The Du Fu-Translations by Erwin Ritter von Zach

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          If we take a bird’s eye view of the history of translation, we often find in the beginning the „great seducers“ or „le belle infedele„. They are in command of a beautiful style and have a sure instinct for the interests of the reading public. These pioneers will take great liberties with the original in order to adapt it to the needs of their time. Examples are the translation of Plutarch by Jacques Amyot (1513-1593) or George Chapman’s (1559-1638) translation of Homer, which carries the Elizabe-than world view and style into the Iliad and Odyssey. Only later, when the public has got used to the strange import, will the ugly, more faithful translations emerge, „le brutte fedele“.

          In Sinology, the same process can be observed: „Unfaithful beauties“ like Lin Shu 林紓 or Franz Kuhn are followed by more faithful but artistically less satisfactory translators. Yet there are notable exceptions: Maybe due to the difficulty of Chinese, quite a few Sinological pioneer works are by no means beautiful but rather the opposite. How have they effected the Western reception of Chinese literature?

          As an example I will take the Austrian Erwin Ritter von Zach, who produced the first and up to now only complete translation of Du Fu’s 杜甫 poems. In 1952, ten years after Zach’s death, the work was reprinted in the Harvard-Yenching Institute Studies with a foreword by Robert Hightower, in which he commended Zach as one of the most accurate and prolific translators of Chinese. The book has reached a wide reading public in the United States and in Europe. It can be said to hold a key position in the Western reception of Du Fu.

          Zach’s work, by its wide circulation in Europe and the United States, has been influential in two opposite ways: First, it is partly responsible for the somewhat low esteem China’s greatest poet still enjoys in the West. On the other hand, it has inspired artists to write creative variations, which induced many Westen readers to get interested in Du Fu’s works and even identify themselves with Du Fu. An analysis of Zach’s translations shows the dangers and pitfalls, but also some unexpected possibilities of a “scientific” translation of literature.

Erwin Ritter von Zach (1872-1942)

          What kind of man was Erwin Ritter von Zach and what were his ideas about translation? His name cannot be found in Who’s Who  or in any big encyclopedia. He was born in Austria in 1872 to a family of military officers. After studying medicine and Sinology, he served for nineteen years in the diplomatic service in the Far East. At the age of 47, he retired to Batavia (Jakarta) in Java (in Indonesia). For more than twenty years he lived there, without the comforts most European colonists were used to, without a wife and only with his books. He died in 1942 on his way to India, when his boat was hit by a Japanese bomb and sank.

          He produced an amazing amount of work: Translations of the Wenxuan 文選, of the poems by Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, Yu Xin 庾信, Li Bai 李白, Du Fu, Han Yu 韓愈. Besides, he compiled thousands of corrections to the Biographic Dictionary of Herbert A.Giles, the Grammar of Georg von der Gabelentz and even to Chinese classical dictionaries, like the Ci Yuan 辭源 and the Peiwen yunfu 佩文韻俯. Yet most of his publications appeared only in an obscure Batavian paper (Die Deutsche Wacht), usually at Zach’s own expense. He never got a university post and his great fame came only after his death.

          He was a difficult personality, completely without the famous Austrian charm and savoir vivre. His few acquaintances describe him as extremely sensitive and touchy, yet having a sharp tongue and a great sense of mission. Just like Buddha, Confucius or Jesus, he wanted to save the world, i.e. the world of Sinology. Consequently, he compiled long lists of the errata of famous Sinologists, to whom he attested complete ignorance of Chinese grammar and of literary sources.

          Unfortunately, his victims did not take kindly to this. In France, Paul Pelliot (伯希和) called him „balourd et grossier„, and refused to accept his articles for the magazine T’oung Pao. In Germany, Otto Franke also broke off all relations with him. Yet Zach, just like his military ancestors, undauntedly continued to attack the Sinological establishment from Paris to Leningrad, with about the same result as Don Quijote in his fight against windmills.

          Zach proposed a translation theory in striking contrast to the great matchmakers of his time. His contemporary Franz Kuhn (1884-1961), for instance, who translated no less than 36 Chinese novels, did not want to torment his readers with scholarly translations full of footnotes which would be read only by a dozen Sinologists. Zach, on the other hand, wanted to do just that. The public he was aiming at were by no means the reading masses Kuhn could win over so easily, but the very small circle of serious students of Sinology.

          He took no pains to adapt Chinese literature to the taste of the vulgar public. Far from bringing China to Europe, he did not even bother to transport the Western reader to China. He only provided a rough map, by which the prospective student had to fight his own way in a heroic combat with the difficulties of classical Chinese.

          Some critics have said that Zach’s translations are not so scholarly after all, since they lack the academic apparatus. This is perfectly true. Yet Zach consulted many more sources than he cared to admit. Apparently he withheld information purposely so that students would learn to look up dictionaries and commentaries in order to get a good foundation in the classical Chinese canon.

