Beauty of language in words, sounds, not rules: Tang Prize laureate

The beauty of language is not necessarily dictated by linguistic features but by the way words and sounds are associated, Stephen Owen, a Harvard Sinologist and a 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Sinology, said at National Taiwan Normal University on Sept. 26.

Owen, who has completed the first English translation of the complete works of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, said the most moving recitation of Tang poetry he has heard is by somebody who read it in Sino-Korean who loved the sound.

'But the sounds in Sino-Korean are not the same sounds as the Tang,' Owen said.

'In some ways, the beauty of the poem makes the particular way it's expressed sound beautiful,' Owen said. 'The sound and sense are bound together.'

The comments were part of his response to a question from a local Sinology expert on how he deals with such structural issues as 'level' and 'oblique' tones and rhyme in translating Chinese classic poetry and specifically Du Fu's works.

In terms of the actual translation, Owen said, 'I did the best I could.'

'Sometimes they, God or something, let me have a beautiful English translation, and sometimes they didn't.'

The complete English translation of Du Fu's works was one of the first volumes of Owen's Library of Chinese Humanities that features translations of Chinese literature.

The Tang Prize Foundation had this year's laureates deliver lectures on their fields of expertise on Saturday, a day after they received their prizes.

Each lecture was the followed by a press conference at which the laureate fielded questions from reporters and local and international researchers in their respective field.

Asked whether he is contemplating future translations of other Chinese literature, Owen said he has done enough translation after spending seven to eight years interpreting Du Fu's works.

'I don't even want to think about translating right now,' he said.

If he can get an endowment, however, he will try to find good translators to work on a wide range of books in not only Chinese literature, but history and other fields, Owen said.

'I hope we will find [endowment] and eventually there will be a large library accessible to those who know Chinese as well as non-Chinese speakers,' he said.

Owen would not comment on the influence of his Du Fu translations on Western academics focused on Sinology, but he said that the work, available to be downloaded for free, has been downloaded over 10,000 times in the year since it became openly accessible.

In his lecture, Owen described how he defined Sinology and why there should be this category that is, in certain ways, different from the academic practice of the study of China in the People's Republic of China.

Owen, 71, specializes in premodern literature, lyric poetry and comparative poetics. Much of his work has been focused on the middle period of Chinese literature (200-1200). He has also written on the literature of the early period and the Qing Dynasty.