stephen durrant, wai-yee li, and david schaberg are translators of zuo tradition/zuozhuan: commentary on the “spring and autumn annals,” published by the university of washington press and winner of the 2018 aas patrick d. hanan book prize for translation.
stephen durrant is professor of chinese and vice provost for international affairs at the university of oregon; wai-yee li is professor of chinese literature at harvard university; and david schaberg is dean of humanities and professor of asian languages & cultures at ucla.
to begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
this is an annotated translation of zuozhuan (ca. 4th century bce), a chronologically arranged text that tells of events spanning 255 years (722-468 bce). zuozhuan, the largest text to come to us from pre-imperial china, is a foundational text in the chinese historical and literary tradition. our translation includes a long introduction, extensive notes, and exegetical comments that explain how each passage should be understood in the context of narratives and arguments within zuozhuan as well as analogous materials in early chinese texts. our goal is to make this difficult text accessible to a large audience, so that it could finally take its place among the core classics of world literature.
what inspired you to research this topic?
li: i have always been interested in early chinese thought and literature, and the translation provided an excellent opportunity to learn more about a difficult and fascinating text.
durrant: from the first time i read sections of zuozhuan, i was struck by the terseness and power of its language. my classical chinese was quite weak at that time, so i frequently consulted james legge’s 19th-century translation as an aid to understanding the chinese text. while i developed a deep respect for legge’s work, i found that his translation was exceedingly difficult to use, lacked any footnoting, and did not always reflect the style and nature of the original text. over the years i came to believe we badly needed a new english translation of this great work from the ancient world.
schaberg: all three of us have long been lovers of the chinese text itself, and all of us have found irresistible the challenge of providing a translation that will be even more useful to readers than james legge’s superb pioneering effort of more than a century ago. we have all felt that the habits of action, thought, and speech represented in the zuozhuan should have a more prominent place in the ways we think and teach about early china. and all of us have hoped to bring the text to interested readers who do not happen to be sinologists, including historians of other parts of the ancient world.
what obstacles did you face in this project? what turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?
durrant: the biggest obstacles i faced were my own inadequacies as a reader of this complex ancient text and as a writer of english. fortunately, my two collaborators made up for those inadequacies. our collaboration was complicated by the fact that we live in distantly separated locationss and could only meet perhaps once a year. moreover, we did not know each other well when we signed on to this very large project. so i was initially nervous about whether we could work together successfully. as it turned out, our collaboration was a happy one and resulted not only in a translation of which we are proud but led to a friendship that i am sure will continue throughout the years ahead.
li: since this is a collaborative project, one of the main hurdles was to reach consensus as we edited each other’s drafts and to adhere to rules consistently once we had elaborated them. we also had to make accommodations for each other’s schedules. however, we have worked well as a team, and i cherish the friendship that has developed through the collaborative process.
schaberg: the major obstacle in this project, besides the sheer immensity and difficulty of the original text itself, was coordination of the efforts of the three collaborators. it took years of work to achieve consistency of style and translation conventions across three large volumes.
one thing i had not quite anticipated about the finished product, besides the physical charm of the printed volumes, was the way our approach to the naming of characters—our decision, that is, to refer to most individuals by one and only one of their names, in contrast to the original zuozhuan’s own practice of using multiple names for single individuals—would make it much easier to follow the trajectories of individuals through the text and in that way to get a more immediate feel for the zuozhuan’s sense of biography.
what is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
schaberg: our work involved many hours of sitting together going over possible translations and racking our brains for the mot juste or the perfect phrase. we played endlessly with ideas for possible titles and naturally, given the variety of speculations that have arisen about the real significance of the chinese title itself, mused over the possibility of calling our version “pass it to the left.” in a search for the stylistic quality we wanted in our english, we joked for a time about the “principle of monosyllabicity” and our hope that as much as possible we could stick with a hobbit-like vigor and directness of language.
li: we (the three translators) gathered in my house a number of times as we went over drafts and debated options. we have gathered in stephen’s house as well, but more often we met in cambridge. [at first] my children were small and my husband was constantly traveling, so it was just easier to meet here. my children remember bits and pieces of our discussions and have grown fond of my collaborators. they have also moved from grade school to college [over the course of this project]. i am bemused by their changing perspectives on many subjects, including our translation project and scholarly labor in general.
durrant: i’m an inveterate traveler and can’t help but smile when i consider the “strange” places where i sat at a table working on this translation, places very far removed from the setting of the text before me—a village in the alpajarras with almond trees blooming on the hill above me, on the balcony of an apartment in lecce, italy where the baroque towers from a nearby cathedral sometimes protected me from the summer sun, a farmhouse in brittany where i could hear the waves crashing on rocks just a few hundred yards away, in an office in muenster, germany that gave me quick access to gluhwein during the proper season, etc. none of these places, i’m afraid to say, had much to do with zuozhuan, but that was usually the text on the table!
what are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?
durrant: each of my collaborators has written an excellent book on the zuozhuan from which i learned a great deal (and from which i stole liberally in producing some of my earliest draft translations!). other translators who displayed tenacity in completing large translation projects under challenging conditions inspire me. i would note, in particular, william tyndale and martin luther.
schaberg: i would recommend that people read wai-yee li’s the readability of the past in early chinese historiography and newell ann van auken’s the commentarial transformation of the spring and autumn.
li: perhaps readers will be interested in other translations of early chinese thought and literature. hopefully more titles in the “classics of chinese thought” series will be published by university of washington press.
what are you working on now?
durrant: first, wai-yee, david, and i are beginning work to produce a zuozhuan anthology suitable for classroom use. second, i have recently begun a series of essays about certain zuozhuan narratives, drawing comparisons with other classics of historiography from the ancient world. both of these projects, at least as i see them, aim at making zuozhuan accessible and meaningful to a larger readership.
li: i am writing a book on the intersection of material culture, literature, and intellectual history in late imperial china. the tentative title is “the paradoxes of things: life and art in late imperial china.” i will also be translating two seventeenth-century memoirs on courtesans. i just finished co-editing (with yuri pines) a volume of essays entitled keywords in chinese thought and literature.
schaberg: i’m still working to learn as much as possible about the practice of oratory in early china, including concrete matters like occasions and preparation for speech and implications of oratorical practice for rhetoric in written texts.