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Professor First to Translate Chinese Poet's Complete Works

University Professor Stephen Owen completed an eight-year-long project to translate Chinese poet Du Fu’s 1,400 poems into English, aiming to make the works more accessible.

Du Fu, who Owen described as one of China’s most prolific poets, wrote about 1,400 poems during his lifetime. While scholars have previously translated some of Du Fu's works to English for anthologies, Owen's work marks the first time all of Du Fu’s existing collection has been translated into English.

“This project is something I’ve always had in mind doing. Du Fu is actually a very strange poet,” Owen said. “That strange Du Fu is left out of all the anthologies.”

Owen said a $1.5 million grant the Mellon Foundation awarded to him in 2005 made it possible for him to undertake the project.

“[The Foundation] wanted me to do something big and I hate to waste money,” Owen said. “So I thought I would do something that would really leave a mark. And this is just not itself for itself, it’s also the first volume of the first title in a library of Chinese humanities.”

Owen hopes the translation will reach a broader audience and that people with limited knowledge of Chinese will enjoy the collection, as well.

“In the United States, we have a lot of people both non-ethnically Chinese and ethnically Chinese who are curious about traditional literature, have studied some Chinese,” he said. “But studying some Chinese and reading Du Fu are two different things. So this helps to create a kind of a bridge where you can at least try your hand at it.”

The Poetry of Du Fu, Owen’s six volume book, is available not only in print but also in a free online PDF version.

“A lot of the Mellon [funds] went into… getting this, and the first few volumes all open access on the Internet,” Owen said.

Harvard affiliates praised Owen’s translation of Du Fu’s poems.

“This makes teaching Chinese literature, teaching Du Fu so much easier. It very much facilitates the research, the reading, and the learning,” Chinese literature professor Xiaofei Tian said.

Wai-Yee Li, another professor of Chinese Literature, also lauded the translation.

“People will be able to find a way to Du Fu and I think it will do a great boost to the study of classical poetry in general” Li said.

Lucas R. Bender, a graduate student studying Chinese literature, noted the importance of the translation in raising awareness of Du Fu in the West.

“He is under appreciated, underrepresented in the western world, partly because his collection is so big,” Bender said. “Chinese poetry isn’t well known. When people will have access to the full Du Fu, they will see how much more compelling the individual who is writing the verse is.”

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