An architect with a song in his heart

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am


In ancient China, poetry was like song: Tang (619-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasty poems were often accompanied by music and performed at banquets and other gatherings. They were meant to be appreciated for their rhythm and sound as much as for their content and, as such, they frequently rhymed.

In modern times, in the course of translation from classical Chinese to English, the rhyme has all but been lost.

One man in Hong Kong is trying to bring the original rhythm back to English. He has translated more than 150 Tang and Song dynasty poems from classical Chinese, rendering not only the literal meaning, but a rhyming scheme similar to the original - something that has not been done before on such a large scale.

But Ho Chung-kin - whose book Chinese Poetry of Tang and Song Dynasties: A New Translation was recently published by Commercial Press - is no ivory tower literary scholar.

By day, he is an assistant professor at the School of Architecture at the University of Hong Kong and a practising surveyor immersed in the cold logic of building codes and regulations. But for the past 3 1/2 years, in the hours between dinner and the darkness, before bed every weekday and sometimes the whole day on weekends, he cocooned himself in his office at home with the classical poems, plodding through text line by line and trying to make them rhyme. Sometimes a single right word or phrase would escape him for months.

After a busy career in architecture, Ho, 71, now finds he has more time to dedicate to literature, which he put aside in his youth to take the more practical route of engineering.

'There are so few people doing classical Chinese translation,' says Julian Ho (no relation to the translator), a published scholar of Tang and Song dynasty poems and a former guest lecturer at Henan University.

'It's hard work that does not earn you money. Before, in the times of civil examinations, knowing poetry gave you a chance to move up in society. Now there is no such path.'

Most translations of classical Chinese poems are done by foreign scholars: for example, the most popular translation of Three Hundred Tang Poems, used in college classes in East Asian Studies courses around the world, is by Innes Herdan, a British writer and translator who began learning Chinese in college.

Ho Chung-kin would take home tomes of these foreign translators' poems, comparing them with the Chinese originals.

'Their English is fine, of course, the meaning is there,' he says. 'But you can't see the beauty.' There was also no rhyme. 'I'll read it, but it doesn't sound like a poem.'

He questions how others, and especially the younger generation and those who can't understand the Chinese originals, can appreciate the beauty. 'People will think China doesn't have good poems,' Ho says.

Oxford University sinologist Arthur Waley wrote in the introduction of his book of translations of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, first published in 1918, that 'I have not used rhyme because it is impossible to produce in English rhyme effects at all similar to those of the original'.

Rhymed translation is difficult enough for Dr Seuss, but classical Chinese poets use even more esoteric language, with a single syllabic rhyme pervading an entire poem, putting English poems with their couplets to shame.

And Chinese, by virtue of its multiple tones, has many more words with similar endings than in English, rendering appropriate rhymes even harder to find in translation.

Ho thought Hong Kong scholars, whose foundation in classical Chinese would be better than foreign scholars and whose English would be better than mainland scholars, would have taken on the challenge of preserving rhyme in translation. But, as far as he can tell, 'it's just me'.

His uniqueness is why just weeks after he sent in his manuscript of 153 translated poems, Commercial Press has already put his 220-page book on the shelves.

Ho's work is dedicated to his mother, a middle school teacher who read classical literature to him when he was young; he can still remember swathes of the lines she taught him.

But his mother was also the one who urged him to study engineering: the family, who moved from Guangzhou in 1950 when Ho was nine, was too poor to have a son who dabbled in literature.

Ho even struggled to become a surveyor. He had to do it via correspondence with the University of Reading in England. Hong Kong at the time had no surveying courses and it took him six years to finish his degree.

Ho has never believed in limits for the things he wants to do: 'I just spend more time at it than anybody else,' he says.

In the late 1970s, a friend took Ho pistol shooting at a gun club. He subsequently started going out at 6am every weekday to practise before work. He spent half of Saturdays practising as well.

Years later, Ho became one of the best shots in Hong Kong and represented the city in pistol-shooting at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as well as the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990. In those days, there was no time for poetry.

'I'm a pistol-holder, not a pen-holder,' he jokes.

Today, Ho is thin and wiry, with a literary persona's tweed jacket and the ease of a man who has lived his years well.

He has no regrets about pursuing engineering; he says that in those hard times he had no choice. If he were young in today's more prosperous times, he would probably study literature.

'I have much more love for art and literature than the construction world, which is always a bit boring,' he says. 'I tend to enjoy my hobby more.'

And yet his architectural work has also brought him happiness: 'Watching your buildings go up is a kind of satisfaction,' Ho says, just like each completed poem. 'You don't have to have the whole day doing what you want.'

Translation exercised all of Ho's abilities: the rational, logical surveyor and precise shooter helped give him precision when he came to language and a love of literature and art enabled him to understand allusions and the subtleties of unspoken emotion.

In this way, Ho is not unlike some of the poets he translated: rarely was a great poet just a poet. Fan Zhongyan, an important literary figure in the Song dynasty, eventually became chancellor of all China.

Du Fu, from the Tang dynasty, one of China's most renowned poets, spent his life in the bureaucracy. Many other poets were generals or scholars; they wrote at the same time they fought or thought for their country.

Times have changed, jobs have become more specialised, but in every individual there is still duality: those seemingly inconsistent dimensions of a person - work versus hobbies, romanticism versus practicality, family versus country - that make up a whole.

It is in literature, says Ho, that you learn about these differences: about how sometimes, unlike in engineering, there is a blurred line between right and wrong. It teaches you how to navigate life's dichotomies.

Farewell - Du Mu (803-852)

Deeply in love but

our passion appears to have gone;

Before the wine, no smile we don.

The candle has a heart -

it grieves to see us part,

And sheds tears for us till dawn.

The Gold Threaded Gown - Du Qiuniang (around 790)

I urge you, cherish not the gold-threaded gown:

Cherish instead the days while you're young.

When flowers are in bloom, pick them while you may:

Wait not, lest no flowers

but only bare twigs can be found.

The Black Coat Lane - Liu Yuxi (772-842)

Beside the Red Bird Bridge,

weeds and wild flowers overgrown;

At the entrance of the Black Coat Lane,

the setting sun shone.

Swallows that once nested

before the halls of Wang and Xie,

Into ordinary people's homes had flown.