version 1 illustrate assonance or part-rhyme:
I slept in spring not conscious of the dawn
Pray how many blossoms have fallen down.
Meter: lines of verse can be marked in long and
short syllables giving a regularity of sound. For example, Version 2
illustrates the regularity of sound pattern. (Stressed syllables are in italics.)
I scarcely knew that it
So sound was the sleep of spring
The rhythm patterns of "I scarcely" and "it was dawn"
are repeated in "So sound" and "sleep of spring."
Syllabic Verse: lines of verse can be measured in
syllables. For example, Version 3 illustrates two sequential lines of ten
How suddenly the morning comes in spring (10)
On every side you hear the sweet birds sing (10)
Versification: lines can be arranged with in terms of
end rhyme. For example, Version 4's end rhyme follows an abab pattern:
daylight/ trilling/ night/ falling.
Now we can compare
the four versions using these linguistic devices to determine the effectiveness
(which is the most poetic) of each version.
Given its Romantic subject matter, Version 3 is the most poetic version of the four, that is, it
embodies the most effective combination of form (linguistic devices) and
content (a Romantic view of Nature). In fact, this version nicely parallels the
Wordsworthian model. In Version 3, all lines are 10 syllables, creating a
syllabic equilibrium which symbolizes the balance of Nature. The rhyme scheme
is aabb, another rhythmic device demonstrating the symetry of Nature.
The writer employs "s" alliteration in lines i,ii,iii, and iv:
How suddenly the morning comes in spring
On every side you hear the sweet
Last night amidst the stormAh
who can tell
With wind and rain, how many blossoms
The "s" sounds
give the lines pace and a similarity of sound. At the same time the "s"
suggests the sound of the storm. Scanning Version 3 for meter reveals a
regular -/-/-/-/-/ meter as the lines repeat each other. The stressed
syllables are in bold.
the morning comes in spring
On every side
you hear the sweet birds sing
Last night amidst
the stormAh who can tell
and rain, how many blossoms fell
The regular rhythm
evokes in the reader a sense of balance, and with that balance, security, calm,
and beauty, whereas asymmetry would create discord, anxiety, and tension.
The first two lines describe the moments of waking: the quickness of the dawn and the sound
of the birds; while the second two lines prepare for and formulate the
question: "how many blossoms fell". In Versions 1, 2, and 4, the question is suddenly
presented in the last line. However, in Version 3, the question begins in line
3 and continues into line 4. This results in a much smoother transition between
the two ideas of waking at dawn and wondering about blossoms. This fluid
transition embodies the easy ebb and flow of Nature; whereas the following two
lines of Version 2, "all night long was the sound of wind and rain/ How many
blossoms have fallen to the ground," are jagged and have the abrupt feeling of
Versions 1, 2, and 4
While these versions are not without poetic merit, they do not as completely as Version 3
embody form and content. For example, Version 2 is an almost prosaic rendering
of the events. Each line offers a fact: line 1, dawn; line 2, sound sleep; line
3, birdsong; line 4, last night's storm; line 5, how many flowers have fallen.
The semantic choices are prosaic: for example, "flowers" instead of "blossoms"
and "how many flowers have fallen to the ground." There is no need to mention
"ground" as that is stating the obvious and not the poetic. Version 2 does not
have an end rhyme scheme, although there is assonance or part-rhyme between
lines 1 and 3, "dawn" and "birdsong." Neither is there a consistent line
rhythm. Free verse, as demonstrated in Version 2, is a valid poetic form
(Shakespeare's poetry, for example); however, in the case of Romantic poetry,
its conventions and its sentiment, a free verse form offers a less effective
rendering of the experience.
Version 4 works better with its abab end rhyme and its odd-even-even-odd numbered
syllabic line length (line 1 is 11 syllables, line 2 is 8, line 3 is 10, line 4
is 9) which creates a sense of rhythm. However, there are two features in this
version which reduce its poetic impact: verbs and diction. Part of the success
of Version 3 is the use of verbs. In Version 3, the verbs in lines 1, 2, and 3
are in the simple present tense which creates a sense of immediacy and action,
as well as clarity and simplicity (like Wordsworth's poem). And line 4 is in
the simple past tense, asking the question "how many blossoms fell." Whereas
in Version 4, the line 1 verbs are in the simple present, line 2 is in the
simple present passive voice, line 3 is in the present perfect, and line 4 is
in the present perfect progressive. This increasing verb complexity does not
contribute to the poetic quality as it succeeds in making the lines longer than
they have to be. Especially, using the passive verb voice "Birds are heard
..." needlessly adds a word to line 2 ("are"). Diction is the second
curiosity in Version 4. To trill or "trilling" is an old word. To the modern
reader the word sounds out of place and archaic.
Version 1 is a relatively successful attempt at Romantic poetry. Each line is ten syllables in
length and each line has five stressed syllables. Lines 1 and 4 end in
assonance "dawn" and "down"giving a sense of symmetry and finality to the
experience. Version 1 also successfully uses "s" alliteration: "I slept
in spring not conscious of the dawn."
However, after the first line this device is discontinued unlike Version 3
which uses this device in lines 1, 2, and 3, and echoes the sound in "blossoms"
in line 4. Verb tenses in lines 1 and 2 are in the simple past; line three has
a present simple verb and a simple past verb; however, the verb in line four is
in the present perfect which is a needless complexity. As already mentioned,
past tenses are less effective than the present tense in creating the immediacy
and intensity of the emotional experience which poetry tries to describe. Also
the transition from storm to blossoms in lines 3 and 4 feels abrupt.
After applying the three-beauty principle explained in a detailed set of criteria, the students generally
agreed that Version 3 is the most poetic translation. The reasons are given as follows:
More successfully than in the other versions, the writer has used alliteration, meter, end rhyme,
and syllabic verse. At the same time the writer has used present tense verbs
effectively and has kept the language both modern and simple, which is in
keeping with the simplicity of the experiencewaking after a storm. Finally,
Version 3 offers the smoothest transition between the ideas of the remembered
storm and the wondering about the blossoms. Version 3 better fulfils our
definition of poetry: "writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative
awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific
emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm."
Due to the difficulties in teaching evaluation of classical Chinese poetry translation, translation
teachers in Chinese universities have become very reluctant to assign their
students to such tasks. Some universities even exclude classical Chinese poetry
translation from syllabus. By
linking the three-beauty principle to language and experience, we have provided a concrete and specific set
of criteria which have proved to be applicable. We hope the findings can be
used to encourage the students to appreciate, evaluate, and even participate in
the translation of classical Chinese poetry. We also call for further
investigation and discussion since very limited research has been done on this
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Zhuang, J. (2007). The Realization of the Three-beauty Principle by the Four Versions of Chunxia. Journal
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