Lame-ass Translations 1: Dante's Inferno

A couple of years back I bought a Chinese translation of Dante’s Commedia without really reading it at the bookstore — this is what you get when books are cheap. As it turns out, I really should’ve flipped through it a bit first, because the translation sucks sucks sucks like an Electrolux. It’s literal, unbeautiful, downright clumsy in most places, occasionally flat-out wrong, and — most criminally of all, to my mind — unrhymed. Now, a number of English translations (of the Divine Comedy and other poetry) don’t rhyme, which is fair enough — English is a fairly rhyme-poor language compared to Italian. Dante’s poetry is also particularly different to translate into verse because of its interlocking terza rima structure, which John Hollander describes nicely in his Rhyme’s Reason:

The unrhymed middle line, in the tight schema
of tercets spinning out a lengthy text
(Dante gave us this form, called terza rima)

Rhymes, after all, with the start of the next
Tercet, then helps set up a new unrhyme
That, sure of foot and not at all perplexed,

Walks across blank space, as it did last time.
(A couplet ends this little paradigm.)

So it’s hard to keep up in English — not that that’s stopped plenty of translators, from Seamus Heaney to Robert Pinsky to Ciaran Carson to Dorothy Sayers, from giving it their best college try.

Chinese, of course, is much more rich in rhymes than English — I mean, you have to be fucking well trying not to rhyme in Chinese — and so one would expect a Chinese translator to encounter approximately zero difficulty in carrying over the rhyme scheme. And you might expect that someone going to the trouble to translate a major work of world literature would themselves have some literary inclinations, and that they might try to make their output beautiful. Unfortunately, in the case of 黄文捷 Huang Wenjie’s jive-ass translation, you would be dead wrong on all fronts.

I found this out in the context of a post I’m trying to write for my Chinese blog about stars. I’d been thinking of using the last lines of Dante’s Inferno, which go:

…salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo,
tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle
che porta ‘l ciel, per un pertugio tondo.

E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.

This isn’t particularly hard stuff: I can make it more or less rhyme in English without even trying:

…we went on then – he first, I following,
until I saw the things of beauty Heaven bears
through a round opening.

Whence came we forth, and once more saw the stars.

Compare the tin-eared Huang Wenjie’s version:


Here’s a dead literal translation for non-Sinologues:

Him in front, me behind, we climbed together
Until through a round hole
I saw some beautiful things displayed on the sky’s dome
Then we walked out of there, and again saw dense stars filling the sky.

Not different, perhaps. Not wrong. But it’s written in a completely unpoetic register: it sounds more like narration or a “what I did on my summer vacation” paper than a poem. (To me, at least. Native speakers?) Huang doesn’t even attempt to make it sound old-fashioned, or indeed give it any weight at all beyond the somewhat poetic word 苍穹 (“sky’s dome,” or more literally “azure vault”). Can I think of a better translation into Chinese? Not right now — I’m on a deadline — but for Christ’s sake, I shouldn’t have to! Does anybody know of any Chinese translations of the Commedia that don’t suck, or is Huang’s the only game in town?

[Update] My girlfriend informs me that there are two other translations, one of which – by 田德望 Tian Dewang – sounded promising. From the description she found online:


Mr. Tian Dewang spent 18 years on each book of the Commedia, finally finishing the state-funded project at the age of 90. He considered the translation of the Commedia his life’s greatest work.

Unfortunately, Tian went and translated it into prose, not poetry, which raises the question of exactly what was taking him so damned long. Maybe his eyesight was really, really bad, or something. Here’s his opening:


Halfway through life, I found that I had lost the right road and gone into a darkened forest. Ah! to speak of the tangled, treacherous, hard-to-pass-through forest is such a difficult thing! Just thinking of it makes me feel scared again.

This guy is (or was) a professor at my alma mater of Beijing University, so I can assume he’s no slouch when it comes to scholarship and talent. But again, I ask — WTF? Various places online describe his version as “the most authoritative Chinese-language edition of the Commedia.”

