A new Chinese translation of Aeneid 4

Over at Dickinson Classics Online, the sister site of DCC serving Chinese-speaking readers, we have a new translation of Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid. The translator, Wentao Zhai, was kind enough to answer my questions about his approach to translating Vergil’s Latin. 

Christopher Francese, Dec. 20, 2019

What audience do you have in mind?

Mostly Chinese students of Latin. There has been growing interest in the study of classical languages in China, hence the need for good translations of original works directly from Latin. I hope my translation can function as a handy reference for Latin students in China, regardless of their proficiency, and also fill in a gap in the study of Roman literature.

How do you handle proper names?

One of the biggest challenges when a Chinese reader first approaches classical epic is the abundance of proper names. I have tried my best to adhere to the standard practice of using a a one-to-one correspondence between each Latin syllable and a single (see note) Chinese character. This practice was established by the pioneering scholar and translator of Greek literature 罗念生 Luo Niansheng. His scheme has been influential, and many characters from his anthology of Greek myth have since become household names.

But there has also been criticism regarding his choice of unusual characters, and recently some have advocated for a departure from the standard practice toward more simplicity and readability. Doing so, however, would sometimes merge similar-sounding syllables and can create confusion when two or more distinct names are transcribed in the same way. In fact, the fine phonetic distinctions made by Luo (between -i and -y for example) are exactly its strength, because a reader can theoretically reconstruct the original name from the transliteration. Therefore, I have followed Luo’s table as much as possible, with a few exceptions which I will explain separately. The exceptions are justified by historical phonology, rather than ease and convenience, which to me is less important than accuracy and consistency.

In the Aeneid, it is not uncommon for one character, place, or group of people to be referred to by multiple names. Since my target audience consists of students of Latin, I have left the names unchanged in my translation, in order to produce faithfully the nuance and flavor of the original. Therefore, I have kept “Cyllenian god” rather than substituting it with the more familiar “Hermes.” Exceptions are patronymics: I typically translate their sense, hence “Alcides” becomes “the son of Alceus.” There are also borderline cases such as “Hesperides”: should I transliterate as a proper noun, or translate into “daughters of evening”? It’s often a discretionary matter for the translator to make these calls—and a rule of thumb I use is to recreate the name’s effect on a Greek-literate readership: since the name Hesperides is rather transparent to someone who is literate in Greek, I have opted to translate the sense. This also avoids unnecessarily long names (without sacrificing accuracy).

Another problem is when to use names that are conventionally in use but don’t follow stringent rules. Again, I have used discretion and am open to suggestions from the reader. Names like “Caesar” and “Jupiter” are straightforward cases where I simply followed conventions, because I see no need to invent a new name. It gets trickier with less familiar deities such as “Vulcan.” Should I faithfully reproduce the Latin “Vulcanus,” or use the shortened English name, like in Star Trek? In the end, I decided on the latter. My justification for using shortened names for all the Olympian gods is the fact that they are so frequently referenced in other fields of literature and art that it would be too burdensome for the reader to memorize another set of distinct names. Since an English reader can cope with the coexistence of Mercury (as opposed to Mercurius), I suppose a Chinese reader can too.

This brings me to the problem of foreign names: in general, I trace the etymology of a name to its source language and transliterate from there. Therefore, names from the Greek world are transliterated from Greek, but Italian names from Latin. There are a few cases where I deferred to other authorities. For example, for Tyre and Sidonia, I have adopted their names as appeared in the Bible, because they seem to be the most familiar.

How do you handle peculiar Roman concepts and terms?

Thankfully, most terms peculiar to Roman history and society already have Chinese translations, such as terms like consul or Lares. Specific concepts are actually easier to handle because the reader can be expected to pick up a dictionary or encyclopedia if something technical comes up. What is more difficult is in fact nouns that are common to Roman life but are much less current in Chinese. A prime example is the parts of a ship, because ancient China was not a sea-faring civilization. I try my best to use traditional nautical terms (even if they are rare and sometimes unintelligible to a non-specialist) with the hope that the study of Classics would revive an interest in the science of navigation in classical China as well.

To a lesser extent the same problem arises with regard to farming utensils. An urban boy through and through, I have minimal knowledge of this subject. This is complicated by the fact that Standard Mandarin is such a young and literary language that it simply does not have the vocabulary for rural life. Using dialectal terms, on the other hand, would create an additional cultural barrier and break with the usual style of my translation. This is a problem to which I have not yet found a satisfactory answer, and in the meanwhile I remain greatly relieved that I didn’t take up the Georgics.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of other Chinese versions you have examined?

