Zhuangzi glossary


onomatopoeia, rhymes

One feature of Zhuangzi that is particular hard to preserve in translation is his use of onomatopoeia and rhymes; that is, words that seem to be used primarily for their sounds. One frequent form of this is the rhyming reduplicative, rhyming words in a pair one or both of which have no obvious meaning. Commentators and translators bend over backwards to find meaning for these phrases but I wonder whether they have any, or whether what meaning they do have is secondary to the sound. So, for example, the title of the first chapter, 逍遙 xiāoyáoyóu is rhyming reduplicative, xiaoyao, followed by close-rhyme you, "travel," translated together as "Enjoyment in untroubled ease" by Legge, "Free and easy wandering" by Watson, and "Going rambling without a destination" by Graham. But it is very hard to get those meanings out of the actual words. What's easy to get is a funny sound, which I try to replicate by "Hippy-dippy trip." Admittedly there is a risk of making Zhuangzi sounds like a Road Runner cartoon. But he asks himself how words mean (e.g. 2:01) and what makes language different from the twittering of birds (2:04). If he's trying to point out the similarity, it makes sense that he would have to twitter, himself. So I experiment with translating these words as sounds when I can, but I'm never sure when I'm carrying it too far.