The Du Fu-Translations

          Zach’s translations of Du Fu are generally esteemed very highly as a stupendous work of scholarship. Of course, when we compare them today to the original, we can detect many mistakes. Yet this is only natural, since Zach lacked the dictionaries, commentaries and the contact with Chinese scholars we enjoy today. He did not, for example, have access to the standard edition by Qiu Zhaoao 仇兆鰲, but had to use the inferior text and commentary by Zhang Jin 張溍.

          A greater problem is the lack of artistic competence. We can imagine what would happen if somebody translated Shakespeare’s sonnets into prose, five or ten times longer than the original. While Chinese readers of Du Fu’s poems are elevated, shocked, moved to tears or laughter, many German readers have secretly asked themselves how such long-winded poetry could ever become so famous in China or what all the fuss is about. Zach has managed to turn nearly all of Du Fu’s strong points into weak points. I will give three examples:

          First, the style: Chinese critics over the ages have compared Du Fu to the ancient strategist Sun Zi 孫子, who would first lull the enemy into security, only to strike at him from behind when he least suspected it. Du Fu can suddenly change from high style to the most vulgar, from despair to laughter and, in a sweeping movement of the camera, he can evoke three different feelings in a single line. The poem „Yuhuagong“ 玉華宮 (Jade Palace), for instance, describes a weird ruined palace, lit with blue fires; suddenly the eery mood is interrupted by celestial music, only to change back again to a feeling of horror and despair. Possibly because he does not want to confuse the reader, Zach, and after him many later translators, have left out the abrupt changes of feeling. In this way, when Du Fu jumps, flies, rises, falls, surprises, Zach will be plodding along the same straight endless road.

          Secondly, Du Fu’s poems are full of strange and powerful images. In stanza 7 of „Qiuxing bashou“ 秋興八首 (Eight Autumn Inspirations), for instance, there appears a luminous star-goddess above a lake with a threatening submarine (underwater) seamonster, while lotus-pods dye the water bright red. These images, with their contradictory associations of war, splendour, blood and death, are very difficult or even impossible to translate. Yet it is certainly not illuminating, when Zach transforms the supernatural star and the seamonster into realistic „stone statues“:



Bleiches Mondlicht fällt auf die Statue der Weberin, deren Webstuhl in Ruhe ist,

Während der Schuppenpanzer des steinernen Walfisches (am Seeufer)  durch den Herbstwind bewegt wird.

In the same way, the images are often rationalized or reduced to one single meaning, which, for the benefit of the reader, is moreover carefully noted in brackets.

          Third, Du Fu is famous for his shidan 詩膽, his breaking of taboos. He himself calls his poetry strange and barbarian, i.e. quite unheard of in China. In an oft-quoted line, he wants even in death to shock his readers. Du Fu does not only present himself, like Li Bai, as a great hero. He can also turn into a drunkard without honour, sick or mentally deranged. In the 18th century, the scholar Shen Deqian 沈德潛 (1673-1769) expressed this:

Du Fu’s poetry is like a vast stormy ocean, with mud and dancing monsters, with fairies and snakes.

Yet Zach will often leave out the mud and the monsters by using euphemisms. When Du Fu decides to get into a „drunken stupor for a hundred years“, Zach only allows him a mild „intoxication“:


Den Rest meines Lebens will ich gänzlich im Rausche verbringen,

The „gluttonous gulping of cannibals“ becomes a mere „tickling of the palate“:



Der herrschenden Klasse (der Beamten) ebenso gut wie den Räubern und Dieben musst du einen momentanen Gaumenkitzel  abgeben

When the sun shines on Du Fu’s „naked belly“, this is politely changed to an „uncovered body“:


Entblössten Leibes  sonne ich mich im Pavillon am Strome;

And when Du Fu is lying in bed, sick and vomiting and with diarrhoea , Zach corrects that to a more gentlemanlike „indigestion“:


Mir altem Manne wird bei diesem erschütternden Anblick übel; mit schwerer Verdauungsschwäche  muß ich einige Tage das Bett hüten.

In these and other cases, Zach follows Confucian commentators, who disapproved of artistic fancies and socially disreputable behavior. In the Ming- and Qing-Dynasty, Du Fu had been canonized as China’s shisheng 詩聖, the „Saint of Poetry“, equal to Confucius and a pillar of the state. His body of works became a classic like the Shijing, a sort of Bible. They were supposed to be shishi 詩史 „Poetical History“, which means, that their main content was not poetry but politics. Therefore all of Du Fu’s exaggerations, daring images and personal confessions were either eliminated or turned into allegorical criticisms of government and society. Zach often adopted these moralizations. Since he gives no indication when he does so, this habit has been especially misleading for later translators.

          We may very well ask why Zach dedicated himself to translating poetical masterworks? He was not a master of language; moreover, he was perfectly aware of this. Couldn’t he instead have concentrated on history or philosophy? Yet, to be fair, there are a few lines in his translation where he rises to artistic heights. Since these come as unexpected as an oasis in a desert, they are all the more striking. I guess that Zach was a secret artist after all; but he had not developed or even repressed his talents.

