If translators are traitors in the common Italian quip “traduttore = traditore,” then translators of classical literature are impostors. Not only do they betray the original text, they present on the pedestal of the “classical” a translated text whose linguistic texture, cultural status, and historical trajectory cannot possibly be adequately transposed into any other language. The complexities a translator, especially of non-Western classical literatures into Western languages, has to take into consideration are daunting.
Take prosody: attempting to make palpable the patterns of a Chinese “regulated poem” in English can only result in hopeless exoticizing antiquarianism in our historical moment, where novelistic prose reigns supreme and almost all acceptable poetry has become free verse; yet, as translators and readers do we not miss the poem’s “heartbeat”? Or consider register: we want the translator of a sijo to create a sense of accessible time lag, some taste of our taste for the “classical”; yet, the fine line between cozy contemporarization and unnecessary dusty distance is thin and subjective.
Or, more worrisome, think about the precarious relation between translated text and implicit subtext: a translation of classical texts larded with references to an earlier literary repertoire requires footnotes explaining cultural specifics or unpacking literary references; the translation of classical poetry can become more footnote than poem. Worse yet, the Anglophone reader who needs to laboriously read up on literary repertoire lacks the cognitive reflexes of the native reader of the past to read the poem through the literary repertoire, as metaphor, analogy, allusion, or allegory, antithesis, or remonstration.
The act of understanding a translated poem goes far beyond explicable knowledge and in the eyes of the Anglophone reader a simple classical poem can look artificially complex and “erudite,” a combined effect of the abundance of footnotes and lack of cognitive wiring. There is a challenge of yet greater order: How to create a “translation hierarchy” reflecting the genre hierarchy of the literary culture which produced our original text? The translation of authoritative Sino-Korean poetry (hansi), such as a piece by Yi Kyubo composed at royal command, requires a different register than the translation of a sijo by the gisaeng Hwang Jini, which is again different from a more scholarly though vernacular kasa by Jeong Cheol or, yet more different, from the pansori script Song of Chunhyang. Even the translation of a Chinese-style (hanmun) version of The Story of Hong Gildong requires a different texture than the translation of a vernacular version. Ambitious translators translating these various genres and styles struggle with how to accommodate the genre hierarchy of the original text’s literary culture along a spectrum of “Englishes” broad enough to capture the enormous linguistic and stylistic variety of “classical” texts.
This is a particular challenge because of the different language development in East Asia and Europe. Vernacular literature and vernacularization emerged several centuries earlier in Europe than in East Asia; unlike Latin in Europe which increasingly lost its power since the eighteenth century, literary Chinese continued to be a creative literary force in East Asia throughout the early twentieth century. Yet, unlike in Europe, where the process of Latin’s decline was much slower and more cultural and political, the rapid vernacularization movements emerging around the turn of the twentieth century in East Asia were a crucial point in the agenda of nationalist movements. This led to an ideological marginalization of Chinese-style literatures in particular in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam and attempts to construct a national canon based on pre-modern vernacular traditions. In Japan, which has the best-documented, most continuous and richest vernacular tradition, the first history of Japanese literature of 1890 categorically excluded Chinese-style literature and enthroned literature written in classical Japanese as the legitimate representative of national literature.
How do these macro-historical developments affect today’s translators? East Asia’s earlier vernacularization means that for translating Chinese-style poems today English has far fewer registers available than the modern East Asian languages. Whereas Latinate “Chinese-style” diction is still a prominent part of translating classical poetry into Japanese or Korean, translating with a similar amount of Latinate into English would probably land us somewhere with John Dryden in the seventeenth century—certainly a register extinct for today’s readers. The much more sudden and politicized demise of East Asia’s venerable lingua franca of literary Chinese has led to a public marginalization of the Chinese-style literatures. Because education in classical Japanese literature (and less so Korean) does not include sufficient training in literary Chinese and the Chinese canon any more, competency is hard to earn and translators of East Asia’s Chinese-style literatures into English are accordingly few. Collective memory is waning. This is part of a powerful macro-historical shift: the loss of East Asia’s distinctive bi-literacy, the inscription of texts along a spectrum ranging from orthodox Chinese-style poems to much messier hybrid vernacularized forms of prose. The dynamic between the “cosmopolitan” language of literary Chinese and “vernacular” forms of writing, which has been central to Japanese and Korean literary culture, has for the first time in history disappeared, leading to a flattening of linguistic registers in modern Japanese and Korean, although much less advanced than in contemporary English.