Yesterday the Guardian posted the obituary of David Hawkes, translator and scholar, and one of the giants of Chinese literary studies. His translations of the Songs of Chu and the first 53 chapters of the Story of the Stone are definitive, and beautiful, but more than that he was an influential guide and teacher for many of the great Sinologists and translators of the past fifty years. He passed away July 31 in Oxford, aged 86.
John Gittings' obituary contains more detail and personal insight than we, who belong to a different generation, could hope to provide, but I did have the pleasure and honor of meeting Hawkes briefly this past spring, while passing through Oxford. He and his wife Jean were thoroughly gracious hosts; they fed us, showed us pictures of their lives in China at the dawn of the PRC, and talked to us about Chinese literature and translation for the few brief hours we were able to stay. My overwhelming impression of Hawkes was of a translator sustained and nourished by his love of literature, whose humility was touchingly complete, who had reached a point in life where he took everything lightly, particularly those things that brought him joy. When it came time for us to leave he took up his hat and cane to see us off at the bus station, and stood there waving until we had moved out of sight.
I think we're planning a small memorial gathering in Beijing for this Friday (August 28), anyone who's in town and wants to attend please email me.
From the "Heavenly Questions" in Songs of the South, tr. David Hawkes:
Where do the nine fields of heaven extend to and where do they join each other? The ins and outs of their edges must be very many: who knows their number?
How does heaven coordinate its motions? Where are the Twelve Houses divided? How do the sun and moon hold to their courses and the fixed stars keep their places?
Setting out from the Gulf of Brightness and going to rest in the Vale of Murk, from the dawn until the time of darkness, how many miles is that journey?
Tom, August 27, 2009, 1:51a.m.
My God. What a terrible surprise.
Canaan Morse, August 27, 2009, 5:43p.m.
Terrible news. It's hard to imagine a professor today taking ten years to work full-time on a translation in the current academic environment that frowns upon devoting anything but a nominal amount of time to the task.
Jeff, August 28, 2009, 12:40a.m.
R.I.P. David Hawkes. His translations were inspired (and inspiring).
It's hard to imagine translations of that care and quality being done anywhere today - in China or abroad, in or out of the universities, in the fields of contemporary or classical Chinese literature, at small academic presses or large commercial publishers.
The state of Chinese-English translation today is a subject we will be exploring in more detail on Paper Republic. In the meantime, David Hawkes will be very much missed.
Cindy M. Carter, August 28, 2009, 1:06p.m.
I still remember the moment when he saw us off at the bus station, I think for a second there, he was trying to hand me some coins for the bus. For some reason, I thought of my grandfather, and feel terribly sad. But his great translation will always remind us how great a translator can be. R.I.P Mr. Hawkes
Joy, August 29, 2009, 8:13p.m.
There's another informative, unsigned obit here. I'd heard somewhere about his book of atheist essays, Letters from a Godless Grandfather.
jdmartinsen, September 2, 2009, 4:42a.m.
Thanks for that link!
I've got a couple copies of Letters from a Godless Grandfather, they're actually letters that someone else gave Hawkes, not something he wrote himself (at least that was his story, and he told it convincingly!).
Eric Abrahamsen, September 2, 2009, 5:10a.m.