How Would Virgil Speak in Chinese?

Wentao Zhai

et notas audire et reddere voces
“both to hear your familiar voice and to respond to it”
(Anchises addresses his son Aeneas in the Underworld, Virgil Aeneid 6.689)

My title poses a question and a challenge: how can the poems of Virgil be turned into Chinese poetry for the first time? To begin, some background: my translation of Virgil into Chinese arose from my coursework in college. My professor, Randy Ganiban, who taught me Latin when I was an undergraduate, was working on a student commentary of Book 7 of the Aeneid, so this was the first book that I tried to render into Chinese. In 2016 and 2017, I completed a draft manuscript of about 1,500 lines of Chinese, covering all of Book 7 and parts of Books 1 and 8.

When I went on to study for an MSt degree at Oxford in 2018, my dissertation topic was pastoral poetry. And it was during this time that I prepared a translation of the Eclogues. I resumed my work on the Aeneid and the Georgics in 2020, when the whole world turned inwards in fear of a pandemic. To my pleasant surprise, Virgil’s Latin now seemed to flow more smoothly into lines of Chinese, and my speed of translation also picked up. A full draft was ready by September 2022, and since then I have been proofreading and adding finishing touches. The complete translation of Virgil’s works is due to be available in print in early 2024.[1]

Simone Martini’s famous title page to the poet Petrarch’s manuscript copy of Vergil’s works, 1336 (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, Italy).

Completing a translation of Virgil’s opera omnia has proved an enormous undertaking, and was the result of over six years’ effort. I still regard the project as a work in progress: since my own Latin has steadily improved, and my style has matured during this period, the manuscript requires constant polishing and revision.

Despite having been introduced to the national poet of Rome by Jesuit missionaries in the late sixteenth century under the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Chinese readers didn’t truly encounter Virgil and his work until the early 20th century. To date, there are only two complete translations of the Aeneid into Chinese, both in prose. Yang Zhouhan’s 1984 translation, whose title can be rendered as The Story of Aeneas, is by far the more popular of the two. For the more casual reader, either version will suffice; however, the pronounced formal elements in Latin poetry are inevitably lost in a prose version. Furthermore, the burgeoning interest in the study of Classical languages in China makes the need for good translations of original works ever more pressing.

I hope that my translation can strike a balance between a literary, poetic approach (as with Robert Fagles) and a more accurate, scholarly rendition (like George Goold’s version for the Loeb Classical Library). This via media practice has been well received for recent Chinese translations of Homer, the tragedies, and more recently Apollonius of Rhodes.

Drawing of Fr Nicolas Trigault, the Jesuit missionary to China, during a visit to Antwerp to raise money for the mission, Peter Paul Rubens, 1617 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Where then to find an elegant poetic idiom suitable for the poetry of Virgil, which Lord Tennyson called the “stateliest measure ever molded by the lips of man”? Conventional wisdom suggests that China does not boast an epic tradition comparable to that of the Indo-European civilizations. Therefore, finding a poetic format suitable for Virgil is very challenging. In the early 20th century, there were exceptionally dexterous and skilful attempts to render passages from, for example, Dante’s Inferno and Byron’s Don Juan into various forms of classical Chinese poetry; but these are so opaque to the modern reader that you often need a translation of the translation! After all, Standard Mandarin, or putonghua, the “common tongue” in Chinese, is just over 100 years old; from the beginning it has been a somewhat artificial creation. As such, it lacks a literary culture of its own; its development into the dominant literary language owes in large part to the collective effort of intellectuals, including translators of Western literature into Chinese. It is from this particular tradition that I drew the most inspiration.

I found wonderful models in the translations of other narrative poets: Homer, Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare, as well as the Greek tragedians. They supplied me with worthwhile precedents both for poetic register and for meter. I found Bian Zhilin’s verse translations of Shakespearean tragedies especially enlightening in its treatment of meter, so I decided to eschew finicky technical rules, adopting a liberal approach to blank verse. However, I imposed three and a half limitations: (1) the translation must be line-to-line, so that the line numbers correspond to the original; (2) each line must have roughly the same number of syllables, reflected in the number of characters in print; and (3) echoing the hexameter, each line must contain roughly six metrical phrases or stresses. Generally I used an elevated register, avoiding jarringly prosaic or informal language.

Bian Zhilin (1910-2000), poet and academic who translated Shakespeare into Chinese, c.1940s.

One way to bridge the distance between the author and the reader is through familiarization, or domestication. In Chinese there is an expression lianzi, which literally means “to temper a word with fire”, just as you would temper iron into steel. It describes the process of agonizing over a single word in writing, a feeling not unfamiliar to any writer. Take, for example, the word convexa – literally “arched” or “convex” – which is used to describe the firmament. The term tianqiong, or “vault of heaven”, feels too unremarkable, whereas the correct optical term tutou, “convex”, seems too technical, while gongxing, “arch”, is neither accurate nor idiomatic. The solution came about when I accidentally came across a treatise on ancient Chinese cosmology, where I found the classical term for “upside-down plate”, fupan, to describe the relationship between heaven and earth.

