- The Poetry of Du Fu trans. by Stephen Owen, ed. by Stephen Owen, Paul W. Kroll, and Ding Xiang Warner
In Jin Yong's 金庸 novel The Eagleslayer (Shediao yingxiong zhuan 射雕英雄傳), chef Huang Rong 黃蓉 keeps a valued martial arts instructor by offering to cook him stir-fried cabbage and steamed doufu 豆腐 (tofu).1 Huang knows the master appreciates that Huang's consummate art can appear most purely when it leavens the most modest and humdrum of tasks.
Given all the fancy things a literary critic and scholar can do—think of Stephen Owen's accomplishments in the history of Tang poetry, his writings on Chinese literary thought, or his interpretations in works such as Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World (hereafter Omen of the World)—one marvels that his latest magnum opus spends 2,700 pages humbly translating every known poem by one poet.2 Pared of ascents into literary history, theory, or elegant [End Page 378] interpretive explorations—stripped of the usual spices we associate with Owen's work—what does the great chef have to offer in so humble a genre?
Humility might seem an odd word to describe the most ambitious translation of Chinese poetry yet completed under one title: Owen translates more than 1,400 shi 詩 (poems), plus some grueling fu 賦 (poetic expositions), by Du Fu 杜甫 (712–770), generally considered China's greatest poet. But Owen eschews any excurse on Du Fu's style: he refrains from offering the piquant diversions and delightful hermeneutic rambles we know he can offer. Instead, Owen gives each poem an unadorned, literal, and unpretentious English equivalent. When necessary, he adds a note to explain allusions and usages that would defeat most English-language readers. Otherwise, he just moves on to the next poem, offering a vast banquet of stir-fried cabbage and steamed doufu.
Owen's achievement in this massive enterprise attests to his peerless culinary powers as well as his remarkable endurance and indefatigable perseverance. You might come up with a handful of scholars who have the stamina to attempt so daunting a feat; but can you think of one so well versed in the language of Tang poetry? This enormous effort deserves our highest praise, not least because the loftiest scholar in the field stoops low to produce a sturdy translation pony for students of Tang poetry. Moreover, Owen provides a searchable Du Fu database for students who have not yet mastered Chinese.
One facet of this toil can illustrate how intelligently and productively Owen has approached the task. Not only does his tautly constructed, cogent list of allusions economically introduce you to lore essential for understanding Du Fu, his index of allusions allows you a quick purview of most relevant examples. For example, say you want to know how Du Fu deploys the third-century poet Wang Can 王粲 (177–217) in writing verse. By perusing Owen's index, you can immediately learn that Du Fu utilizes five different strains of Wang Can material: "giving books, leaving the capital, seven sorrows, well in Xiangyang 襄陽, gazing from a tower" (v. 1, p. 430). You can also see from the fourteen listed examples that only after fleeing to Sichuan does Du Fu get fascinated by Wang Can's lot as exile. Most of Du Fu's examples do not use Wang's full name, so you can appreciate how useful Owen's index can become. Incidentally, by my count Du Fu refers to Wang Can a [End Page 379] total of twenty-one times, so do not assume Owen's index always gives a complete total.
As translation ponies go, Owen offers much more of a workhorse, almost nothing of a show pony. You can verify this modesty by comparing versions from The Poetry of Du Fu (hereafter PoDF) with earlier, more adventurous versions from Owen's vast oeuvre. For example, in his 1985 Omen of the World, Owen tackles the poem "Broken Boat" ("Pochuan" 破船) and, after providing a bare-bones...