Really? Really really? Because that’s kind of sad.
There’s also the translation of 钱稻孙 Qian Daosun, who put parts of the Inferno into a poetic style similar to the ancient 楚辞 Elegies of Chu. His opening:


which – because it’s not like I have lots of overdue projects to be working on instead – I’ll translate back into old-fashioned English as

Having trod Life’s road half-way,
I found me in a darken’d Wood
For I had lost the right Path, and was in disarray —
— To tell it e’en now bestirs the blood!
That forest savage and o’ergrown
Whose merest memory inspires dread.

Anyway, Qian seems to have the right idea. But his version’s partial and he was doing this in the 1920s or 30s, so presumably he’s long-since dead. And what few bits he did translate are apparently out of print, which means that if I want more I’ll probably have to make a trip to the National Library. Rat-bastards!

Comments (21)

  1. Ben Seeberger wrote::

    Aw, that stinks.

    Maybe YOU should do the translation. :)

    Monday, November 13, 2006 at 7:43 pm #
  2. Jeez — I\’m booked solid at the moment, but I think someone\’s going to have to do it. Or resurrect Qian Daosun.

    Monday, November 13, 2006 at 7:47 pm #
  3. nausicaa wrote::

    Ouch! Huang’s translation really is tone-deaf!

    When you have some free time, show those pathetic academics how Dante should be done. Your blog continues to impress.


    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 5:06 am #
  4. Kevin S. wrote::

    An exercise from my student’s English textbook:

    Sandy promised to marry John___________(只要她得到父亲的同意).

    The teacher’s book’s awkward and too literal translation is “as long as she got her father’s agreement.”

    Many of my students, thank god, have better English than that book. Many of them translated this as “as long as she could get her father’s permission.”

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 7:12 am #
  5. Ben Seeberger wrote::

    I think my English has degraded since studying Chinese. It’s sad. I read that example, and thought, “there’s nothing wrong with that!” Argh.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 11:22 am #
  6. zhwj wrote::

    Tian’s translation is probably the most authoritative because the this notes to are three times the length of the text.

    Also, Italian isn’t really the most popular foreign language. The earlier translations were all from other languages (except for Qian’s excerpt, which btw has a great title: 神曲一脔 – a Slice of the Divine Comedy). The previous standard text was one by Wang Weike, who translated from the French or English in the 1930s. No rhymes, either.

    Incidentally, Tian’s eyesight actually was really, really bad – he went blind during translation, and died a month after publication of the third part in 2001 at the age of 93.

    Also: More Commedia translations than you can shake a stick at. And Tian Degang on his translation; and a comparison of different translations – sounds like you might enjoy a new version by Lingnan University professor Huang Guobin.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 4:55 pm #
  7. Incidentally, Tian’s eyesight actually was really, really bad – he went blind during translation, and died a month after publication of the third part in 2001 at the age of 93.

    Well, now I feel like a dick.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 4:58 pm #
  8. Anyway – thanks for the heads-up. Looking for samples of Huang Guobin’s translation now. Certainly does sound more promising.

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 5:09 pm #
  9. Jeff wrote::

    I’m kind of interested in the translation of the title. It seems to me like 神戏 or something like that would be more like ‘Divine Comedy.’ I wonder if the terza rima has anything in common with 曲 poetry, or if 曲 was picked cuz it sounds better?

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006 at 7:54 am #
  10. karen wrote::

    Huang has some guts in using the word ‘dian’ in a piece of work that goes into print. It cracks me up. In those sitcoms of police and bandits, you would hear, ‘hey, you go first, I’ll back you up’ (Ni Zou Xian, Wo Dian Hou)

    Wednesday, November 15, 2006 at 12:27 pm #
  11. Matt wrote::

    Hi Brendan,

    I\’m curious, do you happen to know Professor Chaves from George Washington University? He was the best teacher I had in my whole undergraduate experience and I\’ve tried to keep in touch with him since then. Anyway, he just published a translation of 300 poems by the Tang poet 張籍, in \”rhymed or half-rhymed translations, tracking the original rhyme schemes.\” there\’s a 15-page prologue in which he explains why now is the \”right time\” to produce rhymed translations of Chinese verse like this and he mentions things like terza rima and specifically Dante\’s Commedia. Just wondering if you two are channelling the same spirits or if you in fact have some connection to him. (And sorry for the weird-ass question!)