The above example illustrates how my translation can create a dialogue with Classical Chinese texts, and it is these instances that prove to be the most exciting and rewarding. The lowest-hanging fruits are names or epithets that can instantly find a recognizable parallel: for example, in the boat race in Aeneid 5, I used Da-Kun (“Great Kun”) to translate Pristis (Aen. 5.116), which is both the Latin word for “sea-monster” and the name of one of the boats. Da-Kun refers to the mythical sea monster “kun” in the opening chapter of the Taoist text Zhuangzi. The choice here is not only semantic, but also contextual – an approximation of how an actual racing boat might have been named in Chinese.

Watercolour of a Chinese racing boat, painted in Guangzhou, early 19th century (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK).

Echoes from Zhuangzi do not stop here: following the memorable boxing match in the same book, Virgil slays the sacrificial bull sternitur (“is laid low”, “is made to prostrate itself”) by a mighty blow from Entellus (Aen. 5.481). It is a scene of extraordinary power and violence, where I slipped in the rare, classical adverb huoran taken from Chapter 3 of the Zhuangzi, which also describes the fall of a dead ox, but after being masterfully butchered by Chef Ding. Interested readers can look up the story; the message there is of course very different from Virgil’s, but the coincidence of imagery is too fortuitous to miss.

Similarly, I used language from Chinese philosophical texts when appropriate, such as at 2.327 of the Georgics, where the poet describes a cosmic semination with the grandiose line magnus alit magno commixtus corpore (“his might, mingling with her mighty frame, nurtures all growths”). Here the translator would do well to echo the equally grand and archaic I-Ching or Book of Changes, and render the process as a “great conjunction” jiaotai between “imperial heaven” (huangtian) and “noble earth” (houtu).

Scholar admiring autumn scenery, an anonymous painting (after Tang Yin) from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), c.1525 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Descending from the register of the pre-Qin classics, I also tried to use a lively, more idiomatic tone when translating passages that are fast-paced and action-packed. Here the inspiration is popular literature in pre-revolutionary Mandarin, which was frequently performed in oral recitations. Again, the boxing match in Aeneid 5 provides suitable examples.

There are words that are simply colloquial and fitting of an oral performance such as fangdao for perculit (374, “he struck”) or fahen for saevire (462, “to rage”). Sometimes diction can take on an unusual flavour: for example rendering alacris (380, “eager”) as not a common dictionary entry but the semi-dialectal babade, and using one syllable particles such as ding and guan to emphasize the aspect/tense of venissem (400, “I would have come”) or suetus (402, “was accustomed to”) instead of the more common disyllabic words. More specifically, terms that collocate with historical heroic characters are borrowed with ease, such as zhugong for auctor (418, “father” or “King”), enzhun for probat (418, “approves”), and on various occasions, the grandiloquent wude for virtus (455, “courage” or “fortitude”). After setting the stage with these choices, the translator is then able to introduce colourful terms particular to Wuxia writing (an action-fantasy genre involving great kung fu battles) that signal a characteristic sense of action to the reader. By way of illustration, crebra manus (436, “repeated blows”) could be rendered as quanzhen, stat (437, “stands firm”) as zhanwen zhuangzi, and a vertice (444, “from above”) as dingxin.

French tapestry of Jesuit astronomers dressed as Mandarins with the Chinese Emperor, late 17th century (Getty Center Museum, Los Angeles, USA).

Subtler than verbal translation is the idea of cultural translation, especially ideas that are particularly meaningful in Virgil. One prominent example is the concept of furor – a key word in the tragedy of Dido, and by extension, in the entire Aeneid. It turns out that its usage also signifies some interesting cultural differences between Rome and China. When furor refers to madness in general, diankuang is the neutral, safe choice. When the subject of furens is inanimate, such as a storm or the ocean, one can use the commonplace kuangbao or “violent rage”. For wild animals, consider ye as in “untamed”. But when furens describes a human being, things get a little more interesting. When Dido roams through Carthage like a bacchant, I would prefer to over-translate a little bit and spell out the fact that she is physically running in the streets; hence kuangben, “wildly running”, can be a good choice. The even more striking kuangbiao (implying a hurricane’s whirlwind) may be too violent for Dido even at her most active – but is suitable in the case of Queen Amata, wife of Turnus and mother of Lavinia, when her body is possessed by the infernal goddess Alecto (Aeneid 7).

More problematic is the fact that Dido is often referred to as furens with love, even when she stays put in her palace. Elements of violence or galloping are obviously not appropriate here. But the problem is there is no common term for “mad with love” in Chinese; what we have is chiqing, “becomes a fool in love”. Instead of being hyperactive, one rather becomes despondent and enfeebled.

The suicide of Dido, marble relief Niccolò dell’Arca (attrib.), 15th century (Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence, Italy).

