Three Ways of Looking at a Red Wheelbarrow
by Jennifer Feeley

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

William Carlos William’s 1923 poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” bears several characteristics of traditional Chinese lyric poetry yet surprisingly does not easily translate into vernacular Chinese. By examining three translations of this piece from each of the “three Chinas” (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the People’s Republic), I highlight some of the challenges of rendering this piece into modern Chinese-language verse while also revisiting the salient features of the original.

For each version I have created three columns: the first contains the translation in Chinese characters, while the second includes a word-by-word literal rendition (note: MW stands for “measure word” as in a piece of paper, slice of bread, etc.) and transliteration, and the third provides a more polished translation.

All three versions are saddled with extraneous words and phrases which destroy the freshness and conciseness of the original poem and in some cases even alter the meaning. The most glaring example is found in the third stanza, where “glaze” poses difficulty for all three translators. Fang’s “because of rain / glistens” misses the mark (and omits the word “water”) but is still stronger than Mar and Zhao’s lackluster renderings. Mar weakens the line by transforming a verb (glazed) into an adverb (luminously), but Zhao is the biggest offender of the three, with the flaccid lines “rain water dripping, sparkling / luminous.” Not only does Zhao’s rendition stray exceptionally far from Williams’ trademark preciseness by succumbing to the pitfalls of unimaginative, pseudo-poetic diction, but moreover, the comma mid-line halts the poem’s momentum, creating a caesura that is nonexistent in the original piece. Interestingly, all include a form of the word guang (literally “light” or “glossy”) to indicate glazed, but none uses the verb you, meaning glaze as in glazed pottery, which would seem to be a better alternative in terms of diction, brevity, and tone.

The other main instance of superfluous words concerns the translation of red and white. Unlike English, in vernacular Chinese, one often adds the suffix “colored” (se, or sometimes the compound yanse) after color names, and thus red wheelbarrow literally reads red-colored wheelbarrow, as in Fang’s title. Curiously, in their titles, Mar and Zhao are more economical, with both dropping the suffix for color after red. In Zhao’s case, he uses a short word for wheelbarrow that is almost too generic, as che could be just about anything on wheels from cart to car, and moreover, it seems unidiomatic to say hong xiao che (“red small cart”) in Chinese. Mar, meanwhile, appears to misunderstand which part of the wheelbarrow is red, as he entitles his version “Red-Wheeled Wheelbarrow,” a phrasing which he repeats in the second stanza; ironically, the wheel of the wheelbarrow is possibly the only part that isn’t red. The chickens in the poem’s coda also pose trouble for Fang and Zhao; Fang adds the suffix chu, thereby designating the chickens as young, and Zhao’s chickens are mysteriously mobile. If Williams’ chickens are supposed to be youthful and ambulant, he does not explicitly tell us, instead ending the piece with the simple “white / chickens.”

Aside from extraneous material, there are also some noteworthy omissions. None of the versions include the word “upon,” though this is not really the fault of the translators, as the Chinese word for depend automatically encompasses the notion of “on” or “upon” without taking a preposition. Mar’s opening line leaves out the key word “much,” yet he is the only translator to add the suffix qun after chicken to indicate plurality, and thus in Fang and Zhao’s translations, it’s unclear whether there’s only one chicken or there are several. Moreover, Zhao’s title of “Red Small Cart” lacks precision, and it is only through reading the second stanza that the reader confirms that the che in question is a wheelbarrow and not a motor vehicle. (Incidentally, each translator chooses a different way to translate wheelbarrow. Fang’s choice of du lun che literally means “single-wheeled cart,” Mar uses shou tui che, or “hand-pushed cart,” and as mentioned, Zhao selects “small cart.” All three are acceptable translations for wheelbarrow, though Zhao’s is the least specific—in the body of the poem, however, he does add the modifier “hand-pushed.”)

One of the most striking omissions is the overall lack of enjambment, yet curiously, I also suspect that a major reason for some of the above excesses is also to try to preserve the enjambment, thus leading to a quandary: can one justify upholding some of the poem’s merits at the expense of sacrificing others? Certainly, the two-syllable tag at the end of each stanza is integral to the poem, which unfolds like a Chinese scroll painting as the eye travels down the page, with the enjambment piquing the reader’s curiosity and urging her to read on. Moreover, visually, it conveys the image of a wheelbarrow as it alternates between three- and one-word lines, with a 4-2-3-2-3-2-4-2 syllabic pattern comprised of hard mutes. Fang’s version makes no effort to create any sort of design, nor does he break the lines in unexpected ways. In some cases, this is understandable, as in the first stanza, where, as I have already explained, there is no Chinese equivalent for “upon. Mar makes greater use of enjambment than Fang, with the second line of each stanza constituting one distinct word (though sometimes made up of multiple characters). His addition of a marker to indicate a progressive action in the opening stanza creatively attempts to reproduce the enjambment of the English (even if there is no –ing in the English original), and while the second stanza “a red-wheeled / wheelbarrow” is hands down a mistranslation, his efforts to break the line in a way similar to the English are admirable. Formally, Zhao’s also attempts to mimic the original English through maintaining a two-syllable, two-character tag, and his enjambment is most successful in the second line, where he splits “red wheelbarrow” without confusing the meaning as Mar does. Unfortunately, in other cases, his skillful enjambment comes at the expense of sacrificing the content, as in the final couplet where he depicts the chickens as walking.

In addition to omitting certain words, other features are also lost. For example, Zhao and Fang’s translations disrupt the piece’s parallelism by leadening the second line of the third stanza with clunky adjectives and adverbs instead of the simple yet unexpected image of water, and even more drastically, Zhao changes the poem’s ending by moving the chickens to the preceding line, and so instead of closing with an image that is concrete and particular, the translation concludes with an action that is foreign to the original.

Williams’ poem is a successful union of form, content, and sound, an unpretentious expression of ordinary American speech, but in transporting it into modern Chinese, what is essential and what is open to compromise? Both formal features and language are crucial to this particular poem. Enjambment is critical, but in Chinese, need the overhang be two syllables? Reducing the tag to one character (and therefore one syllable) might actually make the enjambment more natural while tightening the language and allowing the poem to flow without stumbling over unnecessary filler. Capturing the spoken idiom is also essential when translating Williams, yet in modern Chinese, succinct language is tied to a formal level of diction, so if duplicating the poem’s colloquial nature is deemed most important, then the sparseness of words is likely to be compromised, which may not be the best choice for such a minimalist poem. Given the influence of classical Chinese poetry on Williams and his fellow Imagists, readers may be surprised to realize the difficulties of translating this poem into present-day Chinese, but just as Williams’ creation is constructed of the living matter of the English language, far from being static and timeless, Chinese also continues to gather new energy, and as such, the literary and linguistic traditions which influenced Williams and his contemporaries have also evolved. The fact that the poem shares commonalities with traditional Chinese verse does not automatically mean that modern Chinese can accommodate this poem any easier than other languages, though as Charles Simic has remarked, “[O]ne hopes to be read and loved in China in a thousand years the same way ancient Chinese poems are loved and read in our own day, and so forth.”

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Jennifer Feeley is a PhD candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University, where she is completing a dissertation on early twentieth-century Chinese women poets. She has published several translations of contemporary Chinese poetry, as well as articles on modern and contemporary Chinese poetics, both in English and Chinese.


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