Rhyme and Reason: Rethinking Gu Zhengkun's Practice of Translating Shakespeare's Sonnets

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Department of English, NTNU


Ambitious literary translators have endeavored to render Shakespeare's sonnets into Chinese in a way that recreates the variety of their poetic virtues and values: abundant lexica, polished wording and phrasing, novel simile and metaphor, well-wrought structure, musical cadence and sonority, marvelous smoothness, and even a slight sugariness in the diction where appropriate. Among these translators, Gu Zhengkun stands out due to his original and indeed experimental rhyming scheme, which employs one single rhyme throughout the entire sonnet in the target language. The success of Gu's domesticated rhyme scheme is related to the extent to which its musical rhyming effect appeals to the ears of Chinese readers well-versed in ancient Chinese poetry. However, it does not represent the aesthetics or the poetics of the original couplet, which serves to bring the preceding stanzas toward a decisive finale, one that bears philosophical as well as aesthetical weight. Drawing on a comparative poetics deriving from English literature, Chinese literature, and Taiwanese folk literature, this article attempts to reveal the problematic issues involved in Gu's creative domestication of Shakespeare's sonnets. It argues that Gu's Chinese sonnets, despite their having been rendered with superb bilingual mastery, sing with a single changeless rhyme. As such, they lack the sudden deviation, musical variation, metaphysical twists and turns, and, above all, the aesthetic suspense and ensuing concluding power that collectively characterize the finales of Shakespeare's immortal sonnets.