As far as I know there are only two complete translations of the Aeneid into Chinese. One is the well-known translation by 杨周翰 Yang Zhouhan, and the other is the曹鸿昭 Cao Hongzhao (Ts’ao Hung-chao) edition from Taiwan. For the more casual reader, both versions would suffice. They both flow well and use language that is accessible and often lively and inspiring. To an extent, every modern translator stands on the shoulder of the past giants; likewise, I have benefited immensely from Yang’s translation. Given my different objectives and especially greater philological focus on the Latin text, I have also made a conscious effort to distance my versification from his prose rendering.

There are two weaknesses in existing translations that which I hope to remedy with my version. First, they are both in prose; and second, Cao (and Yang to a lesser extent) relied heavily on English translations as an intermediary. There is a strong formal element to Latin poetry. The placement and order of words, the rhythm and sound effects, and the ellipses and periphrases all serve a literary purpose. Oftentimes we find a contrast between different styles and registers, between a short, truncated speech and long, elaborate description. There are certain features that, due to the necessary restraint of working in a different language, cannot be reproduced, for example the interplay between ictus and word accent. But there are many others, especially relating to diction and rhetorical devices, that can be emulated in translation. These features tend to be lost if the translation is second-hand, and a prose translation, as Wei Zhang argues elsewhere with regard to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, would even further flatten the linguistic peculiarities for the sake of clarity.

Are there any Chinese literary models you have in mind?

My immediate models are existing translations of great narrative poetry, most notably of Homer by Luo Niansheng and 王焕生 Wang Huansheng. I have also consulted the Chinese translations of Shakespeare by 卞之琳 Bian Zhilin and Dante by 王维克 Wang Weike. Since modern Chinese (I write in literary Mandarin, the national standard language) does not have a poetic tradition comparable to western epics, I relied primarily on translations. I have noted how existing translations of the Aeneid are in prose. Now, it is of course possible to produce refined and highly stylized prose (the renowned prose version of Shakespeare by 朱生豪 Zhu Shenghao immediately comes to mind). But I have found Bian’s verse translations of four great Shakespearean tragedies a more appropriate model. Being a much lesser versifier myself, of course, I can only do my best to follow his example and hope that the reader does not find my translation completely without literary merit.

What kind of tone are you going for (poetic? contemporary? direct? other?)

Poetic meter in Chinese is almost always linked with classical poetry, and its application in modern poetry is still debated. Following precedents in translating Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare, I have decided to eschew minute, technical rules, and adopt a more liberal approach. I have imposed three general limitations: (1) each line must have roughly the same number of syllables, (2) substitute metrical “foot” with “phrase” or its equivalent dun, and (3) keep an elevated register and avoid overly prosaic or informal language.

The concept of dun of is explained by Bian Zhilin in the preface to his Shakespeare translation:

In blank verse, end-rhyme is avoided, but each line consists of five dun (alternatively called morae or phrases, distinct from the caesura in Western poetry) …. Following the pronunciation and sense of modern Chinese, each dun comprises of two or three characters, and rarely after one or four. Four-character dun must end with a grammatical particle (such as dele, or ma). When a one-character dun is followed by a two-character dun, it ceases to be independent and merges into a three-character dun. In verse contexts, I have employed two- and three-character dun more regularly in order to distinguish from prose. Foreign names are usually read faster than usual… and are counted according to their original pronunciation, for example ‘Ophelia’ (three syllables) and ‘Oswald’ (two syllables) can both be scanned as one dun.

In my translation of Vergil, every proper noun is one phrase or dun regardless of its length.

I have two excuses for not trying to domesticate Vergil’s language using “poetic” conventions indigenous to Chinese. First, I am no expert in traditional Chinese verse composition, and straining my abilities would hardly be productive, let alone appreciated by the modern reader. Second, I fear such conceits would distract from my objective to render the original Latin accurately, in a natural and not overwrought manner. That said, what is the right tone to use when translating epic poetry is still an open question: it is work in progress and will probably take the collective effort of several generations of scholars and translators to settle. In making my own meager contribution to this endeavor, I hope my translation can speak for itself.