Du Not

Du Fu LamentBook Review
Du Fu’s Laments from the South
By David R. McCraw

If ever a book tried way too hard, it’s this one. Supposedly a translation and explication of 115 poems by Dù Fǔ 杜甫 (712-770), considered by many to be the greatest poet of the Chinese tradition, this book becomes something of a train wreck very early on.

David McCraw, Professor of Chinese literature at the University of Hawaii, really doesn’t know who his audience is. He seems to have in mind a “general audience” because he explains some very basic facts about the Chinese language, and his interpretations follow traditional commentaries closely – that is, he doesn’t really say anything new. Fine if that’s what you’re going for. But his amassing of allusions to both Chinese and European literary traditions would leave a “general reader” baffled. His allusions to Western literature, in particular, I was initially sympathetic to. But after a few pages, it just becomes pedantic and annoying. It’s kinda like he’s constantly flipping through a book of quotations or checking Wikipedia after every sentence, making sure no phrase or image is uncommented upon. A typical chapter conclusion reads like this:

Never a modest man, Du Fu comes to identify with the martyred poet of “Lamentations,” the noble protagonist in China’s prototypical tragedy of a virtuous man destroyed by unkind times.

Eliot advised, “Old men should be explorers.”

Yeats urged, “That is no country for old men.”

Yet a question remains, as our poet in spring 768 left Kuizhou behind (site of his “Little Gidding,” his “Byzantium”). We wonder – Du Fu himself might have wondered – as he followed the Jiang east, Where could he go but down?

N.B.: I’m not making this up. The prose is really that pompous, the comparisons that facile.

Moreover, his translations, in my opinion, combine some of the worst aspects of both Sinological translation practice and “poetic” translation practice. From a certain Sinological tradition, he gives “pylon” for què 闕 (“watchtower”), because one of the archaic meanings of “pylon” is indeed “large tower,” even though in contemporary English it means “traffic cone.” The name of the goddess Cháng É 嫦娥 is similarly overtranslated into “Fairy Constance.”

He also, it seems, expects his readers to know Latin, French, Italian, and German, often deploying phrases in these languages without any explication. When Dù Fǔ sends a poem to Hán the Fourteenth 韓十四 (so named because he’s the fourteenth born in his generation), McCraw renders his name as “Quatrodecimus Han” because the Romans employed a similar naming practice. A particularly egregious example of this fondness for needlessly using foreign phrases can be found in the first line of poem 58. In Chinese, this reads as:

báiyè yuè xiū xián 白夜月休弦 (On a / During the white night[s], the moon relaxes its bow)

which McCraw renders into “English” as:

Blanche nuit – lune, recline your bow.

What exactly is wrong with this? First, there’s no reason to use French – the Chinese is actually very normal, using everyday characters that would be comprehensible to someone with a minimal knowledge of Chinese. Ah, but McCraw’s reasoning is that the term “white night” 白夜 is in fact a Buddhist term for the first 15 days of the waxing moon (a fact taken unacknowledged from a Chinese commentary). Presumably, he’s referring to śuklapakṣa, which can be literally translated from Sanskrit as “white night.” If that’s the case, and you want the phrase to appear more Buddhist, why not just use the Sanskrit term, and provide a note? Seeing a French phrase in an English poem will bring to mind many things, but Buddhism is not likely to be one of them.

However, I’m suspicious of even this explanation. The Chinese word for “white night” 白夜, though a literal translation of the Sanskrit śuklapakṣa, almost never shows up in the Chinese Buddhist canon (28 hits in a database search, versus 6095 for a typical time word like chànà 剎那 [‘moment’] or 61,387 for a more common word like rúlái 如來 [‘tathāgata,’ a common epithet for the Buddha]). Báiyè 白夜 (white night) also does not show up in any Chinese/Japanese Buddhist dictionary I’ve seen, and the encyclopedic Hànyǔ dàcídiǎn 漢語大詞典 (basically the OED of Chinese) makes no reference to Buddhist or Indian lunar calculations in its entry on the term. It seems unlikely that Dù Fǔ would’ve used such an obscure term in the poem here. Moreover, there’s a common textual variant, which replaces “white” 白 with “toward/facing” (xiàng 向). This means the line would read “At night (literally: as I face the night), the moon relaxes its bow.” This makes as much sense as (or more than) Dù Fǔ starting his poem with a reference to Indian astronomy. McCraw, however, makes no mention of this variant.

Finally, regarding this line, there’s no reason to render it as imperative. The third person makes better sense to me, and provides a sharper opening image.

And McCraw’s book is full of these sorts of careless errors, most of which stem from an over-reliance on traditional commentaries coupled with an eagerness to show off his own broad reading in many poetic traditions. The result is a book that will be deeply dissatisfying to both scholar and casual reader alike.

As I said before, McCraw’s commentary rarely shed new light on these poems. It would be better to simply consult the sources he draws from, which state the same insights, but with far less pedantry. The interested reader who knows no Chinese should instead check out Tu Fu, China’s Greatest Poet by William Hung (1952) or the chapter on Dù Fǔ in The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang by Stephen Owen (1981). For those who know a little Chinese (even it’s just one year of study), I recommend A Little Primer of Tu Fu by David Hawkes (1967). For those with a strong command of modern Chinese, there are literally thousands of books in Chinese which will serve as a better introduction.

That McCraw’s book is subpar is a shame, since Dù Fǔ is such a great poet, a pleasure to read, and, as McCraw mentions repeatedly, deserves to be better known throughout the world. Here’s to hoping the next book-length study on Dù Fǔ is not so lamentable.

One thought on “Du Not

  1. Dear Mr. Mazanek:

    It’s nice to see that you’ve had time to make some book reviews of late. In fact, I’ve enjoyed the last two a lot, as they are books that I own myself, even though I haven’t had time to read them as yet (I like to be chronologically systematic, and should be tackling in the following weeks Richard Mather’s Shih-shuo Hsin-yü and Robert Henriks’ The Essays of Hsi K’ang, so they still have to wait a bit).

    I couldn’t agree more with your statement of the need for annotated translations of major Tang poet’s complete oeuvres, and I for one would be an avid purchaser and reader, but I fear the market for these texts is quite limited to freaks like myself. People who are more seriously into Chinese letters will read the texts in the original, and therefore won’t need or value translations, and people with scarce interest in the subject will find these texts too big and abstruse. I’ve tried in the last 2 or so years to get my hands on nearly all the monographic studies and translations of T’ang poets in English, and there aren’t really that much: I count no more than 40-50 volumes, many quite unavailable (I have by now some 28 myself).

    I’ll give you my layman’s opinion on both the volumes you review as soon as I’ve read them. Nevertheless, books like mr. McCraw’s have a great attractive for me a priori because of the fact that he at least tries to translate a whole body of poems, if not complete works; something to appreciate as opposed to typical and topical selections. Altogether, I am not being fair with translators, though. They all do a superb, time-consuming and seldom properly rewarded job, and the size of complete editions of some poets (or representative anthologies, like the Wen Xuan, which professor Knechtes has been producing, or the Quan Tangshi) makes them an almost unhuman effort to solve.

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