The answer is, ideally, both, but that is indeed a rare combination. But the choice is easy: at all times the translator should be an expert in Chinese or Japanese, otherwise you get poems full of mistakes, or even free verse that floats around on the own fantasy of the translator.
Hans Bethge (1876-1946) is a good example. Bethge was a poet and editor who struck gold when he started re-working previous translations of oriental classics. The first collection, The Chinese Flute (1907), sold 100,000 copies.
Bethge went on to Japan, Turkey, Persia, India, Egypt, and so on, finishing with The Asian Temple of Love. Although more chinoiserie than China, his free versification did have a fresh, musical quality and inspired settings by many composers.
Major among them is of course Gustav Mahler, who used a number of poems from The Chinese Flute for his last song cycle, The Song of the Earth. I got to know Mahler's music, and therefore also the free adaptations of Li Bai, Wang Wei and other Tang-poets by Bethge when I was in high school. I was already interested in China and in fact, had decided to study Chinese and Japanese in Leiden. Motivating factors were my fascination for Daoism, Zen, ink painting and the mystery of the Chinese script...
It was completely by coincidence I bought two Mahler records - there was a sale of mono records at the local record shop. As stereo had finally won the day, mono was being sold cheaply. But I had a mono record player so those mono records were just fine with me. In fact, they had quite a big, bony sound. That is how I came to own this difficult and tragic Mahler piece (together with his Fourth Symphony).
There is not much of the real China left in Hans Bethge, and nothing at all in Mahler, who added almost 50% new text of his own inspiration. The Song of the Earth is pure "Fin de Siecle" Weltschmerz, a feeling completely unknown in the China of 1,250 years ago. Mahler was already ill when he wrote this music and so was his culture. The Song of the Earth was published in 1908, just six years before the war would start that would destroy his civilization, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Let's compare the final part of this sad, resigned song cycle called The Farewell with the original Chinese poems.
Mahler's text is a farewell to life and civilization:
The sun departs behind the mountains.
In all the valleys, evening descends with its cooling shadows.
O look! Like a silver boat, the moon floats on the blue sky-lake above.
I feel the fine wind wafting behind the dark spruce.
The brook sings loudly through the darkness.
The flowers stand out palely in the twilight.
The earth breathes, full of peace and sleep, and all yearning wishes to dream now.
Weary men go home, to learn in sleep forgotten happiness and youth.
The birds crouch silently in their branches.
The world is asleep!
It blows coolly in the shadows of my spruce.
I stand here and wait for my friend; I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side to enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where do you tarry?
You leave me alone for so long!
I wander up and down with my lute, on paths swelling with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal love - eternal, love-intoxicated world!
He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting.
He asked him where he would go, and also why it must be.
He spoke, his voice was choked:
My friend, on this earth, fortune has not been kind to me!
Where do I go?
I will go, wander in the mountains.
I seek peace for my lonely heart.
I wander to find my homeland, my home.
I will never stray to foreign lands.
Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!
The dear earth everywhere blooms in spring and grows green afresh!
Everywhere and eternally, distant places have blue skies!
This long text is based on two Chinese poems, one by Meng Haoran (698-740) and one by Wang Wei (699-761), which I give here in the expert translation of Stephen Owen (An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996). About the first poem by Meng Haoran, Owen remarks that it fits in a tradition of occasional verse, written when one made a visit to someone who was not at home (probably one would leave a copy behind as a sort of poetic name card). Meng Haoran turns this convention on its head by writing from the position of the host about a visitor who failed to appear:
Spending the Night in Reverend Ye's Mountain Chamber, I was expecting the senior Mr Ding, but he did not come.Another important social occasion for poetry writing was parting. Most Chinese poets were government officials who would get a new assignment in the immense empire every three or four years, so partings among colleagues were frequent. The person who was leaving would be accompanied part of the way, and then a farewell banquet would be held. Here is the poem by Wang Wei Bethge and Mahler used. Rather than a conventional parting poem, it seems that the poet is speaking to himself - not successful in his official career, he decides to start living in retirement on his estate by South Mountain:
When evening sun passed over Western peaks,
all the valleys grew suddenly dark.
The moon through pines brought in night's cool,
and a breeze on the stream filled listening ears.
The woodsmen have almost all gone home,
and birds now settle on misty roosts.
The man made a promise to come for the night,
my harp waits alone on the vine-hung path.
(Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996, p. 373)
Parting I get off my horse,As you see, there is nothing of the eternal sadness and drama of Mahler contained in the original Chinese poems. They are very good poems - top class in the Chinese tradition - written by free minds who play with literary conventions. And of course they do have real feeling, but very different in intent from Mahlerian Weltschmerz...
offer you wine and ask you where you are going.
You say that nothing turned out as you wished,
you go home to rest by South Mountain.
Go off then, I will ask nothing more -
white clouds there that never end.
(Stephen Owen, An Anthology of Chinese Literature, Norton 1996, p. 375)
What I like about Chinese poetry is the conciseness. That is completely destroyed by the unnecessary padding in the Bethge/Mahler version: the first poem of only eight lines, has been blown up to 24 lines, the second one of six to fifteen.
New images are introduced: the moon as a ship on the blue sky-lake, the pale flowers; the simple "woodsmen" have become "weary men" who seek forgotten happiness in their sleep... We get beauty and eternal love, in the second poem the person taking leave speaks in a "choked" voice, and instead of "resting by South Mountain", Bethge/Mahler have him "wander" in the mountains, looking for his homeland, to say nothing about the fact that the simple "white clouds" (an image strong enough in itself, reminding us of Chinese ink painting) have been turned into an eternal springtime...
Hans Bethge's poems have again words and phrases added to them by Mahler, but it is already in Bethge's adaptation that we find the changes of meaning signaled in the above.
Now there is of course nothing wrong with that, as long as it is not presented as a translation - which Bethge didn't do, he called his versions "Nachdichtungen." In ancient Japan this technique also existed and was called hon'an (翻案): a free adaptation of an existing literary work into a new one, without the necessity to be in any way faithful to the original.
That being so, one should of course never turn to Bethge's adaptations to read Chinese poetry; these adaptations functioned in the Chinoiserie vogue around 1900 but today have only some historical value. We should go to the original poems through good translations, or (even better, if possible) read the Chinese text itself.
On the other hand, the music by Mahler is sublime and The Song of the Earth is a great work of art in its own right. We should not turn to it to find something Chinese: the music, but also the text, is 100% Mahler. But it is interesting to note how cultural misunderstandings can lead to wonderful music...