          According to Zach, the Du Fu translations were to serve two purposes: First of all as a crib for students of Sinology, who should thereby have access to an important part of the Chinese literary canon. And secondly, as a source book for creative poets. His first aim met with some unforeseen obstacles, yet in his second point he proved to be surprisingly clear-sighted.

The Du Fu Reception

          The influence of Zach’s translations on the Western reception of Du Fu is difficult to judge, since there are many separate factors involved. Still, we can recognize two conflicting tendencies, both of which can in some way be related to Zach.

          First, the translations have in many cases worked as a slow poison, more or less ruining Du Fu’s fame. Most Chinese over the ages have regarded Du Fu as their greatest poet. In the West, on the other hand, he has been accepted only half-heartedly. Poets like Bai Juyi 白居易, Li Shangyin 李商隱, Wang Wei 王維 and especially Li Bai have been accorded much more scholarly attention. It should arouse suspicion that Zach the translator has won more fame than Du Fu the poet. Can Chinese and Western artistic sensibilities really be so far apart? More probable, at least for the German-reading public, is the assumption that the poor artistic quality of Zach’s work provoked in some readers a sinking feeling discouraging them from further interest in Du Fu.

          Zach’s forewords, short as they are, have contributed to this. Here the German dichotomy of „poetry of feeling“ and „poetry of idea“ is projected on China: Li Bai is described as a Romantic genius in the manner of Goethe, while Du Fu is only judged as intelligent and full of ideas like the less famous Schiller. In later Western criticism this same opinion has been echoed many times. Consciously or unconsciously, it may have been reinforced by the fact that Mao Zedong did not like Du Fu. Therefore Guo Moruo 郭沫若 wrote a book in which he praised Li Bai and condemned Du Fu, proving the latter to be not only a feudalist, a Buddhist and a Daoist, but also an alcoholic.

          In the West, Du Fu has been often judged as „conventional“ and „full of learned allusions“, a „Confucian moralizer“, without a strong personal voice or individuality. One Du Fu specialist wrote:

It is clear that Tu Fu could not break free of the Confucian equation of literature … with public service.

And another:

(Du Fu) lacks …. the strongly personal imagery which establishes (poets like Li He and Li Shangyin) as vividly individual poets.

Yet these negative judgments apply less to Du Fu than to his commentatorsand translators.

          Zach’s bad habit of incorporating orthodox commentaries into his work, has been followed by many later translators. There are two seemingly good reasons for this: First of all, Du Fu’s poems are not easy to read. Secondly, Western scholars want to see Chinese literature with Chinese eyes, instead of forcing Western artistic values on it. Yet the Confucian commentators usually understood more about politics than about poetry. Besides, their allegorizations were often only a manoevre to get around censors. In the same way, the gods and heroes of Homer and Virgil were interpreted as allegories of Christian virtues, in order to make them acceptable in the Christian Middle Ages.

          In China, these allegorizations did no great harm, since people could read the originals and privately follow their own thoughts and feelings. Yet Western readers would blame Du Fu’s conventional Confucian morality, which they saw in contrast to „Western freedom and individualism“. Thus, far from seeing China with Chinese eyes, old prejudices were confirmed. The intercultural gap was not bridged but widened.

          On the other hand, Zach’s translations, far from depressing the reader, have also worked as a stimulus, a kind of magic carpet for creative writers. The German poet Ehrenstein identified himself with Du Fu in a poem titled „Ich“ („I“), which is a collage of lines by Du Fu taken from the Zach translations. The American poet Rexroth (1905-1982), who used Zach among other sources, recognized himself in the Chinese poet as well. His poems got so famous that they were translated into many other languages and even set to music. There followed a wave of Western Du Fu identifications which took Wytter Bynner’s „This ancient man is I“ as their slogan. Interestingly enough, this is in accordance with Chinese Du Fu identifications, of which the poet Wen Tianxiang 文天祥 in the Song-Dynasty is one of the most well-known examples.

          How is it that Zach’s work produced such opposite results? In Du Fu’s case, the normal process of translation-history is turned upside down: In the beginning there was no great seducer to present Du Fu in an alluring way to the Western public, like Lin Shu did in China with the works of Shakespeare, Homer, Dickens and many others. Instead, the reader is pushed into cold water, either to sink or to struggle and learn to swim. Thus, Zach has driven away many readers and damaged Du Fu’s fame.

          On the other hand, he has attracted a great many others. Strangely enough, Zach’s very deficiencies have led to this result. His translation possesses what we may call the beauty of ugliness, the creative possibilities offered by an unfinished product. Seen in this way, Zach is even a greater matchmaker than the beautiful traitors, since he covers the bride with disfiguring veils in order to make her all the more desirable. In a similar way, Ezra Pound has been inspired by Ernest Fenollosa’s stenographic notes to produce creative poems of his own. It is certainly a pity that Pound did not come across Zach’s translations of Du Fu.

          Zach has produced what may be called a translation for translators. Today, while the negative verdict on Du Fu is being slowly reversed, Zach’s complete Western translation will be extremely useful.