While I was working on a project about food regulations in law school, I browsed through some scholarship on ancient medicine, including the theory of four humours, and came across an article about the development of the idea of lovesickness in the Western literary tradition in connection with the melancholic humour. The author argues that there are two distinct types of lovesickness: the manic type and the depressive type. The dominant manifestation of lovesickness in the Classical world was the manic type, but the depressive type became a common trope in medieval and modern literature. For the manic type, Dido is cited as an example, as is Medea in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica.

The depressive type of lovesickness, while less prevalent, traces its root to the pastoral tradition: a clear instance is the protagonist in Theocritus’ Idyll 1, who “wasted away” with love (a trope also masterfully emulated by Virgil in Eclogue 10). I would say that the Chinese lover undoubtedly belongs to the depressive type. Thankfully, there exists a word chikuang that somehow combines both elements of “folly” and “madness”, although the madness here probably refers to a mental obsession rather than physical activity. Because of its bivalence, I have happily used it whenever I can.

The opening of Virgil’s Eclogues in the first Aldine edition (Venice, 1501).

Another such quandary involves how to render Aeneas’ signature pietas. Much ink has been spilt on the meaning of pietas in the epic, for obvious reasons; from the outset I decided to stick to one consistent word for the epithet pius or pietas. In Yang’s prose translation of the Aeneid, he uses a variety of terms meaning “responsible”, “bound by duty” or “devout”, depending on the context. I preferred to use the same term consistently so that whenever it comes up, the reader would think of Aeneas. The choice of such a word proved to be a challenge.

I consciously avoided the obvious Confucian term zhongxiao, “loyal and filial”, even though the idea is closely related to being pious. This Chinese term is usually used for a subservient personality, like a model soldier, or a minister who fulfills his duty towards his king and his parents. But there is no mortal magistrate or sovereign to whom Aeneas pledges allegiance, and no mortal parent either, after Anchises’ death. Since Aeneas does exemplify filial piety in many instances, to use pius in this way indiscriminately would be misleading. More importantly, the divine dimension of piety is notably absent in its Confucian counterpart. So, in the end I decided to settle with qianjing, “devoted and reverent”, a word more commonly associated with religious pilgrims, and I haven’t come across a passage in Virgil in which this choice has seemed inopportune.

The Ten Disciples of Confucius, 19th cent. Japanese print (Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii, USA).

In my view, first-order comparisons between Eastern and Western antiquity are still uncharted territory. The obvious obstacle is linguistic: to make rigorous and plausible comparisons between such distant traditions requires a mastery of no fewer than three classical languages (Greek, Latin and Classical Chinese) and even more modern ones (French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Japanese, to name but a few).

The methodologies of Classical philology and Sinology also differ widely; to synthesize them requires close familiarity with both disciplines, and a Herculean commitment of time and energy. Even then, scholars must navigate between the Scylla of curious but trivial similarities and the Charybdis of sweeping but reductive generalisations. By contrast, literary translation is an empirical exercise that blends scholarship and artistry to the most granular level but does not demand a systematic treatment of these difficult questions. I sincerely hope that my Virgil translation can provide a solid first step for more stimulating inquiries in the future.

I close with a sample of my translation, rendering the passage where the Trojan Dares fights a boxing match with the Sicilian Entellus (Aeneid 5.430–49):

ille pedum melior motu fretusque iuventa,
hic membris et mole valens; sed tarda trementi
genua labant, vastos quatit aeger anhelitus artus.
multa viri nequiquam inter se vulnera iactant,
multa cavo lateri ingeminant et pectore vastos
dant sonitus, erratque auris et tempora circum
crebra manus, duro crepitant sub vulnere malae.
stat gravis Entellus nisuque immotus eodem
corpore tela modo atque oculis vigilantibus exit.
ille, velut celsam oppugnat qui molibus urbem
aut montana sedet circum castella sub armis,
nunc hos, nunc illos aditus, omnemque pererrat
arte locum et variis adsultibus inritus urget.
ostendit dextram insurgens Entellus et alte
extulit, ille ictum venientem a vertice velox
praevidit celerique elapsus corpore cessit;
Entellus viris in ventum effudit et ultro
ipse gravis graviterque ad terram pondere vasto
concidit, ut quondam cava concidit aut Erymantho
aut Ida in magna radicibus eruta pinus.


Wentao Zhai graduated with a BA in Classics from Middlebury College, Vermont, and was an Ertegun Scholar at the University of Oxford. He practised corporate law in a major New York City law firm and is now based in London.

Further Reading

The greater question here involves the future of Classics in China, and especially the prospect of comparative studies. For starters, I would point the reader to an essay by Kathleen Coleman of Harvard on the interplay between Greco-Roman antiquity and East Asia (“Nondum Arabes Seresque Rogant: Classics Look East”), and the preface by Shadi Bartsch of Chicago to her new book Plato Goes to China (a brilliant survey book that is as edifying as it is entertaining).


1 Prior to a paperback edition, Dickinson College accepted excerpts of my work for online publication in 2020, through a daughter project of the Dickinson College Commentaries, whose mission is to make resources available to Chinese students and scholars of the ancient Greek and Latin classics.