Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets

v seth three poets

I’ve been reading Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992) by HarperPerennial, which includes poems by Li Bai, Du Fu and Wang Wei. His translation of these Tang verse is superior to other versions I’ve read: there is more clarity in rendering the imagery, and more attention to the rhythm of lines.

However, as in the poem on Lady Xi, I still cannot connect with the abruptness between the lines:

Lady Xi

by Wang Wei

No present royal favour could efface

the memory of the love that once she knew.

Seeing a flower filled her eyes with tears.

She did not speak a word to the King of Chu.

The last two lines might even make the reader think that the disjointed lines are part of what makes it a Chinese poem!

In another poem, ‘Birdsong Brook’

I do not understand why he translated the second line into ’empty the hill in Spring’. After all, it doesn’t really bear semblance to the syntax in the Chinese poem. Empty is the right image, yet ‘hollow’ might give it a better sound and emotional depth than the more straightforward observation (empty).



What I do like is his translation of what must be one of the most popular Chinese poems of all times, at least for the Chinese community:

In the Quiet Night

by Li Bai

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight – like hoarfrost – in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.


Hoarfrost’ sounds contrived.

The ending couplet is effective in evoking the original rhythm. Yet ‘drop my head’ is hardly the poetic phrase for bending down his head and remembering home. Perhaps Bending down, I think of home.” But then one loses the symmetry of it that is inherent in the Chinese couplet.

Is something necessarily lost in translation? When you try to share your culture with a foreign audience, is it still the same thing?

The image of the moon in Chinese poetry is very worth thinking about. It is not only in itself a legend (of the jade rabbit and Chang Er), but because it resembles so many things, and for Chinese people in particular, it symbolises family reunion.

There’s a crudeness in Chinese poetry however that I don’t enjoy. That is the lean description of objects (especially flowers and landscapes) and the little attention given to depicting the emotions. Perhaps, they consider that metaphors and similes are far more interesting in language play?

Born and grew up in Hong Kong, I am the author of three poetry collections including Letters Home (Nine Arches Press 2020), Goldfish (Chameleon Press 2013) and Summer Cicadas (Chameleon Press 2006), as well as a poetry pamphlet Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry 2019).

4 comments on “Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets

  1. In my opinion, as a poet,
    Translating poetry is impossible,
    Yet is a great way to learn how to write poetry
    I personally prefer to translate poetically
    Literal translations of poetry seem sad to me
    Ultimately the translator must create a new poem
    A new poem, that evokes the original,
    Yet has a life of its own.
    — yamabuki

  2. i don’t know much about chinese poetry, but it’s also possible that it’s the opposite (talking about emotions) that might have been considered crude…

    i think the chinese poems you mention in your post have a lot of emotion, but maybe they are expressed in their own way…

    about translation, i like doing it, but i also think it can be v unethical

  3. Thank you for reviewing this book. I am a great admirer of Seth’s poetry and wanted to get this book. It is very useful to have a review from a bilingual poet.

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