In celebration of the first day of spring, here’s a beautiful Chinese poem called 春曉 chūnxiǎo (Spring Dawn) that comes to mind:
Chūn mián bù jué xiǎo,
chùchù wén tí niǎo,
Yè lái fēngyǔ shēng,
Huā luò zhī duōshǎo.
There are various translations available online and many have been done by more formally skilled translators. Since I enjoy translating poems and attempting to capture the beauty and feeling of the original, here’s my proposed translation to add to the mix:
Sleeping in on a spring morn — sensing not the dawn,
Everywhere is heard the tweeting of the bird,
Come night and the wind-rain sound,
Unknown how many petals fell to the ground.
Translation notes / thought processes:
Line 1: I intentionally picked “sleeping in” to convey the warm, fuzzy, comfortable feeling of the original poem. The original basically says he was sleeping and couldn’t sense the dawn, and that he slept at length or was well-rested. 睡懒觉 is obviously not fit for a Chinese poem, but “sleeping in” seems to capture that idea without sounding unsophisticated like 睡懒觉. This line is tough to succinctly translate due to the brilliant brevity of the original, so to capture the meaning better the line is extended with a — to balance it on the other end while adding additional meaning. “Sensing” was the word picked to translate 覺 — which describes an awareness. It implies that the dawn came without being aware.
Line 2: I intentionally made this a passive sentence. There is no mention of the subject in the original poem so I’ve not inserted any pronouns as many other translators do. (Same for the first sentence actually, no pronouns) I found 啼 difficult to translate because it means “cry” or “mourn” or “crow” but those are not pleasant sounding words in English, and the original is meant to convey a kind of pleasant beauty in this sentence. Various translators have suggested different words including “chirp“, “crow“, and “twitter“, tweet is what I settled on for the high-pitched inflection. “Warbling” was another good option, but since it denotes alternating notes I didn’t want to carry that inflection across.
Line 3: This line has been variously translated, and I think many of those translations are over-complicated — what I think people haven’t realised is you can actually almost very directly translate it by just using some punctuation (the dash in the wind-rain, combining the two into a kind of pseudo “new word”). “Come night and the wind-rain sound” is a very close translation to the original 夜來風雨聲,Yè lái fēngyǔ shēng, [night] [come] [wind] [rain] [sound] and still works quite well in English.
Line 4: I almost said “who knows” instead of “unknown” but that would change this sentence to a question, I still feel like “unknown” is a very mechanical, technical term and doesn’t fit beautifully in the poem, but it captures the original more accurately. Again, the original contains no pronouns. “Petals” was chosen instead of “flowers” though 花 means flowers, for the sake of beauty. Petals are delicate and their falling to the ground feels more tragic, which captures the inflection of the original poem.
Rhyming: “Ground” is not mentioned in the original poem (though it is definitely implied, where else will flowers fall to?) and was added in to give some rhyming potential (I had almost no rhymes before). The original poem has a aaba rhyming scheme which is tough to capture in translation without heavily modifying the words and inflections, so I sacrificed some rhyming potential for greater accuracy. Still, “ground” rhymes with “sound” so we have at least abcc, with “heard” and “bird” rhyming as well.
There are always various ways to translate original poems and no translation captures the original perfectly. Translation is a balancing act, one has to make a choice whether to sacrifice certain elements for others (such as brevity for accuracy, rhyming for brevity etc.) due to the constraints of the destination language. This is just one possible translation among others, I feel like some others captured the rhyming better but again the focus of this translation was to be as accurate as possible while still maintaining beauty, rhyming and brevity were secondary considerations.