Stephen Owen’s Translation of the Complete Works of Du Fu

Owen Du Fu cover


De Gruyter has recently published Stephen Owen’s The Poetry of Du Fu, a translation of the complete works of (perhaps) China’s greatest poet. This marks a major step forward for the study of Chinese literature in the West for several reasons.

  1. Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770) is the most beloved poet of traditional China, known as the “poetry sage” 詩聖 or “poet-historian” 詩史 to enthusiasts in China. He has retained this reputation for nearly 1000 years, beloved for his technical mastery, his attention to detail, his witness to the devastating An Lushan Rebellion, his noble ideals, and his loyalty to friends, family, and the imperial court. Before now, there has been no translation of his complete works into English, only selections which give us around 1-10% of his oeuvre. Compare this for a second to Virgil’s Aeneid, which holds roughly the same importance in the classical Latin tradition as Du Fu does in the classical Chinese. There have been something like 13 complete translations of the Aeneid into English since 1950, and dozens more if we go back to the 16th century (see this honors thesis from McMaster, p. 101, for a rough estimate of these translations).
  2. By giving us a complete translation of Du Fu, rather than a partial one, Owen lets us see the poet’s full range, from high-minded loyalist to bereft father to woeful exile to irritable curmudgeon to sycophantic hack to meditative imagist. This is a welcome counterbalance to the stereotyped image of Du Fu as a great “Confucian” poet, the sort of thing you find in introductory textbooks to Chinese literature, both in China and abroad. To render this full portrait of Du Fu is no mean feat: Du Fu composed over 1400 poems, amounting to 6 volumes, 2962 pages, and 9.3 pounds in English translation. Even for a speedy translator like Owen, this must have taken ages.
  3. In addition to the translations, each volume concludes with a glossary of allusions that sketch out the most important of stories touched upon in Du Fu’s poetry. These alone are a great benefit to any reader of classical Chinese poetry, since they are part of the common stock of references available to any Tang poet.
  4. Owen is one of the greatest literary scholars and translators of our age (my own minor complaints notwithstanding), with an excellent ear for English and a deep knowledge of classical Chinese. His renditions give us a Du Fu that sings, tasting more of poetry than of philology.
  5. The whole thing is free. Seriously. You can go download the PDFs of all 2962 pages right now. They’re licensed as Open Access, so you’re free to do just about anything you want with them except sell them or pass them off as your own work. Go write an imitation of Du Fu, or remix them into a collage poem, or create a giant erasure poem, like Janet Holmes did with Emily Dickinson.

Owen’s Du Fu is only the first publication from De Gruyter’s new Library of Chinese Humanities series, edited by Sarah Allen, Paul Kroll, Christopher Nugent, Stephen Owen, Anna Shields, Xiaofei Tian, and Ding Xiang Warner. (Full disclosure: Kroll and Shields are two of my teachers, and I know everyone else in a professional capacity.) The series promises to give us “important works in the pre-modern Chinese cultural tradition in accurate and readable English translation, side by side with a good edition of the original.”

I believe these titles will be complete editions of pre-modern works, which is exactly what we need if our understanding of classical Chinese literature is to advance at all. As Lucas Klein wrote in World Literature Today a while back, we translators should look to “meld our voices with smaller sets of individually chosen writers, whose works we would translate in whole, rather than in excerpt or selection pressed too closely against others.” Only then can we avoid making all pre-modern authors sound alike. Complete translations will also hold us to better accountability when making our scholarly arguments. If I’m the first person to translate certain texts, it’s a lot harder for you to check my sources (and impossible if you don’t know Chinese). If there are already translations out there, anyone can compare my interpretations against another version. Just as I can read Tacitus, Josephus, Livy, and the rest when I want to analyze a book on the Roman empire, so too will you be able to read Du Fu and others when I write a book on Tang poetry.

The next title in the Library of Chinese Humanities series will be Paul Rouzer’s translations of the complete poems of the Hanshan 寒山 corpus (Hanshan, Shide 拾得, and Fenggan 豐干). Rouzer has recently published an excellent study of these poems, which I’ll be reviewing soon. I’m confident that his translations will strike just the right balance between scholarly, poetic, and Buddhistic vocabulary. However, this will have far less impact than Owen’s Du Fu, since the complete Hanshan corpus has already been translated into English not once, but twice. I’ve also heard rumors that Paul Kroll will publish a translation of Heyue yingling ji 河岳英靈集, an important anthology of High Tang poetry that was actually compiled during the High Tang. The series promises to fundamentally reshape the field of world literature, providing access to the greatest works of pre-modern China to anyone who can read English. And I can think of no better inauguration than Owen’s Du Fu.

One thought on “Stephen Owen’s Translation of the Complete Works of Du Fu

  1. I’d really like to have the printed volume, so I guess I’ll start saving for it… Washington U.P. is also bringing around its updated version of the Zuo Traditions (not cheap either). It would be even better if further complete (or extensive) translations of other poets come about (my own pet obsessions being 劉禹錫, the Early T’ang poets 盧照鄰, 駱賓王 and 張九齡 and the T’ang poet-monks).

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