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 11:31 am #
  12. Hey, Karen! I hadn’t even noticed the 殿后, but yeah — that does sound awkward.

    Matt — Don’t know him, I’m afraid, but he sounds like my kind of guy. I’ve long thought that there needed to be more good verse translations of classical Chinese poetry.

    Thursday, November 16, 2006 at 1:38 pm #
  13. Matt wrote::

    And sorry about forgetting to close that tag, too! It looks like everything below it has been afflicted with a bad case of italics.

    Anyway, you’re doing great stuff here. I was so pleased to finally be able to read one of your Chinese entries (“是否”) the other day, without resorting to Wenlin. I hope that means my reading skills are improving…

    And it’s funny, because, Chaves is totally a hard-right conservative, but I find myself agreeing with him on so many things when I think about them too much. That’s even though I consider myself very liberal. He’d definitely love the fact that someone is blogging about Chinese rhyme schemes, but I’m not sure what he’d have to say about your last post.

    Friday, November 17, 2006 at 12:19 pm #
  14. whatever wrote::

    Fricking indoctrination education program, who in the world use 殿后 except the military, the paramilitaries, and lame-ass wannabe political “armies”.

    I might start moonlighting as a translator starting from today. Bloody hell, am i pissed or what.

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006 at 11:30 pm #
  15. Nikeroo wrote::

    Hehe, I think that there are plenty of worthy causes in need of your translation prowess! Menus in restaurants being the one that immediately springs to mind!

    Monday, December 18, 2006 at 8:33 am #
  16. Nan Ke wrote::

    Hi guys,
    About 殿后
    1. As Adj., 殿means后 (rear, at the rear), e.g.
    2. As verb, 殿means guard, 殿后means rear guard or bring up the rear. e.g.
    of course,殿as none, has other meanings like palace.

    Here is my version of the Commedia:
    Lame too, but I tried :)

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 8:49 pm #
  17. Nan Ke wrote::

    Excuse me, it was the like to lecture to people part of me.
    Btw, 殿后 sounded a bit tough to put there.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2007 at 9:08 pm #
  18. Edward wrote::

    Brendan, I may be wrong with this comment but is your Chinese so good that you are able to accurately judge whether a learned *Chinese* professor and professional’s translation is “Lame-ass”, perhaps it isn’t intended to rhyme, as you said it wouldn’t be too difficult if that was the desired result. And using “literary” vocabulary doesn’t necessarily make something more poetic.

    Friday, February 15, 2008 at 10:35 pm #
  19. Hi, Edward — sorry for responding so late. The short answer to your question, I think, is “yes.” There is a longer answer, though:

    My Chinese is, of course, not native, so there may be things that I’m missing, but the Huang and Tian translations both seem to me to be missing quite a lot. Simply throwing in poetic terms is of course not enough for something like this, but the ultimate goal of translation is to recreate for the reader the experience that one has when reading the text in the native language, and in that respect I do believe that both the Huang and Tian translations are sorely lacking. Tian Dewang clearly understands the text very intimately, but his translation reads (to me, at least) more like a reference gloss than an actual translation.
    Huang’s is just plain bad: it is shot through with inaccuracies, reads clumsily (again, to me), and fails utterly to give any impression of the beauty of the original. Rhyme is not the end-all be-all here, but I do believe that some degree of poesy is not too much to ask.

    Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 3:05 am #
  20. Ron King wrote::

    I would like to know if there are any translations in Chinese of I SONETTI ROMANESCHI BY Giuseppe Gioachino Belli or, anyone writing about Belli in Chinese or, if you may know someone who has compared Belli to Dante?
    Thank you!

    Thursday, November 3, 2011 at 3:55 am #
  21. Penny Stuiber wrote::

    I am a media specialist in Wisconsin looking for any copy of Dante’s Inferno in Mandarin Chinese. I am not worried about the quality of the translation. A student from China on exchange needs it for a language arts class. If you want to send it, we’d be so grateful!

    Saturday, November 21, 2015 at 1:25 am #